Friday, March 20, 2020

Lent in a Time of Pandemic

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance…”

The Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979) calls the faithful to commence the 40-day Lenten season with these words. This calling embodies two essential processes: self-examination and repentance. There have been few Lenten seasons when such callings have been more timely.

Reflection and Only Then Repentance

The Latin verb pensare is the root of the first calling, self-examination. It means “to weigh out, to ponder, consider, examine.” It is related to the Latin word pendere which means “to hang, to weigh out.” The former is the root of the English word “pensive.” The later is the root of the English word “pending.“

Far too often the pensive, pondering aspects of self-examination to which we are called during Lent are lost in the emphasis on the second element, repentance, from the Latin verb paenitere, to repent, regret. It is ironic that many of us enter Lent with a penance of some form of self-denial already in mind without ever considering what such penance might be addressing. 

Any healthy self-examination occurs in the contexts of our lives – our relationships to families of birth and choice, communities, our nation and the world in which we live. One of the gifts Franciscan Richard Rohr has given us is an awareness of how egocentric approaches to religion often focus on the self, our shortcomings and our resulting existential angst about death and the afterlife. In a time of pandemic, we do not have the luxury of remaining focused on our selves alone.

It is hardly surprising that a medieval church obsessed with sinfulness would have created a rite of public penance as a means of discipline. The original 1549 BCP rite for Ash Wednesday opened with a homily which included “the general sentences of God’s cursing against impenitent sinners.”

When the Episcopal Church revised its prayer book in 1979, the exhortation provided at the beginning of this discussion was used to replace that homily and the call to engage in self-examination during Lent took its place in the rite prior to the imposition of ashes. Notably, self-examination precedes the call to repentance. We are called to consider our lives individually, as members of families, communities, societies and citizens of the world. It is only after such thoughtful consideration that we can arrive at the point of a meaningful repentance.

The coronavirus pandemic has made this Lenten season’s call to reflection and reexamination of our lives individually and collectively perhaps the most imperative calling in our lifetime. 

The virus has forced us to slow down the hectic paces of our lives. In a time when much of what we have come to expect from daily life no longer seems possible, we are having to reconsider many aspects of our lives that we considered to be given. The global nature of this pandemic is causing us to reflect on our inescapable connectedness to human beings – indeed to all living beings - around the world, a connectedness that is deeper than places of origin and nationalities.

 We have had to recognize that none of the walls we might build to reassure ourselves that we are safe can ever protect us from this most basic of life forms, a virus. Viruses have no nationalities. They cannot be screened out at customs. They belong to no political parties or religious traditions. They have no ideological orientations. They are equal opportunity agents of contagion.  

Aside from the nasty, sometimes lethal, physical effects, the chief pathology of this pandemic has been fear. It has led to hysteria in panic buying engaged without any consideration for the needs of others. Even worse, it has prompted denial among those unwilling to look the pandemic squarely in the eye. Sadly, too many of those engaging in denial have been those the public must rely upon to protect us from harm.

A Litany Made for Times Such as These 

Among the revisions to the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Episcopal Church’s revisions in 1979 was the addition of a Litany of Penitence drafted by the Rev. Dr. Massey Shepherd, Jr. Reading these confessions of our failings, one would almost think the crafter of these prayers was writing them today:

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work

For our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us

One of the unforeseen aspects of the pandemic has been the need to step back from our busy lifestyles, our lives of constant distraction which have allowed us to ignore the suffering of our world. It provides us with the time and the opportunity to consider our relationship to “worldly goods” and to reexamine our consumerist presumptions of entitlement to constant comfort. It reminds us that mere discomfort is never the same thing as actual deprivation.

We have an unparalleled opportunity to examine our relationship to our technologies and how our use of them impacts all of our relationships from our families of birth to our families of choice. Without diversions from movies to restaurants to shopping, we suddenly have time to think of others, to call or write one another.

The importance of our personal relationships has dawned on many of us as we find ourselves unable to visit family, friends and engage our communities in person. Indeed, one of the aspects of the virus that has been most painful to those of faith has been the shuttering of our places of worship. We are cut off from in person community.

We struggle to balance the need for social distancing with the risk of an even greater danger from social isolation. The virus arrived in cultures where an epidemic of addictions and suicides was already unfolding, the carnage of an atomistic consumerist culture driven by loneliness.

Our neglect of our relationship to the creation has swum into focus for many of us as we find ourselves unable to spend time out of our homes. But the downsizing of human presence on our planet has had some surprising results.

We are seeing dolphins and swans return to once fouled waters in and around Venice. From space the views of Wuhan, the major technological and industrial hub of China, have changed remarkably in these days since quarantines were put into place. You can actually see the ground there from space, no longer obscured by choking pollution.

With the rise of panics over basic necessities, ordinary people suddenly find themselves worried about their ability to survive. This is particularly true for those in danger of losing their jobs as businesses close, some perhaps never to reopen. The virus is providing unsolicited and unwanted insights into the existential struggles many working people have been experiencing for some while now as well as the many foreign refugees forced to leave their homes just to survive.

What might we learn from this time of pondering, reflection, examination? What might the virus have to teach us about ourselves, the ways we live, the things we value, the ways we see ourselves vis-a-vis others? And at the end of this Lenten season which may well be extended by a pandemic, what might we have come to realize is in need of repentance and remediation?  

Even in Times of Pandemics

At the end of the Ash Wednesday litany, the officiant pronounces G-d’s pardon on those who have confessed. Thereafter the rite itself ends with an exchange of the peace.

The Lenten season ends on a Good Friday which commemorates a crucifixion, but it ultimately ends with a resurrection on Easter Sunday in which death is denied the last word. The truth toward which all of this points is that G-d is with us in all things, life, death and everything in between.

Even in times of pandemics.

May we not squander this unparalleled opportunity for self-examination and repentance. In the words of the psalmist whose words we recite every Ash Wednesday, may our prayer at Easter, whenever that great feast day may end up being celebrated this year, be simply this:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me..”


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida 

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston, 2020


Friday, March 06, 2020

Acting Faithfully: The Way of the Cross

Sermon on the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany 2020

Sirach 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

St. Richard’s Episcopal, Winter Park, FL

In our lesson from Sirach this morning we are told that “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” Today’s lessons are all about how we live out our lives of faith. They raise ancient questions of how much of our moral and ethical behavior is our own initiative and how much of it requires the power of the divine. 

In our Baptismal Covenant, we Episcopalians are asked to respond to a series of questions about our lives of faith every time there is a baptism. We are asked if we will “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for peace and justice and honoring the dignity of every living being.” And we respond to each of those questions with the words “I will with God’s help.” What is clear from our liturgy is that our initiative must come first but we can never do any of this alone. We always need the help of the Holy One.

But what does the example of the Good News in Christ look like? What does loving our neighbors as ourselves mean? What if we have trouble loving ourselves, much less anyone else? How do we recognize what is just and how do we create a peace that is grounded in right relations, not the mere absence of conflict? In our lives together, how often does our sense of entitlement to comfort mean that dissent is stifled in the name of a superficial civility, the hard questions unaddressed, the elephant left to roam around the back of the room?

We all want the answers to those questions. And, being the well-trained consumers that we are, entitled to instant gratification, we want them simple, black and white and we want them right now. Truth be told, I wish I had such answers to give you this morning. But I don’t. And I don’t think anyone else does either.

The Journey of Spiritual and Ethical Development

Much of my graduate work was spent studying ethical and moral development. As a result I have come to believe that finding answers of how to follow the Way of Jesus is a journey, a process of ongoing development we all must engage, a journey at which each of us may find ourselves at different points along the way, a series of lessons in which we often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

St. Paul points toward that understanding in today’s epistle. He says,

Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 

 What St. Paul is acknowledging here is the journey, that process of moral, ethical and spiritual development to which the Way of Jesus calls us.

Developmental theorists from Lawrence Kohlberg to James Fowler to Ken Wilber all speak of varying stages of development, stops along the way if you will, at which all human beings find themselves. To illustrate this process of development, I will rely on a visual aid this morning. If you will look to the space above our altar, you will see a modernist vision of a crucifix. It is red in the middle with blue arms stretching horizontally from the center and multi-colored arms extending above and below the center. Bear this in mind as I lay out the stages of spiritual development.

In the red center of the crucifix is the place where everyone begins their journey of spiritual development. It is the egocentric heart of every human being that develops naturally in childhood. Here, the question of the right thing to do is determined by self-interest. At the earliest stages of moral reasoning the question sounds like this: “What must I do to keep from being punished?” reflecting the power differential between the child and the adult in control of them. We hear that question in our criminal law: Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time. We also hear that understanding in some expressions of religion: Either turn or burn. An entire industry of Chick tracts with their four spiritual laws reflects this initial stage of spiritual development.

The second stage is also egocentric asking the question “What’s in it for me?” We often hear this question in consumerist advertising: Your life will only be complete if you buy our beer, our clothes, our cars. We also hear it in the manipulative aspects of our religious tradition: Buy into this set of ideas and you win a free trip to heaven.

If this thinking sounds somewhat childish, it is.  But, most human beings begin to grow out of childish ways of understanding the world as they enter their teenage years and there a whole different set of considerations become paramount.    

Horizontal Arms: Looking to Others 

Looking again to the cross, moving from the red center of our crucifix to the blue arms on either side, as we leave behind the egocentrism of our childhood, human beings begin to look to others for guidance from others. This is called the conventional stage of moral and spiritual development. The initial stage comes in our teen years. What our friends think about us becomes paramount. The worst thing a teenage kid can be is uncool, i.e., different. We hear that in our concerns for our reputation: “What will people say if I do this?” And few organizations manifest the pressures to conform to group think with its tribal values of “us and them” more intensely than religious bodies.
As we grow into our adulthood, the conventional values of our society become more important to us. At the next stage of moral and spiritual development the judgment we defer to expands beyond the confines of our local tribe. The classic example is the role of the law in determining our behaviors. Most of us feel it is important to follow the law sometimes even when we know the laws are not morally sound. But when laws are broken, we are confronted with the question, “What if everyone did that?”

The religious expression of conventional reasoning is found in the concern for orthodoxy. For many people of faith, being in agreement with what some call “the received tradition” is important. We look for affirmation from those who hold the same ideologies we do. And those who don’t find those understandings compelling are often subject to being called names like heretic, pagan, blasphemer and Pelagians.

What is striking about all conventional thinking is the implicit and often unrecognized need for affirmation. Looking again to our crucifix, we tend to look to either side, horizontally, looking for someone to say to us, “You’re right! You have permission to believe and act as you do” And for most of us, that’s where our moral, ethical and spiritual development ends.

But not for all.

Vertical Arms: Looking Within, Beyond 

Theologian Paul Tillich, the same fellow who told us that G-d is the ground of all being, reminds us that the cross of Jesus has vertical dimensions as well as horizontal and that the vertical dimensions of the cross are generally ignored in our focus on the horizontal. Looking again at our crucifix, the lower arm of the cross reflects the need to go deep within ourselves and consider who we are and how our thoughts, words and deeds reflect our very character. The upper dimensions of the cross point toward the world outside of us and how our thoughts, words and deeds impact that world. More importantly, that upper dimension reminds us that we belong to a reality that is much larger than ourselves and our daily lives. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus is calling his listeners to exactly such considerations: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” Our egocentric considerations tell us that we should not kill someone because we might ourselves be killed if we do – what must I do to keep from being punished? Our conventional considerations tell us that people may think poorly of us if we harm other people and the law prohibits such behaviors. Who wants to be condemned as a criminal?

But Jesus is calling us to go deeper, to look within ourselves, to think harder, longer. “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Jesus is demanding that we look inside and ask ourselves “What is the source of this anger? What is it I want that is being denied here? Why do I expect my brother or sister to act in a given way which, when they don’t, I feel the need to condemn them, perhaps even harm them? And why do I inevitably presume the problem lies with them and not within me?”

Jesus is also calling us to ascend the upper arm of the cross, to consider how our attitudes, words and behaviors impact the world around us. Why would we believe that the mere replication of the killing of the human being who has murdered another would somehow result in justice? Justice means doing the right thing in the face of wrongdoing. Mahatma Gandhi recognized this years ago when he observed that an eye for an eye only rendered the entire world blind.     

How we live into our faith is at least as important as that we have one. There is no manual we can consult that provides all the answers to the moral, ethical and spiritual conundrums that human beings encounter every day. The Way of the Cross calls us to wrestle with our souls, no matter how uncomfortable that might be. We are called to remember that we are all on a journey into the Holy One, a learning process in which our mistakes are at least as important as our successes. We are all works in progress. But we are never alone. G-d is present in all our undertakings. And that is both our consolation as well as our consummate hope.

Crucifix, St. Leo Abbey, OSB, St. Leo, FL 

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [Collect, Epiphany VI]

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

 © Harry Coverston, 2020