Sunday, May 31, 2020

Getting Our Attention

Image: Dan Moretz, artist, media specialist, St. Joseph University, Philadelphia

It is an old, familiar and deeply painful pattern. People of color encounter armed assailants in broad daylight. Before their encounter is concluded, the persons of color will be robbed of their dignity, their rights and, far too often, their lives.

It is a disturbing scenario for anyone with a conscience and even a modicum of humanity. But what makes it worse is that their assailants are those the public has authorized to use force, including deadly force, ostensibly to protect us. These homicides (because that is what their death certificates will read) are committed under what we lawyers call “the color of law.”

The word “public” is collective. It includes all of us. In theory, all of us are entitled to be protected from harm by those we empower to use deadly force. In theory, all of us are entitled to justice in our dealings with the holders of power. But in fact, if we are being honest with ourselves, we know that justice in our society is parceled out on the basis of any number of arbitrary factors.

Chief among them is ethnicity.

The deaths of a young man shot while jogging on the residential streets of Georgia and another lying face down in the streets of Minneapolis, the life force draining from his slowly asphyxiating body as he pled for his life, is nothing new. Most of us have long since become desensitized to and cynical about such events that occur with far too much regularity in our violent, racist culture. 

But in the context of a pandemic, they have become the vortex of a furious storm of outrage that demands to be heard.

So what makes these atrocities different from those that came before?

What Makes This Different?

We have been told that the pandemic has made everything different. It has changed the way we live, the way we interact with one another, the way we even see one another. More importantly, it has provided us a mirror that reflects our Shadow as a people. And what we are seeing reflected there is deeply disturbing.

A major lesson of the pandemic is that lives of people of color are less valued than the economy. We have seen that in the indifference to the pandemic hot spots in prisons, where people of color are overrepresented among the inmates, many of them unable to be tested or treated once ill. 

We have seen it in the lack of on-site protections, medical leave and the use of coercive employment practices to keep human beings working in the slaughterhouses and packing and shipping hot spots regardless of the danger to the employees. These are industries where people of color, particularly immigrants, are forced to choose between exposure to a potentially deadly disease and loss of employment.

To add insult to injury, we have branded the work these people perform “essential.” That is clearly not reflected in the way we treat them. What is clear is that having hamburger for fast food chains is more essential to the corporate interests of a consumerist culture than insuring workers have safe working conditions and the ability to protect their families from a deadly disease.

This lesson is being taught on reservations, hotspots where indigenous people have been left to fend for themselves in the face of a killer virus. And we have seen it in the sudden rise in hate crimes against people of Asian descent as an incompetent administration desperate to divert attention from its abject failures to deal with the world’s worst outbreak of this pandemic have sought to project those failures onto China and Asians in general.

Finally, we have seen it when white governors of states like my own rush to reopen economies even before the numbers of new cases and deaths have subsided the 14 days all reputable health experts are insisting upon as a minimum standard to protect the general public. With consistent data demonstrating that the mortality rates among people of color outpace those who are white, it is clear who will bear the burden of such ill-advised decisions.

There are clear messages that emerge when all of these pieces are laid together into this mosaic of morbidity. The first is that profit is more important to the holders of power in this country than people. And the second is that the lives of people of color are less valuable than those lacking melanin.

We Cannot Afford Any More Blindness

My heart is saddened by the looting and destruction that has occurred in cities across the country. A raw, mindless response to wrong-doing with more wrong-doing does not result in justice. It simply digs the wound to the body politic that much deeper. Gandhi was right when he observed that the practice of an eye for an eye simply leaves the world that much blinder. In time of pandemic, we can ill afford any more blindness.

But I think the message this uprising is sending may be more pointed than that. It may actually be designed to help us finally see clearly.

If the pandemic has revealed to us that the lives of people of color are less valuable than the property interests of the holders of power and privilege in our culture, what could be a more effective way of getting their attention than hitting them where it counts.


Our Framers were pretty clear that the inalienable natural rights they believed had been given to humanity by “nature’s God” occurred in a sequence of priority in which Life was the supreme value followed by Liberty and only then Property. Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of that prioritization. And when property has become the ultimate value at the expense of life and liberty, attacks on property become expectable - if not inevitable.

That does not make this violence justifiable. It simply makes it comprehensible.

Tell Me Something Better to Do

Reports of the uprising occurring across the nation this weekend contained a quote that bodes our careful attention. Max Bailey, a 22-year-old man of color, has recently graduated from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He had come to the Colorado capital in Denver to protest the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a law enforcement agent.

As he stood in the street with other protesters, the driver of a black SUV charged into the crowd. Bailey initially avoided serious injury by jumping up on the hood of the car and then back down to the street. Then the driver made another swipe at Bailey hitting him with her car and running over his foot. Thus far there have been no arrests nor do we know the driver’s motivation in this vehicular assault.

Most of us would have been terrified and infuriated by such an encounter. But a bruised Bailey limping on a swollen foot, vowed to return the next day to continue protesting:

“If you can tell me something better for me to do –  if you can tell me a way that we could change the world without trying to make noise like that, then I’ll get out of the streets. If you can show me the path, I’ll get out of the streets,”

Whatever else you might want to say about that, it is a perfectly reasonable demand. Whether or not his intended audience has ears to hear is another story.  

One thing I am certain of. This righteous anger will not go away if we simply ignore it. More of the same attitudes and behaviors that created this crisis will not be “something better.” It will not change the world. And an attempt to simply return to a “normal” that fails to address the pathologies of the last incarnation of our society will not keep people out of our streets.  

Can we hear the cri de couer from the thousands of Max Baileys of all ethnicities in our streets this weekend? Can we hear their rejection of the deadly ideologies of profit over people and the racist valuing of lives by melanin content? Will we find the courage to look in the eyes at the reflection of ourselves and our culture that the COVID19 Mirror is providing us?

However we might answer those questions, I think at the very least that those who are not going to stop posing them may finally be getting our attention.

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 d 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

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Way of Jesus: A Vision for a Post-Pandemic World

Fortune Teller Road, Sumter County, Florida (2017)
I am the Way, the Truth, the Life….

These words that the writer of John’s Gospel place in the mouth of Jesus are familiar to most Christians. They will serve as the launching point for a movement within Judaism that will later become a religion in its own right called Christianity. Today the Way of Jesus has become the calling of many who seek to know who Jesus was, discover what he was about and then live into the life to which his Way calls us.

It’s important to put these words into context. Our reading today comes from Chapter 14 of John’s gospel. In the preceding chapter, Jesus has just engaged in a ritual foot washing of his disciples, shared a final meal with them, announced that one of his disciples would betray him and that another would, when put to the test, deny him. Bear in mind this is Jesus’ last night before crucifixion. He will die the following day.

Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples, (1898)
Albert Gustaf Aristides Edelfelt
It is at this point that the gospel writer has Jesus begin a set of teachings called the Farewell Discourse. These teachings will stretch over the next four chapters of John’s Gospel. They begin with the admonition, “Do not let your hearts be distressed.”

That’s hardly surprising given the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Jesus spends the next few minutes with them trying to reassure them that even once he is gone physically, he will not abandon them. And neither will G_d. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  

Now, that’s all well and good while your master is sitting in front of you. But what about tomorrow? And the day after? And the weeks and months thereafter? How in the world will his disciples experience Jesus’ presence when he is no longer physically with them? Like many of us, his disciples do not readily trust his assurances. That’s not real surprising given their situation. For them and for many of us, seeing is believing. 

Making a Giant Leap 

But Jesus is very intentional here. He is trying to help his disciples make a giant leap from being a rag tag group of fishermen and tax collectors wandering around behind him in the Galilee to becoming a movement that can survive his crucifixion and continue on after his death. It is at this point that he says two crucial things.

Christ of the Desert, Robert Lentz, O.F.M. (2016)
First, he reassures them of G-d’s presence with them. “If you know me, you will know the Father.” Jesus is telling them something important: He is the revealer of G_d, here and now. That has always been his calling. And now that his time on Earth is ending, it is critical that they understand this. Because if G-d is to be revealed thereafter it will be up to those who follow him to be the means of that revelation.

But then comes the important part. How has Jesus endeavored to reveal G-d here and now? He has modeled for them a way of life.  And it is by living in a manner that is dedicated to a truth that sometimes runs counter to social convention and a way of living the insures life in abundance for all that G-d is revealed here and now.

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

For three years these disciples have followed Jesus around the Galilee and now into Judea. And yet on the eve of his being taken from them, they still are not clear on the concept. What is the Way of Jesus? How do we recognize it, much less practice it?

The Values of a New Way of Being Human

Franciscan friar and teacher Richard Rohr is prone to say “If you want to find Jesus in the Gospels, look for the suffering. Jesus always goes to where the suffering is occurring.” By definition the Way of Jesus was marked by compassion, a focus on those who suffered physically through his ministry of healing.

A woman lights a candle as she visits graves on the
Day of the Dead festival in San Andre de Mixquic, Mexico.
The Independent, Nov. 3, 2014.

Perhaps more importantly, Jesus’ ministry was directed at those who suffered spiritually, those whom society had taught that their very existence was lacking in value – prostitutes, tax collectors, foreigners, and the working poor who comprised the vast majority of the population in the Roman colony of Palestine. 

Everything in their world told them “You have no value, no right to be here.” But Jesus spoke directly to them:

“You are the light of the world, the salt of the Earth…Blessed are the poor…”

If he were speaking to us today, he might well say:

“You are the essential workers of the world. We cannot live with you. You deserve to be treated with respect.”

Jesus also spent much of his time emphasizing the goodness of the Creation that his generous Father in heaven had provided all living beings to enjoy. “G-d makes the rains to fall on the good and evil alike,” he said. G-d’s providence is for all of Creation, not just the privileged. If there is poverty and starvation, it is always the result of human willingness to amass excess in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. While such is common to human societies historically, it is not inevitable; it is always a choice.

Jesus modeled for his disciples a distinct Way of being human. The goal of this Way was a devotion to an essential Truth: The ultimate concern of the Father that Jesus reveals is Life in abundance for all of Creation.  No exceptions. No excuses.

I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.

To their credit, the disciples ended up being good students. Long before anything resembling the religion of Christianity with its dogmatic beliefs and institutional structures to enforce them arose, the descendants of the Jesus movement came to live in an intentional manner which evidenced the values he had taught them. They were countercultural communities of economic sharing, scripture study, participatory worship, and service to the poor. They called themselves The Way of Jesus. 

Mosaic, Emperor Justinian, San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna, Italy (547 CE)
However, within a couple of centuries, this simple religion of Jesus would be lost in the rise of a new institutional religion about Jesus called Christianity. That religion would ironically become the official religion of the very Roman Empire that had crucified him. It is the view of many observers of Christian history that much was lost in that transaction.
On the Other Side: Enormous Opportunity

So why talk about the Way of Jesus now? What difference does it make? What relevance to our lives today?

Much like the night before Jesus’s crucifixion, we live in a time of great upheaval and resulting apprehension. Were Jesus physically present with us today, he might well begin with the same words he gave to his disciples that last night of his life: Do not let your hearts be distressed. In plain English, Don’t worry.

Jesus was facing his own death the following day at Golgotha. The community of followers he had drawn to him were in for some very difficult times. Hence the need to reassure them.

We, too, are facing very difficult times. If ever there ever was a time when we needed to be assured of G-d’s presence in our lives, it is right now. The world we knew a mere two months ago is dying.  It is becoming increasingly clear that some of that pre-pandemic world is never coming back. We simply cannot pick back up where we left off a couple of months ago and proceed as if nothing has happened. And in some ways, that’s actually a good thing.

While there is much to mourn in these losses even as the damage to our society is not yet completely clear, we should not lose sight of the fact that on the other side of this pandemic an enormous opportunity is staring us in the face. We have the chance – and the challenge – to rebuild our world. Few people have ever been afforded such an opportunity. But that rebuilding process is going to require a vision because, as the writer of Proverbs has wisely recognized long ago, “Without a vision the people perish.”

I think I have an idea of what that vision could be.

Kelly Latimore, La Sagrada Familia, (Holy Family)
The Way of Jesus practiced radical hospitality. That value is reflected in the words of our former Presiding Bishop, “This church of ours will be open to all. There will be no outcasts.” That’s a good starting place for us as a parish community and for the most part I observe that it reflects our practice. Now imagine what that would look like if the new world we build is based on that value. Imagine the way countries would treat refugees at their borders. Imagine how they might treat those within their borders who differ ethnically, sexually and culturally from the majority.  
The Way of Jesus was intensely focused on healing of suffering body, mind and soul. I believe that value is well reflected in the pastoral care practiced in this parish. Now imagine what that would look like if our country joined the rest of the modern world in insuring that everyone had access to healthcare and mandated work policies that accommodated sick workers and their family members. Imagine how we might treat workers whose labor we now know to be essential to our survival, workers in meat plants, prisons, grocery stores and nursing homes.

Here’s the most important part of this. The Way of Jesus expressed a confidence in the capacities of everyday human beings like you and me to build the kingdom of G-d. This is not a kingdom that is imposed from the top down. G_d is not going to save us from ourselves.

Father Tom Lumpkin, Manna Community Meals,
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Corktown, Detroit (2018)
The kingdom of G-d is marked by right relation and just dealings with one another regardless of one’s place in society. It is a reality that bubbles up from below. It emerges from average people who don’t think they amount to much, people whom Jesus recognized as being “the light of the world, the salt of the Earth.”

People like you and me.

As we prepare to leave the safety of quarantine, reenter our social worlds and assess the damage this pandemic has caused us personally and collectively, may we remember Jesus’ words to us this day: Don’t let your hearts be distressed. G-d is present with us. And Jesus has left us a Way to follow. It is a way of being human that has the potential to change not only our individual lives but ultimately the whole world. If that sounds familiar to you, it should. It is our parish mission statement.

If G-d’s presence with us comes to be known by all, it will be precisely through our living into that Way that Jesus has taught us, a way that reveals truth and brings life in abundance. This day let us pray for the strength and courage to be lights in a world of darkness, salt in a world that has lost its savor, and agents of hope in a world of despair. 

Dr. Stuart Malcolm, Haight Ashbury Free Clinic,
San Francisco, California, March 17, 2020.
 Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.    (Collect, 5th Sunday of Eastertide)            

[A sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL on May 10, 2020 Fifth Sunday of Easter]

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 d 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