Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Message from the Check Out Lanes: A Tale of Two Americas

At the top of our street there is a small shopping district complete with a handful of restaurants, a produce store, a drug store and a grocery store. I am a regular shopper in the Winn-Dixie primarily because of its convenience. It’s also it’s a bit cheaper than the nicer and more expensive Publix a few miles down the road which requires dealing with a heavily trafficked intersection to get there.

But there is another reason I shop at the local store. Winn-Dixie has a very different clientele from the largely middle class shoppers at Publix. The folks at the Winn Dixie – both the employees as well as the customers -  tend to be working class, ethnically diverse and there are a lot of retired folks my age and older there.

In many ways the customers at the Winn-Dixie remind me of the small town in which I grew up with its hard working, dirt poor farming families. Though I left that small town with its small minds the first chance I got - moving out the day I graduated from high school - there is a part of my soul that has always been attuned to the lives of the hard scrabble folks among whom I grew up. Though I rarely found much to respect in their anti-intellectualism, manichean religions and their tribal ways of dealing with outsiders like me, in my 11 years there I learned to respect their simple lives. And I learned to be grateful for their poorly paid hard work which insured that professional middle class people like me had my daily bread on the table each night.

This day these two grocery stores with their very different clientele would provide two revealing snapshots of our country today.

The Dropped $20

The first I was privileged to observe. I had gone to the Winn-Dixie to pick up some fruit and pecans for dinner. The fruit would serve as our salad and the pecans went into a sweet potato/blue potato/carrot dish I would spice up with a little blue cheese and the last shot of coconut rum left from a friend’s visitation a year ago.

Because I only had three items in my basket, I got into the line leading to the customer service counter which serves as relief check out at rush hours (I was there right at 5). It’s also the place where the state of Florida collects its regressive tax on the superstitious and the desperate through the sale of lottery tickets.

There were two people ahead of me in line. The man at the counter was an elderly Latino man. Directly in front of me was a white woman who looked to be in her 80s, bent over with age. She could easily have been my Mother.

Everyone was doing their best to communicate through the masks we all wore.

The clerk behind the counter was Asian, perhaps from one of the many Vietnamese families who have settled here and now make up about 5% of our population according to Census estimates. I love to be in her lane. She is always cheerful and does an expeditious job on my checkout.

This day she was encountering a problem. The elderly man had thought he had handed the cashier a $20 through the plexiglass COVID protection screen to cover his small purchase but had actually only handed her a $1. When the cashier told him the bill he had given her would not cover the purchase, he said he thought he’d given her a $20. She held up the $1 and thereafter began a frantic scramble in search of the missing $20.

After a moment, noting that he was holding up the socially distanced line which had now grown to three with a customer behind me, he reached into his wallet and produced a $5 to cover the purchase, apologized for his trouble and turned to leave the store. 

As the elderly woman immediately in front of me stepped up to begin her business, which involved getting a new member’s card to replace the one which had expired, she suddenly bent down to the floor in front of the cashier. As she stood back up, she exclaimed, “Here’s his $20!”

She handed it to the cashier who without a word turned and dashed out the doors into the parking lot behind the elderly man. “Sir! Sir!” she shouted loud enough to be heard across the entire lot and back into the store. She caught him just before he drove away in a pickup truck that, much like its driver, looked like it was on its last legs, and restored his small fortune to him.

Everyone in line stood silently and patiently as the cashier engaged in this unexpected mitzvah. The cashier returned slightly out of breath, apologized for the delay and immediately began her transaction with the elderly lady. She explained to the woman that when she had her purchases ready to return to her counter and she’d issue the new member’s card as part of that transaction.

Then it was my turn to step up.

To Some Folks That’s a Lot of Money….

As I emptied my basket onto the counter, I thanked the woman for her kind deed. She immediately deferred to the elderly woman saying it was her good deed that had made it all possible. And there was some truth to that. 

But I thought to myself, how many people would have simply put the $20 in their pocket and said nothing about it. “Finders, keepers,” they would have told themselves to rationalize their selfishness. Indeed, in a consumerist culture which has taught us it’s all about me, isn’t that what one is supposed to do?

I persisted with the cashier. “I just want you to know I appreciate it,” I said. She replied, “You know, $20 is a lot of money to some people.” Indeed. Like the folks who can only afford to shop at this store including retirees on pensions and social security like me.

I drove home with a smile on my face, my mask now resting on the seat beside me and my glasses back in their place. I’ve learned I have to choose between the two when I go into stores – the glasses inevitably fog up from exhaling through a mask. As I reflected on what had just occurred, I suddenly thought of John Wesley when he spoke of experiencing a heart strangely warmed. This was a genuine moment of grace, an unexpected and mysterious experience of goodness where none had been predictably expected, indeed, where the circumstances predicted a very different outcome.

I had been privileged to witness a genuine act of selflessness in a culture which preaches the virtues of self-interest über alles. The world was a little better place because of that random act of kindness.  And it dawned on me that this was a little taste of the values of the America I have always believed in at work, an America I am praying it is not too late to resuscitate and reestablish.

If that happens, it will only come at the cost of some sustained hard work. The angry, self-focused, adolescent America will not simply disappear because of a random act of kindness in a working-class grocery store. Indeed, if anything that act of momentary light is striking in its sharp distinction from the darkness of the angry cultural matrix in which it occurs.

By the end of the evening, I would be sharply reminded of that.


Holding Up the Line

I had just finished my crossword in bed that night as is my custom and turned on my IPad to get the latest on the monster storm approaching the central Gulf Coast before saying my final prayers. Having survived the loss of a home from a hurricane previously, I am highly sensitive to the potential for death and destruction these increasingly prevalent and ferocious storms pose.

But the headline that jumped to the screen was not of an approaching storm. It was news of a much more local act of mean-spiritedness. This one also occurred in a grocery store, a Publix in Daytona Beach Shores, a wealthy ocean-side community south of the main drag of what locals there proclaim as “the world’s most famous beach.”

There a 75-year-old man standing in a check out line had asked the woman behind him to step back to maintain social distancing. He had recently had open heart surgery and thus at high risk from a COVID19 infection. Hence he was anxious for his fellow customers to observe what public health officials have repeatedly told us is one of two things the average citizen can do to help beat back a killer pandemic - social distancing and proper wearing of masks.

Most grocery stores including this one have done a good job in marking their floors with tape to indicate the requisite six-foot distance. The woman stepped back without a word. It seemed like a rather ordinary encounter in an age of pandemic.

All of that changed when the elderly man reached the parking lot.

According to the local police department, “a man in his 30s approached and told him,  ‘You (expletive) redneck gator, how dare you?’ [He] then told the victim he was holding up the line and punched the him in the chest, causing the elderly man to fall and hit his head on the asphalt. Records show the man stood over the victim as he was on the ground and told him, ‘One word and I’ll kill you.’

As the assailant left the parking lot in a late-model Cadillac, the victim noticed that the woman he spoke to in line was in the passenger’s seat, according to the report.

After local television stations aired the footage from the parking lot security cameras asking for identification of the man and woman in the incident, they surrendered themselves to local police. Aggravated battery charges are now pending.


Cultural Shadow: It’s Not Hard to See the Ugliness


There is a lot of ugliness in this encounter. Having travelled to three different continents over my lifetime, I quickly became aware that the “ugly American” of which I was largely oblivious previously was instantly apparent to those whose countries I was visiting. The luster of American exceptionalism that we take to be self-evident dissolves the minute one crosses our border in either direction.

But it doesn’t take a trip abroad to see that ugliness in this story – disrespect for the elderly, impatience based in a sense of entitlement, a focus on supposed rights with no corresponding sense of responsibility to others and an insecure - and thus toxic - patriarchy which constantly feels the need to prove itself, its first resort being to violence.


In many ways, this is a snapshot of the other America which is just as much a part of us as the first. It was hardly what I wanted to see last thing before bed and I did not want to look too long. But, like those watching slow motion images of a train wreck, I found myself unable to look away.

What fascinates us at the same time it horrifies us is a glimpse of our culture’s Shadow. It is marked by an egocentric adolescence that refuses to mature into adulthood. It was given permission to come out to play in the last election and has enjoyed a four year marathon of brazen ugliness ever since. We have been told we must pay allegiance to competing tribes which find their raison d’etre in dehumanizing the other. And our mass media gleefully celebrates as the bottom line for decency is lowered daily.

If it bleeds, it leads. And the advertisers rejoice.

We will not come to grips with this celebration of the Shadow by denying it. And we would be deeply mistaken if we attempted to repress it, once again forcing it back into our collective psychic sewer. Shadow content rarely stays put. And the potential range of vulnerable targets for the projection of the Shadow should give all of us pause. 

We have to own this darkness, this America that so many of us don’t want to love. That includes all of our history, not just the shiny parts. But it also includes all of our present. The pain and fear that is experienced by all the parties to this conflict is real and must be acknowledged. And we have to be willing to recognize that for those who have been subject to our national Shadow from the genocidal conquest of the “new world” to the ongoing consequences of chattel slavery, that Shadow has never really been hidden at all.


Decisions About America’s Very Soul

If there is any doubt that America is currently making decisions about its very soul, these two events, occurring on the same day within miles of one another, ought to remove any doubts.  The sanguine, heart-warming vision from my local grocery store is just as much a part of our soul as the violent confrontation which occurred in that grocery store a couple of hours up the I-4 Corridor.  They are both a part of who we are. The question we are answering right now - in the terms of the apocryphal
morality tale sometimes attributed to Native Americans – is which wolf we will feed.

A voice from our past offers us some guidance here as well as a warning. Abraham Lincoln sought to guide our nation through its most divisive period up to now during the Civil War. Lincoln spoke of the “better angels” of our nation’s soul and Lincoln called his countrymen and women to live into the same. The events in the Winn-Dixie at the top of my street last Tuesday suggest we are capable of doing exactly that. The question is whether we will find the will.

Lincoln also had words of wisdom to offer a nation on the other side of the deeply polarized period of his own time in which the two tribes involved had readily engaged in mutual anathematization. I am clear that should there be a changeover in our nation’s governance this fall, it will be imperative for the victors to not lose sight of the humanity of their vanquished foes, to practice “malice toward none and charity toward all,” as Lincoln recognized in his second inaugural address.  

Again, we are capable. The question is whether we will prove willing. And the answer to that question may well mean the difference between the survival of a country any of us recognize as simply the latest version of its 244-year-old self or whether our experiment in democratic-republican self-governance will collapse into failure.  

We rewarded Lincoln for his vision as we do most prophets, killing him to put him out of our misery. It is only once the prophets are safely out of the way of business as usual that we become willing to canonize them. Saints confined to pedestals can’t cause many problems.

Lincoln knew the stakes were great in his own time as reflected by his words at the consecration of the blood soaked Gettysburg battle site. They are no less so today. Lincoln urged his listeners to do what was necessary so that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This November, 157 years after those fateful words were first uttered, that decision is once again in our hands.




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.

 Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

 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


Thursday, August 13, 2020


I always find it fascinating what things seem to leap out at me demanding my attention. This morning I walked by a box of photos I’m scanning and sorting through. This one spoke to me.

I’m not sure where I took this or when. If it’s in paper form, it’s got to be at least six or seven years old. Everything since then is digital. I’m guessing it was taken somewhere here in Florida or perhaps during my four years out in California given the flora.

But even as the images caught my attention, the small still voice in my head softly said,

“Consider the birds of the air…. they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?... Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  (words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 6)

They Were There All Along….

As I considered this I was reminded of two powerful moments in my life. The first was the day of 9-11. It was a terrible day and I had become so distraught by the images of towers collapsing and people fleeing the unfolding disaster that I felt driven from my home into the local park along Lake Underhill. As my husband and I walked the path of the lakeshore trying to make sense of the insanity we were enduring, I suddenly noticed two things. 

First the expectable ongoing roar that is the background to life in the heart of this medium sized urban center was strikingly silent. There were no airliners approaching the international airport nine miles to our south or leer jets coming into Orlando Executive just across the lake from where we walked. Traffic along the expressway which bisects the lake was almost completely absent.

The noise that we had come to take for granted was simply missing.

The other thing that caught my attention was the singing of the birds. Their chirps were vibrant, melodious and suddenly seemed very, very loud. But even as I remarked to my husband about them, it suddenly occurred to me that these birds had been singing like this all along. We simply never noticed them. And in the back of my mind this verse from Matthew sprang to mind. “Do not worry….Are you not of more value than they?”

A Familiar Voice….

The second powerful moment came years later as I visited the basilica dedicated to St. Francis in the heart of the city which produced him and his fellow mystic, Clare. As a Franciscan, this site is as close to a Mecca in our tradition as one gets.


There in the upper chamber of the basilica was the famous 13th CE mural of Francis preaching to the birds by Giotto. It is based on one of the many legends of Francis and reflects his vision of himself as simply a part of the larger natural world, his deep respect for its creatures and his willingness to engage them on their own terms.

As I stood there I heard that familiar voice: “Consider the birds of the air…”


Expectable Questions

To say that we are enduring times of deep turbulence is a true understatement. These are the labor pangs of a new world that is coming into being. The radical changes that will accompany the birth of this new world have already begun to disrupt the world we knew even as recently as the beginning of the current year. And many more are sure to come. In such times it is quite easy to become frightened, to wonder “What shall we eat and drink, what shall we wear, where shall we go?” In times of crisis, these are expectable questions.  

This day, I cling to the words of a man who knew radical change in his own world and proved to be the source of even more change before his all-too-brief life span was over.

“Consider the birds of the air….Do not worry.”

Those words and these images do not make the fearfulness of pandemics, economic collapse and political tyranny go away. But if only for a brief second, the reminder that we are not alone, that our Creator is always present with us, as close as the very breath we breathe, is a badly needed comforting thought. And, for the moment, that is enough.




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.

 Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

 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




Monday, August 10, 2020

Lessons from the Lake

Last Sunday’s reading from Matthew is very familiar to most of us. The story of Jesus walking on the water appears in three different gospels. Both Mark and the Gospel of John feature the story of Jesus striding across the freshwater Sea of Galilee where Jesus’ fishermen disciples made their living, eventually getting into the boat with his disciples. Only Matthew adds the piece with Peter getting out of the boat.

 “You Cannot Change the Laws of Physics…”

It’s hardly surprising that a story which requires the listener to buy into a suspension of laws of geophysics would stick in our memories. Everyone knows that the weight of the human body is more than enough to prevent anyone from being able to stand up on the surface of any body of water. Even in the Earth’s densest body of water, the highly saline Dead Sea some 88 miles down the Jordan River to the south, which allows human bodies to float without assistance on the water’s surface - even there human bodies simply cannot walk on water

The Gospel writers are clearly aware of this contravention of geophysics in their account. Matthew’s account is designed to feature a reckless Peter, determined to show his bravado if not his own holiness, climbing out of the boat to walk with Jesus. Of course, he doesn’t get far before becoming rightfully fearful of his situation, sinking into the waters, requiring Jesus to save him.

This provides the gospel writers an opportunity for a theological selling point: With enough faith, anyone can walk on water. But I think to get stuck at that initial level of consideration misses the point that Jesus intended, one of three points in this story that offer us an awful lot to consider today.

Letting G-d Get a Word in Edgewise

Given the beginning point of this week’s Gospel, the reader is not provided the context needed to make sense of these events as they occur. In all three gospel accounts, Jesus has just been informed that John the Baptist has been killed by Herod.

Reeling from that news, Jesus is called upon to feed the multitudes. He has been teaching and healing all day. It has been a very long day. The amount of psychic energy required to engage the masses of hungry, needy people he has encountered must have been very draining, indeed. And so, today’s Gospel begins at the point where Jesus has just dispersed the crowds, sending the disciples on ahead of him in their boat, after which he retreated to the mountains for some time alone with G_d.

This is a very common pattern we see in the life of Jesus beginning with his immediate departure from the transformative events of his baptism in the Jordan River to a 40 day retreat in the desert alone with G-d. Throughout his ministry, Jesus engages in teaching, healing and common meals with a wide range of people only to follow that up with down time, time alone with G-d. It is a rather classic example of the cycle of action followed by contemplation that we see in the lives of most holy men and women.

I think this pattern has something important to say to us today. We live in a world with a 24/7 news cycle ever ready to offer us “breaking news” and a social media that hums and crackles with not only the latest news but also the latest fabrications and distortions dressed up as news designed to misinform readers and inflame them. The cardinal concern of our technologically connected culture is the fear of missing out. And we are all well-trained consumers, indeed.

In a time of pandemic, economic insecurity and looming natural disasters, such fears make it quite possible to become overwhelmed with this tsunami of information and misinformation which can negatively impact our mental health, our relationships, our behaviors in public. Like the disciples cowering in a flimsy fishing boat in the midst of a storm, we run the risk of being swept away.

 But Jesus models for us a different option this morning. He recognizes that if we are to hear the small still voice of G-d amidst the tumult of all the constant chatter, we must seek out the places where silence prevails. G-d must have a chance to get a word in edgewise. That requires periodically turning off our cable news. It requires limiting our social media. And it means becoming very intentional about spending time alone with G-d. One of the measures of depth of spirituality is the time an individual can remain alone in silence with just themselves and the Holy One. Jesus could not have survived without his down time. And, truth be told, neither can we.



 Proving Our Faith, Putting G_d to the Test

A second consideration rises from today’s Gospel in the example of Peter. The community that produced Matthew’s Gospel was particularly focused on Peter. It is in this gospel we hear the reference to Peter as the rock upon which Roman Catholicism’s papacy will seek its legitimation. So it’s hardly surprising that of the three accounts of Jesus walking on water, it’s only Matthew that gives Peter a starring role. And, as is often the case with Peter, it will prove to be a morality lesson in what not to do.

At a very basic level, Peter’s self-invitation to walk on the water with Jesus serves to demonstrate his own bravado if not his own holiness. There is no small amount of ego involved in presuming the ability to walk on water. Amidst the disciples huddling in fear, Peter alone gets out of the boat to walk to Jesus. And it works for awhile. Then the wind begins to blow and Peter realizes the danger in which he has placed himself. He quickly sinks into the deep waters, only to be rescued by Jesus. 

The common translation of what Jesus says to Peter next reveals a lot about the writers of Matthew: “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” It’s difficult to miss the implication of this statement – if you just get your beliefs right, even you can walk on water. Note that faith and doubt are both cognitive words. They speak to our thinking processes. But in the end, they prove inadequate to relay what Jesus is saying here.

The Westar Scholars’ translation of this passage offers us another insight. In their translation, Jesus says to all of disciples, “You don’t have enough trust!” This is a much more existential understanding. He doesn’t ask the disciples to get the concepts right. And he certainly doesn’t ask them to prove their faith. He simply asks them to trust the G-d that Jesus reveals.

Again, Jesus readily models what he is teaching. He has trusted his entire life to a G-d he calls Abba, Daddy. And he will continue to trust that G-d right up to his last breath on the cross: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Here in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, he is asking his disciples to follow his example.

It is human nature to desire a faith in which we really don’t need to trust our Creator with our lives. It’s a lot easier to buy into a set of beliefs that will give us a sense of existential security, however contrived it might be. But, Jesus is asking us for more here – trust me, trust G-d. You don’t have to prove anything.

 Rumbling around in the background of Peter’s failed demonstration of holiness we can also hear the words of Jesus - borrowed by the gospel writers from Deuteronomy - from his encounter with Satan in the desert: “You shall not put the Lord your G-d to the test.” Such words have a lot of salience for our lives during a pandemic. They readily apply to those of us who engage in unsafe social interactions and reject the use of masks we know reduce the chances of becoming ill from the COVID virus under the rubric that even if I am exposed to the virus, G-d will save me. Peter’s example today suggests to us that putting G-d to the test is not a good bet.

But it is the third point in this gospel that is perhaps the most important. The words of Jesus when he encounters his disciples in the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee are words we hear throughout the New Testament: “Do not be afraid!” We hear it from the angel who appears to Joseph to tell him not to abandon his pregnant fiancé and to become the father of Jesus. We hear it when Jesus asks his listeners to consider the sparrows of the air and how G-d loves them, concluding “So do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.” We hear it in today’s lesson spoken by a Jesus walking on the surface of the Sea of Galilee to his terrified disciples. And we hear it in virtually every appearance of the resurrected Christ to his followers after the crucifixion.


Trust is Our Ultimate Calling


In every case, Jesus is trying to reassure his disciples that the G-d who created them is present with them always, as close as the very breath they breathe. And if G-d is with us, we ultimately have nothing to fear.

So I offer you these three considerations that today’s Gospel raises for us. First, while it is true that G-d is always present with us, we must make the effort to be fully present with G-d if we are to hear that small still voice. That means taking a break from the chatter of our daily lives, turning off our media, and engaging in some silence. Trust me, whatever breaking news we fear we may miss will certainly be waiting for us when we turn our technologies back on.

 Second, we do not have to prove our faith to G-d, to anyone else, even to ourselves. Putting G-d to the test with actions that place ourselves in unnecessary danger all in the name of demonstrating our faith rarely comes to a positive end. 

Finally, our deepest calling as followers of Jesus is to trust the G-d who is always present with us. It is perhaps the simplest thing we could do even as it may often prove the most difficult. Letting go of the need for tangible reassurance of G-d’s love for us and clinging to G-d’s presence in our lives is a life-long calling. And yet, that is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. For it is our trust alone that G_d seeks from us and, in the end, that alone will be enough. 

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 (Collect for Proper 14, Year A)



A sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Parish, Winter Park, FL

August 9, 2020, Proper 14, Year A (RCL) - Matthew 14: 22 – 33



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.


Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi


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