Sunday, December 26, 2021

Commencing the Work of Christmas

[And the angels said] "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

Today is the day we celebrate the birth of a child who will change the world. The writer of Luke will express the special nature of this child in a colorful manner. Luke depicts him as having been born in a shelter for farm animals, his mother laying him in a rough manger, the feeding trough from which those animals were accustomed to eating. Like most hero sagas, it is a very humble beginning for this man who will eventually be seen as sitting at the very right hand of G-d.


But Luke is intent on conveying to his readers that from the beginning, this is no ordinary child. The skies above the farm shelter are lit up with angels proclaiming “Glory to God in heaven, and on Earth, peace among those whom he favors!" Some that G-d favors are In nearby fields where the angels visit shepherds watching their flocks. They are terrified at first but an angel tells them not to be afraid, that the savior for whom they have been waiting has finally been born. The angels direct them to the place where Jesus is lying. They will be the first to encounter this newborn child and when they leave these humble shepherds will be the first witnesses to the birth of a savior.

It’s a beautiful narrative. But it is important to note here that the birth of Jesus is just the beginning of a much longer story. And that story has major implications for each of us and the world in which we live.


Is the Christ Born in Me This Day?

Meister Eckhart was the Benedictine abbot of a monastery in Erfurt, Germany of the 13th CE.  Loved by mystics, Eckhart was insistent that faith must be more than a simple aspect of believing, it must flow into the world in the lives of believers. Eckhart was a prodigious author and in one of his most famous writings he asserted 

Here in time we celebrate the eternal birth that God the Father bore… in time, in human nature….We should ask ourselves: If [Jesus’ birth] doesn’t happen in me, what good is that birth after all?


Brother David Vyhof of the Episcopal Society of St. John the Evangelist would restate Eckhart’s statement this way: “What good is it that Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem 2000 years ago if he is not also born (this day) in me?”

That’s a rather daunting question. I find myself asking “Who am I to reveal the Christ? How could Christ be born in me? How could my life reveal the Christ child that we celebrate this day?” I would like to suggest to you this morning that our lectionary over the coming year will offer us a guidebook on how to do exactly that.


Guidance from Our Lectionary


This year in our lectionary, our Gospel readings will come from the Gospel of Luke. The First Sunday of Epiphany, Luke’s Gospel will recount its vision of Jesus’ baptism. At the end of the story, a voice from heaven will be heard to say, “You are my Son, my Beloved….” It is a beautiful story. But we are quick to say that’s true of Jesus but what does it have to do with me?


One of the things that has gotten lost over the two millennia of the Christian tradition with its focus on sin and salvation is the original blessing of Creation. According to the writers of Genesis, we are all children of G-d, born bearing the very image of the G-d who created us with the ability to grow ever more into the divine likeness. At the end of the Creation narrative, G-d deems the creation “very good.” Not perfect but very good. And beloved, just as it is.

On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we will hear the parable of the Prodigal Son. The message of that parable is that we are beloved by our Father in heaven even when we find it difficult to believe that, much less to love ourselves. If you are like me, you may struggle with the point Jesus is making here. But if we are to reveal the Christ in this very good but broken world, accepting ourselves as loveable, imperfect as we may be, is the first step toward loving our neighbors as ourselves, those neighbors with their own brokenness and imperfections. Accepting ourselves as beloved by the G-d who created us is the place that revealing the Christ in our lives must start.


Can we work on that this year?


On the Third Sunday of Epiphany, Luke will detail Jesus’ return to his home in the Galilee after his baptism. In the local synagogue he will read from a scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah:


"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

 At the conclusion of that reading he will say to his listeners, whom Luke tells us all have their eyes fixed on Jesus, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”



Following Jesus means becoming conscious of the many poor people who live among us in this affluent society, becoming aware of the thousands of people we lock up each day and the thousands more who are captives of addictive behaviors and mental illnesses. It means allowing our hearts to be broken by the suffering of those oppressed by the evils of racism, sexism and all the other ways we demean the humanity of others. And it means allowing our broken hearts to fashion the way we interact with others, the ways we spend our money, the ways we vote. All of these are ways in which Christ may be revealed in our lives.

Can we work on that this year?

On the Third Sunday in Lent, Luke will relate a parable about a fig tree. It’s owner, unhappy that it has not produced figs in three years, is ready to dig it up and cast it into the fire. But Jesus has the protagonist in the story respond with a plea for its life: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

The regularity with which Jesus references Nature in his teachings suggests a deep love for this very good Creation. But here he is observing that the good Creation requires care to be healthy and productive. Like the owner of the fig tree, we have far too often seen the Earth as an inexhaustible source of our consumerist demands upon it and the bottomless garbage pit for what we have used up and tossed away. Revealing Christ in our lives calls us to reconsider our patterns of consumption, to make environmental concerns a bottom line in our voting for policy makers who might yet salvage our damaged world from the increasingly serious threats of climate change.


Can we work on that this year?


The Work of Christmas Now Begins


How can our lives reveal the Christ who is born this day? Let us begin by working on accepting ourselves as beloved by G-d, loving ourselves with all our imperfections. Let us work on becoming conscious of those who suffer in our world and willing to act on that consciousness. And let us work on cherishing the Earth as G-d’s Creation and ordering our lives in a way that evidences its value. Those are all ways the Christ can be born in us this day and shine forth for the remainder of this year. And if we lose our way, our lectionary will provide weekly reminders for us

Howard Thurman was one of the leading religious thinkers of the 20th CE. A leader of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Thurman offers us this take on the work of Christmas and I close with it:


            When the song of the angels is stilled,

            when the star in the sky is gone,

            when the kings and princes are home,

            when the shepherds are back with their flocks,

            the work of Christmas begins:

            To find the lost,

            to heal the broken, to feed the hungry,   

            to release the prisoner,

            to rebuild the nations,

            to bring peace among people,

            to make music in the heart. 

May the Christ child be born in each of us this day, people of G-d. And may the work of Christmas now commence. Merry Christmas! 

[Sermon offered Christmas Day 2021, St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL] 


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, 2021



Sunday, December 19, 2021

It Once Was Great to be a Florida Gator….

I have a long history with the University of Florida. My parents met there in the days after the Second World War when my Dad attended UF on the GI Bill and my Mother helped break the gender barrier as one of the first undergraduate coeds at the formerly all-male university.

My Aunt had previously made a dent in that glass ceiling by becoming one of the first women to attend the UF Law School during the war. The law school at Stetson University where she was a student had closed down to provide training grounds for US soldiers headed overseas to fight the Axis powers that threatened our world. The Stetson students were provided a place at UF despite the fact that it was still officially an all-male university.

UF along with its female counterpart, Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, would both become coeducational after the war. The women in my family were the pioneers in Gainesville.

From Baby Gator to Gator Grad


My own association with the university began early. My Dad returned to UF to get his Master’s Degree in agriculture shortly after my birth. We lived in the FLAVETS Village, an assemblage of former frame construction army barracks moved from Camp Blanding near Jacksonville to the UF campus to house married students and their families. I was a Baby Gator, occasionally attending class with my Dad and present with my parents at the dedication of the Century Tower in the middle of the UF campus in 1954.

In the summer of 1964, my Dad returned to UF once again to become certified to teach Driver’s Education. I went with him, attending summer school at the university education college’s laboratory school, P.K. Yonge. We stayed with my grandparents who lived across town from the university. It was a long, hot summer in Gainesville in the days before air conditioning, full of memories of the rumblings of the civil rights movement and students lined up in University Avenue at night to see the opening of Cleopatra starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.



I would return to UF for an undergraduate degree in 1973, transferring in an A.A. from Lake-Sumter (then) Community College in Leesburg. My original major in political science left me cold – way too focused on politics and strategies and not enough on the big picture. After transferring into a history major, I was much happier. This was a discipline that actually required thinking about ideas. Along the way I would tack on a minor in journalism and take enough hours in the education college to become certified to teach social studies and language arts courses in secondary schools.

It was UF where I would become a fraternity boy, living in my Dad and uncle’s house at the corner of University and 13th Street across the street from the old law school my Aunt had attended. I would meet my future husband there and eventually became president of the house. It was one of the many experiences at UF that convinced me my future did not lie in politics, an assessment informed by my time as a reporter for the Independent Florida Alligator and my service in the student government senate and cabinet.

Following graduation in 1976 I would spend two and a half years teaching public schools in Citrus and Indian River Counties. Having always planned to go to law school, I immediately began applying to schools across Florida. After admission to the mid-year class at UF in 1979 I returned to Gainesville. In 1981 I would graduate with a Juris Doctor. 

Both of my siblings would get degrees from UF in their acclaimed journalism program. And my Sister’s older boy has just completed his bachelor’s degree in political science hoping to go on to law school. He marks the third generation of my family to attend UF. We have a long history at this university.

On the Road to Greatness

For most of my life UF has been seen by most Floridians as the best of the state universities in a somewhat unremarkable system. With no small amount of self-serving ego, UF called itself the flagship of the state university system. While its arts and social science programs were often eclipsed by those at its new rival, Florida State (now) University, its programs in engineering, agriculture, journalism, medicine and law were well respected nationally.


Even so, for most of my life UF has struggled to shed its image as just another Southern football factory with a college attached. And in recent years, it began to appear that this struggle had proven successful.

Rankings of universities are often based largely in arbitrary factors. Among the most recent have been employment records and earnings of graduates, aspects that turn largely on economic factors outside the university’s control and connections that many students bring with them to college.

But in some of the more serious academic rankings, factors such as student/faculty ratio and the test scores and GPAs of entering students allow for some comparisons based upon the composition of student bodies and the learning opportunities students are offered once at the university. Moreover, levels of production and quality of research and publication of faculty allow for a comparison of academic climates in colleges.

Within the past decade, UF has slowly but surely become an impressive state university climbing into the top 10 in most rankings. Even as its sports programs became successful, winning national titles in football, basketball, baseball and women’s softball, increasingly UF became academically respectable.

Over the last decade, when other state universities accepted the untenable position they were forced into by a state legislature that simultaneously cut funding while demanding more admissions to the state universities, UF cut its entering classes to insure student/faculty ratio would not suffer. Admissions became much more competitive at all levels of the university and large state universities like UCF where I taught became the default destinations for students who could not get into their first choice.

There was much to be envied in this slow but sure climb to fame. Until now.


Black Eyes and Backpedaling

In the past year, UF has received more black eyes from troubling developments largely originating out of Tallahassee than in the past several decades combined. In a widely publicized scandal, its professors were found to have been prohibited from testifying in cases involving voting rights bills passed by a white male Republican dominant legislature intent on insuring that a diverse Democratic party can never again win elections in this state.

The University quickly rationalized its prohibition with alleged concerns for conflict of interest. The question quickly became whose interests were in conflict when state university professors, serving the people of Florida, offered research and expert witness testimony in the cases challenging voter suppression laws.

UF officials backed down on that after being threatened with the loss of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and scrambled to put the best spin on it. But so far SACS is not buying it. The accreditation of the university remains in jeopardy. This is a very big deal.


Then came complaints that the ideological crusade against Critical Race Theory was beginning to impact the teaching of history, one of the university’s long-time strengths. Professors rightly complained that their academic freedom and the ability of students to learn their own history was constrained. Thus far the university’s response has been little more than denial.

This week, the news reported that research regarding the dangers of COVID in Florida under its current policies was repressed by university officials and prevented from consideration by policy makers. On its heels comes news that the state’s surgeon general, an ideologue imported by the governor to affirm his deadly approach to COVID (Florida ranks third in total deaths and sixth in deaths per million population), was fast tracked through tenure processing at UF to provide a faculty member for the governor to use in his campaign to place profits over people in the midst of a pandemic.

Tainted Greatness


When I was a student at the university, we used to cheer “It’s great….to be….a Flo-ri-da Gator!” Whether it was true or not, we certainly believed it. And in recent years I have been increasingly proud of my alma mater for its slow but sure progress in shrugging off its Southern football school mentality to become an academic powerhouse worldwide.

But I’m not so sure if it’s really so great to be a Florida Gator these days. This recent performance by this university to which I have so many long time ties is embarrassing at best if not disillusioning. As the second of three generations of UF graduates, it breaks my heart to watch this. And I fear it is going to take a long time to repair the damage the ideologues in Tallahassee and their lap dogs in Gainesville have inflicted upon it.

What I do know is that things can improve. The university recently acted quickly to replace a football coach whose team only produced a break-even season and a minor bowl game. For most of my childhood as a Gator fan such a coach at UF would have been seen as successful. Those were the days before the big bucks of athletic associations and television contracts became the bottom line. 

But the point is that if the university can act this quickly and decisively on issues involving extra-curricular activities, however profitable they might be, surely it is capable of replacing an administration that appears to have sold its soul to a demagogue with unlimited political ambition. Bear in mind, the stakes are very high here. In the end, it is the very soul of this university that is on the line.



 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, 2021



Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Beginning of the Birth Pangs

And Jesus said to them, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Sometimes the assigned Gospel reading does not give a preacher much comfortable material to work with. Today’s lesson is one of those readings.

Jesus is exiting the Temple mount with his disciples who are clearly awed by the spectacular buildings of their sacred complex. Jesus responds to their oohs and ahs with a dire prediction: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.” He then launches into a litany of apocalyptic woes coming to Israel ending with this enigmatic assertion: “And this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

What might that mean? The birth of what? Who would have the power to destroy this gleaming stone Temple complex the disciples so admired and why would anyone do that? No doubt the disciples are confused at this point. And this morning we find ourselves asking how we can make sense of these words all these years later. 

Did Jesus Really Say That?

 In looking at this text, the first question that comes to mind is whether this is actually Jesus speaking to us. The writers of the Gospels have proven very adept at placing words in Jesus’ mouth that speak the concerns of the communities they inhabit toward the end of the first century. These writers readily dip into the inkwell of Hebrew Scripture to create dialogue for a Jesus that none of the Gospel writers had actually met. A good example of that is Mark’s reference in today’s reading to “wars and rumors of wars” that comes directly out of the book of Ecclesiastes.

In many ways, it’s a lot easier to believe that the writers of today’s passage are speaking to us from the other side of the actual destruction of the Temple by the Romans that occurred in 70 CE than to see these words as something Jesus actually said. While Jesus stood in a long line of prophetic voices in Jewish history, there is nothing to suggest that he was a psychic who predicted the future.

Biblical scholars are divided over the historicity of this passage. But the point on which most agree is that Jesus was more than willing to critique the practices of the Temple cult of his day. The chances are that the roots of Mark’s prediction of this catastrophe that will actually occur 40 years later when the Romans destroy the Temple lie in Jesus’ blistering comments about its sacrificial system and ritual practices.


Pennies from the Precariat

To get a sense of that critique we need to briefly return to last week’s gospel, the story of the Widow’s mite. There Jesus is highly critical of the practices of some very self-satisfied Scribes of the Temple cult. He mocks the finery they insist upon wearing, their loud public proclamations and their love of banquets that included only the finest of Jerusalem’s elite. He decries the self-indulgence of a Temple cult which earns its living by collecting the moneys given for Temple sacrifices, often from those who could little afford to give them. This was a system tilted in favor of the wealthy who were able to give more and accordingly to receive more acclamation for their generosity. 


But that is only half of the picture. It is no accident that Jesus’ criticism of the predatory practices of the scribes who were repossessing the homes of widows thus rendering them homeless immediately precedes the story of the widow’s mite. While the wealthy were able to give from their excess, the widow gave all she had. The social approbation expected by those who make a loud showing of their large gifts will not be coming to this woman. Unlike the coins of the wealthy donors which rattle noisily down the treasury repositories, the widow’s two small coins will make only a slight tinkle as they fall down the brass receptacles into the collection of coins below.     


It is in the Temple courtyards that the glaring inequities of Judean society were exposed, inequalities that Jesus found abhorrent. As is often the case with Jesus, what he observed there broke his heart making it impossible for him to remain silent about what he saw. So it is not hard to understand how Jesus’ critical remarks about the exploitative behaviors in the Temple courts could ultimately provide the basis for gospel accounts in which Jesus is depicted predicting the demise of the Temple.


Divided Kingdoms Collapse

Another famous line from the gospels might give us some insight as to why this happened. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will utter the words that Abraham Lincoln would make famous during the Civil War that “
Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” In Judea, the tensions within that society would finally reach a breaking point in 70 CE when the occupying Roman Empire would lose its patience with the ongoing uprisings of zealots. They would destroy the Temple, toppling building stones weighing several tons off the edge of the Temple Mount. Jerusalem would be burned and its residents permanently exiled from the city. In the end, not a stone would be left standing at the Temple Mount, just as Mark has Jesus saying. And before the Romans are through dealing with the persistent insurrections some 50 years later, the entire Judean population will be sent into exile.

 So, how could that have happened?

It happened in a country with astronomical levels of social inequality, a country in which the elite enjoyed wretched excess while the working poor were ground into the dust. It happened in a country where the culture’s chief religious institution proved more than willing to collaborate with an occupying imperial army and legitimate its domination by brute strength. First Century Judea was a country where the weakest members of that society were daily wrung dry of their very life blood to support a predatory elite. And it was in that context that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple.


I must confess to you that I cannot read this passage without feeling a good deal of anxiety. There are no few similarities between Jesus’ Judea and the America in which we live today. Like Judea, we have armed bands of zealots all across our country ready to rise up to impose their vision upon the rest of the country and more than willing to use violence to accomplish that. Like Judea, we have the highest level of social inequality in our modern history, a factor that always generates instability. Like Judea, many of our working poor have despaired of holding meaningful jobs and lives, numbing their pain with addictive behaviors of all kinds with a record number of overdoses to show for it. Even our own Temple to democracy has come under attack by those willing to bring down their own government in the name of a populist messiah.


Amidst these deeply concerning realities, Jesus words are indeed troubling: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And today we hear him add, “[B]ut the end is still to come…This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

 What are we to do with that?



Good Things Can Come From Apocalypse

The birth pangs of Jesus’ first century Judea would prove to be apocalyptic. They would mark the end of the Judean kingdom. Before it was over the Jewish people themselves would be exiled from Judea.


Apocalypses always mean an unveiling of the reality that has always been present with all of its failings as well as a new reality just beginning to come into being. Apocalypses reveal the death of old ways of being human that can no longer be maintained. And they often mark the birth of something new.

With the loss of the Temple, a new form of Judaism would be born, led by rabbis and centered in synagogues and schuls. Rabbinical Judaism would replace the Temple worship in Jerusalem and the Jewish diaspora would spread out across the world, becoming shining lights in their endeavors from the arts to the sciences. Western culture owes a great deal of its richness to the gifts of the Jewish diaspora.


Simultaneously, another new form of Judaism would arise from these birth pangs, a sect of Judaism centered on the life and teachings of Jesus, eventually evolving into a religion of its own called Christianity. That would also prove to be a religious movement which would change the world. Our worship this morning owes its origins to those birth pangs, those transformative shifts that began in First Century Judea. 

As we look around us today, it is easy to be focused on what is dying. Death always involves grief and a sense of disorientation. As we lose aspects of the world in which we have grown up and in which we feel comfortable, it is easy to experience no small amount of fear, anger and, yes, sorrow. But what is being born in these profound shifts we are currently experiencing? What new way of being human might be yet on the distant horizon? How do we come to trust a future we cannot yet even imagine?


My guess is that a caterpillar ensconced in a chrysalis probably feels no small amount of anxiety as its body begins to dissolve. Everything it has known up to this point is slipping away and the future is not yet clear. But soon something new and very different begins to happen. And within days, the cocoon will open and a butterfly will emerge. The birth pangs of the chrysalis signaled the beginning of a transformation to a new and higher state of being.


Trusting G-d With Our Lives, Bodies and Souls  

In this time of upheaval when the old is slipping away and the new is not yet revealed, I believe G-d is calling us to trust the wisdom so beautifully articulated by Julian of Norwich that all is well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. And I believe that the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr that the 12 Steps groups have long embraced could also inform us here:


Lord, help us to accept the things that we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.

There is a reason that is called the Serenity Prayer.

Our lesson today provides us plenty to consider. It tells us we are not the first to face the challenges that confront us but it also offers hope that even though we cannot yet see the new creation that is coming into being, we can trust G-d with our lives, our bodies and our souls to be present with us in those changes. And so I close with a prayer that has long spoken to me about life in a time of upheaval and anxiety. It is an adapted version of Collect 60 from our Book of Common Prayer. Let us pray:

Assist us mercifully, O Lord, in these our supplications and prayers, and dispose the way of your servants; that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, we may ever be defended by your gracious and ready help; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Sermon offered at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, November 14, 2021.




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, 2021