Monday, January 25, 2021

Times Like Right Now

“The time is up: God’s imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways and put your trust in the good news.” Mark 1:14-20

(Westar Scholar’s Version, The Five Gospels, NY: MacMillan Publishing, 1883)  

Our Hebrew Scripture lesson today comes from the book of Jonah. Most of us are familiar with the portion of this book in which a reluctant prophet is swallowed up by a big fish only to be spat up on the shores of the very land to which he had refused to travel. But few of us know the rest of the story which begins with this third chapter of Jonah.

 G-d has called Jonah to proclaim a message to the people of Nineveh, perhaps the premier city in the western world at that time. Little wonder he was reluctant to engage this undertaking. The message he was given to deliver was bleak: You have 40 days to change your ways or your city will be overthrown. Jonah, having just escaped a storm at sea and a prison within a fish’s belly, has learned that it’s futile to argue with G-d. And so he begins a three day trek on foot across the city proclaiming this call to repentance.

 To Jonah’s surprise, he turns out to be a persuasive if reluctant prophet. While the text does not indicate that from which the people are being called to repent, in the end they do repent, turning from their evil ways. And they are spared of calamity.

  


Not Written in Stone

 As I read this passage there are three main points that seem to emerge from this story. The first is that we human beings are always capable of recognizing that the paths we choose for our lives, both individually as well as collectively, are not written in stone. The Hebrew word for repentance essentially translates to turning around and heading in a new direction. We are always capable of changing our minds, changing our hearts and changing our lives.

 The second point is that there are times when G-d calls us to do exactly that. While it would be easy to read the text as an example of how a powerful G-d coerces a less powerful people into repentance with threats of punishment, what seems apparent is that if they continue on the paths on which they have been travelling, disaster will almost surely result.

I believe we live in such a time. Our recent lives as a people have led to such division and animosity within our country that we have seen our fellow Americans killed, others targeted for lynching and our nation’s capitol desecrated, all in prime time. Our new president and vice president were inaugurated within the protective bubble of 25,000 troops to protect them - from their fellow citizens! It doesn’t take much to recognize that however we got here, the time has come to change.

 


"Let's Just Move On," The Lure of Cheap Grace

 In the wake of a long, bitter election in the heart of a pandemic capped off by an atrocity in the very heart of our government, it is tempting to indulge in a desire to simply “move on,” to ignore the harm to our nation’s soul that has occurred, to return to business as usual as quickly as possible, to let those who have harmed us off the hook.

 But we cannot simply move on.


The Lutheran martyr of the Holocaust era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has taught us that we do not have the luxury of indulging in what he called “cheap grace.. the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, a grace without any cost…” Like the people of Nineveh, if we are to avoid disaster there must be repentance, a conscious recognition that our thoughts, words and deeds have proven harmful to ourselves and others and in the process harmed the good Creation that G-d loves.

 

An important part of that repentance must be an accountability on the part of the wrong doers as well as those who enabled them and encouraged them to engage in these harmful behaviors. To paraphrase Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, you must insure that there is justice.”

But here’s where the third point becomes most important. G-d does not give up on us. Any of us. Jonah was a reluctant prophet. He avoided G-d’s call to go to Nineveh, running away from that calling only to end up in the belly of the great fish, finally arriving on the shores of Nineveh after all.  In the chapter that follows this one, Jonah, who really wanted to see the Ninevites punished, will pout over his success. He says to G_d:

“That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”   

 And then he plops down at the edge of city and waits to die.

But even then, G-d is not through with Jonah. A large bush grows up over the head of Jonah to shade him from the scorching noontime sun only to be eaten by a worm that causes it to die. Jonah, full of self-righteous anger and indignation, laments over the fate of the bush only to hear G-d respond,

 ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow;... 11 Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ 

 The writer of Jonah leaves the reader dangling at that point. We don’t know if Jonah ever did repent of his malice toward the Ninevites. We do know he was capable and the text is clear that he should. But we don’t know if he ever did.

 


However, a larger point is evident here. All of Creation came into being from the very heart of a G-d who desires relationship. G-d loves all that G_d has created.  When we lose sight of that relatedness, G-d calls us to return. And G-d never gives up on us.

So here is the hard part. If G_d never gives up on us, we are called to do likewise. Like Jonah, we do not get to throw our hands up and excuse ourselves from hearing and heeding the call of G-d. If my experience is any guide, it will not simply go away. 

We also do not get to give up on ourselves. We do not get to write off everyone who does not hold our views as irredeemable and cast them into outer darkness. And none of us get to escape from accountability when we have harmed others.

 As Jonah recognized in his dealings with the Holy One, the G-d whose image we bear and into whose likeness we are called to grow is “gracious… and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” As difficult as it may prove, we are called to do likewise. 

But we approach this calling with no small amount of humility. We know we can never do it alone and our responses to our promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant reflect this:   I will - with God’s help.

 


Heeding the Lessons from Jonah

I believe that it is important that we hear the lessons the Jonah story poses us in this tumultuous time. While we are often called by G-d to rethink our lives and change our directions, there are times when it becomes particularly incumbent upon us to do so. This is one of them.

In just a moment we will be celebrating the eucharist using Form C in our prayer book. It is my favorite eucharistic prayer. Its references to the good creation make my Franciscan heart sing. But it also carries an echo of the lessons we hear this day in the Jonah account. Listen carefully to the words we are about to say together:

 

Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.


And to that calling, we all respond:

         Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the Bread.       

 


As followers of the Way of Jesus, we must be attentive to G-d’s call to us, particularly in times when repentance is needed. Times like right now. Our Gospel today reminds us that following Jesus means helping to build the Kingdom of G-d as well as to repair it in those times when it falls into disarray. Times like right now. That will mean holding one another accountable for our harms to the body politic. And it means holding ourselves accountable in those times when we nurse our vengeful attitudes toward those who have harmed us without any consideration of how we might be reconciled to them. Times like right now.

 


Jesus recognized the urgency of the moments in which he lived. As our Gospel reading from Mark today reports it, the very first words of his ministry were the following:

 The time is up: God’s imperial rule is closing in. Change your ways and put your trust in the good news.”  

 Trusting G-d with our very being to guide us as we change our ways is essential to our following the Way of Jesus.

 These words are as urgent today as they were when Jesus first spoke them. Because his own tumultuous times were, indeed, times like right now.

 [A sermon preached at St. Richards Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, Epiphany III, January 24, 2021. It can be heard live at this link begin at the 26 minute mark though there were technical problems with its broadcast and recording  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eq0JxCvlAXU&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR2FzE5F62e1hu41m9mifTsXszoLcSWuZkLC8iGkDfskqXDqdPwUkFsGbU4]

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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

 frharry@cfl.rr.com

hcoverston.orlando@gmail.com

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 ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

   © Harry Coverston, 2021

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Sunday, January 03, 2021

Rumbles from the Jungle: The Start of a New Year

 


Happy 2021, everyone! Greetings from the residents of New Coverleigh in the heart of Orlando! The Jungle is happy this warm January day and so are its occupants. Here is hoping all is well with you and those you love this day.

For about 35 years I have written New Years letters intermittently. In the early years I typed them up with an electric typewriter and then cut and pasted images into the dummy before xeroxing them and sending them out with personal notes at the end. I struggled to get them all out by St. Patrick’s Day. With the rise of the internet, it has become much easier to produce and publish these missives complete with photographs. For that I am grateful this day.

 

New Year’s Eve, Andy and I engaged our yearly tradition yesterday of driving to Cape Canaveral to walk on the beach. It’s about a mile and three-quarters from Cherry Downs Park to Jetty Park at the inlet across from the launching pads of Kennedy Space Center where the gantries for the next round of rockets headed to space can be seen. We always go close to sunset to enjoy the colors of the fading year. On the way down the beach we each sum up the year that has just passed from our perspective. On the way back up the beach, we each voice our hopes for the coming year.

Here is what we came up with.

 

We walk down the beach, the gantries for future space shots on the horizon

The Pandemic That Overshadowed Everything

Like most of you, this has past year has been an incredibly trying year. The entire year has been overshadowed by the COVID19 pandemic which began in February. It has limited our engagement of the world tremendously. It has been constantly nervous making given that both of us are in a higher risk population. Every round of allergy-driven sneezing, every raspy voice, every headache, we’ve wondered “Is this the virus?”

My guess is that many of you can relate to that. But thus far we have been lucky. For all that I am very grateful.

A number of my friends have been infected and survived including several parishioners at St. Richard. My nephew at UCF was one of the early cases of the virus, being infected by his fraternity brothers who went to happy hour at a bar later closed by the state. He got through the worst of it in a 10-day period, finally getting his taste and smell back a couple of months later. My brother and I kept him supplied with food and medicine during his quarantine.

Some have not been so lucky. I have lost two friends thus far. The first was an friend from my days in the choir at St. Luke’s Cathedral. The second, my friend Sue Cline, was born eight days and eight miles away from me in West Palm Beach in 1953. We had roomed together at UF for awhile, worked on the Independent Florida Alligator and served in the UF Student Senate together. And we were fellow Public Defenders for a number of years as well. She was a true soul mate. When she went in for surgery on an abscess, she was exposed to COVID and died 36 hours later. 

Her death completely shattered me. And I cannot tell you how angry it makes me. She did not have to die nor did most of the one out of 1000 Floridians already dead from COVID in a state whose failed leadership has been deceitful and deadly.

There is blood on their hands and those of all whose denial and irresponsibility have played a role in this disaster. Many of us will not forget.


I began wearing a mask everywhere I went almost immediately back in February. Truth be told, I hate those f***g masks. But I hate the alternative much more. But maybe not for much longer. We are scheduled to receive our first COVID vaccine the second week of January. While I would prefer it go to those on the front lines, I am grateful for this.

I admit to major irritation with those who refuse to wear masks in public venues and insist upon engaging in large gatherings. A friend of mine recently posted this meme:

“If you won’t wear a mask to help protect your neighbor from dying, don’t ever talk to me about God.”

Precisely.

 Digging Out of a Deep Hole

 As I have said many times over the past year, these behaviors, arising from a denial of the seriousness of the virus, are a reflection of an adolescent culture in this country from which far too many Americans have taken their cues. And this year has produced a bumper crop of adolescent behaviors.

 To wit, I feared the national elections in November would never arrive and am beginning to feel the same about the coming inauguration. Almost from the beginning the news became toxic with the nastiness of the campaign.

One night, as I made my retreat to bed, crossword puzzle in hand, the words of Madge, the beautician in the 1960s Palmolive dish pan hands ads ,suddenly came back to me, “You’re soaking in it….” 

So about August I simply stopped watching the news with any regularity, reading enough online to remain informed but avoiding inundation by the tsunami of nastiness. All in the name of sanity. Even then, it was borderline.

I am relieved that the soon-to-be Former Occupant of the White House [N.B. I stopped using the actual name of that occupant last year when I discovered its repetition was generating algorithmic replication online] will be gone by late January. But, I fear that President-Elect Biden will have his hands full trying to repair the damage from four years of corruption and cronyism that started at the very top of our government.


I wonder how deeply damaged the very structure of our democratic system has become under this full-frontal assault of voter suppression, gerrymandering, the stacking of representational government from the state level to the Congress and the evisceration of any meaningful administrative agency oversight. And I wonder how difficult it will be to regain international trust for a government that has twice allowed incompetent white men of privilege to assume office through electoral minorities in the past 20 years. 

Of all the egregious behaviors of this regime that former FBI Director James Comey likened to the Mafia given its secrecy and violation of the law with impunity, it is the dismantlement of the Justice Department and the stacking of the federal courts with Federalist Society ideologues that this recovering lawyer finds most disturbing. I am shocked at my gut reactions to this. A consummate defense lawyer, I find myself wanting all of the bad actors in this regime to face prison time starting with William Barr.

Dear Lord.

Of course, that won’t happen given the tsunami of pardons flowing from this open sewer that once was the presidency. But bear in mind this one thing:

Innocent people need no pardons.

News from New Coverleigh

Speaking of tsunamis, in terms of climate change, New Coverleigh was lucky this year. The hurricanes that devastated much of the Caribbean basin went somewhere else for a change. We held our breath throughout this season that seemed it would never end. The joke of “What do we name them if we run out of Greek letters” stopped being funny about mid-October. But this time, we were spared. For that the Jungle is deeply grateful.

Our niece, Grace, moved out of our library to her own place at Thanksgiving. She had lived with us for a year and a half along with her three snakes (Andy would not let them in the house – they were confined to the tool shed out back), two geckos and Fox, her Pomeranian. She seems to have finally managed to get her head above water after a very difficult period when she fled Gainesville and UF to come home to Orlando. Ironically, she is now living a mere mile and a half from where she grew up.

Grace is enrolled at UCF this Spring and hopefully she will soon be on her way to completing her degree once again. She is bright and very capable. We are very hopeful that she is finally back on a positive track. And we feel that we did the right thing by providing her shelter while she found her way back. It was not always very easy but most things worth doing rarely are. Her uncle still thinks she is the Best Niece in the World. ((BNITW)

 


We lost our little kitty, Frida, last August. She was 15 but I would have moved heaven and earth to have kept her as long as I could. Frida was a semi-feral rescue from the university. My students insisted I name her Frida in honor of my icon, Frida Kahlo. She lived behind the water heater in the utility room for the first six weeks of her life only gradually coming out to engage people. By the time she died, Frida was the organizer of the Snack Time for all the animals, coming into my office by 10 AM at the latest to remind me of that impending event. I have missed her terribly and our family seemed incomplete without her. As of this writing, we have found a new rescue kitten, an orange tabby named Willow. Stay tuned.

 


All of our other animals are six years or younger. Saidy, the beagle, is the youngest, at two. She came from a farm over in Sumter County in an area soon to be “developed” by The Villages, the wealthy white retiree Republican conglomerate that is busy swallowing up the place where I grew up. I remind Saidy that we rescued her from the dreaded “developers” (cue tympani). Of course she has no idea what I am talking about.

Oscar, the dachshund, Magdalena, the grey domestic shorthair cat, and Romero Pantero, the black cat who thinks he is a Black Panther, all arrived here within days of each other about six years ago. All are well. Then there are the three aquaria including the 30 gallon tank with a footlong goldfish named Jerry. He’s also about six. We have a lot of babies to love here and we are ever so grateful for that.

 

I see my Brother and Sister-in-Law across town fairly regularly and my Sister, Carole, and her fiancĂ©e, Jim, who live up in Ocala every other month. On occasion we see the nephews and niece who live locally. 







We just attended Scott’s (Carole’s older boy) virtual graduation from UF. He is now the third generation of UF grads in our family.

I am grateful to have family of birth nearby even as we all miss our parents. Increasingly I am aware of how fortunate we were to have been born into that family. I no longer take it for granted nor am I able to labor under the misapprehension that my family was somehow normative for every other family. I know better.

My family of choice is scattered across the country these days. I am able to talk with them periodically and that provides just enough contact to keep me from feeling abandoned. I am grateful for that.

 

Luci, Eleanor, Casey and the Mothman in Point Pleasant, WV

I did get a chance to actually visit some of them this past October. I drove a rental car from here to West Virginia to see Luci, her Mom and Casey, her big border collie. We spent several days roaming the woods of the region, lapping up the color of a spectacular fall, a real treat for this Florida boy. 






Joe and Annie Coverston, State College, PA


From there I went to State College, PA to visit my nephew, Joe, and niece, Annie. Joe is in a Ph.D. in Engineering program there, Annie is completing a Masters in Forensics and they are expecting a baby this January. What a delight it was to spend time with them.

 




Then it was on to Albany, NY, to see my long time friends Joan and Art Storey and their wonderful family including their two doggies. Part of that visit included a day trip to Bennington, VT, an incredibly beautiful little college town just inside the Vermont border. A warm sunny fall day with a blaze of color, it was magical.  


I ended up in Syracuse visiting my long time friends, Bill and Fu. Their beautiful aging Vizsla, Baiv, was my constant companion and slept with me each night I was there. Animals always know the Franciscans. It was so good to see all of them. I miss having them nearby.

 


My local family of choice is largely at my parish, St. Richards in Winter Park. I am on the rota there to preach and celebrate monthly at our limited attendance Sunday eucharists and I celebrate Morning Prayer by Zoom each Tuesday. I also officiate a Zoom version of Taize at the end of each month. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve this community and I have come to love the people who make up this amazing parish.

 


Lots of Projects to Keep Us Busy….

Andy is now fully retired and happy to be so. His new projects have included replacing the fence around our back yard to cut off all the escape routes for a certain dachshund and beagle. He is currently reconstructing our tool shed and we will soon begin reroofing our potting shed as well. Before the next year is over, we plan to replace our deck in the back whose footings have become unstable over the last couple of years.



Though I’m also fully retired, I’m rarely idle. I am part of a team with my former rector Jerry Drino from San Jose which creates a monthly discussion program called The Texts of the Times. It is a challenging process of pulling together readings and images for a two hour discussion among very thoughtful people by Zoom each month.  I also attend a similar program Jerry directs called Reading Between the Lines which discusses the weekly lectionary for the Episcopal Church by Zoom. In the process I have reconnected with people I knew in California from the diocese where I was ordained. It has been a welcomed renewal.

Last October I was one of two clergy asked to lead a weekly Zoom-driven discussion hosted by Auburn Seminary in NYC for the six weeks prior to the election. We discussed where our country was headed, what our faith had to say about that and where we might go from here. Six of the participants were chosen from my parish and the other six came from the Vineyard Fellowship in Gainesville. One of the things I learned in this process is that you cannot presume anything about the faith or the politics of the other. This was a real blessing for me and I am grateful for it.

One of the things that has surprised me this past crazy year has been the impact of stay-at-home orders on my life. At first I felt penned up, wanting to go socialize but afraid of getting sick. But as the pandemic worsened and the days at home became the norm and not the exception, I began to realize that I actually like the limited engagement with the world. I have created this Jungle in the heart of a medium sized urban center in which I am able to write, catch up on long overdue reading, garden, cook and, after dark, walk the 1.6 mile route through our neighborhood that allows us to be outside without a mask.


Thus, while I find it odd, I am increasingly inclined to remain home. I don’t exactly feel anti-social but I’m also not terribly inclined to socialize. I read somewhere that the ENFP Myers-Brigg type that I exhibit is the most introverted of the extraverted types. We need our down time, our quiet, our naps in the afternoon after finishing the crossword puzzle, cat and sometimes dachshund by our sides. At a very basic level, I have not missed being on call for those whose plans are seen as incomplete without my presence.

In terms of health, we are both very fortunate. I take minimal medication for hypertension and Barret’s Syndrome both of which are well controlled. My arthritic knees remain creaky and sometimes give me problems but most of the time I am able to walk and garden without problem. Andy is healthy as a horse. He was dealing with some fatty liver problems last spring but managed to bring that back under control with dietary changes and supplements. For our good health, we are both very grateful.

The Long and Noisy Prayer That is my Life ….

 


I don’t know what 2021 will hold for us. I do know that I have felt a restlessness for a long time. I feel I have something to offer the world but I’m not yet sure what that is or what venue it should seek. I know that this year I intend to get the remaining boxes of photos off of my office floor, scanned and saved on my computer. This process is always reflective for me. Through it I come to grips with some of the demons that remain in my life and embrace the long process that I have enjoined for 67 years now.

I recently watched a trailer for Bruce Springsteen’s special on Netflicks. In it he remarks as follows:”

“This is what I have presented to you all these years as my long and noisy prayer….. I wanted to be able to celebrate and honor its beauty and I wanted to be a critical voice when I thought that’s what the times called for. I wanted to know my story, your story, and where were we going together as a people. More than anything else, I wanted to be able to tell that story well to you.”

Clearly, I’m no Bruce Springsteen. But this is my hope as well.


I, too, see my life as “a long and noisy prayer” and I am indebted to Springsteen for that description. I can only hope that the prayer my life has offered reflects the requisite humility and sincerity. I, too, have sought to “celebrate and honor its beauty,” and at times I have felt called “to be a critical voice when I thought that’s what the times called for…” Those of you who know me know only how true that is.

Some encounter that critique by dismissing me as being negative. Others confuse my critique for personal attacks. But in the end, it all boils down to this: As I see it, calling people to their highest levels of functioning is a favor to them and to the world which badly needs their gifts. But as my friend, Bill, says, “Your mileage may vary.”

Most of all, I have always “wanted to be able to tell that story well to you.” That’s what I see as my life calling at this point, pulling together all the bits and pieces, offering all the lessons I have learned in classrooms across the world and from my experiences in the slums where my students and clients have lived, in the killing fields of Central America, and in the courtrooms of my own country. I believe I still have some things to offer the world, things I’ve been waiting all my whole life to say. I also recognize that this is the time when I will either write them down and hopefully find ways to publish them or whatever wisdom I might have to offer will die with me.

I have had a lot of teachers in my lifetime. I am grateful to all of them for the lessons they have imparted to me, some of them more painfully than others. Now, at a point when there are more days behind me than ahead of me, it is my time to tell my story, to offer whatever lessons my life may have produced. That is what I sense calls me this first day of 2021. How I will pursue that calling is the challenge this coming year presents me.

Wish me luck.  



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Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

 frharry@cfl.rr.com

hcoverston.orlando@gmail.com

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 ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

   © Harry Coverston, 2020

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