Saturday, June 19, 2021

He Spoke to Them in Parables

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;


At the end of the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus winds up a long series of teachings with two parables, both involving seeds. As is often Jesus’ inclination, these stories use the imagery of the countryside of Galilee in which Jesus grew up.  At a very basic level, that content tells us who composed his audiences. Stories of sowing seeds and harvesting the product of one’s hard labor would readily speak to the experience of the peasant farmers gathered around Jesus.

My focus today is on the part of the reading which comes at the end of these parables. With the seeds and the harvest as well as the mustard tree laid out for our consideration, the writers of Mark’s Gospel offer us some editorial commentary to help us understand what we’ve just read: 

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables….”

Clearly the use of parables was central to Jesus’ ministry. Indeed, at least a third of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels takes the form of parables. In using this form of storytelling, Jesus engages a practice widely known throughout the Mediterranean world whose usage dates back at least to the ancient Greeks with names like Aristotle and Socrates. 

But the Gospel parables have a distinction that is valued by those of us who would follow Jesus. Biblical scholars widely agree that while some of the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels may well be the product of the lived experience of the communities who later produced the gospels, the chances are that when we hear Jesus’ parables, we are encountering the heart and mind of Jesus himself.

Some of us may have wondered why Jesus was so prone to use parables, particularly when he was trying to convey concerns of great importance to his listeners. As it turns out, there are a number of reasons for this.


Deceptively Simple Stories…on the Surface

Parables often appear as simple stories on their face. But in virtually every parable there is a much deeper underlying meaning at issue. Parables present moral dilemmas to listeners in very thinly disguised forms. Those of us who have taught ethics know that it is precisely in having students wrestle with contrived moral dilemmas that they come to a greater understanding of the ethical issues involved in our daily lives.

 Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669)

Consider the parables we love. On its face, the Prodigal Son talks about familial relations in an honor/shame culture. But at a deeper level, it raises much weightier questions:

·         What does unconditional love look like?

·         What does it mean to really forgive others?

·         What does it mean to forgive ourselves when we have betrayed our own moral standards?

·         How do we balance the justice the older brother is rightly demanding with the mercy the father is adamantly insisting upon in creating our own societies?

Part of the magic of the parable is its power to call us to enter into the roles of its players. And if we stay with it long enough, we may well find that we have played each of the roles in the story. Consider the Good Samaritan parable.


Dianah Roe, The Good Samaritan, UK (2014)


·         When in our lives have we been the Samaritan, the despised outsider?

·         When did we do the right thing even in the face of social disapprobation?

·         When have we attended to the needs of the suffering victim?

·         Indeed, when have we been that victim?

·         When have we been the by-passers who did not stop to help the one we’ve met on the street in dire need?

·         When have we mustered rationalizations to avoid feeling the guilt for avoiding our duties to our brother or sister that we probably should have felt in that situation?


         James Janknegdt, Texas (found at

We Want It Spelled Out - But That’s Not What Parables Do

 One of the beauties of the use of parables is that they are enigmatic. They strike our imagination, pique our curiosity, they make us reflect in order to arrive at meaning. Parables never tell us on their face what their point might be. They require us to wrestle with them, to get beneath the surface explanation before we can ascertain the kernel of the wisdom that is being offered.



In short, Jesus makes us work for it. And to do so most of us have to get past our immediate couch potato response of avoiding the kind of the hard work that wrestling with our souls always requires. If we are being honest, most of us would admit that when it comes to moral issues, we prefer to be told what we should think, to be given the rules we should follow, to have clearly spelled out the way we should live.

But that’s not what parables do.

Instead Jesus tells us a perfectly ordinary story. Before it is over, it will confront us with a major question. He often begins with "The Kingdom of God is like this." By the end of the story, he has you thinking: Well, I hear the story, but how on earth is the Kingdom of God like that? And that's exactly the point when you realize, this is your cue – answering that question is now your job as the listener.

Jesus also seemed to recognize that what his hearers took away from these parables undoubtedly varied by the listener. The Gospel writers often emphasize points Jesus has made with the assertion “Let those with ears hear!” But whose ears are hearing? As Mark notes, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;” Much of what any of us hears turns on what we bring to that hearing. With a parable, the chances are that, much like a set of witness statements after an accident, you will get as many versions of what happened as there were witnesses. 

But that's the point of the parable. It's open to everyone.


A Major Vote of Confidence, A Major Entrustment

 Here’s what I see as the most important part of this. At a very basic level, Jesus’ use of parables is a major vote of confidence in our ability to hear, process and make sense of what he is trying to convey to us. Jesus does not operate out of a theology of depravity that presumes that human beings are incapable of even seeing the good, much less doing it, requiring a rescuing deity to swoop down to save us from ourselves.

 Rather, Jesus calls his fellow sons and daughters of G_d to listen, to reflect, to wrestle with our consciences, and hopefully to engage those attitudes, words and behaviors which in time will make manifest the kingdom of G_d.



Not only is that a major vote of confidence, it’s also a major entrustment. Clearly Jesus appeared to think pretty highly of his followers. I think that’s something we who follow him today ought to take very seriously.


[Sermon preached at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL June 13, 2021, Proper Six, Year B] 




 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



Monday, June 07, 2021

Family of Choice: Who Is Truly My Mother, Brother, Sister?

                “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (MK  3:35)

The Gospel lesson from Mark begins with a Jesus who has just completed a successful first round of teaching and healings that has made him a sensation in his region. Hundreds of people wanting to experience this charismatic figure from the Galilee have assembled outside his home, creating so much noise that it proves impossible for he and his followers to have a meal in peace.

But it’s also drawn his detractors. The vested interests within the religious establishment of Judea are on site to dismiss him. He’s crazy, they say, possessed by demons. No doubt, to a culture whose guardians have carefully taught them to shame the poor, the prostitutes, and the sick, much less the hated Samaritans, a teacher who insists that each of these human beings is valued by the G-d who created them and whose image they bear must be crazy. 

 But this *is* your family, Jesus…..

Even Jesus’ family members are there to rein him in. They come to where Jesus is to call him outside where they can talk some sense into him.  Perhaps the family is worried that their reputation is in danger here. In an honor/shame culture, reputation means everything.

But I also have no doubt that Mary was probably worried about Jesus. She clearly didn’t know what to make of what Jesus is saying and doing. What she does know is that she loves her first born child deeply and fears for his safety. Bear in mind this is the woman whom the Temple priest had foretold that “a sword shall pierce your heart.” Sadly, time would prove that warning to be well founded.

Jesus’ response to his family is what leapt off the page at me. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. It’s an odd question coming out of a culture where family ties and the duties that flow from them are seen as sacred. He then looks around himself at those gathered to hear him, answering his own question with the statement “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


Biblical scholars are not of one mind regarding the origins of this passage. It could readily reflect the divisions that opened within the synagogues where Jesus followers were present at the end of the first century, ultimately prompting the rabbinical leaders to expel the Jesus followers. Jesus’ statement suggests this conflict: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

It could also reflect the struggle for leadership in the Jesus movement itself at the end of the first century that erupted between the community led by James, Jesus’ brother, and the growing movement that increasingly included Gentiles led by Paul. But given the shock value of these words and the potential to draw into question social structures and cultural values, I think this could easily be the Jesus of history.

Ears to Hear: Listening Through LBGTQ Ears

A common line that we encounter in the Gospels is “Let those with ears hear.” Of course, what any of us hear is often determined by what we bring to that hearing. That is true of all of us, including your preacher tonight. And so it is hardly surprising that in this month in which we celebrate LBGTQ Pride, what I heard in this passage echoes a common distinction within the gay community between families of choice – those who love and accept us as we are - in contrast with families of birth - those to whom we are related by accident of birth.

Some of us know the pain of having our families of birth reject us, choosing the affirmation of their religious circles, their social circles, their political circles, over their own children. Some of us know what it’s like to be called crazy because our affectional patterns run afoul of a heterosexist CIS gendered norm. Indeed, some of us know the scary experience of being declared demon possessed by those who far too often confuse revealed religion with socially constructed prejudices. 

My guess is that many of us can relate to Jesus’ Mother, concerned for the immediate safety of her child as well as the welfare of the rest of her family. Many of us know the vicarious pain of watching our loved ones weep or burn in anger as we have endured dehumanization from fearful people around us.

It’s also important to note that the family’s attempted intervention comes in the context of a confrontation of Jesus by the religious authorities of his day. None of us need to be reminded of the long dark history of demonization and discrimination that LBGTQ people have endured in this country and around the world throughout history. And we know that this animosity can readily express itself in deadly behaviors.


The Last Pandemic: Families of Choice Cared When Families of Birth Abandoned Us

This Pride month occurs on the 40th anniversary of the eruption of a deadly virus called HIV that was roundly ignored even as thousands of our loved ones took ill and died awful deaths. Worse yet, many were disowned by their families of birth and demonized from the pulpits of their churches. It was their families of choice who nursed them as they died and often who buried them as well. Jesus’ question rings loud and clear in the experience of many who felt abandoned by those they most needed in that time: 

“Who are my Mother and my brother and my sister?” 


This month also marks the fifth anniversary of the deadly Pulse massacre at the former night club across town. What I remember most about that tragic event was the vigil a week later in which a grieving family of choice numbering 100,000 residents circled the mile long rim of Lake Eola with their candles to insist “Hate will not prevail. Love wins.” It was a stunning demonstration of the Way of Jesus in action: 

Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  

It is tempting to look at the successes the Gay Liberation movement has achieved in the past decades and assume the long quest for recognition of dignity is over. That’s particularly true in light of the lifting of the arbitrary restrictions that long precluded many of us from the benefits of legal marriage. For many of us who grew up in days when our lovemaking itself was a criminal offense, this was a major shift that most of us felt we would never live to see.


For that and for the role our church played in helping those changes to occur, I give thanks to G-d. But the post-election stream of legislation that would erode if not completely take away the expectation that LBGTQ people will be treated with dignity in our society suggests that our struggle is not over. If nothing else, the skyrocketing death toll of transgendered persons targeted for violence coming in the wake of legislation singling them out for unequal treatment tells us that many in our families of choice remain very vulnerable.

 Love may always win but in the meantime a lot of our brothers and sisters still require the vigilance, support and loving presence of families of choice. 


It’s Hardly Just LBGTQ People Who Understand This

Of course, one need not be LBGTQ to know what Jesus is describing here. How many of us have found that we no longer can have civil discussions with people we grew up with, people among whom we have lived, worked and worshipped? How many of us find ourselves debating about whether to go to that family dinner at Thanksgiving or the class reunion at the high school this month? Jesus’ question “Who are my brothers and my sisters?” is particularly relevant to many of us.


In a time when partisanship with all its contrived litmus tests has become fiercely tribal and notions like unquestioned belonging and unconditional love seem far away, some of our families of birth and some of our former families of choice no longer offer us a place at the table that does not come at a tremendous price.  And that price may prove much larger than we think before these conflicts are resolved. As Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” 

There is a reason Abraham Lincoln quoted that line frequently in the time of the Civil War.

What the Will of G-d Looks Like

Jesus’ assertion that his followers can be known by their willingness to follow the will of G-d is vague. Most of us respond to this verse with obvious questions: What is the will of G_d and how do we know it?

Again, the words of the Gospel are helpful here. “Love G-d with all your heart and soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Or as Jesus himself says in the Gospel of John, “God is love and where true love is, God himself is there.”

If we are to love the G-d who created us and all that exists, we are called to treat that creation with respect. All of it. To engage in behaviors that destroy the Good Creation to satisfy human greed or lust for power is to spit in the eye of the G-d who created it. To dehumanize any children of G-d for any reason and treat them with anything less than respect is to fail in both our duties to the other as well as to the G-d whose image they bear. In a loving response to our Creator, there is no room for socially constructed prejudices, regardless of their basis. And there is no room for the rationalization of the failure to love one’s neighbor as oneself by insisting that G-d somehow holds our prejudices.

Finally, let us remember that loving one’s neighbor as oneself begins with a healthy love of oneself. Loving one’s neighbor never requires anyone to become a doormat or a punching bag as a condition of relationship. That may well mean that we must learn how to love those whose attitudes, words and behaviors cause us harm from a safe distance. It may mean avoiding the family dinners, the latest blast of forwarded social media or even in-person encounters with those who simply cannot love unconditionally. In some cases, the most loving thing we can do is simply to pray for those who would harm us even as we remain outside arm’s length.

There is much to think about in this Gospel and so I commend it to you . I close with our collect for today:


O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and everAmen.

[A sermon preached June 6, 2021 at the Integrity Eucharist, St. Richard’s Episcopal Parish, 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