Friday, December 16, 2022

Patience in the Darkness

“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” May I speak to you in the name of the G-d who [+] creates, redeems and sustains us? AMEN.


It is rare that preachers choose the Epistle as the lesson on which to focus their sermons. It’s even more rare that we hear from the Letter from James. And yet, today’s lesson emphasizing patience is tailor made for the Advent season of waiting and watching, reflecting and repenting. And I think there is something important in this lesson that we need to hear today.


Biblical scholars are not sure who wrote the Letter from James or when. The James in whose name the letter was written suggests it came from James, the brother of Jesus. He was the leader of the Jerusalem community of Jesus followers in the years following the execution of his brother, Jesus, by the Romans. If that is the case, this letter would have been written prior to 70 CE because thereafter the Romans would destroy the Second Temple in Jerusalem and expel all of the residents it had not killed.


Like a Time Capsule


The letter from James is like a time capsule from the early Jesus movement. It decidedly reflects the thinking of a Hebraic community like that from which Jesus came. At a basic level, it is much more reflective of the religion of Jesus than the religion about Jesus which Paul would create that would later come to be called Christianity.


Not surprisingly, given its Hebrew audience, James’ letter is more focused on conduct rather than belief. Its teachings are moral, not dogmatic. It is this epistle from which the focus on orthopraxy, right conduct – as opposed to orthodoxy, right belief - comes. It is true that orthopraxy has always been an important part of the Christian tradition historically. Think Social Gospel. Think liberation theology. But it has always been the minority view vis-à-vis orthodoxy with its focus on right beliefs.


Perhaps the best known line from the letter from James is the assertion that “Faith without works is dead.” It was this ongoing concern for the way one lived their faith as opposed to the contents of one’s belief system that would cause later Christian  theologians to consider removing James from the Christian scriptures.


Valuable Counsel to Any Community

Fortunately, the church resisted that tendency. The counsel that the writer of James offers us in this passage today is incredibly valuable especially during this Advent season: Be patient….strengthen your hearts….do not grumble or judge one another….emulate the prophets who were willing to endure suffering in patience. These are words that would prove valuable to any community. But they are particularly on point to those Christian communities which observe the season of Advent.

This Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent. It is the time when we Christians are called to wait, to watch, to reflect, to repent. Every human culture has some observance of this practice of waiting in the growing darkness for the return of light to our darkened world. This year that will occur 10 days from now on the winter solstice.


The Christian tradition is to light an additional candle each week as that time grows near, each candle reflecting our increasing hopefulness for new light, new life, and a new year. It is hardly surprising that when the Christian church had to choose a date on which to mark the birth of Jesus, it chose one which roughly corresponded with the winter solstice. The hymn we will sing when the Christmas season finally arrives on the night of December 24 recognizes that connection:



            Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!

            Hail the Sun of Righteousness!

            Light and life to all He brings

            Risen with healing in His wings


But it is important that we do not leap ahead to Christmas much as we may want to. This period of Advent is critical to our tradition. We absolutely need these four weeks of reflection. It is essential to the health of our souls both individually and collectively. So it makes sense that a reading advising us to exercise patience would be chosen for this Sunday midway through that season.


James had good reasons to repeatedly admonish his community to be patient. They were living in a very tense time in a Jerusalem whose Temple would be destroyed by the Romans shortly and whose Judean population, including this Jesus community formed around James, would soon be dispersed from the city. The ability to exercise patience in the face of oppression was the difference between survival and extinction. 

 We Don’t Come By It Readily

That said, patience is hardly the most observable trait among human beings. I can relate to that personally. I am not a terribly patient man perhaps with the exception of the feral kittens I labor to domesticate (though they may say differently if asked). For them and for some of my students who came to me with challenges to their learning over my years of teaching, I have on occasion demonstrated the patience of Job. But for everyone else - starting with myself - not so much.

So my record in exercising patience is mixed on a good day. My guess is that may well be true for many of you as well in the various aspects of your lives where patience is required from everyday parenting to simply being present in your work places, not to mention enduring family gatherings at holidays. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the realms of our evermore contentious social media and the world of politics.

At some level it’s not terribly surprising that few of us are particularly adept at exercising patience. We are, after all, products of a consumerist culture that has taught us that we are somehow entitled to instant gratification of everything from curing our headaches to always having it our way at fast food joints. The notion that we should ever be uncomfortable even for a second is unthinkable for us well trained consumers.            


Even the constraint on launching into Christmas celebrations until December 24 seems like a punishment to some of us. And that hardly begins to touch Advent’s call to thoughtfully reflect on those aspects of our lives which are dying, things that no longer serve us of which we must let go, and finding the patience required to wait for the new world which is surely coming but which we can’t yet see. 

The idea of patiently waiting is almost counterintuitive to us. And that’s precisely what makes Advent a countercultural observance.  And yet, here we are, observing the third Sunday of Advent with two more weeks of waiting, watching, reflecting and repenting to go.


So What Is It We Need to Reflect Upon?

So what is it that we need to reflect upon? What demands our patient, thoughtful consideration? We might begin with our own lives. What are the behaviors in which we have engaged for years which no longer serve us? What relationships have increasingly become less and less life-giving and more and more a drain on our systems? What patterns of consumption – from binge watching streaming programming to compulsive shopping to overeating and drinking – have become problematic for us? And as we reflect on those patterns, we may ask ourselves what internal demons might we be seeking to escape in those behaviors? If we are to start a new year of life in a world that is changing, what might we need to let go of to get there?

Secondly, what might our church need to reflect upon? What does it tell us when those who are leaving the pews of every religious tradition, describing themselves as none-of-the above, outpace those who are entering them? What might we need to reconsider in the way we talk about our faith, the ways we practice our faith, about the values that animate that faith?


In the larger view, we have much to consider. We live in difficult times. While most of us are not in immediate fear of losing our homes, invading armies or starving to death in the near future – thanks be to G-d! -  many around the world are.


Yet, we are a people who have done our best to ignore the increasingly unavoidable evidence of human caused climate change even as the waves of refugees it is creating around the world are just beginning to arrive on our shores and the waves of debris from once luxurious beachside residences lie in piles around the foundations of those structures. Our economy has become highly unpredictable and many who once felt secure no longer are.  An entire generation of our children are swallowed up in debt simply to pay for their educations that we refused to cover.  And the instability of our democratic system of self-governance has prompted many of us to wonder if our country will hold together for much longer or go the way of the dinosaurs.


Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr said in his meditation this week, “I think we must be honest that we are at the downside of the curve. All indices suggest that we are at the end of the dominance of the United States, western civilization, even Christianity. The question for us becomes: What will we do about it?”    


Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times

Clearly we have much to wrestle with this Advent season. It is essential to note that none of these problems arose overnight. And they will take time for us to address them. They will require us to take them seriously and our willingness to commit ourselves to doing whatever is necessary to address them. In short, they will require our patient, thoughtful presence.


And that is precisely what our lesson from James today is calling us to engage. Listen again to its wisdom: Be patient…do not grumble against one another….don’t judge one another….pray for the suffering….anoint the sick…. own up to your sins and confess them to one another…pray for one another. These are the mechanics of a healthy spiritual community and they are all behaviors that are within our individual and collective control. And I believe that if we are going to endure this time of trying and testing in which we live, it will be precisely because the communities in which we are grounded have given us the strength to do so.

I close with a prayer adapted from St. Augustine’s Prayerbook. Let us pray:

O Jesus, Our Brother: Help us to find the patience to follow the path to which you call us. Let our confidence not rest in our own understanding but in your guiding hand; let our desires not be for our own comfort, but for the wholeness of all Creation; for your Way is our hope and our joy now and forevermore. Amen.  


[You can listen to the sermon at this link starting at 18:45 ]



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, 2022


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Gratitude for the Hands That Touch Our Lives

“When you touch minds, people are willing to walk a dozen miles for you; and when you touch hearts, people are willing to walk a thousand miles for you; but when you touch souls, people are willing to walk a million miles for you.”

Matshona Dhliwayo (Zimbabwe born Canadian philosopher)


An Eye-Opening Exercise


A few years ago I was part of a project sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council that featured a quilt project by the Apopka Farmworkers Association. The quilt had been made by African-American farmworkers who had created it much in the fashion of the famed AIDS Quilt. Its handstitched squares told the stories of the lives of the farmworkers who once lived, loved and worked in the mucklands on the north shore of Lake Apopka and who had since died, many of them from rare cancers that were epidemic in a community long exposed unknowingly to carcinogenic chemicals used in the fields they worked.

The quilt came with its own story tellers, elderly women who remembered those whose squares bore their life stories in cross-stitch and regaled their audiences with stories which made these workers fully present and fully human, if just for a moment. 

The sessions always began with a little exercise. Jeannie Economos, the project organizer from the Farmworker Association of Florida, would begin by holding up an orange and then tossing it to a person in the front row of her audience. She would invite the recipient to hold the orange, feeling its texture, smelling its sweet aroma, looking at the brilliant orange surface, before passing it to the person sitting next to them. This would continue until everyone in the audience had held the orange at which point it was tossed back to Jeannie.

Then she would ask, “So how many hands touched that orange before you did?” Inevitably there would be a long silence before the first person would volunteer. “The worker at the Publix,” would often be the first response. But Jeannie would push her audience. “OK. But before them.” 

This would continue until a long chain of custody would be created that would stretch back to the worker who planted the seed that grew the tree that produced this orange among many others. Along the way there would be the workers who watered the seedling, transplanted it into a grove, fertilized the sapling, sprayed it with chemicals to keep away insects and diseases, shaped the trees by pruning, fired the groves on the occasional cold nights, hoed around the trees to keep the weeds from taking over, and then waited….waited for the burst of aromatic blossoms that would fill the air with perfume and draw the bees that would pollinate the blossoms…waited for six months as the tiny fruit grew, fleshed out and ripened.


Only then would the harvest come by workers wearing long sleeve shirts in the Florida heat to protect them from the thorns on the trees, loading their crates awaiting the tractor to come pick them up, headed to packing houses where the fruit would be sorted and loaded into new crates and loaded onto trucks driven to distribution warehouses and only then to the grocery stores where they would be unloaded and placed on the displays in the produce section.


Finally, Jeannie would say, “OK, so how many hands touched this piece of fruit before you did?”


Our Feast From Their Hands….


That project was one of the many gifts to my life that the Florida Humanities Council has provided me over many years for which I am grateful on this Eve of Thanksgiving. But besides giving me a chance to participate in a project that enriched our community, it also served to wake me up. What began to occur to me as I considered the chain of custody and care that had produced the piece of fruit I held that day was that this was true of every aspect of my life and everyone else’s as well.

Tomorrow, most of us will sit down at tables loaded with wonderful foods from turkeys to pies. There will be our favorite casseroles that came from fields bearing green beans, mushrooms and onions and stuffings that were produced in part in vast expanses of wheat fields in the heart of our country. If we began to count the hands that had touched the foods that we would enjoy tomorrow, we would not eat for hours. And yet, without them, this feast which we take for granted, often seen as a prelude to a season of often mindless consumption, would never have been possible.

Might that not be reason to give thanks?


Hands That Have Shaped Us


Perhaps the most important application of this consciousness raising project is how it relates to our individual lives. Consider all the hands that have touched your life over its long span. Begin with the doctor, nurse or midwife who received your tiny body as it emerged from your mother’s. Then, perhaps your Mother, weeping with joy, relieved that her long, laborious pregnancy had ended and you were the result.

And that was just the beginning….

Now consider all the other hands that have touched your life since. Think of the medical people who have provided care for your body if your family was fortunate enough to be able to afford it. Think of the members of your family who protected you, ensuring that you would survive to adulthood. 

Think of the teachers who offered you the opportunity to learn, the mentors who offered you their example and wisdom. Think of the cafeteria ladies who insured you had a healthy lunch to eat, the tired, poorly paid workers at the

fast-food joints who met your demands for instant gratification, the preparers of the Thanksgiving feast you are about to eat and everyone along that food chain who produced those raw materials. 

Consider those who loved you even when you were not terribly loveable. Consider those who built the home in which you live. Consider those whose hands will dispose of  your remains when you have died.


And consider those along the way whose harsh treatment bruised your body and scarred your soul. Even those hands you learned from and the scars they left behind define the person you have come to be.

And that is just the beginning of the list….

There Are No Self-Made Human Beings


[Image: Okan Yilmaz. “Alone on the road” (2012)]

One of the many ideologies under which we labor in America is the notion of the rugged individual aka the self-made man. The problem is, that ideology is ultimately a caricature of actual human beings, a lie we tell ourselves to boost our egos and perhaps to rationalize our self-focus, our indifference to the needy and our lack of gratitude. The truth is no adult human being is ever self-made. All of us are the products of countless people and communities who have unknowingly conspired to create the individual who is reading these words right now - a composite of all their contributions rolled up into one human being.

Hardly self-made. And hardly rugged. 

Tomorrow, on the day officially designated for giving thanks, might not all of these hands which have touched you and shaped your life be worthy of your remembrance?

Have a  wonderful Thanksgiving.


[Image: Tómas Freyr Kristjánsson,  “Embracing the sunset: Sunset at Kirkjufell” (2014)]



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, 2022








Monday, November 14, 2022

Trusting G-d in a World in Transition

“For by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

In all honesty, when I read the lessons for today, I almost decided to punt and just preach on the Psalm.  The Prophet Malachi warns of a day that is coming that will burn like an oven, reducing the arrogant and the evildoers to stubble. The author of Second Thessalonians writing in the name of Paul is focused on busybodies and spongers in the community, an epistle of resentment which sounds a lot like our culture wars today. And then there’s Luke who depicts Jesus as laying out a frightening scene of wars, natural disasters and false teachers ready to mislead the faithful. And when his disciples ask him how they will survive all this, he is evasive – By your endurance you will gain your souls. Now, what the heck does that mean? 

So you can see why it was tempting to blow off these visions of doom and gloom this morning and focus on the Psalm with its exhortation to “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”  But, unlike some in our state government, I believe that we do not get to avoid those things that make us uncomfortable. Indeed, it is often the things that are uncomfortable that we most need to consider. 

A Gospel Emerging From the Ruins


The first thing we need to know about the words from Luke’s Gospel today is that they aren’t mere speculation. Luke’s writings appear in two parts – his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Both were completed about 85 CE. That’s a good 15 years after the Temple has actually been destroyed. Thus, the words Luke places in Jesus’ mouth in this passage are not predictions, which we sometimes confuse with prophecies, they are actual historical accounts.

Those who have visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have seen the enormous blocks of granite that once supported the Second Temple which the Romans managed to topple from the Temple Mount hurtling hundreds of feet to the ground below. Before the Romans were through, not one stone would be left standing on another, just as Luke has Jesus saying. 


Concurrent with the destruction of the Second Temple, the Romans would force any Judean who survived their assault on the Temple to permanently depart from Jerusalem. Eventually all Judeans would be expelled from the land of Israel altogether becoming what we have historically called wandering Jews in the hands of often hostile Christian majorities.

With the loss of the Temple, the center of Israel’s religious life had been taken away. Now Israel’s faithful must find a way to continue their religion. It would have to change or die. And the response to that challenge would be seen in the rise of the synagogues under the direction of the rabbis. It would be there that the Torah would become central in determining how one lived one’s life as a good Jew. 


In the tumultuous time in the wake of the Temple’s destruction when Luke is writing, Judaism had begun a long period of redefining itself. Feeling threatened by the worldview of the Greco-Roman culture, Judaism began to define itself in opposition to any ideas it found to be contrary to life defined by the Torah as interpreted by the rabbis. The first step meant deciding which writings constituted Torah and which did not, a process that would take place over the next few decades.

With the rise of a distinct population among the Jews who followed Jesus, contention arose in the synagogues. Before it was over, the Jesus followers would be expelled and the writings they held sacred with names like Gospels and Epistles would be banned. Within a century of the Fall of the Temple in 70 CE, both rabbinical Judaism and a new religion called Christianity were well on their way to permanently separating from one another. To say it was not an amicable divorce is an understatement as the many negative references to “the Jews” in the New Testament evidence. 

Now, that’s the context in which Luke’s writings occurs. When he speaks of the destruction of the Temple, it is a fait accompli, the result of Roman impatience with the constant insurrections of Jewish zealots. When he speaks of famines and plagues, such are common in places where societies have been destabilized by war and insurrection. Everything from food supply to health systems are thrown into jeopardy. And when Luke speaks of betrayals, even within one’s own families, and persecutions it is because this is what is actually happening in the shredded social fabric of the Jewish population of Palestine at the end of the 1st CE. It was a grim time, indeed.


Sounds Painfully Familiar

So, why do we need to hear this? Haven’t we got enough problems of our own? Do we not have wars that have disrupted our world’s economy including its food supplies and the abilities of people to heat their homes? Do we not have insurrections that threaten to topple our very way of governing ourselves? Was not our Temple of Democracy sacked and desecrated by rioters? Do we not have vulnerable people who worry every day that they may be betrayed by those they thought they could trust when it comes to their gender identity and decisions regarding their reproduction?  And do we not have desperate refugees coming to our shores every day praying for compassion and a new beginning only to be persecuted by those with power over their lives?


In truth, I think we understand the world that produced Luke’s Gospel only too well. And it is precisely because we do understand it that hearing this Gospel reading today is essential. So what good news can we take away from these dire readings this morning?         

First, like the people of 1st CE Judea, we must acknowledge that we live in a time of transition. All things change. And for change to occur, old, established ways of being and understanding, some of them deeply cherished, must die before the new can be born. That is happening now and for many of us it is painful. Rather than deny our pain and rage at the agents of change, a healthy people will allow themselves to mourn as we let go of that which is dying even as we learn to adapt to that which is being born.     


That last part is important. Something new is being born and that should give us hope and a sense of expectation. Had we used the alternative lections appointed for this day, we would have heard the prophet Isaiah saying “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating…” Change is perhaps the only constant in human existence. But G-d is with us in all things. And that alone can empower us to embrace the transitions we face with humility, candor and courage.


Community: Essential to Endurance

Second, it is essential to note that the Gospel of Luke comes to us from a community which preserved it first as an oral tradition and later reduced it to writing. The key word in that statement is community. With all the loss that occurs in times of major change, human beings need safe places to honestly and openly acknowledge their suffering. And the role of community support in surviving times that try men’s souls, to quote Thomas Paine, is absolutely vital to survival and healing.


But that community does not just happen. It requires all of its members constantly agreeing to be fully present, working through disagreement and bearing one another’s burdens. We are fortunate to be members of a healthy community. Every day I give thanks for this community we call St. Richard’s. It is a gift from G-d.

Finally, let us take very seriously these words that Luke places in the mouth of Jesus in this Gospel reading. At the very end of this lesson, Jesus tells his listeners “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” And here’s the thing. They did endure. How do we know? Because 2000 years later we are reading the gospel their community produced this morning. Luke’s community of Jesus followers endured. And we will, too.



So in this sometimes frightening time of major change in our world and in our lives, may we be courageous enough to face our fears and voice our suffering. May we work to be a community where it is safe to do so and supportive of each other in our struggles. And may we resolve to endure these trying times, trusting the G-d who is always with us through all that may come.    

There are many beautiful collects in our prayer book. I close with this one designed to be prayer in times of conflict:


O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



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, 2022