Sunday, January 09, 2022

A Public Commitment to a Way of Life


                                        [Image by Daniel Nebreda Lucea]

 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

The account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer at the Jordan River is an essential aspect of the life of Jesus. It appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels and is indirectly referenced in John’s Gospel as well. Clearly, for the early Jesus movement which would produce the Gospels, this was a key event in understanding who Jesus was and what he was about.

Interestingly, there is no direct reference in the Gospels to Jesus having ever baptized anyone himself. He is seen sending out his disciples who will baptize others. But Jesus is not the one who baptizes in the Gospels, John is.

John’s symbolic act of baptism will strongly shape the early Jesus movement and in time it will come to be seen as one of two sacraments the later Christian tradition will be able to agree upon, eucharist being the other. Thus, it is important to try to get a clear picture of what is happening at the Jordan River with John and Jesus.


Baptism in the Gospels: Not About Original Sin


                        [Image: Michael Pacher, “The Devil presenting St Augustine (of Hippo) with the book of vices.” oil on wood (ca. 1435-1498)]

 As a preliminary matter, we need to establish what this is not about. Neither John nor Jesus would have understood this baptism as a remedy for original sin. While our first inclination would be to say, “Well, clearly, since Jesus never sinned,” that’s actually not the reason. Original sin is a theological construct of the later Christian movement that will not be fully formulated until Augustine of Hippo lays it out in his book The City of God in the early 5th CE. 

In all truthfulness, it has always been a problematic idea.


Bear in mind that Jesus and John are both Jews. Judaism has never understood its scriptures to refer to a doctrine of original sin. Neither Jesus nor John had ever heard this idea and would not have been inclined to believe it. That is not what they are doing at the Jordan River. But what they are doing is much, much more important.


Joining a Demanding Community

The first aspect of this story is recognizing that baptism is an initiatory rite. Jesus is becoming a part of John’s movement by this symbolic, public act. Like all such initiatory rites, it signals that Jesus has engaged John’s movement, found it to be compelling, and thus sought to publicly identify with it. Jesus is seeking to belong to John’s community and is making a public profession of that desire, just like we do today in our own sacrament of baptism. Becoming part of a faith community always requires public commitment.


It’s important to note that becoming a part of John’s community came with no small amount of expectations. In the verses which immediately precede today’s lesson in Luke, the crowds ask John how they should live now that they have been baptized. John is pretty clear: “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none, whosever has food should do the same.” To the tax collectors he would respond, “Charge no more than the official rates.” And to the soldiers his response would be “No more shake downs. No more frame-ups, either. And be satisfied with your pay.” 

In short, to be a member of John’s community meant becoming conscious of the suffering in the world around you and your own role in causing and responding to that suffering. Most importantly, it meant living in a way that ran counter to the values of an exploitative culture driven by power and greed.


Washing Off the Grime and the Shame

That leads to the second aspect of the story. This ritual act is loaded with subtext just below the surface. Bathing was a patently Greco-Roman practice. The Romans engaged it as both an aesthetic consideration, a means of hygiene, as well as a communal focus. Roman baths were places of socializing, places where business deals were cut, places of relaxation and recreation, places where sexual encounters occurred. Indeed, it is the point where the Romans install baths around the Temple Mount that tensions would rise within Judaism that would ultimately prompt a rebellion resulting in the Romans’ destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

The location where these baptismal rites is occurring is also no accident. The Jordan River is highly symbolic as the site where the Hebrew people had entered into the Promised Land centuries before. To return to the Jordan and wash in its waters signaled a rededication to be the people of Israel under the kingship of YHWH, purified of the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire. Washing in the Jordan allowed the humiliation and shame imposed by these invaders and exacerbated by Judean governmental and religious officials who collaborated with them to be washed from the bodies of the baptized along with the ordinary grime of daily life. It was a direct symbolic refutation of the culture and thus the authority of the empire and its collaborators.

This public refutation, however symbolic, was hardly subtle. It was directly aimed at the empire. And it had hardly escaped the attention of the Romans. The Gospels tell us that John the Baptizer will be beheaded for condemning Herod, the king of Judea and Roman puppet, for marrying his brother’s wife. But John had been on Rome’s radar for a long time prior to this because he was the leader of a sect seen as seditious. John’s movement, much like the later Jesus movement, implicitly drew the legitimacy of the Roman Empire and Herod’s vassal state into question. For both John and Jesus, there was only one king in Judea, and it was not Caesar. Thus, much like Jesus, John’s fate was a foregone conclusion long before it finally arrived.


Beloved Child of G-d

The third aspect of the story is perhaps the most crucial. Luke’s version of the baptism narrative gives us no detail of the event itself, cutting straight to the chase. As Jesus stands on the shores of the Jordan, water dripping from his hair and beard, a voice from heaven will say, 

“You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”


 It is important to note here that Jesus has always been the child of G-d as is every living being G-d has created. It is also important to note that G-d did not start loving Jesus only once he has been baptized. The baptism is simply the moment Jesus becomes conscious that he has always been beloved by G-d just like every other creature bearing the divine image.

That recognition will prove momentous for Jesus.  The synoptic Gospels all report that Jesus is so overwhelmed by this experience at the Jordan that he flees to the desert to be alone with this G-d who has proclaimed him as his beloved son. Jesus will spend the next 40 days figuring out who he is and what he is called to do. It is only then that he begins his public ministry.

It’s an interesting history. But what does that have to do with any of us?

A Baptismal Covenant That Is Countercultural

As Christians, we are inheritors of this Gospel moment.
 Baptism comes to us with all of its history and symbolic depth. For us, baptism is a public commitment to a faith community. It signals to the world that we belong to this particular way of following Jesus.


Like the baptism of Jesus into John’s sect of Judaism, our baptism calls us to embrace values that are deeply countercultural. The Gospel of Gordon Gecko proclaims that “Greed is good,” an understanding that sees other human beings as either a means or an obstacle to the amassing of material goods. Our baptismal covenant requires us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” 

The Gospel of the Culture Warrior warns us that those outside our tribe are enemies against whom violence can be committed with impunity. Our baptismal covenant requires us to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”


Jesus knew at the moment of his baptism that he would need his heavenly father to guide and strengthen him in his ministry that lay ahead. That awareness would propel him into the desert for prayer and reflection. Jesus knew he could not live into his calling without the ongoing presence of G-d.


Our baptismal covenant evidences a similar recognition. We know that we cannot live into any of the promises we make each time we celebrate a baptism without the divine presence in our lives. To all the questions our covenant poses, we respond
, “I will with God’s help.” Both our openness to G_d’s guidance and our awareness of our need for G-d’s energizing presence in our lives is evidenced in that humble response.


What Do We See in the Mirror?

But here’s the most important part of this story. After his baptism, Jesus becomes aware of G-d’s loving embrace of him as G-d’s child. We, too, are children of G-d and have been since the moment of our creation. We, too, are beloved by the G-d who created us, complete with all of our faults and failures. None of that is in doubt. The only question is how we ultimately come to believe it.


So try this. Tonight, when you go into your bathroom to wash your face before bed, look straight ahead into the mirror. What are you looking at? Nothing less that one of the infinite images of the very G-d who created you. Now ask yourself – do I believe I am a beloved child of G-d? And if not, why not? What must I let go of to let G-d love me?

Jesus calls his followers to love our neighbors as ourselves.  That begins with loving ourselves, just as we are, warts and all, just as G-d loves us. And that’s a critical beginning point for living into all of the callings we have agreed to at our baptisms. Like Jesus, we are called to live in a way that runs in the face of many of the values of our own culture. Like Jesus, that calling is laden with no small amount of challenge if not danger. And like Jesus we will need G-d’s guidance, courage and strength to live into the promises we make.

So let us pray:

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.      

Sermon offered Epiphany I, 2022 at 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, 2022



Tuesday, January 04, 2022

New Year’s Day 2022: The Walk

Happy New Year! I hope this finds you happy, healthy and secure.

I have been writing these new year’s letters for 40 years now. They’ve come a long way from the cut and paste/xerox copy days. Thank goodness. Many of you know I rarely got those letters posted anywhere close to New Years. For all of the problems of online services, it makes it a lot easier to send these missives by email than snail mail.  

New Year’s Eve: Silly Boys, Anxious Animals, Old Farts

It is our custom to drive over to Cape Canaveral every New Years to walk down the beach and assess where our lives are to be found at the beginning of the newly arriving year. We waited until New Year’s Day this year to do our annual walk marking New Year’s Eve at home watching Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen being silly in Times Square. We were proud of ourselves as old farts who actually made it to midnight - a rare occasion these days.


Part of that decision making turned on our fur babies. New Year’s Eve, along with the days surrounding the Fourth of July, has become a challenge for those of us with animal companions. These holidays have largely become endurance tests in most neighborhoods with ongoing aerial assaults of fireworks that often last until well into the wee hours.

This year our household of nervous humans, dogs and cats finally got a reprieve New Year’s morning about 2:30 AM. Fortunately we were able to sleep in until 11 AM. It’s one of the joys of being retired.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of celebrations and have often operated out of the maxim that there is no excess like wretched excess. But I do think all of us could stand to engage in a lot more consideration in that celebration. Besides our anxious animal companions, there are a number of wounded warriors whose PTSD is activated by fireworks. Like the champagne we ingest on this holiday, incendiary celebration in moderation is both prudent and thoughtful.

A Beautiful Evening at the Coast


As it turns out, the wait for our walk on the beach was worth it. The beach was a bit crowded this New Year’s afternoon but with temperatures still in the upper 70s and a nice breeze blowing in off the Atlantic, it was a beautiful setting for our long walk down the beach and back.

The sky was a collection of pastels  -  golds, oranges, lavenders, grays, blues. Royal terns gathered along the sand to enjoy the evening breeze. In the distance, silhouettes of rockets bound for outer space could be seen just across the inlet and cruise ships departing the nearby port grew smaller and smaller as they plowed the waters bound for the Caribbean. Along the route, children constructed glorious sandcastles while fishermen tended to fishing poles periodically bent over with the weight of caught fish.

Here and there lone figures waded into water that is much warmer than normal for this time of year to stare out to the sea beyond. I get that. Deep calls out to deep.


2021: Joys and Heartache

It’s about a mile and three/quarters walk to the pier at Jetty Park from Cherie Down Park. On the way up the beach we each take turns reviewing the year that has just passed. On the walk back to the car we gaze into the mists of the year to come, laying out our concerns and our plans.

This past year was a tough one for both of us. Andy lost his Mother  on the week of her 94th birthday. Since then he has made a couple of trips to Augusta, GA to attend the funeral and to help his brother begin the processing of the family estate. That work will continue this year.


I have now lost three friends over the last year to the demon that is COVID. I admit to no small amount of anger at those who have prolonged this misery through irresponsible behaviors. Just before Christmas I attended the funeral of my friend, Vince Ignico, over in Inverness, who died after a long illness. And I lost two of my beloved cats, Frida, the little orange feral who came to me just before I retired from UCF, and Romero, my beautiful black boy who died without warning of a heart attack at a mere 8 years old. I miss them both. 

Sister Death has far too often been a constant companion this year



But this was also a year of happy events. My Brother and I were blessed with the opportunity to be the officiants at my Sister’s marriage. It occurred in a beautiful setting in the 133-year-old Flagler hotel which is now the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine. Much of the extended family was able to attend and it was wonderful to see everyone. My Sister has married a wonderful man, Jim Hagens, and we are happy for them both.

My Brother and his wife, Ruthie Lamb, have moved from Winter Park to their spacious new lakeside home on the east side of Deltona. It is beautiful and we are happy for them. We have enjoyed several occasions to gather there including the Thanksgiving Day dinner pictured here. 


My niece, Grace, and nephew, Cary, are both doing well at UCF and my nephew, Scott, who last year became the third generation in our family to graduate from UF, is busy studying for the LSAT. I also became a grand uncle this year when Ellie arrived, the baby of my nephew Joe and niece Annie. 

The new addition to our household is a little golden girl, a kitten named Willow. We got her from an animal rescue service in the Gainesville area. She was feral when she arrived but has now become comfortable enough I can occasionally get her into my lap for petting. She is a little ball of fire on most days.  


Though my travel has been greatly curtailed of necessity over the past two years, I was able to travel to visit friends in Syracuse, NY during a lull in the waves of the pandemic. There is something truly amazing about the upstate New York region with its rich history of indigenous culture, its role in the Underground Railroad and women’s rights activism. I always enjoy my time with Bill and Fu. (RIP, Mr. Baiv)


I’ve also had occasions to visit friends in Bushnell and Inverness, my old stomping grounds, over the past year. One of those events was my 50th high school reunion which I attended briefly before becoming ill and having to leave early. 

I find myself busy with Zoom engagements which have allowed me to reconnect with old friends from my time as seminarian in California and my time as assistant chaplain at the Episcopal ministry at Florida State. Zoom is a mixed blessing on a good day, demanding much in terms of attentiveness and willingness to deal with technical glitches, but providing means of talking with people around the world.

A Place for Unorthodox Souls

I continue to enjoy my work at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church. I preach and celebrate at the main Sunday services once a month. The fourth Sunday of each month, I officiate the Taize service at the evening service. And every other month I am the officiant and celebrant for the Integrity eucharist. I am a regular attendee at Sacred Time, the contemplative prayer group, each Tuesday morning.

As apprehensive as I am about tribal thinking with its reluctance to see a bigger picture or engage the world outside its circled wagons, I realized at some point this year that everyone needs a tribe where they can belong. This parish is my tribe. It is a place that values the diversity of backgrounds and experiences that compose this unusual community. As a result, unorthodox souls like mine have a place to belong and to offer our talents. It has proven to be an ongoing growth experience for me to trust finally being accepted and allow myself to be loved. For all of that I am deeply grateful.


Franciscan Richard Rohr speaks to this kind of tribe in the prayer used for his Conspire gatherings in Albuquerque each year. In part the prayer reads

            If you are doubting, welcome.

            If you are healing, welcome.

            If you are angry at injustice, welcome.

            If you afraid, welcome.

            If you are joyful, welcome.

            If you are longing to belong, welcome.

            Our pathways converge and continue.

            each one of us a catalyst for loving action.

            We a community of saints.


            Breathe with us.


2022: Construction, Apprehension, Introspection

The coming year will bring major changes to our lives. The deck in our back yard must be replaced. It will be a major undertaking not the least of which will be the moving of all the potted plants currently on the deck and those growing along its perimeter. The potting shed in the back corner of our lot has been without a roof for a year now. It also demands attention.


We also need to take care of our estate planning. All the visits from Sister Death this year have reminded us of how unpredictable the end of life can be. Better to have things nailed down, especially when you are a same sex married couple in a state and nation increasingly leaning toward a neofascism fueled by religious fundamentalism.

That last part constituted a major part of our discussions Saturday. I find myself increasingly concerned about the direction I see our state, country and world taking. One of the downsides of having done a lot of study of the Holocaust era in grad school is being able to see the parallels between the events that would ultimately produce fascist regimes across Europe and the events that we see around the world from India to Brazil to the Capitol of the United States. Being a man with a well-rounded education and a temperament (ENFP) which strongly focuses on the big picture over the immediate, I find myself worrying at times to the point of obsession over what I see occurring around me, powerless to impact.

I have become increasingly empathetic to the archetypal figure of Cassandra, the Trojan priestess to whom the god Apollo gave the power to see the future as a means of wooing her only to have her eventually spurn his affections. Unable to retract his original gift, he added to Cassandra’s ability to see the future the unwillingness of her listeners to take seriously Cassandra’s warnings. On occasion I think I understand on an existential basis what Cassandra experienced. Increasingly, as I allow my early morning struggles with demons of worst-case scenarios to inform my online postings, I sense that they are largely avoided or dismissed.

Even so, I have a foreboding about the coming election year which by all indications is going to be brutal. In a desperate race to the bottom, I sense the tenor of these zero-sum campaigns will be Machiavellian in nature - whatever it takes to win regardless of its ultimate costs to all the parties involved. But the larger picture I see emerging from the campaign to enact widespread voter suppression laws and the stacking of election commissions, courts and state and local governing bodies across the country all point toward an incipient failure of our democratic system and the potential rise of authoritarianism.

In all honesty, that terrifies me.

These are some of the demons who come to visit at 4 AM these days. Given these possibilities, I think the only way I am going to be able to make it through this coming turbulence is to simply back up a bit from public engagement.


Numerology says this is a seven personal year for me, a time for reflection, meditation, focusing on my own inner depths. Most of all it is a time for healing of wounds. Over the past few years, I have come to realize that I carry a lot of undealt with injury to my soul from my 68 years of this unorthodox life I have lived. In order to attend to that, I will need to turn my attention and energies inward, a move that is counterintuitive for this life-long extravert. That will mean less social media, which generates anxiety, and a more limited exposure to the news.

That’s probably good news for the ongoing projects I am working on. My seminar in which we have been reading Carl Jung’s Collected Works continues into midyear. It has been enormously insightful thus far. I am also intent on working on my book about my time in Inverness this year. The time has come to liberate that horde of demons and heal those wounds. Most of all, I look forward to spending time with all of my babies, starting with the beautiful soul that is my husband, Andy, and spending the time that restores my soul in my beloved Jungle.  


Prayers for Wisdom and Courage

Thirty one years ago this August, I was headed to seminary. Imogene, my little blue Mazda, was loaded to the ceiling with all my worldly goods for my trek across the country to my new home in Berkeley. I had no diocesan sponsorship for ordination and little idea of how I would pay for this next round of higher education I had engaged.  All I knew was that it was time for me to go. 

As I pulled out of my driveway at 307 South Hampton Avenue, a then popular song by Mister, Mister began to play on my radio:

“Kyrie, eleison, on the road that I must travel;

Kyrie, eleison, through the darkness of the night;

Kyrie, eleison, where I’m going, will you follow?

Kyrie, eleison, on a highway in the night…”

That was truly where I was in August of 1991. And those words once again speak to me as we begin this new year.

I pray for G_d’s presence in the days to come. As the prayer from hymn writer Harry Emerson Fosdick put it, “
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage.” And as the hymn writer John Mason Neale prayerfully implored,

“O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,

Who orderest all things mightily;

To us the path of knowledge show,

And teach us in her ways to go.”

May your 2022 be safe, happy and grounded in the knowledge that you are a very good creation of the Holy One, beloved as you are. Happy New Year.



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