Sunday, January 29, 2023

Answering Our Calling


[Video of the delivery of this sermon is available at the link below beginning at 27:00 in the recording]

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8QLlcNpXvk

 

“Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.”

Today is the fourth Sunday of Epiphany. We celebrate a season when new understandings, new insights, new ways of being human are presenting themselves. And our lectionary this morning gives us much to consider in this Epiphany season.

 

Vocations – G-d Calls Us

Today’s letter to the Corinthians contains a classic Pauline concept that I have always found to be right on target. Paul is talking about what constitutes wisdom and how to know it when we see it. Among his words he says the following: “Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.



The Pauline notion of calling, vocation, is an essential foundation of what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus. This understanding of vocation means that everyone, everywhere, and in everything fulfills their own life callings in response to that to which G-d calls them.



Martin Luther would pick up this verse and run with it in his writings. Like no theologian before him, he insisted on the dignity and value of all labor. Luther’s famous assertion is that the farmer shoveling manure and the maid milking her cow please God as much as the minister preaching or praying. He was clear that Godly vocations are far more than just callings to ordained ministry. 

 


Luther had seized upon a central truth about human society: We all rely on one another to do that to which we are called in order for our lives together to work. While my own callings have been to law, religion and academia, my ability to answer those callings is only possible because there are those who respond to their callings as police officers and fire fighters, grocery store clerks, farm workers, accountants and plumbers. As Luther observes, all of these callings, when done to the best of the ability of the worker, reflects the glory of G-d. We are in Luther’s debt for this wisdom.

 


 

 Called to Follow Jesus

 We have come here this morning because we have been called to be followers of Jesus. Our Presiding Bishop calls us “Jesus people, followers in the Way of Jesus.” So, if we would follow Jesus, what would that look like?

Our lessons this morning give us a roadmap. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel lays out the values of the Jesus Movement as the Matthean community understood them. It’s important to note that there is a similar version of these words in Luke’s Gospel delivered from the seashore of Galilee and often called the Sermon on the Plain. But it is Matthew’s version we are considering today.

It comes in this fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel at a critical point in Jesus’ life. He has just been baptized at the Jordan River followed by his wrestling with the Satan of human temptations in the desert. Upon his emergence from the wilderness, he will learn that John the Baptizer, his teacher, has been taken into custody by King Herod and will eventually die at his hands. John’s disciples have begun to look for a new leader and many will end up in the Jesus movement. 

Now is the time for Jesus to begin his own ministry of teaching and healing. And he begins that ministry with the Sermon on the Mount.  Here Jesus articulates the values that mark the Kingdom of G-d. It will be the first of five sets of teachings Matthew reports, much like the five books of the Torah, reflecting Matthew’s interpretation of the life of Jesus through the lenses of the Hebrew tradition. These teachings will begin with this Sermon on the Mount and end with a prayer which pieces together Hebrew scripture that will come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer.

 

Values and Rule Driven Reasoning

There is a movement in America today among our more conservative brothers and sisters to post the Ten Commandments in public spaces, particularly in courthouses. It is part of a profoundly misguided effort to convince us that America has always been a Christian nation, an assertion lacking any historical basis. Ironically, while the Commandments reflect the rule-driven thinking of the Hebrew law, it is the Sermon on the Mount that summarizes the Way of Jesus. But it is written in broad terms, laying out values that should shape our attitudes, words and behaviors as well as critiquing what we actually do think, say and do. 

 


Rule driven thinking is a much lower level of moral reasoning than wrestling with values. We teach children the rules. But we expect adults to make moral decisions upon the values we have instilled in them. We have to wonder what difference it would make if it was the values of the Sermon on the Mount that graced our courtroom walls and not the specific rules of the 10 Commandments.

Let’s consider what those values might be for a second. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Who are the poor in spirit in our lives? Who suffers from doubts about their own value as human beings, perhaps treating their depression with medication and therapy?

 

Drained Souls of the Poor in Spirit

I’ve recently become acutely aware of a group of my fellow children of G_d who merit consideration. While I am a cis-gendered male who has never wondered about my sex, I am increasingly aware that there are those whose experience of themselves is very different from my own. I admit up front that I do not understand their struggle. But it doesn’t take much to recognize that for them it is real and it is often painful.

 


I’ve asked myself what would it be like to feel as if the gender that was assigned to me at birth did not match the gender I experienced internally? What would it be like to have people telling me that my own experience is false, perhaps even immoral? What would it be like to watch my parents struggle to support me in a hostile culture in which they worried about the safety of their child? What would it be like to be the target of laws passed against my person that would govern things as intimate as where I was able to go to the bathroom or even discuss with others who I feel I really am?


I suspect these are people whose spirits are drained. And so I ask myself, how can these poor in spirit come to be blessed? And what in my response to them might prove to be a blessing and not simply one more weight for them to carry?  



Another of these beatitudes, these blessings that Matthew reports Jesus saying, asserts that the meek are blessed. Indeed, he says, they will inherit the earth. One of my favorite bumper stickers today simply reads “The Meek Don’t Want It.” At some level, you have to wonder who would want a world that has been exhausted of its resources to feed the insatiable appetites of the powerful while trashing what was left.

But Matthew is making a point here. It is not the powerful and the privileged in our world who merit the attention of the followers of Jesus. It’s the little ones whom Jesus loved, living into their callings in everyday lives, those who don’t make headlines with tell-all revelations about royal families or meltdowns of crypto currency.

 

The Defining Values of the Sermon on the Mount

 


The values of the Sermon on the Mount are the defining values of the Jesus movement. They include

·         the uplifting of the poor in spirit

·         the comforting of the mourning

·         the valuing of the meek

·         the standing in solidarity with those hungering for justice

·         the willingness to respond to suffering with mercy.

These values include the need to constantly reflect on our own souls to see the places where our hearts are not pure. And they call us to be peace makers in a world where might makes right is the common but profoundly misguided understanding of how to order our collective lives.

Little wonder these values do not grace our courtroom walls or the halls of our legislative bodies. Indeed, Matthew’s Jesus has no illusions about how difficult it is to live out these values. Not only is it hard to know with certainty what any of these beatitudes might mean in our immediate lives, Jesus also recognizes that if these values are pursued, their practitioners will no doubt draw fire from those whose mediocrity of spirit is revealed by the living out of those values. There is much truth in the old saying that “No good deed goes unpunished.” And yet, as followers of Jesus, these are the values we are called to incarnate in our own lives and in the world.

So, who are the poor in spirit in our lives? What within our own spiritual lives is impoverished? Who are the mourners in our lives? How can we be a source of comfort to them? Where in our lives might we need comfort in our own mourning? Who are the meek in our lives? Might we be one of them? Where is mercy needed in our lives, for ourselves and others? And what injustices in our world demand our willingness to confront them, even if doing so makes us uncomfortable.


Especially if it make us uncomfortable.

 

A Prophet Offers Some Guidance

Finally, how do we assess our efforts to live into these callings? Again, our lessons today provide us some insights. The prophet Micah poses the question “What does the Lord require of you?” – i.e., what is G-d calling us to do? Micah then answers his own question with the following: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. If we are managing to do those things, we are living into our calling to follow Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount.


Bear in mind, it is tempting to hear all this and throw up our hands, lamenting that this is too hard, too vague - how am I supposed to hit such a nebulous target? An expansion of this verse from Micah by Rabbi Rami Shapiro offers us both clarification as well as encouragement and I close with his words. Let us pray:

Holy One, may we not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Help us to act justly, now. Help us to love mercy, now. Help us to walk humbly now. And may we always remember that while we are not obligated to complete the work ourselves, we are never free to abandon it. AMEN.  

 


Sermon preached on Epiphany IV, January 29, 2023, at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, Florida

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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 Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022

 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Walk: New Year’s Eve, 2022



It is overcast and misty as we crest the dunes to catch our first vision of Mother Ocean. Year endings/beginnings are often like that here in Central Florida. The way back is closed off to us. The way ahead is obscured in mystery…

 The storm coming out of the Gulf had fallen apart by Saturday noon. The way was cleared for us to head east to our favorite beach place at Cape Canaveral to engage in our annual New Year’s tradition. As always, we parked by Lori Wilson Park, crossed over the dunes to the beach and the ocean beyond.

I was half expecting the beach to be eroded after the two hurricanes that pummelled our state earlier this year. To my surprise, the sand stretched out as far as it ever has since the replenishment project a few years ago. Apparently the worst of Nicole rounded the Cape and pounded longshore to the north.

In some ways, these storms reflect the year that has just passed. Our state sustained major damage from the winds and the flooding that both Ian and Nicole brought. Places dear to my childhood like Ft. Myer’s Beach and Sanibel are devastated. Expensive ocean front homes in Daytona are washed out to sea. Our parish in Winter Park is midway through replacing flooring, walling and ceiling tiles damaged by flood waters that invaded retirement homes and apartment complexes in our area.

But, like the beach at Canaveral, we are here, battered but still standing.

Much like America.


The beach is fairly crowded for a New Year’s Eve. We have the entire run of the beach to ourselves all the way down to Jetty Park. The range of humanity present here reflected by languages other than English and saris from the Indus Valley suggest an assemblage of the world’s peoples with their children. I smile as I pass. I always tell myself how fortunate I am to live in a place with such colorful diversity. But I realize the very thing I find so enriching is what terrifies so many of my fellow citizens.

It is our custom to walk north up the beach to Jetty Park and then back to our car. On the way up the beach we talk about the year that has just passed, our joys, our losses, lessons learned in the process. On the way back, we talk about the year to come, our hopes, our fears, our openness to whatever may come.

This year we had much to talk about.

Not Bad for Nearly 70


Both of us will turn 70 next year. While some people find their increasing years a source of sorrow and consternation, as I have aged I increasingly find myself grateful that I have lived this long. That was never a given.

We are both in pretty good health. Andy keeps an eye on his heart while I have to watch my blood pressure and the Barrett Syndrome in my esophagus. None of these conditions are worrisome at this point. And we try to make sure that continues with active lives, healthy diet and a wide range of supplements we both take as preventative medicine. Andy makes us both a vegetable slushy each day that provides nutrients that keep our blood sugar and blood pressure normal and our systems functioning.

Even so, we both require appointments with doctors for everything from vision to GI tracts on a regular basis. When I begin to feel like this is burdensome, I remind myself that I am fortunate enough to have access to medical care and the capacity to pay for it. That is not a given for the majority of the world’s peoples including a large chunk of our fellow citizens here. If I had no other reason to continue living, it would be to continue in the struggle for justice to end that disparity.

 

I never tire of being at the beach. This stretch of Cape Canaveral is far enough removed from the hotels and bars just down the coast at Cocoa Beach that it’s possible to enjoy a little peace and quiet here at the ocean’s gate. I feel my body relaxing and my lungs filling and expanding to take in the cool salty air. I cannot imagine living anywhere that was more than a couple of hours from the ocean.

Andy has largely finished the work on his family home in Augusta getting it ready for sale. His long drives to Georgia are largely a thing of the past now. He spends his time these days working on projects from replacing our back yard deck to making sure our trust assets are ready for my nephew when it’s time for him to handle our estate. 

That was one of our accomplishments this year, getting our wills made and trusts established. It is a load off our minds to have all these details nailed down. Not that we think we’ll need them anytime soon. But one never knows.

Losing a Life Anchor

That lesson was driven home in a big way this year with the unexpected death of our dear friend Bill Fite. I had spent a couple of weeks in Boston filling in at a parish there and capped off my trip with a ride on Amtrak across the countryside on Independence Day. What a great day that was. 

But the news upon my arrival in Syracuse was not good. Bill had been taken to Rochester and admitted to the university hospital there. At first the prognosis for his liver cancer was grim – a few months to four years, depending upon his response to treatment. But within the days I was there, things went downhill quickly. And within a week after arriving home that weekend, Bill was gone.


I was the natural choice to create and lead the memorial service. I included all the clergy who had been part of his life in the Episcopal and independent catholic traditions where he had become a bishop at one time. His husband, Fu, struggled to hold it together through this time and I have to hand it to him for how well he managed. I am not sure I would have done nearly as well in that situation.

Bill’s loss has intensified some of the questions with which I had already been struggling. What was my purpose in coming to this life? What was I called to do, to learn, to become? Have I accomplished the things I needed to do? And how much time do I have left to finish that business?



There is something so calming, so appealing about the ocean. The water is fairly warm for this time of year and swirls around my toes as the tide comes in. I swear I can feel my blood pressure dropping as I clamber over the dune line to get my first view of the waves coming in. I am grounded here, my bare feet sinking into the wet sand, the tail end of once mighty waves sweeping in and inundating my legs up to the ankles. This is where I am most at home. In a life where I have rarely felt I belonged anywhere I lived, I know in my soul that I belong here.


Happier Than I Have Ever Been

I find myself saying repeatedly that despite all the aches and pains in places I never knew could even hurt, I am happier right now than at any other point in my life. I answer to no one. I am able to say what I think without worrying about repercussions. One of the things I have learned to say is No. That makes life a lot easier, I find, albeit a lesson hard learned over time. I’m not very good at it yet. But I’m getting there.


I also find myself saying how much I love living in Orlando these days. It is a safe blue island in a sea of maniacal red in this state that has changed beyond all recognition during my life long romance with it. I love engaging the diverse peoples who work in the coffee shops, grocery stores and restaurants where I shop. I come outside to a beautiful city that fits like an old shoe after these 27 years of living here.

But that comes at a cost. I detest the childishness and vitriolic prejudice that has come to dominate Florida politics starting with the frat boy we just reelected to its top office. And I brace myself for the moral panics that are currently intensifying around LBGTQ people and the abortion issue. Florida politics have become the respite of the mean-spirited and the shallow thinkers. Most of the time I find myself embarrassed by the latest stunt that “Florida Man” has pulled, starting with our Florida Man in Chief at the top.

One of the ways I cope with that fiasco is my work with the Alliance for Truth and Justice. It is an affiliate of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery which has just opened a museum and memorial to lynching victims across our country. Our work initially focused on the lynching of July Perry and the victims of the Ocoee Massacre on Election Day 1920. Our efforts paid off in the dedication of a memorial in our downtown square, in the civic plaza in Ocoee and in a month long exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Museum on the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

Since then, my life energies have been poured into the commemoration of a black man lynched on Thanksgiving Night, 1925, here in Orlando. Arthur Henry was taken from his home after a shootout with Orlando Police who came into his home at night in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood at the end of an afternoon in which they had endured white men shooting up the neighborhood. When he was taken to the Orlando General Hospital for treatment, he was abducted from his hospital bed by “unknown parties” – Jim Crow code for the klansmen everyone knows committed the crimes but have agreed not to identify or prosecute - and killed. It would be two weeks before his body was “discovered.” 

I have become deeply attached to this figure whose image I have never seen and whose life is documented only by census reports and his papers from the military where he served in WWI. I keep telling myself, “No one deserves to simply disappear into the night.” That includes being erased from history. I have lived in Orlando longer than anywhere else in my life and grew up in Central Florida. I only have learned this awful story within the last six years. I believe Arthur deserves to have his story told. And I am intent on telling it.

As I have researched this story, I have found that it’s a lot more complex than simply assembling dates, names and events. Arthur came out of Lake City, a small town north of here about three hours. As a part of my research, I spent a week there. I discovered a horrendous history of racism that dated back to a slaughter of black Union soldier prisoners of war following a Civil War battle there in 1864. That history continues to dominate the imagination of this town which holds annual reenactments complete with Southern Belles in hoopskirts. 

But this was never a reality I could reduce to dualistic us and them terms. My great uncle lived in Lake City in the early 1920s when some of the most virulent lynchings were occurring there, lynchings that I believe drove Arthur Henry to seek safety in the small city of Orlando only to find the evil he fled waiting for him there. The question I wrestled with the whole time I was there was whether my uncle might have been in the lynch mob. Given how virulently opposed to the Klan my grandfather, his brother was, I am hopeful the answer is no. But it is impossible to know at this point. The evil that has been racism in our state has long been an equal opportunity employer when it came to white Southern families.

As we neared the Jetty Inlet pier, the top of our yearly walk, the last of the four cruise ships headed out for New Year’s Eve on the sea was nearing entry into Mother Ocean. The foghorn began to play “When you wish upon a star.” Both of us former Disney workers broke into a grin. Disney was an important chapter in our lives. For that I am grateful this day.  


The other activity that keeps me busy is my work within the Episcopal Church. I am privileged to preach and celebrate at a vibrant parish which is a refuge for progressives in this toxic diocese with a long history of homophobia. I am a part of a contemplative prayer group that meets weekly, a dream workshop that meets biweekly, and I lead the contemplative TaizĂ© service that meets monthly. I am very grateful for this community of warm hearts and deep souls that I have come to be welcomed by. And I am very clear that preserving this community will require vigilance and ongoing hard work. Healthy parishes are NEVER a given. And we face a major challenge with the election of a new bishop for the Diocese of Central Florida the middle of January. 

I also am part of two online communities largely populated by Episcopalians that provide me a touchstone with a deeper reality than that which ordinarily surrounds me. The Reading Between the Lines group discusses the weekly lectionary used for preaching in most pulpits each week. The group operates out of the Jungian framework devised by Elizabeth Boyden Howes at the Four Springs center north of the Bay Area and requires its members to look at the archetypes presented in the readings, where we see them in the world and where we see them in our lives.

While I had studied Jungian depth psychology a bit in seminary, I felt I had more to learn and so engaged in a study of Jung’s Collected Works with a group assembled on Zoom by the Washington, D.C. Jungian Society. It was intense to say the least (about 600-700 pages of difficult reading for each monthly session). I came away from that knowing that I was NOT called to be a psychiatrist of any kind but also that the psychological depths of all religion were fascinating and worth further study.

The last group I am part of roughly applies Jungian concepts to examining what is going on in our world. I have taken turns with two others in leading the Texts of Our Times group over the past two years. It has been a breath of fresh air amidst the craziness of our politics at home and the wars and floods of refugees abroad.

New Coverleigh: A Family Once Again Whole

 


When I talk about my family, I begin with New Coverleigh, our beloved home in the midst of Orlando. Our two dogs, Saidy the Beagle and Oscar the Dachshund are doing well and keep us both well protected from everything from squirrels in the birdfeeders to neighbor walking our streets. With the addition of Shiloh, my little black former feral, our family is now once again whole at five fur babies. He has become best buds with Willow, the little orange tabby rescue  we adopted last year. And, to her credit, Magdalena, the queen of the house (and don’t you forget it!) has done well with the new arrivals. These babies are my heart and my joy.


The Jungle is doing well for the most part. The Christmas freeze did some damage to the most sensitive plants but for the most part the dips on Christmas Eve and Day down to 31F did little serious harm. This vibrant Jungle will spring back to life very shortly. It is where I begin each morning, barefoot, touching the good Earth, honoring the four directions, giving thanks to the Creator for another day. 

My work to maintain this Jungle often leaves me exhausted and bleeding. Jungles require blood sacrifices, it seems. But it is all worth it when I look out my window as I type these words to a green wall that shields me from the world around me and provides a refuge for the many non-human animals displaced by our self-focused anthropocentric behaviors we rationalize with the term “development.”

 


The clouds on the eastern horizon have broken enough to allow a bit of gold from the setting sun to appear. Tomorrow morning, a new year will emerge from these waters. It is time to let this tired year go with our gratitude….





My family of birth is also well. My Sister and her husband Jim are able to do a good bit of traveling. She continues to lead a center for girls in Ocala that ensures they may get through school when they have run into difficulties at home and in their local schools. Her husband, Jim, continues to work at his computer firm in Gainesville. My Brother continues to work online from his new home in Deltona and his wife, Ruthie, is now producing some fine art work there.

I now have four nephews, two nieces and one grand-niece. David’s son, John David, and his husband, Ryan, live in San Francisco. John works at a self-insuring company making sure their policies are sound and spends his spare time digging into ancestry.com records to track our family lineage. His grandfather would be so proud. Ryan is now driving MUNI buses in the city. Grace, our niece, graduated from UCF this spring and moved out to join them.

David’s middle child, Joe, is working on a doctorate in engineering and his wife, Annie, just completed her masters in forensics, both at Penn State. Their little girl, Ellie, is my first grand-niece and they are expecting a second little girl in February.

Carole’s older boy, Scott, is now a graduate of UF and is working on getting into a law school for the next academic year. Cary, the youngest of the nephews and nieces, graduated from UCF this December and has just begun a job in sales of medical equipment. He is the last of the nephews and nieces

It is unclear what the new year will bring, as is always the case. I suspect that at some point this year I will have to break down and have my first knee replacement surgery. I am not looking forward to that but the alternative is increasingly becoming untenable. We are hoping to do some traveling this year. We shall see. I am hoping to get my book written about Arthur Henry and get all the photos out of boxes off my floor in my office and scanned into my computer. If I can get just those two things done, I’ll consider it a successful year. Then I can turn my attention to weeding out the thousands of books in my library and getting them into hands of people who might actually benefit from them.

 


The sun is setting, our walk is ending. This year of difficulty and unexpected delights is coming to an end. It is time to let it go with our gratitude.

Where things will go in our state, our country and our world, who knows. I am encouraged that the red tide of authoritarianism did not sweep our country in last year’s elections, our state excluded, sadly. I am hopeful that perhaps my fellow citizens are finally realizing the dangers we face if we don’t step up and confront this creeping fascist tendency. At this point, I am not optimistic but I am finding myself willing to be hopeful. That, in itself, is a major change from last year.

The truth is, our world is changing, radically, hopefully for the better. We are faced with the difficult task of discerning what no longer is working for us, what we value and must carry forward and how to act in the face of potential crisis that all major change always brings. I suspect that next New Year’s Eve we will be having some of the same conversations that we are holding this year. But that in itself might prove to be an accomplishment worth noting.

So, Happy New Year, everyone. May this year be your best yet. Know that I have always been grateful for your company along my life journey. And I hope that our paths will cross before the next New Year’s walk.

 



++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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 Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022

 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++