Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 5 March – Giving Up Sin for Lent


First Sunday of Lent A — 5 March 2017 — Giving Up Sin for Lent

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Lutheran pastor Dawn Hutchings, wrote these words about Lent: It is a season when we are reminded over and over how sinful we are. So, we thank God that Jesus died that bloody death on the cross to redeem us.

Where did we get this notion that we are such bad people and that Jesus had to die to save us? As I look around this church I don’t see any really bad people. Go ahead. Look around. Do you see any really bad people here?

The English philosopher, John Locke, like other later Enlightenment thinkers, believed that humans were born clean and pure, and that it was society that caused evil. We are innately good human beings until, of course, using a free will, we make bad decisions that can be sinful.

As we embark on the season of Lent — forty days of fasting, praying, reconciling, almsgiving — we ask ourselves why exactly was Jesus’ death on a cross the only way for us to be saved from our sins? This season focuses on that teaching. Commentators tell us that without this sense of personal and corporate sin we will fail to grasp the necessary role that Christ plays as redeemer. 

But why would God, who stopped Abraham from slaying his son and who established a motherly covenant with the Israelites, send Jesus, God’s only son, to be sacrificed? Couldn’t the all loving and merciful God who created everything and everyone come up with a better plan? 

This perplexing question begins with Adam and Eve in that familiar but non historical narrative about creation. Eve is often blamed for the sins of humanity but it was not her fault. If you read the verses before the ones we heard today we learn that Adam was warned by God to stay away from that tree of good and evil. 

But Adam never told Eve! So Adam (a name that means “humankind” or “of the earth”) was the problem. That act of disobedience set the stage for a history of salvation whereby we would have to be saved by someone other than ourselves.

The second reading provides further clues about why Jesus had to die to save us from our sin. Theologian Kevin McMahon wrote that Augustine developed the notion of original sin in the 6th century. He did so after reading Paul’s discussion of sin in the letter we heard this morning. Jesus, unlike Adam and Eve, was obedient to the will of God. He died on the cross not so much because he chose to do so freely but out of an acceptance of God’s will.

It wasn’t until the 11th century when St. Anselm reasoned that redemption could only be the work of a sinless man who was also divine. This is called atonement theology. It teaches that Jesus’ life and death makes it possible for us to be “at one” with God. By following the life of Christ as an exceptional model of human behavior we can restore our relationship with God and live in harmony with each other.

Jesus knew first hand how difficult it would be for us to continue his mission. He himself struggled to overcome temptations like the ones listed in today’s gospel. New Testament scholar Audrey West, suggests Jesus beat the devil, a symbol of the cultural pressures of his time, because he refused to be distracted from his mission by alternative temptations. 

No doubt we are both saints and sinners. We cannot negate the Catholic theology of atonement and the importance of Jesus’ redemptive life or our reliance on the grace of God given freely to us. Our prayers and song lyrics during this season are infused with that language. 

We can however look for ways to focus less on our potential for being bad. Instead we can concentrate on the goodness of God’s creation and the innate goodness of humanity. It is not to ignore the need to forgive and be forgiven but to recognize that God is still at one with us. 

Through our faith, our hope and our social action we can appreciate and celebrate that, fundamentally, we are really good people who occasionally make bad decisions.


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Homily – 26 February 2017 – We Cannot Forget One Another


8th Sunday in Ordinary Time A – 022617 – We Cannot Forget One Another

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Today’s reading from Second Isaiah describes the anxieties of the Israelites during the Babylonian exile. They felt abandoned by God. God rejected the Israelites’ complaints and promised to give them a new start in the City of Jerusalem. In this passage Isaiah presents a strong yet tender image of God, who, like a mother, would not forget her children. 

Many people are feeling abandoned today because of actions taken by the government in this country. Students, teachers, farm workers, fast-food workers and others are now in exile and their futures are at stake. One freshman from Austin, TX said, “the fear is starting to become more evident. The uncertainty and anxiety is real….” Like the Israelites did, immigrants, refugees and those seeking asylum, fleeing poverty, oppression, torture and death could legitimately wonder, “where is God.”

During these past few weeks we have been listening to excerpts from Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Sometimes the teachings of Jesus, often couched in metaphors or parables, can be confusing. 

In last week’s gospel, for example, Jesus is quoted as saying, “offer no resistance to someone who is evil.” Really? How can we sit back when so many injustices prevail in our country not to mention our own local communities? 

Today’s gospel offers what seems to be another utterly impossible challenge for many. “Do not worry about tomorrow, it will take care of itself? Really? Who here does not worry about their children or their elderly parents? Who among us does not have concerns about the environment, tax reform, health care or job security?

Written by a tax collector, the gospel starts with a well known line, “You cannot serve God and wealth at the same time.” In other words, “You cannot have your cake and eat it too,” or, we cannot have more than we deserve or is reasonable. These proverbs urge us to choose what guides our everyday actions and decisions. 

The second reading prods us to unravel and respond to the often perplexing challenges of God’s words. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego did just that recently when he took a public stand against evil. Bishop McElroy spoke boldly and radically about resisting the administration in Washington that, according to church historian Massimo Faggioli,  is now very clearly opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ on a number of moral and social issues. 

The Bishop addressed the deportation of undocumented persons, fear of Muslims, anti-Semitism and of potentially damaging health care and nutrition laws. He also said, “We must disrupt those who seek to rob our medical care, especially from the poor … those who would take even food stamps and nutrition assistance from the mouths of children.”

What do we do? How do we respond to God’s challenge? Just last week Pope Francis wrote: “As Christians and all people of good will, it is for us to live and act at this moment … since certain present realities … are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse.”

Here at St. Vincent’s we gather weekly around this table to celebrate the gifts of God, to be nourished and then to return to the streets and neighborhoods to continue to resist what is unjust. That’s our Christian calling. Worship here provides us with renewed energy and it has the power to interrupt us and wake us up when we become too complacent.

We also trust, as today’s gospel suggests, that God continues to love the human race, dancing with us in joyful times and, like a loving parent, providing for us in times of trouble. Our faith in God comes alive when we grasp each other’s hands on those difficult journeys in life.

As you know Lent starts in a few days. It is a season to refresh our convictions, to recommit ourselves to our baptismal promises. It is a time to prioritize what matters most in our lives and to do what is right to advance God’s kin-dom on earth. God, who did not forget the Israelites held captive by injustice, will not forget us. If we believe that then we cannot forget one another.


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Homily – 5 February 2017 “Put Me in the Game!”


Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time A — 020517 — “Put Me in the Game!”

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A few nights ago in a basketball game the underdog team was losing by 20 points. Yet, it did not give up and, incredibly, found a way to win. How do athletes acquire a desire for victory, motivation to practice, confidence to compete against the odds? Does it depend on raw talent, teamwork, gutsy instincts, inspiring coaches?

Tonight’s Super Bowl game will be full of hype, political advertisements, coaching strategies and a strong desire on the part of both teams to win. It is a metaphorical reminder of the innate drive that all humans have to survive and win no matter what it takes.

Have you ever wondered if Jesus of Nazareth was athletic? We know he walked a lot but did he work out or play any sports? In every film, painting and sculpture he looks fit and trim. And, who motivated him to preach like he did, to compete against the opposition and to dream of human rights? Maybe his mother Mary was his coach. We know she was a no nonsense woman determined to speak her mind in opposing unbridled power and selfish wealth.

In today’s gospel Jesus continues the great sermon on the mount, a pep talk to his team. You are the salt of the earth! The light to the world! Get out there and play hard. Show the opposition that you are the good news that will win out against all odds. The speech was a call for teamwork similar to what we heard in the oracle from Third Isaiah concerning the ethical and religious behavior of the Israelite community. [1] Do not turn your backs on your own! Protect them. Share your food. Shelter the homeless. Your light shall erase the fears of the night.

Jesus looked for the same accountability in his followers. This gospel stresses the conduct of his teammates. He did not challenge them to become the light and the salt. You ARE the light and the salt, he told them. He encouraged them to believe in themselves and that they could succeed in their mission.

Scripture scholar Barbara Reid reminds us “Salt in the ancient world was used for seasoning, preservation, purification and judgment.” Reid also points out that Cicero (Cataline 4.6) described Rome as a “light to the whole world.” Jesus challenged that political boast. It is “not the imperial domination system but [Jesus’] beatitudinal way of life, carried forth by his disciples, that is the light of the world.” [2]

The Falcons and the Patriots tonight are ready, practice is over, the playbook is memorized. All they have to do is compete to the best of their abilities with each player making contributions.

Jesus’ game plan focused on a vision for establishing the kin-dom of God on earth. In each encounter he used a play option to resist attacks by oppressors but he could not do it alone. He needed his teammates to help win the game. Blockers to protect him. Runners and receivers to reach the ultimate goal line.

Professor Karoline Lewis (Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN) wrote that this Gospel asks each of us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, to speak and act when anyone at all loses her way. The Gospel urges us to not to stand on the sidelines but to move into the fray, into the global arena.

Athletes work hard to succeed in their sport. For Christians, taking action to resist whatever or whomever opposes human rights is the cost of our discipleship. 

___________

  1. DeBona, Guerric. Between the Ambo and the Altar: Biblical Preaching and the Roman Missal Year A. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013), 166
  2.  Reid, Barbara. Parables for Preachers: Year A. (Collegevile: Liturgical Press, 2001), 48 and 53

 

 


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Homily – January 29, 2017 – What Do We Crow About?


4th Sunday in Ordinary Time A — 012917 — What Do We Crow About?

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hahn/cock

Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch (2013) East Wing Gallery, Washington, DC

This weekend our Chinese friends celebrate a new year — the year of the Fiery Rooster! I don’t know much about roosters. The closest I came to one was when I was little and spent time on my grandparents’ farm. They had gardens and orchards, they grew acres of corn and hay and they raised dairy cows, horses, pigs and chickens.

I vividly remember playing by the chicken yard one day, fascinated by the behavior of an extra large bird. The single rooster proudly paraded around, pecking the chickens who strayed into his territory. He seemed to be quite cocky, as he protected the hens who were nesting.

In Chinese culture, the Rooster represents fidelity. People born in the year of the Rooster are dependable, kind-hearted, honest and strong. On the other side, they can also be arrogant, frequently promoting themselves beyond what is factual. 

When you comb the bible you find that roosters or hens are mentioned just a few times. In Proverbs 30 the king is described, in a positive way, as a strutting rooster, striding before his people, strong against the attacks of enemies, tearing down borders made of wattle. The most familiar New Testament reference to a cockerel is when Peter disowned Jesus three times.

The passage this morning, from one of the least known prophets, Zephaniah, we learn that God actually looks for humble people who will seek justice, who speak no lies and are not vain. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, is a bit more specific. God chooses people whose job it is to shame those who are arrogant, powerful and greedy. It is not OK to boast about oneself. It is OK to boast in the name of God. Why? Because the requirement of Christian-hood is to imitate the moral message of Jesus.

But, what is the strength of such moral authority when threatened by autocracy, wealth and power asks Russian-American journalist, Masha Gessen? Almost invariably, she writes, “moral authority seems to be encased in a frail body, perhaps because it takes years and decades, and risk and injury, to amass. Yet the words of certainty, spoken softly, pose a threat to power secured through the conventional means of force and title.”

Matthew’s interpretation of the sermon on the Mount is an example of Jesus’ “words of certainty.” The sermon is the first of five discourses given by Jesus very early in his ministry. Although his words are familiar to us we want to understand the beatitudes in today’s context. Let us listen to just a few interpretations written by the storyteller and visionary Jan Phillips. As we do, we remember that the word “blessed” in the Greek language means “recipient of a divine favor.”

Blessed be the earth and those who tend her, for she is the source and sustenance of our lives.

Blessed be the children who hunger for food, learning, and homes that are safe, for their future is shaped by our choices today.

Blessed be the refugees fleeing the violence of war and poverty, may they find shelter, peace, and work that sustains them.

Blessed be those who are calling for freedom, resisting oppression and risking their lives in the struggle for justice, they are the shapers of a brighter world.

Reginald Fuller suggests that Jesus’ sermon was addressed to those who left everything to follow him. The second half of the beatitudes is a call for action. That’s where we come in. But, there are few if any among us who can afford to do that today — detach ourselves from work, family life, school to spend our time protesting injustice. But, it is good when any one of us does something.

In a 1948 tragicomedy by the playwright August Wilson, called “Seven Guitars,” the recurring theme is an African American man’s struggles for his human rights in the face of personal and societal ills. In the play a rooster is a symbol of the man’s strength and identity. In one scene a neighbor complains that the rooster keeps waking him up early in the morning. The owner of the rooster said, that’s what roosters do! 

When the rights of human beings — citizens, immigrants, refugees — are threatened, we Christians hear that wake up call. What are our strengths, our words of certainty? What are we going to crow about?


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Homily 15 January 2017 “What Are We Looking For?”


Second Sunday in Time A – 011517 – What Are We Looking For?

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john-bap-lamb-of-god-hugo-jaacobszAn altarpiece by the Netherland artist Hugo Jacobsz shows John the Baptizer standing in a crowd pointing to Jesus in the middle of another group. We can almost read John’s lips. “Hey, I am not the one you are seeking. Look over there. He’s the One you’re looking for  — the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.”

In this morning’s gospel John proclaims the servanthood of Jesus. After 30 years of silence, this everyday craftsman from Nazareth arrives to take away the “badness of the world” (Jean Grosjean). It is just the first part of the story. The next two verses read, “When the disciples heard him say this, they trailed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following him and asked, “What do you want?”

Lutheran theologian Audrey West noted that Jesus’ ministry did not begin with a command, do this or do that, but with a question “what do you want?” How do you and I answer that question? 

Why do we, week after week, gather to praise God whose son was born to take away all the sins of the world but has not? Why do we petition God in word and song to come to our rescue when, it seems, God is often silent? Why do we visit sick and home bound people? Why distribute food to hungry households? Why go to prisons to support incarcerated men and women?

We do so because God chose us to do so! The first reading from Isaiah is a vocational call to the Israelites who struggled to keep their trust in God while living under duress. They were being called by God to be servants to one another and all the nations! New Testament scholar Guerric DeBona interprets this invitation as a radically personal call to each one of us. We are summoned to “recognize Christ’s presence in our own baptism and in all creation.” [1]

John the baptizer restored hope to the tribes of Jacob when he introduced his cousin Jesus, as the lamb of God who would bring salvation to the entire world. The connection between Isaiah’s reference to Israel as a servant nation and John calling Jesus the lamb of God is helpful to us. 

The Aramaic word “talya” can be translated as boy, child, servant or lamb. When John refers to Jesus as a “lamb” of God, the Aramaic speakers of the early church could have heard “child of God” or “servant of God.” [2]

Many people are at work to take away the sins of the world today. Next Saturday (January 21, 2017) — the day after the presidential inauguration — there will be a march here in Albany to protest the “sins of the world” — any government agenda marked by oppression and hate.

(Note: the Women’s March on Washington also takes places on January 21, 2017.)

Other people have served as models for us. Today marks the birthdate of Martin Luther King Jr. Few would disagree that this Christian man embodied the suffering of his race; that he acted as a servant to them and others; that he risked his life to speak the truth in pursuit of justice for people of all religions, races and cultures. 

Our remembrance of King, like our memorial of Jesus’ life, his work and his own death, urges us not only to be mindful of the wrongs in our society but, as Psalm 40 reminds us today  “to announce the justice of God to a massive, widespread assembly of people.” *

Another model is John Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, who was at the side of King when he was assassinated, and is still a voice of conscience in the House of Representatives. Lewis, who continues to speak out passionately against racism and other crimes against humanity, once said, “If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.” What are we looking for? Strategies and actions for achieving reconciliation, justice and peace.

I know, it is one more task for us to consider amidst many other responsibilities. Although we cannot take action to oppose every injustice, we can give focus on at least one issue. What is important is that each of us does something to take away the sins of the world. We are called by God to do so.

  1.  DeBona, Guerric. Between the Ambo and the Altar: Biblical Preaching and the Roman Missal Year A. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2013, 154-157
  2.  Martens, John W. The Word on the Street. Year A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2016, 65


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Mary, Mother of God “A Non-Violent Peacemaker” 01 January 2017


1 January 2017 — Mary Mother of God  — A Non-Violent Peacemaker

Note: Today is is the 50th anniversary of the World Day of Peace, which was inspired by Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris and established by Pope Paul VI in his letter Populorum Progressio in 1967. It is also the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God on the Catholic calendar. Happy New Year! 

Click here for today’s biblical texts

Shakespeare used it. John Toynbee used it. It’s a phrase engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. “What is Past is Prologue” creates a context for understanding and shaping current events.

Aaron’s blessing recorded in the Book of Numbers calls upon the people of his time to be aware of all that God is and all that God has done for creation — humanity, animals, plants, the environment. The passage from the Letter to the Galatians speaks of developing our relationships with God, as children of God, gifted by God. It reminds us we are coworkers with God called to share the blessings we have with others.

In today’s gospel we hear again that Mary, Theotokos, God Bearer, the Mother of God, stunned the world in birthing the boy, Jesus. In this story Luke reminds us also that Mary took time to ponder and treasure what was happening to her, what was going on all around her. 

Life was not any easier at that time in the Middle East than it is today. Jesus and his mother Mary participated in the events of their lives just as we do. Together they shaped history by taking actions against the oppression of the Roman empire which had ruled over Judea.

As a prologue for the future whenever we practice what we believe to be true, everything we’ve learned from these two Jews about seeking peace and justice, everything we say and do is bound to have influence on other human beings. 

Mary is often shown in Christmas cards, on our church calendars, in artistic renderings as a meek, mild, pure, even mindless woman. Nancy Rockwell writes that this image has slowed down the advancement of women for centuries when they hear over and over how the obedient and humble Mary was a perfect model for womanhood.

But Luke offers another side of Mary’s personality, one that reveals a spunky young woman who was radical, bold, full of grit and bursting with convictions about justice in her community. The first clue about her sense of self came when she questioned the angel “Wait a minute, Gabriel, how can I be pregnant?”

Shortly after the angel’s call Mary’s Magnificat resounds as a political bombshell delivered right in the home of a temple priest Zachariah, husband of Elizabeth, father of John the Baptist. Mary was pursued by God for her daring, independent spirit. And, she said “yes, OK I am going to do it! I can do this!” I am going to scatter the proud, bring the mighty down from their thrones, fill hungry people with good food and send the greedy rich away empty handed.

This message is surely timely for us on the first day of a new year, a day of world peace. Mary’s “yes” charges us from then to now to be strong and unafraid when confronting the unknown. It is a call to grab a hold of whatever comes our way without knowing exactly the outcome.

Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace  message, “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace,”  challenges us to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, refusing to harm the environment, or refusing to win at any cost. To do so, Francis reminds us, requires “the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process.” 

The miracle of Christmas began with Mary and Jesus of the past and continues with each one of us today. What they did way back then serves as a prologue for what lies ahead for us but … with a caveat. 

We remember the past as a way to direct ourselves not to repeat the past, nor to be discouraged by it, but to be buoyed up with a new enthusiasm, a vigorous and feisty hope for the future.


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Christmas Eve 2016 – Time to “Hit the Streets!”


Christmas Eve 122416 – Time to Hit the Streets

Click here for the biblical texts

They call it the December dilemma — interfaith households faced with celebrating both Christmas and Chanukah. Tonight as we gather to commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, our Jewish friends are lighting the first candle on their menorahs.

Our celebrations have this much in common. In this Northern Hemisphere, they both take place during wintertime, when nights are long, temperatures are cold and nature appears barren. Both these holidays use symbols of light. Both festivals have roots in a miracle.

Chanukah celebrates the victory of a Jewish rebellion against the powerful Syrians. The Israelites then reclaimed Jerusalem and wanted to purify and re-dedicate their Temple. But they only had enough sacred oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously the oil lasted eight days. (Talmud, Shabbat 21b). Those events took place about 600 years after Isaiah had hopes of restoring the City of Jerusalem.

The original meaning of the first reading, taken from Isaiah, is very different from our present understanding of that passage today. Every time a new descendent of David became king, the Israelites hoped that that person would be the ideal savior. And they waited and waited. 

We Christians reinterpreted the dreams of prophets like Isaiah. We have come to believe the birth of Jesus ushered in a time of deliverance from all evil on this planet. We believe Jesus was that ideal king although he never claimed to be so. 

The infancy narrative in tonight’s gospel from Luke is symbolic and biblical. It reveals to us the mystery of a God becoming human and modeling for us a way of living. It is a tale of deliverance similar to the story of the Maccabean’s revolt against their oppressors. Rabbi Howard Berman wrote, both [the festivals of Chanukah and Christmas] ultimately affirm the miracle of liberation and salvation … of God’s love … and of the deliverance of humanity.

The birth of Jesus was only the beginning of the Christmas story. The rest of the chapters depend on us, our constant attention to peace on earth and to that end, our belief in miracles. We yearn for peace and harmony like people have for generations before us.

According to St. Augustine (354-430 CE) “The purpose of miracles is to teach us to see the miraculous everywhere.” We are miracles for one one another. We keep the candles burning on our trees of life, we allow the radiance of the light of Christ to burn brightly in a time when fears arise everywhere. 

A phrase from a Chanukah song reminds us, “we have come this far always believing that justice will somehow prevail.” A familiar Christmas carol echoes the same expectation, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Our Jewish friends light candles to recall how their ancestors set aside their fears of tyranny. Angels in the bible told Mary, Joseph and the shepherds not to be afraid. 

As we celebrate Christmas we, too, decide again and again, amidst our fears, to walk and speak with courage at home, where we work, at school and in the public arena. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, described the birth of Jesus in this way — “God hit the streets.”

Like our ancestors in faith we have been waiting for a savior for a long time. The author Alice Walker reminds us, however, like other poets and sages have, that we are the ones we have been waiting for. In her words, “With so much greater awareness than our ancestors – and with such capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy – we are uniquely prepared to create positive change within ourselves and our world.” 

Christmas is the  creation of something new where God – who is always with us – is essential to what we are to become. God has hit the streets after all and will continue to do so whenever we do.