Richard S. Vosko

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Homily – 2nd Sunday of Advent – 4 December 2016 – Hoping Against Hope


Second Sunday of Advent A – 04 December 2016 – Hoping Against Hope!

Click here for today’s biblical texts

How often have we heard someone say “it is all downhill from here” meaning things are looking good. Two weeks ago in the food pantry, however, a woman used the same words to mean things were not looking good for her and her family. 

Last week after Mass a parishioner said to me his life is going up hill now. He was once at the bottom of the heap and now things are looking better but getting to the top is slow and hard work, he said.

Daunting as they are such challenging journeys are normal. They are the storylines for films, music, poetry and literature — our everyday lives. A person trying to overcome difficulties enters a land of possibilities where there may be unknown dangers. Only with perseverance and help from others will the person survive the journey and come out of it transformed.

In the biblical and religious imagination mountain tops are thought to be close to where God lives. If you could just reach that summit you would be OK. Last week the scriptures summoned us to that mountaintop, the eternal City of Jerusalem, a place where one could be safe, secure; living in harmony with other people. 

In the first reading today Isaiah brims with enthusiasm with the hope that a commander will emerge to lead people up to that holy mountain. The larger context for this prophecy is helpful here.

The Israelites were being pummeled by a powerful Assyrian regime that would destroy the people and their cities. Isaiah prophesied that the people would bounce back thanks to a leader who has wisdom, strength and … fear of God; one who will maintain justice for poor and afflicted people. The “shoot of Jesse” rising up from the stump (the destroyed City of Jerusalem) is a reference to military victories.

We Christians have interpreted Isaiah’s prophecy to mean that Jesus will be the hero when actually Isaiah was referring to the liberator of the Israelites at that time — the boy king Josiah. Josiah, a descendant of David, did initiate a religious renaissance, rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. Sadly, the peace lasted for only about 30 years when the Babylonians recaptured the Israelites and placed them into exile.

Much later John the Baptist also preached enthusiastically about a hero, the Coming One, who would be the liberator. John, the educated son of a priest, would be part of an elite class today. Feeling the need to change his life he retreated to the wilderness where he lived off the grid. Like mountains, the desert also has symbolic meaning in the bible. It is a place of transformation, a sacred space where one could go to the depths of one’s body, mind and soul, wrestle with the challenges of life, all with the hope of rising up again renewed.

Because of his desire to change, John identified with those living on the fringes of society. He condemned the elite class for paying attention to their own agendas at the expense of others. His message to repent, that is, to change our ways of living, challenged everyone within earshot.

The gospel of Matthew, which we will read all during this liturgical year, begins with an account of the birth of Jesus, the visit of the wise astronomers and the massacre of innocent children. 

This sets the stage for the passages we heard last week and today. People were frightened. What would happen to them next? Many of them, rich and poor, powerful and weak, scrambled to the wilderness to hear what John the Baptizer had to say. The apostle Paul also addressed the tensions between classes and cultures. He called for endurance and harmony. 

Today, there is great apprehension in our nation given the possibility that the laws of our land could run contrary to some of the values held by us. The passage in Isaiah calls for justice. In Hebrew the word is tzedakah which refers not merely to acts of charity but to a social obligation to defend people from the ills of humanity and oppressive leadership. 

Our role is to assist people living on the edges of society in troubled times. Angela Warner [1] reminded me that the modern day prophet Dorothy Day put it this way. “The greatest challenge is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”  

Advent is a season to think about our journeys and those of others — both uphill and downhill journeys. It is a time of anticipation, preparation, and in the words of Pope Francis written just this past week, “a time of mercy.” Now is the season for you and me to rekindle our faith and our hope against all hope that night will turn to the light of day.”

  1. Angela Warner is the director of the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry where hundreds of families are given food every week.


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Homily – 20 November 2016 – “Who Do We Think We Are?”


Christ the King of the Universe 112016 – “Who Do We Think We Are?”

Click here for today’s biblical texts

In his science-fiction film Arrival, [1] Denis Villeneuve tells of a linguist enlisted by the US military to interact with creatures from an alien craft that has landed on earth. She has a difficult time understanding the foreign sounds and hieroglyphics and becomes frustrated and frightened. Countries around the world, imagining a global disaster, begin to panic.

In the movie, which challenges a linear way of thinking and speaking, the linguist realizes she is not alone in the universe which can be both comforting and scary. Eventually she comes to think in the unfamiliar language of the aliens. The underlying message in this “head and heart” film is applicable today. Our experiences of and with others reshapes our understanding of our humanity, relationships to each other, and our God.

I have been thinking, as I know you have, about the implications, both rumored and real, the election of Donald Trump may have on our nation and the world. There are many who are comforted and there are others who are scared. That our country is divided on many issues is real. The need to meet with and understand others who do not agree with a certain way of thinking, one way or another, is imperative if we are to move forward together as a nation.

Pope Pius XI instituted today’s feast of Christ the King on December 11, 1925. Church historians argue he did so to address the swift emergence of nationalism and secularism particularly in the countries of Italy, Germany and Russia. In our nation, at that time, the “Roarin’ Twenties” signaled prosperity and hope even while protests against Catholics, Jews and people of color were raging in the streets. 

President Obama speaking in Athens, Greece last Wednesday echoed the Pope’s admonition, unintentionally I am sure. He warned that Americans and people everywhere, “are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity, or tribalism.” 

Nationalism, especially ethnonationalism, is an ideology that emphasizes belonging to a particular nation state. It stresses independence from other nation states and avoids anything that might threaten the culture or identity of a country especially people who do not fit the ideology. Patriotism or national pride, on the other hand, may be expressed precisely in the different characteristics of a country including ethnic, racial, cultural, political, religious or historical aspects.

In his 1925 encyclical Quas Primus, Pope Pius XI offered some wisdom for Catholics. To affirm Christ as sovereign over all, by allowing Christ to reign in our lives, the Pope wrote, should sanctify us and our actions … as instruments of justice unto God.” The pope surely was offering a counterpoint to the emergence of dictatorships.

In 1969 Pope Paul VI renamed today’s feast as Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe. By then most European countries had agreed to assure democracy for its citizens and to protect the rights of individuals. [2] In our country, during the 1960s we experienced assassinations, we passed laws on civil rights, we moved to end an ugly conflict in Vietnam. It was decade of cultural rebellion, at the same time we landed on the moon and watched the Jets and Mets win championships against all odds.

Pope Paul VI created a bigger picture. As members of a cosmic family he implied we could take comfort that the sovereign Christ walks among us encouraging us to take care of each other. As the Year of Mercy comes to an end today what do we do now? How should we act?

Professor of Sociology Linda Woodhead wrote “…religion flourishes when it is enmeshed with the lives of those it serves and dies when it no longer connects.” Religions depend on a healthy relationship with their societies, she said, even when there is mutual criticism. In the words of Sister Simone Campbell,“My faith tells me that now, more than ever, we need to mend the gaps and bridge the divides among us.”

This coming week offers just a couple of examples how we might fix the fractures in our society. Today is a day of remembrance honoring lives lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. How do we respect members of the LGBTQ community? At the end of this week is the international day for the elimination of violence against women. What will we do to stop discrimination against women? 

And, on Thursday we will gather in thanksgiving for the gifts we have — the gifts of God, family, friends, our land and our universe. So much to be grateful for! Next weekend we begin a new liturgical year with great hope and yearnings for the advent of peace and justice. We have the capacity to act in the spirit of our Catholic Christian heritage.

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  1.  An adaptation of science-fiction writer Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life.
  2. The Maastricht Treaty (formally, the Treaty on European Union) undertaken to integrate Europe was signed on 7 February 1992


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Homily – 6 November 2016 – Citizens of Heaven and Earth


The Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C – Citizens of Heaven and Earth

Click here for today’s biblical texts

Driving south on the Northway (I-87), between exits four and two you can see a tall tree standing like a sentinel over several tombs. This peaceful graveyard, surrounded by a fallow field, appears undisturbed by the pollution and noise of nearby traffic. It is the Socks-Kemp-Reed Cemetery with markers dating to the early 19th century. Even though the deceased laid to rest there are unknown to me, every time I drive by that cemetery I think of life, suffering, death and eternal life.

I have often thought there are at least three kinds of deaths that we can suffer: 1) physical death, 2) being forgotten and 3) the loss of memorials. The destruction of photos, monuments, buildings, burial grounds can leave us with only fading, mental memories of our deceased loved ones.

This weekend follows two commemorative days on our church calendar — All Saints and All Souls. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in a curious but provocative way, combines two groups of people when it asks this question, “What is the church if not the assembly of all the saints? The communion of saints is the church.” (CCC No. 946) 

It is an ancient practice in most religions to honor those who have died and to keep their spirits alive in some way. Like many shrines and temples our sanctuaries contain silent reminders of our ancestors — relics, sculptures, icons. These images not only keep us in touch with the saints of yesteryear they prompt in us a desire to be followers of Christ. 

In a recent interview with the National Catholic Reporter, (September 23-October 6, 2016, 5a-6a) I noted that, like the gospel, these sacred images call us to a sense of mission — “to tend to the needs of those people living on the fringes of society, those people who are abused and oppressed.” For example, Dorothy Day, written in one of our own icons, whose birthday is, ironically, this coming November 8th, tackled issues of social justice. Today, as we recall those from own our faith community who have died recently we remember what they taught us by their lives.

Our memories of these dear loved ones whisk us to our place in the communion of saints as citizens of the earth. While today’s gospel does raise a question about life after death, we cannot wait that long. We are, after all, still in the race, with our eyes on the prize — the creation of the kin-dom of God here and now. In that regard, as citizens we have the privileged opportunity to cast a vote this coming Tuesday, November 8th. It is an opportunity to connect responsible citizenship with the presence of God. As Christopher Hale (Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good) noted “voting allows us to reimagine the world with God’s eyes.”

The first reading from the Book of Maccabees this morning is a grave reminder that power, prejudice and phobias can cause human beings to do terrible things to one another. The mother and her sons in the passage were tortured, whipped and maltreated just because they were Jews. Many people we know today (refugees, immigrants, prisoners) are also mistreated and oppressed because of their race, gender, religion, ethnicity, status in society.

According to the Rev. William Barber, one of the authors of the Higher Ground Moral Declaration, we want to establish “deep connections between shared religious faith traditions and public policy, rooted in our Constitutions and the moral values of justice, fairness, and the general welfare.”

But how does someone vote when given a choice of candidates, some of whom, nationally and locally, are not entirely in synch with every single moral conviction held by our faith tradition? Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard recently spoke here on responsible citizenship. When in a quandary about casting our ballots, Bishop Hubbard suggested that we vote for the candidate who will do the most good for the common good and the least harm to all. 

I began by noting the tranquil cemetery along the Northway. In another part of our country a life and death protest is occurring. Two months ago the ancient sacred burial sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were desecrated by the intrastate natural gas pipeline operator Energy Transfer Partners

Tribal Chairman David Archambault II said This demolition is devastating. These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors.” Archambault quoted Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, (New York Times August 24, 2106) “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” That appeal, Chairman Archambault wrote, is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.

Today you and I remember our deceased loved ones of yesterday who are now citizens of heaven. We also remember our responsibilities as citizens of the earth. And, we vote next week as a practical act of Christian love keeping in mind all the citizens of tomorrow — you, me and our children!


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Homily – 23 October 2016 – The Times They Are A-Changin’


30th Sunday in Ordinary Time C  – October 23, 2016 – The Times They Are A-Changin’

Click here for today’s biblical texts

“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If they were living at the same time and in the same place Jesus just might have used lyrics from Bob Dylan’s song The Times They Are A-Changin to make his point about righteousness — Dylan wrote, “The order is rapidly fadin’ and the first one now will later be last.”

We have to be careful about the way we interpret this gospel. Just as soon as we might be quick to say “thank God I am not a hypocritical, self-righteousness braggart who denounces anyone who is not on my side; that I am instead a regular church goer who acts humbly, walks justly and lives simply,” … we get caught in the same trap as the Pharisee in the parable who congratulated himself.

Well, you might ask, what is wrong with getting credit or points for being a good disciple of Christ? Can’t I be saved for attending to the cries of poor people, welcoming outsiders, cooking for hungry children, building shelter for the homeless, making prisoners feel better? I care for the environment and our senior citizens, our homebound and sick. And, I am active in political affairs. Why can’t I boast a bit?

There is really nothing wrong with taking some credit for doing good work. After all it can compel us to study, to make progress, to contribute to the common good, to improve ourselves along the way. But does this interpretation offer the only lesson for today? Perhaps the story is not about the Pharisee or the tax collector. Let’s take a closer look.

We often think of the Pharisees as bad people. They were one of many factions at the time not unlike the people who followed Jesus. John Pilch described the Pharisees as people who practiced strict observances — prayer, fasting, almsgiving and tithing. But the text suggests that some of them were greedy, elitist and dictatorial, thinking of themselves as superior to others.

It’s easy to critique this kind of behavior in other people.  What else can we do? The icons, right here in our church, offer an answer. These women and men don’t claim anything great for themselves. The icon of St. Louise de Marillac, for example, is not about Louise but about how she responded to the needs of others. Inspired by Louise our own pastoral care ministers provide services for our parishioners who are homebound, in a nursing home, rehabilitation center or hospital. They give them spiritual support reminding them that this faith community will not forget them.

Today, Mission Sunday, offers every one of us an opportunity to focus on how God, according to the wisdom of Sirach, hears the cries of the oppressed, is not deaf to the screams of the orphan, nor to the widow when she complains. Often we think of missions as far away places served by clergy and lay persons including college students. In fact, many regions in our own nation are so-called mission territories.

I learned this past week that there are approximately 3 million people in New York State living below the federal poverty threshold ($24,250 for a family of 4). Right here in this the 20th District of our State the percentage of children under the age of 18 living in those impoverished households is 14%. These statistics remind us there is plenty of missionary work to do in our own backyards.

In the end this gospel parable says something about who God is and how God works in us and through us to advance the kin-dom here on earth. The Pharisee went off never thinking he was arrogant or in need of any divine assistance. The tax collector, however, did nothing to claim such self-righteousness. Instead, he asked for mercy. God’s mercy embraces us when we acknowledge that the gifts we receive, the accomplishments we achieve, reflect the goodness of God. We are ambassadors of God.

Let’s be alert.Things can get worse. As promoters of another way, we will not promote divisiveness, nor abide by arrogance. It’s not easy but we can be witnesses of mercy and goodness. We do not draw attention to ourselves or take credit for the overwhelming mercy of God. We can, however, continue to spread that mercy and goodness wherever we go. Why is this message so urgent? Perhaps Bob Dylan’s 1963 prophetic voice still has some merit, The Times They Are A-changin’.


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Homily – 9 October 2016 – Thank You!


28th Sunday in Ordinary Time year C – 9 October 2016 – Thank You!

Click here for today’s biblical texts

That the world was flat until Columbus landed in the Caribbean is a popular but inaccurate fable. Also, there is no clear evidence that the 15th century dogmatically inclined Spanish Church enforced that idea. It was the novelist Washington Irving who created those falsehoods in 1828 in his biography about Columbus. [1] Actually Columbus simply miscalculated the vastness of the world just like probably we cannot comprehend the immeasurable magnitude of creation.

Today’s biblical texts offer us a chance to focus on the immensity of God’s presence, God’s mercy in the world. The first reading tells a story about Naaman a respected commander in Syria who had the dreaded disease leprosy. The other character in the story, Elisha the prophet, was well known not for military strength but the miracles he worked. Elisha instructs Naaman to wash in the Jordan River that straddled Syria and the land of the Israelites. The story is often linked to teachings about salvation.

At first Naaman was angry because Elisha did not personally tend to him. But, after his disciples prompted him to enter the murky waters of the Jordan he was healed.Naaman tried to give Elisha a gift to show his gratitude. Elisha, a good not-for-profit servant of God, refused the gift. Naaman who believed that God only worked salvific wonders within the borders of Israel asked Elisha if he could bring dirt from the land of the Israelites into Syria to spread the power of God. Perhaps the unknown author of the second reading had this tale in mind when writing that the word of God cannot be chained.

The gospel continues the thread with the story about the lepers who were washed clean due to the initiative and action of Jesus of Nazareth. The message in this story, however, shifts slightly away from the messianic work of salvation to one of gratitude. Only one leper came back to say “thanks” to Jesus and he was a Samaritan, a dreaded enemy of the Jews. Once again, the message is that God’s mercy is borderless. 

These stories help us think of ways to spread God’s mercy by crossing borders to help people confined by visible and invisible barriers that prevent them from living peaceful wholesome lives. They also remind you and me to be grateful for the mercy of God made present in our ministries.

We give thanks for the volunteers who visit inmates in area prisons to bring them a spirit of care and the word of God. We are grateful for those who visit sick and dying persons in our hospitals to offer them comfort and hope. We give thanks for those who work in our food pantry every week to stock goods and serve guests who, otherwise, would go without supplies to nourish themselves and their families. 

We are grateful for those who haunt the halls of our Capitol reminding elected officials to erase laws that discount and dishonor people living on the fringes of life; to create laws that treat everyone fairly. And, we are grateful for each member of our families, children and adults, who teach each other what matters most. 

There are many borders that limit the experience of God. We Christians join members of other faith traditions to tear down barriers and to spread the mercy God everywhere like Naaman, Elisha and Jesus did. And we do so without expecting thanks or rewards. 

On the other hand we are mindful of how important it is for us to be grateful for what we have in life. The eucharistic prayer at every Mass is our premier utterance of thanksgiving. We proclaim it to remember and embrace the life of Jesus and to join Christ in thanking God who loves the human race and continues to walk with us wherever we go.

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  1.  Irving, Washington. A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.


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Homily 2 October 2016 “Loyalty Costs”


27 Sunday in Ordinary Time C – October 2, 2016 – Loyalty Costs

Click here for today’s biblical texts

The other night the commentary at the beginning of a football game caught my attention. I heard the announcer of the Washington-Stanford game say “the faithful have been waiting” for their teams to take the field. The “faithful?” It is no news that sports fans are incredibly loyal to their favorite teams. Diehard fans are upset that the NY Yankees did not make the playoffs but it probably will not change their loyalty to the team.

Loyalty is a big topic today in the world of business. Most shoppers are loyal to certain products, stores, airlines. And, we expect to be rewarded for our loyalties. We also hear and read a lot about companies who are not loyal to their customers or to their hard working employees.

How about loyalty when it comes to religion? A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute reports on why people leave their childhood churches. The number one explanation from all respondents was a lack of belief in the teachings of their religion (60%). Young adults (ages18-29) were more specific. They said they are unaffiliated because of negative teachings in their churches especially about gays, lesbians and transgendered people. Justice is obviously an issue for that age group.

Today’s biblical texts raise questions about faith. Commentators say the word faith can be understood as steadfast loyalty, trust, commitment to something or someone even though there are no dividends, no rewards, to be paid out. Jesus teaches this lesson with a story about a slave and the head of a household. The parable sounds kind of harsh and implies that servants should not expect any big reward for doing what was expected of them. The same goes for us. Just do it!

Most Christians believe Jesus was a mentor. He showed people how to live, how to behave toward others, especially those who are estranged from society in some way. Actually, Jesus was a “faction founder” according to John Pilch. He built up a following of men and women and expected loyalty from them. The disciples apparently had a very difficult time saying no to him even though they did not completely understand who he was or what his intentions were. Perhaps they were recalling Psalm 95, “if today you hear God’s voice harden not your hearts.”

Christians who do respond to God’s call are not-for-profit loyalists. We do what we are suppose to do without expecting anything in return. But as far as institutional religion is concerned loyalty has to work both ways. On one hand, the church, meaning all baptized members, is expected to be loyal to the mission and message of Jesus of Nazareth. This makes it hard in trying to understand, much less defend, the many rules exercised by Christian churches that exclude people from the very life of the church.

Loyalty to the teachings of Jesus is what membership in the church is all about. So why are people leaving organized religions? Is it like giving up on a team that is losing? Not necessarily so. Those who leave say they still have faith and believe in God. It’s just that their religion, that has become more and more institutionalized over centuries, does not seem to practice the mercy and justice toward all people like Jesus did.

According to Stephen Mattson Jesus was more complex than we give him credit for. He intentionally, purposefully, and passionately addressed the diverse and complicated conflicts of he time. He shattered the status quo. Jesus was helping those who were being abused, violated, and oppressed. Mattson wrote that these causes are actually an important part of the gospel message. It is not about being liberal or conservative. It is about what it takes to be a follower of Christ.

Although some church rules are harsh we can be loyal disciples of Christ in many ways. We can care for our families, partners, spouses, children no matter how they behave. We can be counted on to work hard to take care of ourselves and to help others get by. We can be loyal in the public square taking action to erase injustices. We can do many things to be very helpful in life. What we do know, however, is that loyalty and discipleship does not come without a cost.


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Homily – 31 July 2016 – Closing the Gaps


Favela in Morumbi Sao Paulo Brazil right next to a wealthy neighborhood

Favela in Morumbi Sao Paulo Brazil right next to a wealthy neighborhood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 31 July 2016 – Closing the Gaps

Click here for today’s scriptures

Comedian Steve Wright once quipped, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” It would be easy to interpret this gospel as a bit of wisdom about hoarding goods or decluttering our lives. One could also say it is about giving to others from our abundance. That typical commentary would not do justice to the deep seated message in this gospel. 

Upon closer look this story about the wealthy landowner has to do with something else that defies generalized interpretations. Being attentive to the needs of others, in light of the ways in which we live, requires a more challenging investigation of this text. How might we act in light of it?

Today’s gospel is an example of someone who, somewhere along the way, was misguided. He thought that by piling up riches he would be happy. In short order, God said to the rich man, you are foolish to stockpile things that do not really matter in the big picture.

Lutheran theologian from Camaroon, Elisabeth Johnson, wrote that this gospel asks us to think about how our lives are fundamentally aligned — toward ourselves and our passing desires, or toward God and our neighbor? What should the wealthy landowner have done? “The same thing anyone else in that position should have done: distribute the surplus to others, immediately.” So says, John Pilch

I think there is more, too. This biblical text is not only about sharing financial resources or getting rid of stuff to make room for what really matters in our lives. Each of us also has an abundance of knowledge and particular gifts which are often far more valuable than money. Giving to others generously requires careful, persistent evaluation.  What is it that I have that others need? 

The passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes urges us to take delight in what we have and, in light of our pledges to one another and our covenant with God, not to overlook what others need.  

Let’s take a moment now to think of the abundance that exists in any area of our lives — financial, talent, time, material goods. What is it that we might share with others? Let’s name it to ourselves. 

Now imagine what would happen to us if we shared our resources to the point that our own lifestyles would be transformed!