Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

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Fourth Sunday of Easter Homily: Recalculating the Church’s Journey

4 Easter C – April 25, 2010 – Recalculating the Church’s Journey

Today’s biblical texts

When global positioning systems (GPS) first appeared in our cars they were magical. How does that little device know exactly where we are and that voice, how does it know what to say? When you disagree with the directions and try to go your own way the voice scolds you tells you to get back on course. Even if you are stubborn and don’t listen it still recalculates your trip.

During the Easter season we hear voices from the early church about the radical impact of Christ’s resurrection on their lives. It changed them completely. Their leader was gone and did not leave good directions. What were his followers to do? Today, we heard about what is considered the first missionary journey.

Apparently, the routine for these apostles was the same. They went from town to village and preached in the synagogues. While some people converted, others rejected the message and stirred up opposition against the disciples. [1] For example, Paul and Barnabas, in today’s reading, were chased out of Antioch. There was no guarantee that what these faithful missionaries preached would be welcomed by anyone. But even if they wavered in the face of opposition they continued to spread the message. They were like a global positioning system that keeps us on track with an unrelenting voice.

Today’s gospel deals with the sheep who listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd. By trusting in the guidance of the shepherd the sheep do not have to worry about taking wrong turns or coming to a dead end.

How did Jesus happen to be called a shepherd in these stories? Wasn’t he a carpenter or stone mason? Even though shepherds are sometimes depicted as disheveled and dishonest their job demanded much responsibility. They had to keep the sheep together, nourish them and protect them from harm. It’s like the image we find in today’s second reading. That shepherd is one who cares about people, who will guide them to the “springs of life-giving water.”

If we were writing biblical texts today we might be tempted to describe Jesus as a GPS or as they are referred to in some ads, a “personal navigator.” All we would have to do is listen to the voice of Jesus and trust that it will guide us in the right direction. However, there are so many voices out there today on TV and radio, in the press, it is hard to tune into the voice of reason and truth. One has to listened attentively.

You hear about travelers who faithfully follow the voice in the little GPS device only to end up at a dead end. That’s because the system is not perfect. Either something blocks the satellite signal or the maps are outdated. Constant recalculation of the route is important if you want to get where you are going.

Today civic and religious communities desperately need clear direction. The political and spiritual landscapes are constantly changing all across the globe. It’s difficult to keep maps up to date. Lately, it seems, leaders are more confounded by current events and shifting waves of public opinion and do not know where to turn. Here in the United States, a country born out of a fierce sense of independence, citizens of all kinds, regardless of party affiliation, want to be served by elected officials but not at the expense of freedom. Sometimes the common good is lost in the search for independence.

The same is true of most American Catholics. We want solid leadership and clear direction but not at the expense of giving up baptismal rights and the opportunity to collaborate in creating a vision for the Church like the seer John in that second reading. When sheep sense that shepherds are lost or have strayed off course they might try to find their own way. Once the flock starts dispersing, and the sheep start taking off in different directions, the strength of the common bond is weakened. Inevitably some sheep get lost or hurt.

The early church endured and grew in number because the members kept together and shared what they had in common. They took advantage of their diverse gifts to carry out different tasks. No one person did it all. Even though there were apostles and disciples the development of Christianity depended on the response of the people.

Throughout the history of Christianity, with all of its successes and failures, its graces and sins, the church lives on because the members never stop listening to the voice of Jesus the good shepherd. It is an unrelenting, spirited instrument telling us, laity and clergy alike, what direction to take especially when we get off track.


1 Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition) pp. 429-431.



Divine Mercy Sunday Homily: Where Are You, God?

2 Easter C – April 11, 2010 — Where Are You, God?
Divine Mercy Sunday & Holocaust Remembrance Day
Today’s Biblical Texts

In his book, Night, Elie Wiesel recalls his meeting with Moshe the Beadle during the Holocaust. Moshe was the caretaker of a small Hasidic synagogue in Transylvania and managed to survive one massacre after the other. Here is part of that story. After the last massacre Moshe found himself all alone in the deserted synagogue. The last living Jew, he climbed the bema one last time, stared at the Ark and whispered with infinite gentleness; “You see? I am still here.” He stopped briefly before continuing in his sad, almost toneless voice: “But you [G_d], where are you?”  [1] What is a person to do in a time of tragedy and despair when God seems absent? How is the mercy or love of God felt while standing in line on your way to a gas chamber?

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. We honor at least 6 million Jews and other groups of people gay, lesbian, Catholics, Gypsies and handicapped persons who were murdered by the ruthless regime of the Third Reich. This past week also marked the 16th commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda. More than 800,000 innocent people lost their lives there. Some say these tragedies and others as in Darfur, Sudan, could have been prevented. Although all humanitarian catastrophes are not alike governments, civic and religious groups cannot stand by and do nothing. One might ask, where are you God when we need you most?

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday. In his 1980 encyclical “Rich in Mercy” [2] Pope John Paul II outlined sources of uneasiness in the world and the dangers produced by materialistic societies. He wrote about how individuals, communities and nations can fall victim to the abuse of power by other[s]. The pope went on to say now is the time the church must pray for the mercy of God. Here in this church this morning we sang a version of Psalm 118 — “God’s mercy endures forever.” When and how does the mercy of God happen?

The Acts of the Apostles give us a peak into the life of early church. They were written by the evangelist Luke about 50-60 years after Jesus’ resurrection. The reading today tells us of the signs and wonders completed by the apostles and how the membership of the church grew. However, the next section in the bible, omitted today, is about the persecution of those apostles by the authorities. Those disciples must have wondered, “Where are you God when we need you?”

We can imagine in the gospel story how a frightened group of disciples, still stunned by what happened to their leader, needed some direction about what to do next in their lives. They were probably wondering, like Moshe the caretaker of the synagogue, “Where are you, God?” As the story goes when Jesus does appear to them, a doubter among them, he questions their loyalty and their belief. Do you now believe only because I am standing here before you, he asked? Blessed are those who have not seen me and still believe in me.

While discussing this homily with some parishioners I learned about The Hiding Place. [3] It is a story of two Dutch sisters, Christians who themselves were sent to the death camps for hiding Jews in their home. They said the words and Spirit of Jesus Christ were their guide as they risked their own lives to save some of God’s people.

Can we pray for God’s mercy without doing something to repair the world we live it? Can we ask God to help us with our lives if we are not willing to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start over again? [4] We will never rid the world of all hatred but to do nothing could compromise our Christian identity.

A religion like ours has a purpose. We stand as a sign of God’s mercy in the world by keeping the Spirit of Jesus Christ alive. That spirit is found inside us. If it was there but is weak, recharge it. If it was never there, go find it. If it is there now, do something with it.

Going church on Sunday reminds us of what is expected of us. It is like doing something to remember a deceased loved one. There are two kinds of death. One is the dying; the second is to be forgotten. Remembering Jesus is what gave strength and hope to members of the early church. It also gave courage and love to those two sisters who tried to help Jews. Where are you God, today? Perhaps a good place to start is right here in this church.

1 Wiesel, Elie. Night. (NY: Hill & Wang 1958)
3 ten Boom, Corrie. The Hiding Place. (New York: Bantam Books, 1971)
4 From the 1936 song “Pick Yourself Up” lyrics by Dorothy Fields


Vatican Two Questions

Three questions are being asked of the participants in the adult faith formation program on the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. The course is being offered at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY this Spring 2010.

1. How have the teachings of the Second Vatican Council affected your personal life?

2. How has the Council affected the life of your faith community?

3. What current events in the Church could be affecting the teachings of the Council?

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Easter Vigil Homily: Life’s Roundabouts

EASTER VIGIL – April 3, 2010 – Life’s Roundabouts

Biblical texts for the Easter Vigil

More traffic roundabouts are being constructed throughout the Capital District all the time. National studies say these circles reduce accidents and the pollution caused by idling engines. Still, the reactions from drivers are varied and surprising.

In the traditional system the lights at an intersection tell us what to do. In the roundabout we have to take responsibility for entering and leaving the circle. That’s where the problem is. The circles make us liable for our actions, they prompt us to keep moving in a certain direction while watching out for the other person.

Tonight we conclude our holy week and begin a season of new life. There is little more one can say about way fire and light touched our senses, how the music filled our spirit, how rich biblical texts fed our minds. Soon we will be refreshed by baptismal water and fed by the bread and wine of life. This is a celebration of illumination, passage, inspiration and nourishment. This ancient ritual, like a traffic circle, keeps us moving together in the sacred dance of life.

Life cycles are all around us. We are part of them. No one lives outside them. The universe is a network of endless roundabouts, spiraling and twisting in the dark. Terabytes of stars and planets roam freely while others are caught in one another’s grip. The known universe is a never ending tableau that explodes and implodes, grows and dies, all at the same time.

Here on earth moving in its own circle the cycles of life consist of never ending announcements of birth and anniversaries, accolades and accidents, sickness and death. We humans trek along trying to find purpose and meaning in it all, balancing our dreams with realities. The tale repeats itself over and over. Our family trees and our memories tell us that our ancestors traveled these highways before us.

We believe God is the guide, the creator, the energy, the architect and engineer of these life cycles. Was God naive in entrusting an unfolding creation and its treasures to us? Would God have to come to rescue us? Indeed. The story is similar in many cultures and religions. An immortal deity takes on human form, to blend in and create enough of a fuss to rattle our brains, shake our bodies and move our souls. We are charged to think about living in more dignified ways, to stay on track and keep our eyes fixed on a moral compass.

The tests continue. We pass some and we fail others. Our sacred texts tell the story of floods, plagues, sacrifice, bloody battles, secrecy and power struggles. There is no escape from these vales of tears. Sometimes we don’t know what exit to take. The same texts however also speak of birth, dignity, healing, peace, truth and new directions. Even though these possibilities sometimes appear as elusive as the stars and planets in the sky they are nonetheless fuel cells of energy and hope for tomorrow.

We believe that all pathways in life, as diverse as they are, will eventually take us to the same place. Although death lurks at every intersection life does give us choices. No sense in going fast, impatiently blowing the horn, or using language that only makes us madder. Sometimes taking a different route can be more refreshing as well as safer or faster.

Tonight three people are celebrating a change of direction in their life cycles. Cain ___ has decided to map out a Christian route in the Catholic tradition. Erina ___ has chosen a slightly different Christian path and Christopher ___ is getting recharged in the Catholic church. We welcome them into our faith community. We promise to continue to nurture them. We expect they will nourish us.

OK so the big reason for this Easter feast is to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus even though no one saw it physically happen. Yes, women were first to discover the empty tomb and spread the good news. Yes, Jesus will make a number of appearances to small and large audiences afterwards. Yes, we still believe the story and keep telling it repeatedly. It is not because we search for proof but because we believe in some powerful presence, a sacred spirit, that pervades every part of our fragile bodies, our idiosyncratic lives, our soulful aspirations. We have to. After all, our story does not end with death but the promise of eternal life.

The link between traffic circles and the paschal event we celebrate this evening is this. There will always be roundabouts in our lives. Sometimes we know where we are going. Sometimes we miss an exit and go around again. Eventually we have to get off or run out of gas. And as we leave one circle another one awaits us.  Jesus made choices in his life cycle that deeply affect us even to today. He chose a direction that was not always well known or safe. In each turn he thought about others first. May the spirit that gave Jesus Christ new life and the promise of eternal life to us always be with you.

Happy Easter!

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Holy Thursday Homily: Fools For Christ’s Sake

HOLY THURSDAY – April 1, 2010 – Fools for Christ’s Sake
The biblical texts for the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

[On Holy Thursday at St. Vincent de Paul Parish (Albany, NY) everyone present is invited to participate in the washing of the feet.]

In the Russian Orthodox church there are 36 saints called yurodivy — holy fools. St. Basil in Russia and St. Francis of Assisi were known for their divine madness. There are fools in the Hebrew bible. It is said that Isaiah walked naked for three years (Is 20:3) as a protest against Egypt and Ethiopia. In the New Testament Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “We are fools for the sake of Christ.” (1 Cor 4:10) In the middle ages fools or court jesters were employed not only to provide a sense of humor when things got too serious but also to criticize those in power. In some areas being a fool was considered a privilege.

One of the places we see a picture of a fool is in a deck of cards. When we begin a card game we usually toss the Jokers away as if they were not important. In some games, however, Jokers are wild and can be beneficial in winning.

For centuries some card games were used not only to pass the time but, as with Tarot cards, they also helped people map out their spiritual journeys. The Jester or Fool card represents endless possibilities for someone on a journey in life; it looks at life through the unfiltered lens of a child, it points to new beginnings. Play that card and something different but exciting can happen to you.

That our Holy Thursday falls on April Fool’s Day this year gives us a chance to ask an interesting question. What does it mean to be a fool for Christ’s sake? What happens when divine madness puts you and me on a new journey in life?

Many writers believe Jesus himself was a fool. He believed he could change the hearts of powerful religious and civic rulers. He expected outcasts and women to be treated equally with dignity. He thought the truth would prevail over falsehoods, that somehow a distant God would never abandon him or his followers. Jesus had a wild imagination.

The teachings of Jesus Christ are so countercultural today trying to follow them can make us feel foolish at times. When someone hurts us we are supposed to turn the other cheek. We work for justice in the face of inequity. When things go wrong we want miracles. When we die we expect to rise again. We call the bread and wine on our table the body and blood of Christ. Is this Eucharist the feast of fools, the meal ticket to new life, to total transformation?

Our washing of feet tonight gives meaning to the second reading. It’s Paul’s recollection of the supper on the evening when Jesus was betrayed. Some sections before and after that part, although poignant, are strangely omitted from our lectionary. In them Paul speaks about division and factions in the community (1 Cor 11:19) and reminds his listeners they will be held responsible for their actions. (1 Cor 11:27)

Our sharing in the Eucharist, the bread and cup of salvation, the sacrament of unity, cannot be done without serving one another. (Psalm 116) The act, no matter how prayerful, solemn and repetitive, will be incomplete. Doing one and not the other is to overlook the meaning of tonight’s celebration and perhaps the significance of the entire holy week. It is all about everything Jesus lived for and died for.

When Jesus blessed God for the gift of bread and wine at his last supper almost everyone in that room knew the ancient meaning of those symbols. Jesus saw his own life in the bread of affliction, the bitter herbs, and the blessing cup. He identified with the captivity, the liberation, the exile and the hope of his ancestors. Now it was all happening to him. We have been invited to do the same, to embrace that story as our own.

As we watch, listen, pray and walk these holy days can you and I examine the direction we are taking in our lives? Will we play the Joker’s card or will we play it safe? How willing are we to act like fools for Christ’s sake?