Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily: July 25, 2010 – Haggling With God


17 Sunday Ordinary Time – July 25, 2010 – Haggling With God
Gen 18:20-32, Ps 138:1-3,6-8, Col 2:12-14, Lk 11:1-13

Today’s complete biblical texts

Even though it is a facet of life, war makes no sense. One of the many ethical conundrums has to do with the killing of innocent people while trying to destroy the real enemy. Especially problematic are the drones, the aircraft without pilots, operated by remote control, thousands of miles away from the battle zone. These aircraft do the most so-called collateral damage caused by erroneous targeting.

Abraham raised the same ethical issue in today’s first reading. He kept asking God not to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because innocent people would be killed. Was he being brazen? No. He was being Jewish. The Talmud encourages questions which lead to enlightened discussion. (Catholics, however, are taught not to question God, or our clergy). The passage we heard today implies that God assured Abraham that the cities would not be demolished. However, in the next chapter (Gen. 19:24) we find out that God annihilated the cities anyway. Did God deceive Abraham?

For a moment forget the actions of God. Besides in this morning’s psalm we just thanked God for being both merciful and just. Abraham’s ethical principles were being tested. He was passionate that innocent people should not be caught in the crossfire when evil ones were being destroyed by fire from heaven (Gen 19:24). Abraham haggled with God over the issue and would not stop pressing God until he got a straight answer. Maybe Abraham pushed a little too hard. How often, after a string of “why this, why that” from an inquisitive child will the parent exclaim, “because I said so!”

How about us? How often do we barter with or question God especially when we need something? When we are down and out, addicted, broke, jobless; just got separated or divorced or failed a course, we turn to God even before we turn to others. We also lean upon God in every Mass during the prayers of the faithful with a feisty, “Lord Hear Our Prayer.” What is not so obvious is the way we boldly confront God during the Lord’s Prayer.

Luke’s version of this popular prayer in today’s gospel is shorter than Matthew’s. At the beginning and the end of the prayer we praise God using doxologies typical in Jewish prayer formulas. In between we list the things we want God to do for us. Give us daily bread — meaning sustenance for the future. Forgive us our sins — acknowledging God’s endless love no matter how often we mess up. Deliver us from evil — anytime we or others give in to temptations. We want everything it seems. What are we willing to do or give in return?

Some theologies say we don’t have to do anything. God’s love for us is so merciful we don’t have to worry about being saved.  Is that what we think? Then there’s that other side of God, that stern judge we read about in the first reading — the God of justice who wiped out two sinful cities after denying it would happen. This suggests that God just might turn the other cheek especially if we don’t do something about making the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  Why me, God? Pick someone else to do this work.

In the letter to the Romans, chapter six, Paul says that in baptism we die with Christ but to rise with Christ and go to heaven? — that will depend on how well we live according to the gospel. On the other hand, in today’s passage from Colossians, we read something quite different. In baptism we are risen with Christ and now have the obligation to work for justice and peace. This is a huge expectation and a test of our ethical principles and willingness to cooperate with God. That’s what Abraham was being tested about. Reginald Fuller writes that prayer in the bible is not primarily [a] mystical [experience] but working with God to get the job done [by advancing God’s kingdom]. [1]

We cannot second guess or mess with God. While there’s not much we can do about natural disasters, we can do something about human made atrocities like bombing innocent people. This means we have to continue asking God for sustenance, forgiveness of sin and protection from temptations and evil. Our petitions are not only for ourselves but others throughout the world. [2]  To pray in this manner is to acknowledge God’s never ending mercy and love.

To be on the safe side, however, and to recognize the God of justice, we had better be sure to do our part in making this planet a safe place for all of God’s people. How? Just ask God, like the gospel said to do. Haggle God (respectfully of course) and good things are bound to happen
——

1 Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition) pp. 489-492

2 Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2000) 103-104


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Homily: July 18, 2010 – Getting Close to God


16 Sunday Ordinary Time – July 18, 2010 – Getting Close to God
Gn 18:1-10a, Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 5, Col 1:24-28, Lk 10:38-42

Today’s complete biblical texts

In the 2010 Tony Award winning drama Red by John Logan there is a scene where the painter Mark Rothko is asking his young assistant Ken “what do you see” in this painting? As the young man began to answer, Rothko interrupted.

“Wait. Stand closer. You’ve got to get close … Let it work on you … Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you … Let the picture do its work … but work with it. Meet it half way for God’s sake! Lean forward, lean into it. Engage with it!… Now, what do you see?” [1]

Maybe we can apply the same promptings to our relationships with God and one another. How close are we willing to get to God; to let God embrace us; so we can engage God? And, what happens to us when we do get close? Liturgical scholar Nathan Mitchell writes about the danger of getting too close to God.

“Christian worship invites us to see and hear God in the soiled language of humankind. If this offends us, it is only because we usually prefer to keep God at a distance. God is, after all, not only holy, good and beautiful but supremely dangerous as well. One, whose primal word is nothing more or less than a quivering human life, is dangerously close.” [2]

The bible is full of stories about how God intervenes in our lives. Sometimes God relies on others to make God’s presence known to us. That’s what happened in the first reading with the annunciation of the birth of Isaac to a bewildered Abraham and barren Sarah. When the three messengers from God got close what happened? Abraham and Sarah, who was working in the back of the tent, offered the strangers hospitality.

There’s no limit to the ways God gets close to us — in times of joy and trouble; through friends and even enemies. When God knocks on our doors we might find a stranger there — an abused, oppressed, trafficked, hunted, hungry, homeless person — standing there gaping at us. The message being delivered might be a difficult one for us to accept. How do we respond? Will we offer hospitality? How close are we willing to get?

Look at Martha and Mary in the gospel. What was their response when Jesus came knocking on their door? Martha offered him hospitality and then went to work in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Mary, the younger woman, sits on the floor next to Jesus perhaps to learn how to become one of his followers. Women in that culture had no power, no authority. They lived in the shadows of men. Like the woman who crashed the party in the gospel a couple of weeks ago (Luke 7:36-50), Mary in today’s passage broke a boundary and Jesus said she chose the better part and it will not be taken from her. It’s not that Martha was wrong to work in the kitchen. Martha and Mary were gracious hosts in different ways. Mary, however, boldly dared to get close to Jesus and, you know what happened? He embraced her.

Breaking boundaries for women today both in society and in our church is a never ending matter of justice. The psalmist today sang out and so did we, “The one who does justice will live in the presence of God.” To live in the presence of God; to embrace and engage with God is bound to upset the status quo … like Jesus did. In this context, it is very difficult to comprehend the recent updating of the Vatican’s list of grievous sins, which says that women seeking ordination or clergy who are compliant are as sinful as those who prey upon and abuse minors or disrespect the holy Eucharist or misuse the sacrament of reconciliation. The list is puzzling for those who seek justice for women.

The second reading reminds us that Jesus atoned for the injustices, the inequities, in the world by his cross. The invitation to share what that cross symbolizes has been made to you and me. Sometimes we get confused by what it means to pick up the cross. It doesn’t mean we must suffer physical pain in doing so. Who among us would wear a crown of thorns; to be nailed to a cross? However, we are called to recognize, to name, to embrace the suffering and oppression that the cross represents. Can we think of the cross in the way Rothko talked about his painting? Get close to it, embrace it, let it embrace you. Can we respond to the injustices by greeting and treating everyone with the hospitality made possible by the cross.

Will our efforts see results overnight? Not much at all. Listen to Mark Rothko again. He said to his apprentice, “Most of painting is thinking …. Ten percent is putting paint onto the canvas. The rest is waiting.”

We think a lot about what it means to be a Christian, a Catholic, in the world today. That’s why we gather in this holy place — to worship God and wrestle with human issues. We are taught to pray and be good to others. Splash the canvas with paint of faith, hope and love, if you will, and then wait. Wait. Know that good things will happen. Just wait.
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1 Logan, John. Red. (London: Oberon Books, 2009) Excerpted.

2 Nathan Mitchell, “The Spirituality of Christian Worship” in Spirituality Today (March 1982, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 5-17) Excerpted. http://www.spiritualitytoday.org/spir2day/823411mitchell.html


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Homily: July 11, 2010: Just Who Is Our Neighbor?


15 Sunday in Ordinary time – July 11, 2010 – Just Who Is Our Neighbor?

Deuteronomy 30:10-14, Psalm 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36-37, Colossians 1:15-20, Luke 10:25-37

Complete biblical texts

Last Sunday between the liturgies there was a conversation among a few parishioners about Catholic identity. What does it mean to be a Catholic today? Is there still a Catholic culture that defines us by our attitudes and behavior?

At one time we Catholics were easily identified not only by meatless Fridays and Ash Wednesday but also interior attitudes about sin and grace, devotions and Mass, guilt and confession. Others knew us by the way we conducted ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly, alone and with others. In many ways Catholicism was quite tribal.

The Word of God can come alive in our time by appreciating the tribal culture as well as the social and political context found in the stories in the bible. Why were the scriptures written the way they were? What was going on with the people then? Take, e.g., the first reading today. It says that the laws are no longer confined to stone tablets. They ought to be in our hearts, on our lips, second nature to us. How do people change once they accept the commandments?

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz cites the difference between Exodus Jews and Mt. Sinai Jews. Held captive by powerful nations some Jews were motivated to keep their tribal nature, to protect themselves from any threats to their survival. On the other hand those Jews who accepted the commandments and entered an agreement with God looked beyond themselves and they began to identify with the vulnerable members of society, Jewish or not. [1]

At one time Catholics were ostracized in these United States. We defended ourselves in a tribal way by working hard, clutching our catechisms, keeping our customs and sticking together. As we gained confidence in our identity we became influential players on the national stage. We now look for ways to align ourselves with those who are robbed and beaten down by power and greed; we work to help the oppressed underdog find a rightful place in society just like you and I have found our place.

Some are concerned, however, that Catholicism is not what it used to be. They ask are we Catholics so consumed by a larger social context that is it hard to distinguish us, as a group, from the rest of society? Have we become invisible? Are we so assimilated now that the influence of the Catholic church in society is on the wane? Where is the courageous leadership, the imaginative vision that can renew Catholicism today?

A reverence for the past is not an effective strategy for renewing identity. For most Catholics in this country the past is not so far away. Just talk to someone born after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. For them the history of the church is only 55 years old. To be relevant in our own time, without shirking our belief system, Catholics can learn from and collaborate with others, to create a vision for tomorrow. But first we have to shed our armor. Here is where the gospel is helpful.

This love commandment is not original with Jesus. He got it from the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. It teaches there can be no love of God that does not express itself in love of neighbor. This is not just about good will but about doing concrete acts for those in real need. [2]

Today’s psalm says, “Turn to the [ways of the] Lord and you will live.” What are those turning points in our lives, those events that shake us out of our routine way doing things? Having an accident, falling in love, graduating, getting a job, losing a job? What does it take to shake up the church? A scandal, substandard governance, fewer priests, parish mergers? Aren’t these turning points opportunities in work clothes that dare us to boldly embrace tomorrow?

The second reading speaks about Jesus making peace through the blood of his cross. This is precisely an invitation to Christians to identify with the imperfections, the sufferings, the injustices of the world symbolized by the cross and then to do something to restore creation.

We’ll never know what made that Samaritan stop to help the guy in the gutter. What is apparent is that it was a turning point in both lives. Remember Jews and Samaritans hated one another. The Samaritan broke through the barriers of tribal prejudice and religious custom to help a fellow human being get back on his feet. The Samaritan was not worried about what identification card the man had in his pocket. According to scholar Brendan Byrne, this is the work of the church. “The way to eternal life is to allow oneself to become an active instrument and a channel of … boundary breaking hospitality.” [3]

So who is our neighbor? How do we tear down the fences that keep us in our tidy comfortable tribal backyards?  Can we reawaken the sleeping Spirit — hearts murmuring, lips speaking, bodies acting, minds imagining — to tear down barriers of pride, parochialism and prejudice?

Catholicism, in many ways, is still a tribal religion. We’re still trying to find our way in society. Protecting ourselves from outsiders is not a good use of our energy. Rather, like those Jews who accepted the Sinai covenant, can we identify ourselves with the people who need our help, our resources, no matter who they are, how they live, or what they believe?
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1. See Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, “Tribal vs. Covenantal Jewish Identity” at http://www.interfaithfamily.com/news_and_opinion/synagogues_and_the_jewish_community/Tribal_vs_Covenantal_Jewish_Identity.shtml?rd=2

2.  Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition) pp. 485-86, 68-69.

3. Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2000) 101-102


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Homily: July 4, 2010 – Freedom Isn’t Free


14 Ordinary July 4, 2010 – Freedom isn’t Free
Isaiah 66:10-14c, Psalm 66:1-3, 4-7, 16, 20, Galatians 6:14-18, Luke 10:1-12, 17-20
Compete biblical texts

On this Independence Day weekend can we ask: are there any similarities between Christianity and the United States of America? Today’s Psalm 66 is a song of thanksgiving for national deliverance from oppression. The psalm was about the Israelites. Today we celebrate national deliverance from the oppression from an unjust monarch.  The psalm follows the Isaiah prophecy in the first reading about the restoration of the people of God after their long exile. It says the city of Jerusalem, like a mother comforting and nourishing her children, will welcome them with open arms. 1 What a wonderful image – motherhood as a minister of restoration.

One cannot help but recall the Emma Lazarus poem in the base of our Statue of Liberty. “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand glows world wide welcome ….” Such a similarity. Mother Jerusalem welcoming exiles. Mother Liberty welcoming tired and poor huddled masses to the land of freedom.

This weekend is a good time to reread the Declaration of Independence. While there is no specific mention of Christ or Christianity, there is a reference to nature’s God, that all people are created equal, endowed by the creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is an appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world for the integrity of our intentions and a there’s a reliance on the protection of divine Providence. Who makes sure that these statements, these principles, are honored in this country?

The gospels of the past two weekends were concerned with our identity as Christians and our response to the call from God to be disciples, missionaries. Those texts set the stage for today’s passage where we read how Jesus commissions missionaries to go out to the world. He warns them that they will meet up with unnerving situations; that their message will be rejected; that they will endure humiliation, suffering and even death. The good news is that this gospel ends on a positive, hopeful note.

In today’s gospel Jesus sent out 72 missionaries. Some sources say seventy, a number based on the Table of Nations in the Book of Genesis (10:1-32). In the world today there are 194 nations not counting Taiwan. There are 61 dependent areas (colonies) and 6 disputed territories (e.g., Gaza Strip and West Bank, Antarctica). 2 Peace and justice are illusive in all of these places.

As we give thanks to God for our deliverance from the tyranny of King George let us not forget the missionaries who brought the word of God to this land. Like the disciples of Jesus they too were met with suspicion, rejection, torture and death. Just think of those North American Martyrs who planted the seeds of faith nearby in the Mohawk Valley. One wonders would we be here today without their courage and missionary zeal. How did the disciples do in the time of Christ? How did the missionaries do who brought faith to this land? How are we doing?

With over 2 billion members Christianity today is the largest religious group on the planet. There are 1.1 billion Catholics. In the US 50% of the population say they are Christians. Catholics make up 25% of that number. 3 Thankfully the ecumenical movement and respect for other faiths brings us together to work for justice and peace. One would think that a united Christianity coupled with other faith traditions would make the world a peaceful place to live.

The history of Christianity is a bittersweet one. When one thinks of the crusades, the inquisitions and the colonization of indigenous peoples, the spread of Christianity is a mixture of good news and bad. Today, as clashes continue over human rights, power and governance, the graces and blessings of Christianity and, in our case, Catholicism, continue to fill us with gratitude and hope.

When one thinks of the history of the United States the same is true. The spread of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has been mixed with acts of civil war, violations of human rights, and trespassing on the principles of subsidiarity around the world. Still the graces and blessings of life in this country fill us with pride, fortitude and hope for a better tomorrow.

Our freedoms — whether as citizens of this nation or as members of a Christian community — came about because of the vision, courage and sacrifice of pioneer missionaries, civic founders and those who continue to spend their lives fighting against evil at home and abroad. The quest for the new creation called for in today’s second reading is never ending. People around the world and in our country still suffer indignities at the hands of poverty and oppression. We cannot stand by quietly, enjoying whatever bounty we have while others have little or nothing at all.

Freedom is not free. There are responsibilities connected with working for liberty. As citizens in this country we have an obligation to be pro-active in issues that jeopardize human rights at home and abroad. As baptized members of this Church we have an obligation to question any injustices our religion is liable for whether against our own members or those of other religious beliefs. In these efforts we are mindful that our joy and satisfaction is measured less by our achievements and more by our loving relationship with God and one another. 4

As we celebrate our independence this weekend with fireworks, barbecues and visits with family and friends let us find a moment, just a moment, to think about new ways to become better people, to advance the gospel message in a country, in a religion, founded on faith and trust in the God of all nations.
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1 Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition) pp. 482-284.

2 The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2010

3 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2122.html

4 Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2000) 95-96