Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

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

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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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Author: Richard S. Vosko

Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA, is an internationally known sacred space planner. He is a presbyter in the Diocese of Albany who enjoys the classroom as much as the pulpit. On Sundays he presides at worship at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY. For more information on Vosko’s background, his projects, publications and speaking engagements please go to his website. For his homilies and occasional musings about religion, art and architecture go to his blog. Comments, questions and suggestions are always welcomed there.

5 thoughts on “Homily: July 11, 2010: Just Who Is Our Neighbor?

  1. I was not at Mass this weekend so reading your homily was even more significant. It gave me something to ponder and to hope I will see my neighbor many times this week THANKS ELLEN HALLIGAN

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  2. i got more out of this homily at this second reading – there are layers to this. but it did make me think about Jer. 31:31, about replacing the stony heart and placing the law within their hearts. it’s kind of another layer on the people of the covenant, and i think, in jeremiah’s case, a sinai people….i will be their g-d and they will be my people. i will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more. that sort of completes a circle of ‘neighborliness’ between the Lord and the people, which if we live our own lives as christians, could be carried forward.
    This of course, is the absolute most difficult thing to accomplish as a christian! I’ve always felt that forgiveness is the hardest part of christianity, because in your own heart, you may not want to forgive and be neighborly. you may feel like walking past the guy in the gutter…..but you can’t. everyday i am reminded that this is no easy walk. the trick, i guess, is to forgive myself for my own imperfections, and try to reach out in neighborliness.

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  3. I was struck with several of your questions, “Is there a Catholic Culture?” and “Are we invisible?” These questions made me think about us as Catholics and maybe we shouldn’t be invisible and maybe we should, as a group, be strong and proud about our faith tradition and less apologetic. History has shown we, as Catholics, have not always done the right thing but we haven’t always done the wrong thing either. As humans we all struggle with our humanity but what continues to amaze me are the wonderful things that can be and are done by flawed people.

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  4. I, too, was not at Mass last weekend, so reading the homily is not as stirring as hearing. “Can we re-awaken the sleeping Spirit… to tear down barriers of pride, parochialism and prejudice”? I think about your question as it relates to my ministry and the merger of two Catholic health systems with a system that is not sponsored in a faith based tradition. How do we come together? How do we let go of our past “tribalism”, yet bring all that is good forward for the people of the community? So far, I have tried to find common ground; values shared among us all, like compassion, reverence for each person, excellence in patient care. I also keep my eyes focused on the “big picture”, on the future vision of our merged organizations’ intention to improve the health care of the community. So, learning from this experience, I guess the Catholic identity challenge anywhere we find it is to look for what we do share in common, rather than thinking we have a “corner on the market”, keep the big picture in mind, which for me is summed up in “May they all be one”…putting my energies toward that BHAG, while remaining rooted in the theology of Eucharist and Catholic Social Teaching.

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  5. Please forgive my self-focusing, but reading Fr. Vosko’s message triggered images from last February. A local church production of “Godspell” brought a new light to my experience of ‘neighbor.’ In the Good Samaritan scene, I was one of the robbers. The other robber and I are living in worlds apart. I am a recently retired Methodist minister and my fellow actor is a sophomore in high school. Worlds apart: age/experiences/culture/religious identity/socio-economic status, etc, and yet we were neighbors in Luke’s portrayal of the ‘guy-in-the-gutter.’ Ironic how the Gospel lesson teaches we “old dogs some new tricks” – gaining an appreciation for the life of my neighbor/fellow actor.
    So the scriptural challenge for me is to embrace each encounter with another and to do all I can to ensure that the encounter will be a blessing to both my ‘neighbor’ and myself. And this includes the embrace with Abba.

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