Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 10/31/10: Take Off The Masks


31 Ordinary – October 31, 2010 – Take Off The Masks
Wisdom 11:22-12:2, Psalm 145:1-2, 8-11, 13,14, 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2, Luke 19:1-10

Complete biblical texts

Ever wonder why Halloween is always the last day of October? The word is a shortened version of All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day, which is always November 1st. The tradition is a mix of Catholic rituals and European folk traditions. In ancient Ireland summer ended on October 31, a day when it was thought the dead would return to earth to haunt the living. The Celts wore costumes, created a ruckus and did damage in their own towns to ward off the demons. By the 19th century any leftover religious or mystical connotations gave way to what is now our neighborhood children’s holiday.

One wonders if evil ghosts are prowling around us today. Attack advertisements during this mid-term election mask the true identities and agendas of political candidates. Raging floods, cholera epidemics, weak economies across the globe are indicators of ghoulish times. Credible research points out the restlessness in mainline religions across like ours. We hear voices of sanity and or fear howling at each other. One wonders how we humans might rise above the frays to find some treats among the tricks. What kinds of costumes do we have to wear to ward off evil in the world today? On the other hand, is it time to take off our masks to see ourselves as we really are?

In today’s gospel we find a short guy climbing a tree to get a good look at Jesus. As the story goes, the wealthy Zacchaeus collected taxes for a living. It was not a popular job (even then) and his neighbors labeled him a sinner. What did Zacchaeus see from that tree? He saw someone who was different, someone who was not affirming the status quo, someone who reached out to the fringes of society, someone who could excite large crowds. What did Jesus see in Zacchaeus? Someone who had questions about life. Zacchaeus was looking for something and the itinerant Jewish missionary gave him hope. Jesus responded and invited himself to his house.

At the door you might imagine Jesus saying, “Trick or treat!” Only it was Zacchaeus who was wearing a costume. Jesus saw through the mask and referring to Zacchaeus’ ancestors said, take off your costume, remember who you are and where you’ve come from, don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Now, follow me, “I am making all things new.” [1] Touched by Jesus, Zacchaeus was transformed and Jesus declared right there the whole family would be saved. Zacchaeus offered hospitality to Jesus and received hospitality back from God. [2]

What does God see in us? A world spinning out of control driven by greed and poverty? A country powered by opportunities out of reach for most? A church who for some is still adrift? Family life confounded by media moguls? Is that what God sees in us?

What do we see from high a top a tree? A world cradled in the hands of a faithful God? A country built by human hands and ingenuity? A church that matters in the middle of our lives with all the happiness and messiness? Households shaped by love, respect and trust? Aren’t these the things we see from the tree?

We can’t stay in the tree. It is time to climb down, take off our costumes and masks, open wide the door to Christ, and usher in a vision of something new, “Dancing to the life around us.” [3]

It may be too late to change our costumes for this evening. It is unlikely that we can bring back a religious meaning to Halloween. This All Hallows Eve we can restore an old tradition of picking a favorite saint. There’s a whole bunch of them; many named by our church and countless others living among us and those who are dead. Let’s see in that saint an image of ourselves; one that can scare the evil spirits away. No need to wear a mask. All that matters is that we see ourselves as we are, like God does. If we like that image, what a treat. If not, then we open wide the door to let someone else in who will change our lives and bring salvation to the entire global family.
______

1 Cooney, Rory. “All Things New” in Gather, 1994, 427

2 Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2000) 152

3 Haugen, Marty. “Sing Out, Earth and Skies” in Gather, 1994, 499


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Homily-10/24/10: Our Mission From God


30th Sunday Ordinary Time – October 24, 2010 – Our Mission from God

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18, Psalm 34:2-3, 17-19, 23, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

Complete biblical texts

Supposing we changed the prayer of the Pharisee in this gospel just a bit. Thank God I am not like that geek with the green hair. Thank God I don’t dress like she does. Thank God I am not like those people in that religion. Thank God I am not like the rest of humanity. Some scholars suggest the prayer of the Pharisee was not very impressive in the eyes of God. In our eyes it needs to be rewritten.

As we know, stereotypes are generalizations or assumptions that people create about other people based on images. Advertisers, the news and entertainment media are quite guilty of stereotyping, e.g., women, elderly persons, foreigners and even our children. They do it so well many people believe what they see and hear is true even though it is false. [1] Stereotyping clogs rivers of justice and any attempt to wash oppression away. [2]

We see this happening around the globe as tribes and countries fight each other for land and power. We see it in this country as minorities are attacked because of prejudice and hatred. Politicians demean each other rather than talk about serving the common good. Like the Pharisee some humans excel at building themselves up by putting others down. Psychologists tell us, once ingrained in our brain, our image of others is hard to erase. The documentary Death in Gaza dramatically depicts how Palestinian boys are imbued with a hatred for Jews from the time they learn to walk and talk.

There are counterpoints to stereotyping. The Festival of Nations is being held in the Empire State Plaza today. Organized in 1972 this Festival presents a glimpse of the world and shows how diverse peoples can work together. It involves children so they can appreciate their heritage without stereotyping others who are different from them.

Today is Mission Sunday a day for the people of God to renew a commitment to proclaim the Gospel, to embrace a more missionary perspective of the world, to shun parochialism, to evangelize rather than proselytize. This coming week young adults and old from across this nation will gather at the Mission Congress in Albuquerque, NM to discuss the cultural diversity of today’s Church and how missionaries can best carry out their work in this country and others.

We were once a mission church in this country and there are still many areas that are missions. Do we Catholics still see ourselves as a mission church with no influence in society? Is our identity rooted in the way we respond to voices crying for help from the largest Christian religion in the world?

The first reading from Sirach is from a collection of biblical texts known as wisdom literature. Todays section suggests that ethical practice is just as important as ritual observance. Worshiping God here and elsewhere and engaging in works of justice are part of the same mission. They cannot be thought of separately. Whether on the streets or in our homes, whether with family or with outcasts, what is the image we portray for others to see? Are we Catholics easily stereotyped?

Both events mentioned earlier involve children and young adults. Today in the United States is also the celebration of the twenty-fifth Anniversary of World Youth Day.  Earlier this year, Benedict, the bishop of Rome, said to young adults, “If you are willing, the future lies in your hands, because the talents and gifts that the Lord has placed in your hearts, shaped by an encounter with Christ, can bring real hope to the world!” [3] This is an invitation to all of us young and old alike.

God has chosen us to pick up where the peacemaker Jesus left off. We do so, not by elevating our religion above others, but by walking humbly hand in hand on an interfaith journey. We do so, not by selecting one moral issue over another, but by treating every injustice as part of a single garment. We pick up where Jesus left off, not by looking down on others who are different from us, but by viewing all people equally through a lens of compassion.

Jesus reversed expectations in today’s gospel. He said the tax collector who felt the need for mercy would be justified while the proud Pharisee who praised himself would be humbled. Perhaps we too can turn the tables.

________

1 http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/problem/stereoty.htm

2 Haugen, Marty. “Let Justice Roll Like a River” in Gather, 1994, 715

3 Message of Benedict 16 on the Occasion of the Twenty-Fifth World Youth Day, March 28, 2010


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Homily-10/17/10: God’s Juries and Attorneys


29 Sunday Ordinary Time – October 17, 2010 – God’s Juries and Attorneys
Exodus 17:8-13, Psalm 121:1-8, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2, Luke 18:1-8

Complete biblical texts.

How would any one of us feel if we were sentenced to life in prison without ever really having committed a crime? You probably have read about Jamie and Gladys Scott, two sisters who have been locked up in a Mississippi prison for 16 years. They are serving double consecutive life sentences for a robbery committed by three others who were released a long time ago. No one can figure why these women are still incarcerated. At the trial the sisters were not allowed to testify in their own defense. [1]

Wrongful convictions happen all the time. Just last week a new Permanent Commission on Sentencing Reform was created to recommend revisions in the sentencing laws here in New York State. The goal in part is to promote fair trials, establish policies to protect society, reduce repeat crimes and improve rehabilitation opportunities for inmates. [2]

Today’s gospel tells a story about a widow who, because she was an unmarried woman, did not stand a chance of a fair trial. The word widow in Hebrew means “someone without a voice,” a silent one. Breaking the social boundaries of her time, the woman in the gospel chose to represent herself.

United Church of Christ pastor Lizette Merchán Pinilla speaks about the story in this way. “The parable is for women, children, and the disenfranchised to have equal rights, duties, and the voice … to take part in the justice system, with justice for all, not just for some. [3] The judge in today’s parable gave into the widow’s persistence not because she wore him down as the text leads us to believe but because she shamed him into acting justly. Studies in Mediterranean culture at that time indicate that a person’s honor was extremely important. This judge did not want “his honor” to be shamed.  [4]

One does not have to enter prisons to see how many humans in the world have been sentenced wrongfully and have no way out of what holds them captive. Women in Congo sentenced to a life of continuously being raped; young children right here in the United States sentenced to child abduction and human trafficking; teenagers sentenced to a cell of chemical addiction with no way out. Factory workers here and abroad sentenced to long hours, low wages and no heath care. There are many more examples. Think of a few.

We believe in this church that, in the big picture and in the long run, God is a just judge and that, somehow, in some way, fair play will prevail in the world. The justice minded Jesus, the revelation of God, was obsessed with treating all persons with respect especially those who lived on the fringes on society. It cost him his life.

What is our role? How much more can we do especially with so much pressing in on all of us? In one way we might think of ourselves as a jury, humbly and prayerfully making good decisions about other people’s lives and our own. How carefully do we make decisions on a day to day basis? In another way we could see ourselves as attorneys representing all persons in our society with the same persistence that the woman showed in the gospel.

How do we carry out these roles? What are we to do? The first reading could be a suggestion to keep our bodies upright and strong. We take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. The psalm reminds us that help is on the way; that our belief in a Guardian God inspires us to be hopeful and patient. The passage from Timothy’s student encourages us to study the bible, to be faithful to what we have learned, and to put that faith into action.

Some scripture commentaries on these readings suggest we are to persist in prayer. However, theologian, Luis Fernando Garcia-Viana writes, “Prayer does not remove us from the world but rather [it] directs us toward it – to transform it – according to the criteria and values of the kin-dom proclaimed by Jesus.” [5] Again, the kin-dom is that time and place on earth when all people respect and care for one another.

Yesterday was World Food Day [6] and youths and adults from this parish worked at the Regional Food Bank [7] backing up their faith with action. Our own food pantry continues to serve thousands every year. Hunger, too, sentences people all over this planet to a lifetime of misery and eventual death.

There are many opportunities in this community for all of us to think about sentencing. Do we pass judgment on each other quickly, wrongfully, without even realizing it? How do we respond when being hurt by someone? With vengeance or forgiveness? What about the sentences we pass on ourselves? Sometimes we can be too hard on ourselves. Is there room for reform in our own lives? Building the kin-dom of God on earth is a difficult challenge. It not only requires us to pray and speak for those who have no voice … it requires us to be just.

__________

1 Herbert, Bob. “The Mississippi Pardons” in The New York Times, October 16, 2010, A19

2 http://www.legal-aid.org/en/mediaandpublicinformation/inthenews/seymourjamesnamedtochiefjudgescommissiononsentencing.aspx

3 Merchán Pinilla, Lizette “Ask Boldly, Live Justly” http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/october-17-2010.html

4 Source: John J. Pilch. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle C (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1997) pp. 152-154.

5 Ibid. In Merchán Pinilla, Lizette. Source: Comentario al Nuevo Testamento

6 http://www.fao.org/getinvolved/worldfoodday/en/

7 http://www.rfbneny.com/


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Homily – October 10, 2010: Catholic Perseverance


28th Sunday Ordinary Time – October 10, 2010 – Catholic Perseverance
2 Kings 5:14-17, Ps 98:1-4, 2 Tim 2:8-13, Luke 17:11-19

Complete biblical texts.

Note: This homily was given on October 10, 2010, at St. Joseph the Worker Church, Liverpool, NY on the occasion of that parish’s one hundred and twentieth anniversary.

The one hundred and twentieth anniversary of this Catholic community is a time to reminisce about the achievements of the past. Surely there is much to be grateful for. You have been and still are a blessing to Liverpool and the Diocese of Syracuse in so many ways.

Now, what’s next? Where do you go from here? What path can our church take to advance the kin-dom of God on earth. Kin-dom [1] is a word used to describe a time and place on earth where all people respect and care for one another — like kin. We believe, because of Jesus Christ, that kin-dom is here. We are also smart enough to realize it is far from being complete.

All the lepers in today’s gospel were healed by Jesus. It was one way Jesus proclaimed the kin-dom of God in his time. Only one leper came back to say thank you.  This biblical text is about the hospitality of Jesus and the gratitude of the Samaritan man. We have been blessed by God. We continue to be grateful. The gospel is a story that presents an opportunity for us to reflect on the hospitality we show others as our church continues to find its proper place in an ever changing world.

At one time Catholic leaders believed the Catholic church was an exemplary model for organizing and governing society. Today our religion, like others, struggles to be relevant in a country, in an age, where shifting cultural habits and traditional value systems clash with each other. Studies show that religious life in America is fluid; that as much as 44% of people who consider themselves to be religious no longer practice the religion in which they were raised. [2]

The challenge for our church is to establish a presence in the public square to counter what we perceive to be wrong in society and to do so with humility, bold conviction and arm in arm with other faith traditions which seek to do the same. However, to regain our credibility we cannot overlook issues in our own house. Here are five concerns we can treat to keep our church healthy, to stand it upright again. (Note to readers: Originally there were ten concerns, to simulate the 10 lepers in today’s gospel. In the interest of time, I list five.)

1. Abuse of power. It will take our church a long time to heal and be healed of the deep wounds caused by the misconduct of clergy. While this is a problem the chief officers in our church are attempting to remedy, the impact of the scandal has already emptied many pews in this nation and in other countries as well. So. How can we all work together to rebuild the image of our church as an institution that, in spite of its imperfections, continues to value and respect all human beings?

2. Ministry. Visionaries, leaders and hard workers are essential if any institution like our church is to survive. No one lay person, deacon, priest or bishop can do it all alone. An imbalance of power in any religious institution will, sooner or later, deprive its members of reaching their full potential. All persons, clergy and laity together, are called by baptism to be coworkers in the vineyard. So. How can we discuss, define and distinguish the definitions of vocation and occupation to open all ministries in the church to men and women alike?

3. Women. In this country more women than ever are chief executive officers of huge corporations; they hold Cabinet offices dealing with domestic and international affairs; and now three women sit on the Supreme Court. Further, some studies indicate women have outpaced men in education and earnings growth. [3] Our church says that all persons are to be treated with dignity and equality. So. How can our religion consider expanding the roles women play in the liturgical life and the day to day governance of the Church?

4. Millennial Generation. The future of our church, as with other mainline religions, rests with young adults. However, reaching those under the age of thirty is a challenge. While many in this generation seek to be spiritual and get closer to God there is some indication that, for many of them, mainline religions are “uninspiring, restrictive, culturally bland and too institutionally focussed.” [4] So. What can our church do to make the stories and celebrations of our faith, relevant to young adults who are tethered to their smart phones and whose identities and social networks are often shaped by Facebook and Twitter?

5. Generation X, Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation. Those who are older than 30 have often been considered the backbone of their religions in some way through time, contributions and talents. However, in some regions like the Northeast, the Catholic membership is dwindling due to old age or demographic shifts. Many Catholics are anonymous and/or disenfranchised. They just do not participate actively. So. How can we Catholics restore pride in our identity and our reputation for doing good work in our vast network of parishes, hospitals, schools and charities?

It is unlikely that an extreme makeover in our church will happen soon. Membership in the church requires patience and steadfastness. There is no privilege or reward. Trusting that God will do something good depends on how well we respond to God’s grace and other human beings. Like any unconditional covenant, establishing a trusting and loving long term relationship with God and one another takes time.

The first reading this weekend says that Naaman was cured of his disease because he plunged himself into the Jordan River, the very same river that Jesus would be baptized in later. This anniversary weekend, any weekend, is a good time for all of us to renew, to plunge into our baptismal call to work hard to advance God’s kin-dom on earth. The second reading is encouraging. It tells us “if we persevere” we will live with Christ.

Memories of our achievements will fade away quickly if the stories of our faith, our actions and trust in God do not speak to others in a contemporary way. If we do not embrace and practice the faith and ministries entrusted to us we let each other down. Nostalgia is not a good strategy for greeting the future.

The parish where I worship on Sundays is also celebrating its anniversary this year. St. Vincent de Paul Church in Albany, NY is one hundred and twenty-five years old. A couple of weeks ago Betsy Rowe-Manning, our parish life director, challenged us. She called for a “holy daring” to build up the kin-dom of God here on earth. Moving forward to a new age can we together envision a church, a country, a world where all creatures of God are treated with “unbounded hospitality?” [5]

Congratulations on your parish’s anniversary! Blessed by God you and your ancestors have blessed so many of God’s creatures. There is much for you to be proud of as Catholics but there is still much more work to do.

______

1 Cuban theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz from Drew University is credited with coining the word kin-dom some time ago.

2 http://pewforum.org/Faith-in-Flux.aspx

3 Frey Richard and Cohn, D’Vera “New Economics of Marriage: The Rise of Wives” In Pew Research Center Publications, January 19, 2010.  http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1466/economics-marriage-rise-of-wives?src=prc-latest&proj=peoplepress

4 Words used by S. Cohen and A. Kelman in their study on Jews under the age of 35 entitled The Continuity of Discontinuity.

5 A phrase used by scripture scholar, Brendan Byrne.


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Homily – October 3, 2010: Jesus, Gandhi and Respect for Life


27th Sunday Ordinary Time – October 3, 2010 – Jesus, Gandhi and Respect for Life
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4, Psalm 95: 1-2, 6-9, 2 Timothy 1: 6-8, 13-14, Luke 17: 5-10
Complete biblical texts

Last week, Arthur Penn died. Although Mr. Penn directed many award winning movies like “The Miracle Worker” obituaries remember him for the way he shaped graphic violence in the film “Bonnie and Clyde.” Some wrote he helped usher in a new era in American film making. [1] For years, social scientists and media moguls have debated whether violence in movies, video games and television shows contributes to aggressive feelings and behaviors among young and old people. Both sides present compelling arguments. Whatever our opinions are on this issue we acknowledge that anger, rage, hatred, violence and now cyberbullying affects the quality of life all around us.

For some, today, Respect Life Sunday is a time to grow in awareness of these issues. We reflect on what it means to nurture reverence for all life — in prisons and shelters, on city streets and battlefields, inside and outside the womb, in hospital rooms and nursing homes, in neighborhoods and in our families, in our homes and dormitories. This day makes us aware and respectful of the rights each person has as we struggle with our own lives. Further, we ask, what role does God play in these situations?

The prophet Habakkuk (whose name means to wrestle or embrace) wondered the same thing, as recorded in the first reading this morning. “If God is good, why is there so much wrong in the world?” Habakkuk is outraged over violence, discord, injustice and believes that God is not doing a darn thing about it. God answers back to Habbakuk, in so many words: to be faithful is to act according to what you believe. [2]

We gather often in this sacred place for different reasons. To bless and thank God; to celebrate our encounters with God in the sacraments. To pray for ourselves and others around the world. We invoke citizens of heaven to intercede for us. We meet and greet familiar faces and new ones. Here in this church, for an hour or so, we enjoy a peaceful, hospitable existence. Some call it make believe. We believe it is a model, albeit imperfect, for living outside these walls. We wonder then, like Habakkuk, why is there so much wrong in the world? Why can’t life out there be like life here in this sacred place, made holy because you are here? What do we do about it and can we expect anything in return?

In the gospel this morning the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. He surprises them with his reply. To grow in faith is very important. However, he challenged them to turn their faith into action and to expect no reward for doing so. The second reading reiterates the challenge Jesus made. We hear that God gives us gifts to be used for the common good. Now we are to keep that vision alive for as long as it takes and find ways to make it relevant to the contemporary world. [3] For the life of the world we will stand together … we will cry for justice. [4]

The psalm said we should not harden not our hearts when the voice of God speaks to us. That voice is not literally God’s. It could be the voice from a college student being bullied, a women in a unwanted pregnancy, a family member addicted to drugs, a prisoner unjustly incarcerated, a neighbor falling into bankruptcy. These are the voices we should not harden our hearts to.

This biblical text also summons us not to be cowards in society but bold, brazen, tireless advocates of what Jesus taught. The link between all of these passages this morning is this: if we are worried about violence and disrespect in the world, if we want to live in a peaceful society, we will work for justice. While in the United Kingdom Pope Benedict echoed this call when he said, “Religious faith is not a private experience or hobby, and it must be active in promoting justice and truth.” [5] It is an axiom to be followed in our church, our society, our own lives.

Yesterday was the International Day of Non-Violence, adopted by the United Nations in 2007 to honor the birth date of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). [6] Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence inspired many people, organizations and countries around this fragile globe to work tirelessly for freedom and equality. Like Habbakuk, Jesus and Gandhi, peacemakers today make the very same plea. Their message is not about being rewarded for doing something good on this planet. The message is to hear the voices of God and respond to them; it is a message about how each one of us is called to create a time and a space in life here and now where there is respect for all creatures.
_____

1 http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-penn-20100930,0,3589436.story

2 Keathley, Hampton. ”Habakkuk” in bible.org. http://bible.org/seriespage/habakkuk

3 Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition) pp. 492, 509-10.

4 Haas, David. “For the Life of the World” in Gather (Chicago: GIA, 1994, 801)

5 Leachman, James. “Cast Out Your Nets” The Tablet. http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/15344

6 http://ssa.unic.org/2010/09/30/message-of-the-un-secretary-general-on-international-day-of-non-violence-2-october-2010/