Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily for March 27, 2011 – Harden Not Your Hearts

3 Lent A – March 27, 2011 – Harden Not Your Hearts [1]

Exodus 17:3-7, Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9, Romans 5:1-2, 5-8, John 4:5-42

Complete biblical texts for today

Over ten thousand people have died because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Sadly, some comedians joked about it. Libyan citizens are being shot by their own soldiers. One preacher in this country asked why should we worry about Arabs killing Arabs. Teachers and other workers are losing their jobs in our State. One commentator said, so what. Many aren’t doing their job well anyway.

What do people in other parts of the world mean to us? What does a less fortunate person have to do with our lives? Why should their problems concern us?

Indifference and isolationism in the world is a huge problem. Yvette Alt Miller wrote: “Indifference, bordering on cruelty, is so often the norm. People disassociate [themselves from one another]. Other people become invisible. Our concern for them withers.” [2] Apathy about the welfare of others harms us as human beings and as Christians. When one person suffers at the hands of injustice, a natural disaster or bad luck all people suffer.

Although scholars doubt it ever happened today’s gospel is a familiar story. John, who worked in Samaria after the resurrection, probably created the story to reach out to the Samaritans in his community. [3] What purpose does the story have for us today?

Jesus broke the boundaries of cultural traditions and Jewish laws by speaking to a foreign woman and drinking from a cup considered by Jewish law to be impure. [4] Commonly this gospel is used to remind us that all are welcomed to drink living, life-giving water and that Jesus Christ is that wellspring. That is what we believe. What about the woman? Did Jesus learn anything from her that might also teach us something about our relationships with God and others?

Although the woman is nameless in the story we now know her as Photina, which means light. She is a saint in the Orthodox Church. Was Jesus enlightened by this woman in any way? Both of them were bold in their actions. He spoke to a foreigner but, let’s not forget, so did she. Supposing Photina showed no interest in Jesus? What if she refused his request for a drink for fear of breaking the law? The woman had the same compassion for Jesus that he had for her. Both of them were thirsty just like you and I are thirsty for a life that is dignified and justified. We thirst for a good God just like God thirsts for us to be good people. [5] God wants all people to share in the gift of life-giving water.

In today’s gospel we learn that being indifferent or insensitive toward others is not a good way to live. Whom do we see in this woman at the well? Do we see a single parent struggling to raise children? Do we see a young child living on the streets? Do we see a drug addict of a different race confined in jail? How do we respond?

In writing about our country’s fiscal problems, David Brooks wrote, “Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise.” [6] We could say that our citizenship in the kin-dom of God is built on love, our care for others. This calling prompts us to give others a drink of fresh, life-giving water when their wells run dry. Indifference has no place in Christianity.


1 From Psalm 95:8, sung during today’s liturgy

2 Miller, Yvette Alt. “Itamar: Why Many Don’t Care” in

3 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1995, 55-57

4 Newsom, Carol and  Ringe, Sharon. The Women’s Bible Commentary (London: Westminster John Knox) 1992, 295

5 The idea for this phrase came after reading Kavanaugh, John. The Word Embodied: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures (Maryknoll: Orbis Books) 1998, 36-39

6 Brooks, David. “The Modesty Manifesto” in The New York Times. March 11, 2011.


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Homily for March 20, 2011 – Transfiguring the World

2 Lent A – March 20, 2011 – Transfiguring the World

Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm: 33:4-5,18-120, 22, 2 Timothy 1:8b-10, Matthew 17:1-9

Complete biblical texts

Today our Jewish friends celebrate the festival of Purim. It commemorates how Jews in ancient Persia were saved from a ruthless plot to annihilate all of them. The story of how the young woman Esther rescued her people, by risking her own life, is told in the Book of Esther. Curiously, this is the only Book in the whole bible that does not mention the word “God.” We might deduce from this story that God often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways that appear to be chance, coincidence or luck. [1]

The season of Lent is a time to focus on our journeys of faith. Although similar to the journeys of our ancestors ours may be filled with less intrigue and danger. Still this time is an opportunity for us to ask how does God act in our lives? Is there really a plan? Is it all about luck?

It must be a question that the people of New Orleans, Haiti, Libya, and now Japan are asking. Those who have lost jobs and their homes in this country are asking the same question. Why me? Why now? On the other hand, it could also be a question for lottery winners, newly weds, new parents, those who have jobs and those who are not sick. Why am I so lucky when others are not?

The first reading from the Book of Genesis recounts the story of God acting through Abraham and Sarah in the creation of a great nation, Israel. Scholars tell us this passage and today’s psalm show how the “human response in faith, hope and obedience paves the way for the effective working of God in history.” [2]

We have a role to play in whatever that mysterious plan of God might be. While we have no power over natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, it is imperative that we act when they do strike. When dictators deprive people of liberty, as citizens of the world and the kin-dom of God we are required to help in some way … as Esther did to save her people in Persia long ago.

The specific question for us is phrased in the second reading: how do we answer the call to be Christian, that mysterious invitation from God? It is the summons that our catechumens (elect), Ann and Kelly, are responding to as they are being initiated into the Church. Rob, a candidate for full membership in our Church, continues his Christian journey.

An answer is found in part in today’s gospel about the transfiguration of Jesus where he appears along side Moses and Elijah. This story is hard to explain in a rational way. Matthew is the only evangelist who sees this event as a vision. Today we might call it an alternative state of consciousness.

Throughout his version of the gospel Matthew sees Jesus as a second Moses who led people from captivity to freedom. The power Jesus had over demons and sickness gained him honor in his culture but also created suspicion. He was considered a political revolutionary and would be put to death. [3] One could say, Jesus was courageously responding to what he believed to be the call, in a long line of calls, from the God who would eventually liberate him.

All of us are busy. Can we find just a moment or two during Lent to ask ourselves just how do we respond to God in our lives? Is it guided by a desire to assure our own salvation? Is it to advance the quality of life for others upon whom tragedy, hardship and injustice have fallen? Like Esther and Jesus what are we willing to risk to transfigure the world we live in?


1 Judaism 101

2 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Third Edition (Liturgical Press. 2006), 44-45

3 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1995, 52-54


Homily for March 6, 2011 – A Test of Wills

Ninth Sunday Ordinary Time March 6, 2011 – A Test of Wills

Deuternomy 11:18, 26-28, 32, Psalm 31:2-4, 17, 25, Romans 3:21-25,28, Matthew 7:21-27

Complete biblical texts

A little over two years ago the nation, maybe the world, was captivated by the way Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed that airplane in the Hudson River. The event centered on the pilot’s ability to make decisions instinctively. Can you imagine if he had to open a flight regulation book before deciding what to do? Most of you may remember what he said afterwards, “Everything I had done in my career had in some way been a preparation for that moment.” [1]

The sermon on the mount which we have been listening to for the last few weeks offers us a blueprint for making decisions in our lives. We first heard the beatitudes. Many of you shared your own versions right here in church. Today, the end of that sermon adds another provocative layer — the one who does the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven.

The reading from Deuteronomy is even more severe; follow God’s commands and you will be blessed; ignore them and you will be cursed. This language can make even the most faithful Christians shake in their boots. The scripture texts this morning prompt a very good question: how do we use our free will to make decisions in our lives and how do these decisions measure up to what is traditionally called God’s will? For some, this may not even be a question. Many are so busy with day to day concerns we often do not think about God’s will.

The philosophers at the time of Jesus tended to think in terms of dualities — blessed or cursed, this way or that way, right or wrong. There was little if any wiggle room and adherence to laws was considered imperative. Jesus was most likely aware of this understanding when he offered a new way of living. The author of the second reading wrote that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Modern research about our brain, e.g., the field of neuroscience, tells us that we are more complex humans; that we make decisions based on many resources — our bodies, our minds, our hearts as well as our life experiences.

Jonah Lehrer in his book on How We Decide wrote, “All decisions are made in the context of the real world.” [2] We cannot discern the will or presence of God in isolation. Further, mysteriously and unconsciously, our imaginations, our emotions guide us in the decisions we make about the will of God for ourselves and for others. [3]

Of course, the potential for making bad decisions is always there. We do need one another in trying to make the best decisions. We need a good self image to make choices with confidence.

Nevertheless, God’s will, as it is called, is no big secret. It is already outlined for us in many sacred texts. “Listening to and acting on those words” (Matthew 7:24) is an essential part of our decision making. Scripture scholar Reginald Fuller adds another step. Once we buy into and accept what Jesus taught us and did for us “its effects must be shown forth, not in charismatic achievements or in observance of the minutiae of the rabbinic law, but in works of love and mercy.” [4] This is where God’s will is found.

How do we go about it? Here is what some of those who responded to my blog said about the will of God. One person wrote — just listen. This can be a challenge for those who are constantly on the go, who do not have time to be still. Another wrote about feeling God’s presence in times of trouble and doubt. It’s a voice in my head, that person said. Another replied, we are already in God’s kin-dom; so everything we do is based on love; it gets lived out in acts of justice, peace, caring for the world and one another. Someone quoted St. Ignatius who thought God’s will was exactly each person’s deepest desire or passion.

The pilots that glided that plane into the Hudson River did so by using instincts based on years of experience. In those moments all they wanted to do was survive. Their journey was interrupted. Our journeys with God can meet obstacles as well. The main thing is that we see ourselves as passionate companions with God focussed on helping one another survive.

The season of Lent can be a good time to match the choices we make with what we understand to be the will of God. If we take time to listen and watch over the next few weeks we might discover we are already doing the right thing. If not, then we have some work to do.



2 Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 2009 xvi-xvii

3 McBrien, Richard. “Discernment and Spiritual Direction” in Catholicism (Minneapolis: Winston Press) 1981, 1089

4 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Liturgical Press. 2006 (Third Edition), 136-139