Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 26 February 2012 – Build a Strong Ark


1 Lent B – February 26, 2012 – Build a Strong Ark

Genesis 9:8-15, Psalm 25:4-9, 1 Peter 3:18-22 and Mark 1:12-15

Complete biblical texts for today

“The sea sends sailors crashing on the rocks, as easily as it guides them safely home.” These words of the poet Rod McKuen [1] came to mind as I was thinking about Noah and the Ark in today’s first reading. Noah, one of the popular biblical characters, urged the people of his time to be good or to pay the price. Noah is often compared to the hero Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh Epic, another legendary folktale about a disastrous flood in the same region.

While the debate continues about which story came first or why it was written both accounts tell of a global flood that served to punish people for their sins. It would be difficult today to use the same reasoning — that God invokes natural disasters to punish human beings. Lives of innocent people are lost every day because of flooding or contaminated waters. Imagine what our neighbors in Schoharie Valley must be thinking as they listen to this passage from Genesis this morning.

For thousands of years humans have yearned to explain cataclysmic events. How did the Israelites come to conclude that they are punishments for sin? Although most of us lean on scientific interpretations countless people believe that natural disasters are acts of God. What does the story of the flood mean for us today?

Water is an ambiguous natural element. As the poet McKuen reminds us, it can take life as easily as it gives it. For us as Christians this story relates to our baptism. The second reading this morning, attributed to Peter, explains the relationship between the flood story and baptism. The author suggests that Noah and his family were saved from a corrupt world through the waters of the flood. [2] Is this enough of a commentary on the importance of baptism? Do we believe that if we are baptized we will be spared devastating, death dealing floods in life whether they be psychological, spiritual or physical ones? If yes, how so?

Baptism is an initiation into a faith community that agrees to adhere to the teachings of Jesus Christ. That we include the forgiveness of sin during the ritual baptismal bath is a way of celebrating the transformation taking place in a person’s life. Lent is that time of year that calls each of us to a re-formation, to find alternative ways to deal with everything that floods our minds and bodies.  It is a time of testing, a season for making choices about our covenant with God and others.

The gospel reading from Mark today is a short story about Jesus being tested as he prayed in the desert. The word “test” according to some scholars is a more accurate translation in this gospel than the word “tempted” used in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. [3] Like other characters in the bible — Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Moses, the prophets — Jesus was tested. He had to make difficult choices in his life. He chose not be a victim of greed, possessions and power. He lived simply and humbly in a spirit of unbounded hospitality. How are we tested? What choices do we make?

The beginning of Rod McKuen’s poem “Fourteen” reads like this: “How can we be sure of anything the tide changes?” We can’t be. Nothing is certain in life. Nothing lasts forever.  Relationships change. Religions change. Governments change. Laws change. The earth and the universe change. Life changes and there will be more natural disasters. These phenomena are not punishments. However, they are reminders that we are not perfect. They are tests of our courage and fortitude, our conviction and desire, to help one another survive the many different floods in our lives.

___

1 McKuen, Rod. “Fourteen” in Listen to the Warm (NY: Random) 1967, 27

2 Achtemeier, P. in Attridge, H. (Ed.) The HarperCollins Study Bible Revised Edition (San Francisco: Harper) 2006, pages 2059-60

3 Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2008) 33

 

 

 

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Homily – February 19, 2012 – “Making All Things New”


7 Ordinary B – February 19, 2012 – Making All Things New

Isaiah 43:18-19,21-22, 24b-25; Psalm 41:2-5,13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22 and Mark 2:1-12

Complete biblical texts for today

There is a community near Toronto Canada where persons with a mental handicap and their assistants live together in the spirit of the beatitudes. It is one of the L’Arche communities that are now in 30 countries on 6 continents. Henri Nouwen, known for his teachings on spirituality and healing, lived in one of those places, the Daybreak Community, and … it change his life.

Nouwen learned that persons who are handicapped help us see our own disabilities, our imperfections. In one of his books called, Making All Things New, Nouwen reflects on Jesus as the model for finding ways to live anew in the spirit of God, in the midst of our handicaps and shortcomings.

In times of stress caused by any number of things, we often find an inner strength that can get us through almost any challenge. However, there are people among us that cannot do this alone; they have no means to help themselves. Someone has to assist them whether it is family, friends, government or religious institutions. Someone has to help these people like those who lowered the man who was a paralytic through the roof in today’s gospel story. He never would have gotten there without his friends.

Our Christian tradition, in part, believes that God is with us in all we do. We call that faith. In the first reading from Isaiah we heard about how God works. The Israelites were emerging from many years of captivity. They felt they were punished; that they were worth little. God said to them, “I am going to do something new for you.” I am going to pave a new road that will lead you to the land of endless possibilities, a land of sweet milk and honey. Further, God said to them, even though you wore me out with your unfaithfulness I am going to forget all of your past transgressions. What a merciful God.

We Christians believe, “making all things new” is something that Jesus did. Today’s passage attributed to Mark was written about 30-40 years after Jesus died. The story depicts the first of five controversies between Jesus and religious leaders that would eventually lead to his capital punishment. It is not an eye witness account but this passage does have a message for us.

That Jesus healed the man who was paralyzed is nothing new. That’s what Jesus did. It was his ministry. That he forgave the man all of his sins is what caused a stir. It was a blasphemous act! Illness was understood as punishment for sins and only God could forgive sins. [1] Jesus was making all things new. By his actions he showed that healing and forgiveness are part of the same experience.

Perhaps Jesus saw in the man who was a paralytic something of his own life, his suffering, his death. Still he was also convinced that life was not only about suffering and death. Similar to what God gave the Israelites in the desert, Jesus offered the man who was paralyzed and others a chance to rebound, to live anew. He presented a lifestyle that does not focus on luxuries, power and triumphalism but on healing; helping others to live peacefully in a just land.

So what are we making new? Are we as a church, a body of believers, drawing closer to the humble, healing power of Jesus? Are we a church that is becoming more introspective, exultant, incorrigible and imperialistic? Most likely we are both — full of conviction, pride and certainty at the same time we are imperfect, doubtful and vulnerable.

To live better lives, more honest lives, we seek the courage to name the disabilities, the roadblocks in our lives, and then to find ways to remove them or learn to live with them. How do we break through the roof tops, to bring promise to broken down people? How do we challenge assumptions of our civic and religious leaders? How do we confront ourselves?

Next week the season of Lent dawns upon us. It arouses a new enthusiasm for opening our windows to let in some fresh air. Soon a spirited spring will push aside the dreary days of winter. New life will sprout up from the frozen ground. What about you and me? Will this Lent be business as usual — giving something up, taking something on? Can it be a different season, one of quietude, contemplation and rejuvenation? Can this Lent be a time when you and I make all things new?

____

1 Attridge, H. (Ed.) The HarperCollins Study Bible (San Francisco: Harper) 1989, 1723,1727


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Homily – February 12, 2012 – “Do Not Keep It a Secret”


6 Ordinary B – February 12, 2012 – “Do Not Keep It a Secret”

Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46; Psalm 32:1-2,5,11; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45

Today’s complete biblical texts

Many years ago when I was quite young my mother took me to church to watch a ritual. We waited in the lobby. A priest met us with holy water. He said a few prayers and sprinkled the water over my mother. I remember her head was covered with a veil and she was holding a candle. My mother had just given birth to my sister, Elizabeth Ann and now she was being “churched.”

The churching of women is an ancient custom, no longer practiced in Western Christianity. It is a ritual where a new mother is blessed for giving birth to a child. There is nothing wrong about that. However, it was also known as a ritual for the purification of a woman after childbirth because she was thought to be sinful and unclean.

The purification of childbearing women is found in same book of Leviticus where we heard about the lepers this morning. Leviticus was a manual for the priests of Israel. Their job was to teach the difference between the clean and unclean, the sacred and the profane. It was thought that the physical impurities of the Israelites would pollute the temple sanctuary. The story about the lepers and child bearing mothers is about such impurities.

There are double penalties in these biblical stories. The persons stricken with a scale disease were seen as being punished by God. Then the priest was instructed to isolate those persons from the community. It was unlawful to talk to them, be seen with them much less touch them.

Today’s gospel is similar to Mark’s other episodes where Jesus is depicted as one who was eager to heal someone or connect with outcasts. Although the text says Jesus was moved with pity, older translations suggest the original word was “angry.” Why would Jesus be angry with the man who just wanted to be made clean? We know that the laws prohibited mingling with outcasts but that never bother Jesus before.

The more Jesus went about performing such miracles his reputation spread. The more popular he became the greater danger he was in. People would spread the news causing religious and civic leaders to grow suspicious of Jesus and his activities. Was this the cost of his discipleship? Was Jesus, who was determined to show God’s love for all, being punished himself? No wonder he said to the man in the gospel, don’t tell anyone, keep it a secret. Can we keep it a secret?

We are all blemished in some way. We live in an age when we are suspicious of others who are not like us, who do not think or look like we do. We are quite capable of treating others as outcasts by calling them names, excluding them from our activities, fighting with them, killing them.

Our stance as Christians is to learn how Jesus dealt with societal problems even though his life was at stake. For us there is no such risk so there is no reason for not being good to one another. We have the privilege and liberty to speak up in public for the rights of all human beings. What is the message? Do not mistreat other people just because they are not like us or do not share our values.

My mother, like other child bearing mothers in her time, was ostacized. The ritual was used to usher her back into the church. We still have liturgies in our church for reconciling, purifying, regenerating. We just do not use words like unclean or outcast to describe the persons celebrating them. Instead our rituals are built upon love and respect for others and the presence of God in them. Our sacraments are affirmations of who they are, how they relate to God and others. They are not designed to demean them.

The message to the Corinthians in the second reading is attributed to Paul. It says that he tried not to offend anyone; that he worked for the benefit of the many. Paul believed that Christ destroyed all barriers in life. Seeking the common good, the healing of humanity, is still our mission. We cannot keep what Jesus taught us a secret.

 

 

 

 

 


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Homily – February 11, 2012 – “Set Out Into the Deep”


Set Out Into the Deep – Homily at the Liturgy in Memory of

Bishop Joseph Estabrook

February 11, 2012 – Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception – Albany, New York

Mary Ann and Tim, the church family here in the Diocese of Albany mourns with you, your mother and your family over the death of Joseph, your brother and ours. Today we celebrate God’s love for him and his love for God, humanity and nature.

Bishop Joe Estabrook was fond of quoting Psalm 139 whenever he had a chance. His family read that psalm with him in Joe’s final moments of life. Some say that psalm is part of a collection of prayers that King David may have said. It is a psalm that reminded Joe and all of us here today that there is no place to hide from the presence of God; God knows all about what we do.

The ubiquitous presence of God in our lives was both comforting and troubling for Joe. I remember touring a trident nuclear submarine in Seattle, WA with him and some of our seminary classmates. There we were standing inside this very powerful weapon when Joe wondered about the apparent absence of God in places of war where innocent lives were lost. Joe was a deep thinker, a spiritual thinker.

He was not daunted, however, by the might of military power. Armed with Psalm 139 he was determined to make the presence of God known wherever he travelled. He believed his mission was to minister to the men and women who would bear fruits of peace in places of conflict around the world. Joe was at home wherever those sailors, Marines and their families were because he knew somehow God was there as well.

Joe represented the hope that the action of God in our lives would prevail over all that is hurtful and wrong in the world. That strong conviction is what energized Joe to live and work so passionately as a priest, a chaplain, a bishop.

His mother and father were the first to infuse in him respect for others. He spoked of his parents and siblings often. Joe’s education in Albany Catholic schools bolstered his belief in strong relationships. Still to today family life programs in our Diocese are stamped with his groundwork.

During our studies for the priesthood I know he found sustenance in the celebration of the Eucharist. He treasured the inspiration found in Thomas Merton’s writings. He cherished the spirit of our Franciscan professors at Christ the King Seminary. He loved his family at home.

What sparked Joe to answer the call to be a priest was similar to what moved the disciples to follow Jesus: the love Jesus had for everyone and his desire to bring justice and peace to all. Little wonder then that Joe’s Episcopal Coat of Arms read, “Set Out for the Deep,” the words we heard in the gospel of Luke moments ago. Joe identified with Jesus and his mission.

The writings attributed to the evangelist Luke have a pastoral tone. Jesus, it is recorded, was telling his new disciples to move out, to cast their nets into unfathomable waters, not only to search and rescue others but also themselves. While navigating from station to station, Joe never stopped contemplating how God spoke to him in his own life.

His conversations with Our Lady of Guadalupe gave him strength during his career and in his final months of sickness. He admired the courage of church leaders like Joseph Bernadin, who had the same cancer. He was grateful for the support of the Good Shepherd parishioners in Alexandria, Virginia where he often celebrated the liturgy.

One of our classmates, Michael Shaw, said last week, “Joe’s life was an  adventure, a going forth. The keel of his life, the ballast, was the perennial wisdom of the Catholic Tradition.”

Joe, for sure, was a modern day itinerant disciple who preached God’s love to everyone he met. He also encouraged us to do the same. When he addressed the Good Shepherd parish for the last time he concluded by saying, “I pray that you may continue to stand out like sparks in the stubble; shine out in the crooked world … to tell people how much God really loves them.”

With these words we remember Joe, who has now set out for the eternal deep.

Postscript:

The old Navy motto is, “Not self but country.” Bishop Joseph Estabrook, in Christ like fashion, exemplified that motto with “faith, courage, service and honor.”


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Homily – February 5, 2012 – It Is What It Is. Really?


5 Ordinary B – February 5, 2012 – It Is What It Is. Really?

Job 7:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 147:1-6; 1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23 and Mark 1:29-39

Complete biblical texts for today

Do clichés bother you? “My bad” for example, is a popular way of saying, “I am sorry I made a mistake.”  Instead of, “Thank you” at the checkout counter we hear, “You’re all set!” Another one often heard is this one: “It is what it is.” This trite phrase is used most often to imply that something has happened, there is nothing I can do about it, I am trying to forget it and move on with my life.

Is that what Job thought when he lost his job and had to foreclose on his house? Imagine, that when Jesus heard that Peter’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, he said, “Hey, it is what it is!”

It is hard to find out how clichés get started. I looked up “it is what it is” and many sources believe that writer Susan Sontag used the expression in her essays on contemporary complacency. Sontag who struggled with cancer for years before she died believed that the function of criticism is to show “how it is what it is … rather than show what it means.” [1]

Why is it that so many people who suffer from one thing or another give up and say, “It is what it is” while others want to find out how it is what it is and then try to do something about it?

Last week in Mark’s gospel we heard how evil spirits obeyed the words of Jesus. This week the story is about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. The thread is the same. Jesus had a commanding power and authority over evil in the world. Well, if that is true, why doesn’t God come to the rescue of all those good people who are suffering in the world because of illness, inequalities, war and corruption? It is an age old question. Some might say, “It is what it is.”

The legendary story about Job in the first reading this morning is a perfect set up for today’s gospel. As the story goes, Job and his family were doing just fine until, for some unknown reason, God decided to test Job’s faithfulness by punishing him. Job believed he didn’t do anything to deserve the penalties and went to his three buddies for advice. Thirty chapters in the book tell of the conversations between Job and his friends.

We remember that the Israelites then believed in a just but powerful God. If you followed God’s commands you had nothing to worry about. If you did not, you were in for some devastating experiences. Just think of this: God actions were controlled by the way humans thought about God. (Is that true today?) So the three buddies said to Job, look you must have done something wrong to get God so angry. You had better go to confession!

Bishop John Spong [2] suggests in his writings that Job’s story is about the meaning of life. Job is trying to figure out if God really exists. If God is just then how can God punish an innocent man and his family. If God is not just, does God exist? The way the Israelites thought about God was not helpful to Job. That theology could not explain Job’s personal experience of God and so Job, without losing faith, questioned his religion and his God.

Rather than rely on old theological assumptions about rewards and punishments, Job wanted to envision God and his life in a totally new and positive way. Instead of seeing himself always at the mercy of an unpredictable, illusive, invisible supreme Being, Job saw himself as an active agent in whatever God was doing. This approach would not hurt, he thought. It is silly to think you can control the way God works so … I have to do something about improving my life myself. Job never would have said, “It is what it is” and then give up, anymore than Jesus would have used that cliché in his ministry.

The passage we heard this morning does not at all depict a feisty Job. It describes him as a rather downtrodden, despondent, melancholic individual. He said, “I shall never see happiness again.” Well, he was wrong. In the end he sorted things out with God and lived happily every after; not because God did something but because Job did something.

So who are we like? A Job who is willing to reach beyond the limits of even his own religious imagination to give meaning to his life? To do so we might find ourselves arm wrestling with God. Or, are we like others who settle for what is without searching for new ways to survive. In this case we might find ourselves arm wrestling, not with God, but with ourselves.

There are certain things in life we have absolutely no control over. We cannot blame anyone, or God, for them. You know those lists. Bad things do happen to good people. There are other problems in the world, however, caused by humans, that do need to be addressed. As Paul suggested in today’s second reading, it is our responsibility to hold them accountable. We can also tend to our own actions. Our own lives can grow if we are willing to venture out of our boxes and imagine new possibilities for ourselves like Job did. The lives of others who are despairing can be spirited by those whose vision for a better world is bright.

It is what it is? That’s one cliché we can do without if we want to advance God’s kin-dom here on earth.

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1 http://www.enotes.com/susan-sontag-criticism/sontag-susan-vol-195

2 Spong, John Shelby. Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World (NY: Harper One) 2011, p. 163 ff.