Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – Third Sunday of Easter – 22 April 2012 – Easter Imagination


The Third Sunday of Easter B – April 22, 2012 – “Easter Imagination”

 Acts 3:13-15; Psalm  4:2,4, 7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:35-48

Complete biblical texts for today

Have you ever had an experience where you imagined something to be real but it really wasn’t real? You do not have to be a mystic to have such an episode. It is called an alternate reality experience. Interactive narratives, also known as alternate reality games (ARGs), are very popular. Fictional elements of a story contain clues that lead players to discoveries that continue the game. The outcome of the story is altered by the players’ ideas or actions. Books have been written so that young people can skip chapters or create new ones to change the outcome of the story.

Sound confusing? Imagine how the women and men in the gospel today felt about their experiences. They thought Jesus died on the cross. Then they heard he was missing from his grave. Now they are not only looking at him, touching him and hearing him talk, they are also eating with him. Were they having an alternate reality experience or was the risen Christ really there?

All the gospels struggle to depict what the risen Christ looked like in these stories. They seem to be saying Jesus was transformed in some way and was unrecognizable. The bible includes other experiences of alternate realities. For example, the stories about the transfiguration on a mountain and the ascension to heaven both depict Jesus as transformed and unrecognizable. 

Scripture scholar John Pilch and others believe that such experiences, imagining things happening when they really are not, were common in the Mediterranean world. [1] While we may be suspicious of such occurrences in an age where we rely so much on scientific and medical proof we are intrigued by works of fiction including movies like The Matrix, Inception and The Tree of Life.

It is important to remember that the scripture texts we heard this morning were written many years after the timeframe depicted in them. The gospel of Luke was written sometime toward the end of the first century, after the Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and some fifty years or more after Jesus rose from the dead. 

Why was this story written so many years later? The obvious reason was to give testimony or witness to the risen Christ, to inspire newly baptized Christians and potential candidates. They also affirmed the belief that Jesus the Christ fulfilled the prophecies found in the Hebrew bible. Those prophets themselves called the people to live alternate realities not governed by power and greed. [2]

The evangelist, Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, was a strong proponent of a divine plan. He believed it was God’s vision that everything proclaimed by those old testament prophets would come true in the person of Jesus the Christ. How is that vision, that plan, coming to fruition? A prophetic church, working with other faith traditions to develop ideas and actions, will shape the future of religious and civic history. 

We will never know if these disciples really met the risen Christ or if they were having an alternate reality experience. Did they complete these narratives with their own actions and ideas? What we do know is that their hearts were burning within them (Luke 24:32). Years before any creeds or doctrines were defined, long before the church was institutionalized and charisms were clericalized, these post resurrection believers trusted in and embodied the presence of Christ in their lives. 

These Easter stories continue to inspire you and me in our own time. I tried to find a way to connect today’s scripture readings with Earth Day, celebrated today. The slow destruction of our earth’s natural resources is not an imagined alternate reality. It is very real. I offer this connection. Think of environmental issues as an alternate reality game wherein we have the opportunity to change a course of action and determine a different outcome for our planet.

We can choose whether or not to be responsible for the creation entrusted to us. We can make choices about consuming energy and purchasing goods. By taking care of the planet, respecting people, honoring all species, protecting our natural environment, we can embody an altered reality. Just like those first disciples, the church today, you and I, guided by the spirit, can make real the risen Christ living among us.

_____

1 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus: Sunday by Sunday Cycle C (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997) 67

2 See Brueggermann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Second Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress) 2001

 

 


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Homily – Second Sunday of Easter – 15 April 2012 – What Do You Doubt?


Second Sunday of Easter B – April 15, 2012 – What Do You Doubt?

 Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20: 19-31

Complete biblical texts for today

Some two hundred and fifty years ago Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Of two things you can be certain: death and taxes.” What else are we certain about? Without a doubt we know this church building is here. Are we as certain about what causes global warming? That Jesus the Christ rose from the dead? That God is real?

The first reading we heard this morning follows a story in the bible about Peter healing a man who was lame from birth. The local officials questioned Peter and John and then let them go. The Acts of the Apostles was written after the destruction of the temple. Late first century Jews who were becoming Christians were persecuted, frightened and worried that they would not be free to practice their religion. 

So they did what any oppressed group might do. They helped each other out. According to the biblical text this emerging Christian community was of “one mind and one heart” led by their Spirit. None of them knew Jesus personally. They took everything on faith, the testimony and leadership of others. 

Today there are similar assertions that certain government policies could deprive people of religious liberty. One cannot criticize any religious group for working, like the early Christians did, to protect religious freedom. However, are all Catholics today of one mind and heart about these claims or any other issues regarding their religion? Can Catholics who disagree with some non-dogmatic teachings of their church still call themselves Catholic? 

In this week’s issue of The Tablet, a British Catholic newspaper, the editors report that members of the Church in Ireland remain fervent in their religious practice while dissenting from church teachings about sex and gender. [1]

Last week the editors of Commonweal, a magazine published by lay Catholics, challenged the American bishops’ response [2]  to “unprecedented threats to religious freedom” in this country. [3]

In the gospel story today Thomas doubted the physical presence of the resurrected Christ. His friends in that room did not reject him. The risen Christ did not scold him but greeted him with a kiss of peace. Doubting or being uncertain about something whether it is a so-called fact of life, a government policy or a religious doctrine is not anything new.

Cullen Murphy, author of God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, wrote that moral certainty “sweeps objections aside and makes anything permissible [especially] if pursued with an appeal to a higher justification.” That higher authority, the basis for such certainty, he writes, could be God, history, rationalism, science or even the common good. [4] When someone is so certain about something everything else, everyone else, is deemed wrong or an outsider.

So where does that place good Catholic people who, after prayer and consultation with spouses, partners, friends and pastoral leaders, honestly doubt the certainty of some doctrines taught by their religion? Note for the Blog: Dissent against a dogma of the church is impossible for a Catholic.  [5]

According to Cullen the history of the Catholic church “has long balanced the comfort of certainty against the corrective of doubt.” Challenging certain teachings of government or religion can create a healthy opportunity for authorities to dialogue with their constituents. Together they might come to agree on how time honored doctrines could to be adapted to contemporary issues dealing with, for example, family planning, capital punishment or human torture — whatever the case may be. 

When Thomas asked to see and touch the wounds of the risen Christ he was not saying he did not believe or that he did not want to follow Christ. As a mature human being he wanted to decide for himself whether he would accept what was apparent to others in the room.

Today’s reading from John’s letter suggests that God’s commandments are not burdensome. We who make up the church today are called to help one another make wise decisions about developing our lives. To be united in this effort gives us strength. Whether to doubt or to be certain about time honored principles in our religious tradition will always require a mature and Spirit filled decision on our part.

Have your filed your taxes yet? This year we have until Tuesday April 17th because Monday is a holiday in Washington, DC. It is Emancipation Day. It celebrates the end of captivity for 3000 slaves in the District of Columbia in 1862 before the end of the Civil War. Being free to live freely is a precious gift. We may not be able to do anything about death; maybe there is something we can do about taxes. In the meantime, to doubt or question anything that inhibits or prevents people from growing in God’s eyes may not be such a bad thing to do.  

____

1 From the Editors Desk.  “Listen to the People” The Tablet (April 14, 2011)  http://www.thetablet.co.uk/article/162590

2 USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. “Our First Most Cherished Liberty” http://usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/our-first-most-cherished-liberty.cfm

3 Posted by the Editors “Religious Freedom and the US Catholic Bishops” in dotCommonweal (April 12, 2012)  http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=18431

4 Murphy, Cullen. “The Certainty of Doubt” in The New York Times February 12, 2012, SR 12

5 McBrien, Richard. Catholicism: Study Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press, 1981. See pages 67 ff. 


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Homily – Easter Sunday – 8 April 2012 – Easter Sweetness in the World


Easter Sunday B – April 8, 2012 – Easter Sweetness in the World

Acts 10:24, 27-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9

 Complete biblical texts

This church this morning is an Easter basket full of glorious gifts. This day is holy because you are holy. The building is holy because you are here. How wonderful it is for us to gather to hear the Easter stories, to renew our lives as Christians, to share the sacramental bread of life and cup of salvation. 

We heard three stories this morning. In the first one Peter, a disciple of Jesus, gave a summary of who Jesus was and what he did when he was alive. This was a letter written not to a large audience but most likely to one person, probably a recent convert to Christianity. In many ways it was a promotional piece, an advertisement, to keep late first century people interested in the mission and message of Jesus.

How do we stay riveted to that message today? The second reading this morning refers to you and to me as a “fresh batch of dough.” What an interesting phrase! The reading suggests that we get rid of the old yeast in our lives (old yeast goes bad) and replace it with new energy that would cause the dough to rise up. 

Like many families mine gets together during this holiday. We keep age old traditions and we share certain foods. I love it that when my sister Bette and my niece Amy cook and bake, everything tastes almost the same as what my grandmother and mother used to make. By using the old recipes they help us connect with family members no longer with us. However, my sister and niece also add just a little something extra to the recipes to call them their own.

Like with recipes handed down from one generation to another so it is with Christianity. Each one of us adds something new to the church to keep traditions alive, to give them fresh interpretations, to make them more vibrant in the world today. This happens not only by remembering the old recipes, the stories, but adding new flavors. All members of the church are called to do so. How?

What is needed (pun intended), in order for you and me to rise up, to refresh Christianity, is new yeast. As many of you know, in order for yeast to do it’s thing it needs water and warmth. The yeast turns some of the flour into sugars which it uses it for energy. Then the yeast releases carbon dioxide which causes the dough to rise. (You didn’t expect a chemistry lesson this morning, did you) One could say that making the church, you and me, rise up on this Easter Sunday morning, like Jesus did, depends on adding something sweet to the church.

Finding sweetness in life today is often hard to do. So much of what goes on around us appears to be more “sour”-full than savory. We Catholics for example are constantly weighed down by reminders of how sinful we are instead of making us feel good about being members of the church. We are often asked to follow traditional rules instead of trying to figure out how to adapt them to our current daily lives. At its core, Christianity is not a complicated or rigorous religion. It is a humble and simple way of life; it is about improving ourselves, challenging corruption, and respecting others. In doing so, we give glory and praise to God.

We Christians like to believe that our faith is a good antidote to the evil in the world. That’s why we renew our covenant with God and each other during this Easter season. Splashing ourselves with water from the baptismal font may seem silly. However, it reminds us to refresh our identity in the world, to find ways to bring the hope of new life to others.

That’s what happened on that first Easter morning. The women who arrived at the tomb were surprised by what they did not find. How Jesus rose from the dead will always be a mystery, a matter of faith. We cannot prove it but we believe it. That mystery changed those women at the tomb. It fired them up to spread good news, that life on earth can be a sweet taste of heaven.

That mystery also is responsible for nurturing over 2 billion Christians in the world who gather today and next Sunday, Orthodox Easter, to commemorate Jesus conquering death. Imagine what one-third of the world’s population could do if we Christians united ourselves with people of other faiths to bring real hope to this planet. We can do so by adding something sweet, something wonderful to release a new energy that will demolish the dark tombs of life and release the radiance of Easter joy. It is our privilege and our responsibility to do so.

 Happy Easter! 


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Homily – Easter Vigil – 7 April 2012 – Ending the Plagues


Easter Vigil B – April 7, 2012 – Ending the Plagues

Complete biblical texts

The Passover for Jews began last evening at sundown. During the Seder meal there is a remembrance of the ten plagues — boils, darkness, lice, locusts, the killing of the firstborn, and so on. They are often reinterpreted at the Seder to draw attention to forces that continue to deprive people of liberty. Some new texts speak about immigration, war, poverty, women’s rights, dictatorships. If we were to rewrite these texts, what would we say? I invite you now to take a moment to mention a modern day plague to a person sitting next to you. [One minute later …] What plagues did you hear from one another?

(Some plagues heard in the congregation were: war, racism, sexism, homophobia, children born with disease, poverty, human trafficking, health care, AIDS, hunger, violence, greed, anti-Semitism.)

Now … I invite you to pretend you are God. God, I have some questions for you. What was your vision as life began to evolve on this planet? What do you think went wrong with your big plans for us? Why did you feel compelled to constantly test your people like Abraham, Sarah and Hagar? And, why were your own people subjected to such humiliating defeats at the hands of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and later, the Romans? 

It is hard to hear the voices of your prophets tonight. They proclaimed that your love for your people doesn’t fail; that all we have to do is obey you and everything will be all right; that if we cling to your wisdom we will live.  Also, when you promised a homeland to the Israelites did you know ahead of time that Palestinians and Jews would still be fighting over that land today? God, we’ve been trying our best but it is difficult to understand what you are up to when so many good people who believe in you are suffering.

Enough role playing. Enough questions. Do we have any answers? Maybe we can find clues to these difficult questions in the ritual we are enacting tonight. Just like our Jewish friends who understand the Passover event as something happening to them today, our liturgies are as much about us as they are about our ancestors.

In this holy night we started a new fire, to celebrate radiance of the risen Christ in a long night of sin and evil deeds. We are that light. We gather in this hallowed house to hear biblical stories about where we’ve come from and to plot where we might be going. These stories are about us; and the future, which is in our hands. We splash ourselves with baptismal water to recommit ourselves to the peace agreement established between our ancestors and God, a covenant affirmed by Jesus. We promise also to be true to one another in our common priesthood; a priesthood of baptized, confirmed and ordained believers. We share spiritual food and drink to nourish ourselves on the sacrament of Christ’s sacrifice never forgetting those who hunger for food and justice.

The matzah at the Passover seder is a symbol of liberation. Those who share it show intolerance for anything that stands in the way of dedication to freedom. If this, the holiest of Christian nights, is a reflection of who we are, what we believe and do, then maybe there is a good chance that this night also resonates with our efforts to eliminate what plagues us.

The three women in this evening’s gospel story set an example for what we can do to eliminate plagues. Initially they seemed only concerned about caring for Jesus’ dead body. When they got to the tomb something serendipitous stunned them. The stone was removed and the tomb was empty. In their excitement they imagined an angel who reminded them of something Jesus said while he was alive. “I will see you again.” Embarrassed that they did not remember his promise they rushed to tell others who were despairing over what to do next. Those women did not keep quiet.

That enthusiasm over the empty tomb is why Easter is a time for you and me to reengage with the risen Christ. It is not a time to leave his human biography on the pages of our bible; or merely to remember fondly and thankfully what his death means for us. It is time to identify with Jesus and the fervent enthusiasm of the early Christians like those women at the tomb. On this holy night we find in these stories images of ourselves. Then, we come to know that each of us is called and ordained to work together to rid the world of plagues so all of God’s creatures might have hope for tomorrow. Happy Easter!


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Homily – Holy Thursday – 5 April 2012 – Feet and Food


Holy Thursday Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper B – April 5, 2012 – Feet and Food

Exodus 12; 1-8, 11-14; Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16bc, 17-18; 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 13:1-15 

Complete biblical texts

Feet and food? In the same sentence this is not an attractive thought, is it. But that is what tonight is all about: a celebration of feet and food. Foot is a complex word. Fundamentally we use our feet for locomotion, to walk, run, dance. When our feet fail us for various reasons movement is not so easy; often we rely on others to help us get around. We use a foot to measure distance, how far is it from here to there. Idiomatically it finds its way into our daily conversations.

Dragging your feet means to move slowly. Standing on your own two feet is to be independent. We are swept off our feet when we are impressed. One foot in the grave? Well … you know what that means.

Washing feet is a significant gesture for us tonight. It helps us remember our Jewish and Christian ancestors in faith. Without mobility the Israelites would not have been able to run away from a murderous dictator. Without mobility the early disciples would not have been able to spread the inspirational message of Jesus, which swept them off their feet.

What about food? Tonight we shared abundant food before this ritual meal. (Wasn’t it great to walk into church and smell such wonderful aromas?) The food was delicious and fun. It satisfied our appetites and celebrated the people we love to be with. To move about we need energy. The first reading reminded us of the exodus of the Israelites with Moses and Miriam leading the way. Although they left in a hurry they knew enough to take raw dough to bake in the desert later.

We love to tell biblical stories especially at this time of year. They put us in touch with the people of yesteryear and their longings for civil and religious freedom. The Israelites symbolize those people who are still held in captivity: those robbed of their human rights; those spurned because of their race, sexual orientation or gender; those fleeing hardship and murder in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq; those ignored and offended by an elite governance of religion and state.

We Christians have come to believe that the blood of Jesus, spurted out for the liberation of all people, was similar to the blood of the lamb that spared the Jews from death in Egypt.

These stories are not just about others. When our Jewish sisters and brothers celebrate Passover tomorrow night they will identify with their ancestors’ exodus as if they themselves were struggling for liberty today. It is not about something that happened in the past; it is happening to them today. Our stories about Jesus as a liberator are not just about him. They are about you and me and how we come to see ourselves as characters in these biblical narratives. If we do not, we are just telling stories about others.

In tonight’s gospel Jesus reportedly said, “I have set an example for you, that you do for others what I have done for you.” By emphasizing the washing of feet the evangelist John, unlike the other evangelists, was reminding late first century Christians that the Eucharist is inseparable from service to others. You and I cannot celebrate the liturgy at the altar table tonight and not have a food pantry in this parish, and not write letters to our elected officials, and not minister to the sick and elderly, and not have a sister parish in Panama. We have been taught that the Eucharist is inseparable from service to others.

Many years after Jesus we now stand on our own two feet bearing the name Christian. We put our best feet forward not to advance only ourselves but others starving for dignity, equality and freedom. This action gives meaning and strength to the priesthood all of us share — through baptism, confirmation and ordination. Together we are the body of Christ. We are weak without one another. When one of is hurt, all of us are hurt. Nourishment from heaven will not last long when you and I do not sustain one another on our journeys. We cannot count on manna from heaven alone if we do not sustain one another here on earth.

The liturgical action tonight is about feet and food — service and eucharist. Tomorrow this liturgy continues with the victory of the cross. At the Easter vigil, we become lights to the world and renew our covenant with God and one another. On Easter Sunday we remember Jesus’ resurrection and imagine a just and good life that we wish could last forever.

All of our liturgies, throughout the year, are expressions of who we are, what we believe and what we do – how we behave in the public sphere. Nourished and sustained by God all of us are ordained to be holy. Fed by sacred things we take steps, baby steps at times, to build up the world we hope is yet to come.

As is our custom here at St. Vincent’s, in a few moments all of you are invited to take part in this age old story by having your feet washed and then by washing someone else’s feet. Before doing so let us be still for a moment to reflect on what God is speaking to us tonight.