Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – 17 June 2012 – A Genetically Modified Church


Ordinary 11 B – June 17, 2012 – A Genetically Modified Church

Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:2-3, 13-16; 2 Corinthians 5;6-10; Mark 4:26-34

During the past two weeks I have used church architecture to give some meaning to the triune God and the church — the body and blood of Christ.  I believe buildings, like songs and words, say a lot about the people who use them. Like the architectural elements that define a building we who make up the church are beautiful, purposeful and strong. 

Today the gospel, complementing the passage from Ezekiel, offers us another metaphor for the kindom [1] of God — the mustard seed. In Ezekiel’s words the planting of strong trees is a reference to the restoration of the Israelites and the monarchy of King David after the exile. (Interestingly, the people who escaped an Egyptian monarchy, not only established their own monarchies but worshiped God as sovereign. This is a topic for another time) The trees in Ezekiel symbolize hope for the establishment of a new kindom of God. 

The image of every winged creature nesting in the trees provides a cosmic scale for the action of the God, the creator and protector of all. The planting of trees, even today, is a symbol of hope for many societies. The Israelites were not looking back to the status quo where one voice controlled all voices. They were looking ahead.

In the gospel the author tells of a mustard seed planted in the ground which will quietly grow into strong bushes. (Mustard seeds grow into bushes not trees.) This parable is a reference to the disciples and their trust that the often perceived insignificant mission of Jesus was the foundation for the emergence of a new kindom. [2] Notice also that Jesus does not describe that kindom. He just talks about planting seeds.

How does the parable of the mustard seed help us understand the kindom of God today? First a word about seeds. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal described different opinions about the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) often referred to as transgenic organisms. [3]

Why should we be concerned? In the United States as in other countries our diets depend on biotech crops. On one hand the use of genetically modified seeds can be profitable to small farmers especially in developing countries. Some say transgenic seeds are essential for feeding the growing global population. Others claim these engineered seeds may be harmful to us and the biosphere. Further, some biotech giants, like Monsanto, have a history of fraud and market manipulation, human rights violations and legal attacks on small farmers. [4]

These reports give us good reason to support our local farm markets.

The mustard seed story needs updating. If it is a reference to the kindom of God gradually unfolding in our time how do genetically modified seeds fit into the story? Easy. We do not live in the first century. Our understanding of the church is not the one experienced by early Jewish Christians who may have listened to this very parable. It is not even the church familiar to our grandparents who used real seeds to plant crops in their backyard gardens and sprawling fields.

Ours is a church that has also been engineered and modified over time. We are no longer what we used to be. The world we live in is no longer a Medieval one. Some believe that returning to the church of yesterday will attract more members. This is not what surveys are telling us about religious behavior in America. Religious practice is fluid and diverse.

Before the Second Vatican Council Catholics claimed to have the truth, all the answers. The documents of the Council now emphasize the church as a mystery, a church that is a dynamic and ever evolving community. The Catholic liturgy is an expression of our mystery.

How does a mystery plant itself in the public square? What kinds of seeds are we sowing? Are they seeds of despair? Are they seeds of hope and potential?

Our task as a church is to produce alternatives to the difficult situations that plague people. Our strength is found in an open minded reflection on the word of God. We lend an attentive ear to the needs of humanity. We show a willingness to endure opposition and a courageous attitude that accepts diverse opinions.

The first day of summer is just days away. As we see, smell and taste all that has cropped up from seeds once planted in the ground can we imagine the possibilities for the church?

___

1 The word “kindom” is used in place of “kingdom.” It is a reference to a community of “kin” that cares for its members.

2 Fuller, Reginald H. and Westberg, Daniel. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: Liturgical Press. 2006 (Third Edition), pp. 198-202.

3 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126862629333762259.html

4 https://secure.nationofchange.org/monsantotv


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Homily – Body and Blood of Christ – 10 June 2012 – Our Body and Blood


The Body and Blood of Christ – June 10, 2012 – Our Body and Blood

 Ex 24:3-8; Psalm 116:12-3,15-18; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Complete biblical texts for today

Juliana of Mont Cornillon in Belgium was an Augustinian nun who lived in the early 13th century. She had a tremendous devotion to the reserved Eucharist and advocated for a feast in honor of the sacrament. Her request found its way to Rome where Pope Urban IV ordered an annual celebration of Corpus Christi. Today we call that feast the Body and Blood of Christ. 

The body and blood of Christ is one of those mysteries that requires faith. Last week we talked about the solemnity of the Trinity. As Catholics we try to understand these beliefs and what they mean to us in our lives.

Devotion to the blessed sacrament began late in the history of the church, in part, because of ongoing arguments over when and how the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus. For a long time Christians did not worry about these things. They were more focussed on what it meant to be Christian and, like you and me, how to survive as humans. 

In the Middle Ages the church became more clerical and less dependent on the intelligence and talents of lay people. The church of Rome was a powerful and controlling network in a vast feudal system. It had money, land and a well established often corrupt relationship with civic rulers. The influence of the church nevertheless was felt everywhere especially in urban centers where universities and monasteries flourished. 

The clergy administered sacraments, granted indulgences, heard confessions and made all the decisions. The laity developed their own devotions and prayers to guide them through life. The veneration of the host, the body of Christ, became a very popular pietistic practice at this time. Today the primary reason for reserving the body of Christ after Mass is to take it to people who are sick or dying.

The design of church buildings provided a symbolic definition of what the church was like in the Middle Ages. By the fifteenth century many churches and cathedrals were designed after the human body. The cruciform template looked like a human being lying on the ground with arms outstretched. The top part of the body symbolized Christ the head of the church. That space, often separated from the people by a large elaborate wall, was reserved for the clergy who said the Mass. The laity stood or sat in the arms and legs of the body of the church. Today, while there are still distinct roles and offices in our church, architectural divisions are not required.

The human body is a good metaphor for the church. When one part of our body is tickled the whole body laughs. When one member of the body is hurt, the whole body suffers. 

Because the church is the body and blood of Christ it is important for us to respect and care for the whole body and all of its members. We do so by appreciating the diversity in the people who make up the church. When there is a limited view of the importance of different members, their gender, their gifts, their opinions, the whole church suffers. The spirit of Pentecost fell upon all disciples — women and men. It did not fall on just a few apostles.

The altar that Moses erected (we heard about it in today’s first reading) served as a place for sacrifices. The blood of animals was sprinkled on people to forgive sins. Moses said it was a sign of a covenant with God. The gospel of Mark today contrasts the blood of the lamb with the blood of Jesus Christ. [1]

For some the last supper is linked with the forgiveness of sins and the sacrificial lamb. For others it is a meal of discipleship where all who are baptized in Christ share in the same spirit. The liturgy of the eucharist, we believe, is both a sacrifice and a banquet. To emphasize one aspect over another is to misunderstand what we are doing.

Fascinated by Paul’s dual understanding of the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:17), St. Augustine, fifth century bishop of Hippo (354-430), once preached to catechumens, “The mystery that you are lies there on the [altar] table; it is your own mystery that you receive.” [2]

Given this ancient teaching the consecrated bread and wine we share at communion is also our body and blood. The feast of the Body and Blood of Christ then is ours. It is about you, me, our relationships with God and with one other. Let us remember that when sharing communion today.

____

1 Reginald H. Fuller. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) 1984 (Revised Edition), 285-288

2 Augustine, Sermo 272 in Harmless, William. Augustine and the Catechumenate (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1995) page 319


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Homily – Trinity Sunday – June 3, 2012 – Three Are Not Enough


Trinity Sunday B – June 3, 2012 – Three Are Not Enough

Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40; Psalm 33:4-6, 9, 18-20, 22; Romans 8:14-17; Matthew 28:16-20

Three are not enough. Every year on Trinity Sunday preachers try their best to explain what it means. There is no clear definition of the Trinity in the bible. There are plenty of suggestions but no explicit explanations. [1]

 The passage from the book of Deuteronomy helps us imagine that God cannot be contained; that God is always changing and pervades everything. No word or words can completely grasp who or what God is.

The Jews like Jesus trusted in one God. They did not consider three Gods in One. As theologian Roger Haight says the early Christians were inspired not by the notion of a distant invisible God but by their experience of a real flesh and blood Jesus. The spirit of God was associated with the life and work of the people. [2]

 It took some 350 years after the time of Jesus for the doctrine of a triune God to be written. As we have it today the teaching grew out of many debates carried on within the framework and language of an ancient culture. There were theological and political issues that played into the doctrine.

According to Haight the trinity is a story of a community’s encounter with God, who uses Jesus to communicate with humanity. “God as Spirit and Jesus are intimately and intricately woven together.” [3]

I like to think of the image of a triune God in architectural terms. It offers a contemporary lens to consider the Christian experience of God.

Before the time of Jesus there lived a master builder by the name of Vitruvius once considered the chief authority on ancient classical architecture. He believed that all buildings must possess three qualities: beauty, function and stability. 

This church building, named after Vincent de Paul, is an example of temple architecture. Some believe it was modeled after the St. Madeleine church in Paris, France. When this building was dedicated in 1908 it was unconventional because most Catholic churches in our area copied the Gothic or Romanesque styles. One could say St. Vincent’s has always been a unique Church.

Our buildings tell stories about us: about our origin, our current identity and our visions. They affirm and shape our behavior. So, what story does this building tell of our relationships with God and of our interrelations with one another? In the words of Vitruvius, are we beautiful, purposeful, strong?

If God who is responsible for the beauty of creation cannot be contained then there is no one way to imagine or relate to this God. Rather, as theologian Laurel Schneider suggests, our understanding of God is based on multiplicity — an endless, unlimited, fluid stream of “human experiences and stories.” [4]

If God is revealed to us in the flesh and blood of Jesus then our experiences of God are found also in our bodies, minds and souls, they surface in our successes and failures. They are narratives that are ever changing and growing as the world, you and I change and grow. 

If the spirit of God is a divine force still at work in the world then our relationship with that spirit will prompt us, as disciples, to reconstruct old ideas, customs and traditions and to give them new, fresh and relevant significance.

Buildings according to Vitruvius are beautiful, functional and stable. God is wondrous, purposeful and strong. We who make up the church are beautiful as we mirror the image of God. As a church we function as agents for peace and justice. And, we find our strength and vitality in our local communities.

The way to understand the triune Godhead today is not to turn to catechisms and doctrines only. They can be puzzling. We need only to look more closely at ourselves and our interconnections with all creative beings; to imagine what is possible for us in this world, a world that God so loves. [5]

Three are not enough.

_____

1 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Third Edition (Collegevile: Liturgical Press) 2006. pp. 283-285, 90-91

2 Roger Haight, S.J. What is the Trinity? A lecture at the Carrs Lane United Reformed Church, Birmingham, UK. October 27, 2011

3 Ibid.

4 Schneider, Laurel. Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity. (NY: Routledge) 2008, 154

5 Ibid., 207