Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 21 April 2013 – Of Shepherds and Sheep


4 Easter – April 21, 2013 – Of Shepherds and Sheep

Acts 13:14. 43-52; Psalm 100:1-3,5; Rev 7:9,14b-17; John 10:27-30

Last week was a disaster for so many people. The Boston Marathon bombings. The papal reaffirmation of the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The massive explosion in Texas. The defeat of every gun control proposal by the Senate. The first event was a crime. The second one was a huge disappointment concerning the contributions and intuitions of women in the church. The third was an awful accident. The fourth was an unbelievable example of how elected officials, according to some reports, ignored the common sense of 90% of American citizens. But did the Senators actually forsake their flocks? 

Other surveys indicate the Senators who voted against the proposals actually represented states where the citizens, not to mention the lobbyists, were against more gun control. Nevertheless, the outcome of the vote raises a question about how elected officials represent the common good of a country. It is about scrutinizing those who have power to make decisions for large numbers of people. It is an issue of leadership and authority. It is a topic that we Catholics are mindful of as we try to be faithful to the gospel and the doctrines of our church.

Today’s scriptures focus on the voice of the good shepherd. In the first passage we heard that if one group was not open to the teachings of Jesus the disciples would turn their attention to others. The lesson in today’s gospel is a familiar one: if we hear the voice of Christ we had better listen. Reginald Fuller writes: “to hear and to respond to Jesus’ word on earth is the decisive factor that will determine acceptance by God.” [1]

This is good news for the shepherds in our church. The bishops are quite serious about their responsibility to protect the authentic teachings of Christ and the apostolic church and then lead us accordingly. 

There are other indicators, however, that a shepherd in ancient times not only led sheep but also listened to the sheep who were not all alike — those who were sick, threatened by wild animals or lost in the night and needed help from the shepherd. The relationship between the shepherd and the sheep mattered. In a similar way, clergy and laity in our church are part of the same flock and need each other. Only Christ is the chief shepherd leading all of us with a mother’s strength and a father’s love. [2] 

We know the Catholic church is not a democracy like our nation state. We do not elect those who make decisions for us nor do we vote on anything that concerns us. In fact, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that the pope and the bishops are to exercise authority over the church. However, this instruction does not exempt our bishops from acting in the spirit of service or from listening to the voices of the faithful [3] especially when those voices are seeking help, dialog and understanding.

The Second Vatican Council emphasized the dignity of all baptized persons. It said all of us have been called to holiness. [4] The principle of collegiality was not reserved to the hierarchy alone. It would be a beautiful act of service if all bishops, including the bishop of Rome, found a way to learn what the people of God are thinking before making decisions that would affect them. To use an old Latin expression, what is the sensus fidelium? What is the sense of the faithful on any number of issues?  What is it that the same Spirit who speaks to the bishops is speaking to the rest of the church? 

The Senators may have ignored the common sense of the American public when voting against more gun control. But Catholic bishops are reminded by Conciliar teachings to recognize the charisms of all members of the church, to treat the people of God as co-workers in the vineyard, partners in maintaining the apostolic tradition. [5]  Yes, the sheep must listen but the shepherds are not to lord their authority over the sheep. (2 Peter 5)

The two Chechen brothers who plagued the City of Boston and its suburbs were caught quickly because the authorities asked citizens for help. They employed something called “crowd-sourcing.” It is the practice of getting information, ideas and solutions by tapping into large groups of people using social media.

All of us are shepherds entrusted with the responsibility for taking care of one another. Why? No one us knows more than all of us.

________

1 Reginald H. Fuller. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegville: The Liturgical Press) 1984, Revised Edition), 429-431

2 Chepponis, James. “With a Shepherd’s Care” in Gather (Chicago: GIA Publications)1994, 654

3 See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 894-896

4 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 39

5 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 30

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Homily – 14 April 2013 – What Would Jesus Do?


Easter 3 – April 14, 2103 – What Would Jesus Do?

Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Psalm 30:2,4-6,11-13; Rev 5:11-14; John 21:1-19 (or up to 14)

I was at a church meeting recently where a teenager asked a question about a certain issue — “What would Jesus do?” The answer can only be a guess. We can only imagine what Jesus might do when confronted with the ethical issues of today.

Where do we learn to make ethical decisions?  I had to go to the best sources to get the answer. The other night I asked three young members of my family (in the 6th, 8th, and 10th grades) what were the big problems in their schools. They said — bullying, drug abuse and cheating. I also learned that PDA was short for “public display of affection” – another problem in schools. I thought it meant personal digital assistant!

I then asked how did they learned to know right from wrong. Andrew, Emily and Ryan agreed in this order: 1) parents, 2) common sense (or figuring it out for themselves), 3) maybe in church and 4) a commandment or two. Their response is interesting. We cannot identify ethics with religion only. Ethics is not only for people who are religious. Ethical issues are the responsibility of all people whether or not they practice a religion. [1] So what does the bible have to do with ethical decisions? 

In today’s first reading we heard about the authorities prohibiting the disciples from teaching what Jesus taught. The neophyte Christians boldly answered they would be obedient to God and not to laws devised by humans. This was an important declaration. Creating a new identity was a struggle for the early church. What would rally them together? According to moral philosopher Dov Seidman  — a set of “common beliefs or values” binds groups together. Religious belief systems prescribe that we act in a certain way toward one another [2] even though others may not agree .

Maybe this explains the polarization we observe in Congress, our nation and our religions. There is not much clear-across-the-board agreement about major moral issues: health care, birth control, gun control, war, same sex marriage, immigration, abortion. The fact is we human beings do not agree on everything. Frequently, to strengthen arguments, dissimilar groups will actually quote from the bible using different interpretations of the same texts! Learning to compromise is difficult. What would Jesus do?!

A group of Protestant churches recently released a Formula of Agreement. The report stated 1) scripture does not always shed direct light on contemporary questions, 2) every verse and passage stands in the entire wisdom of the bible and 3)  science and other modern sources of wisdom illuminate our reading of scripture. Scripture shapes and forms our identity, our imagination, our language, and our moral development.” [3] That’s what the biblical texts can do for us.

But … the bible is not a moral handbook. You cannot go to the index and look up information on, e.g., pre-marital sex, and find an direct “yes or no” answer to a specific contemporary moral dilemma. “Biblical interpretation requires that we use our brains as well. Faithful interpretation asks about the biblical languages and cultures. It takes account of the historical and social settings in which biblical books were composed and developed.” [4]

Just last week, while addressing the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Pope Francis taught that the Word of God embraces and extends beyond Scripture. He said the presence of the holy Spirit is necessary to properly understand it. [5]

So, is it a fair question to ask “what would Jesus do?” The gospel today was a late addition to the text but still provides us with a lesson. After failing to catch any fish, the disciples who cowardly abandoned Jesus at his trial and execution, found Jesus, standing on the shore “ready to greet them with breakfast and total forgiveness.” [6] That’s what Jesus did. We might say then that making ethical decisions today requires respect for all human beings no matter who they are or what they may have done to us.

Why pursue this question about ethics? This afternoon our teenagers will be discussing how to make ethical decisions. Perhaps we adults could get together sometime in the future to have the same conversation — how do we make ethical decisions?

______

1 Manuel Velasquez, Claire Andre, Thomas Shanks, S.J., and Michael J. Meyer. “What is Ethics?” Markula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/whatisethics.html

2 Seidman, Dov. How: Why We Do Anything Means Everything (NY: Wiley) 2007, 72

3 Formula of Agreement, 01/07/13. Browse http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Office-of-the-Presiding-Bishop/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations.aspx

4 Carey, Greg. “The Bible and Our Moral Lives” in Huff Post, 01/14/13

5 Pope Francis to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Vatican Information Services, Vatican City, April 12, 2013

6 Judith, Walloon, Australia in catholica.com.au, 04/13/13


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Homily – 7 April 2013 – The FUD Factor and Followers of Christ


2 Easter – April 7, 2013 – The FUD Factor and the Followers of Christ

Acts 5:12-16: Ps 118:2-4,13-15,22-24; Rev 1:9-11a, 12-13,17-19; Jn 20:19-31

FUD! Do you know what the FUD factor is? FUD is an acronym for fear, uncertainty and doubt. Advertisers use it to shape our buying habits. They cause us to doubt our own abilities to decide what we eat and drink, where we live, what we drive and how we dress.

Sometimes governments, religions and schools also employ the FUD factor. They use it to maintain control over citizens, church members, students and faculties. If you question laws, traditions or teachings you could be labeled disobedient, a dissident. You might even be punished, expelled or excommunicated. Even these institutions are subject to FUD.

Today’s gospel is John’s version of the first days after the resurrection. The story is about people who were experiencing FUD. The women and men who followed Jesus were afraid that the authorities might arrest and punish them. Jesus’s mother was among them. They were uncertain about their future. Perhaps they had doubts about Jesus and what they should do next. 

The other three gospels do not include this story about Thomas. They imply he was with the disciples on the evening of the resurrection. Together they experienced an appearance of Jesus. Earlier testimonies pictured the Risen One in more spiritual, not physical, terms. So, what is the purpose of this gospel about Thomas needing to place his hands into the physical wounded body of Jesus?

The gospel was written for Christian Jews who also suffered from FUD. After the destruction of their Temple they doubted their identity. They were afraid of being thrown out of their synagogues. They too were uncertain about their future. The purpose of the story was to answer the skeptics, “can you prove to me that he actually rose from the dead?”

We are not much different today. Being overwhelmed by FUD is part of being human. Most of us have been afraid and uncertain at some time in our lives. Maybe we doubted our abilities. Think of when we were little children … sitting at the top of that playground slide deciding whether to let go; standing at the edge of a swimming pool hesitant about jumping in; riding our bicycles for the first time without training wheels. 

Unfortunately, as we grow older, FUD does not go away. Will I fail in school? Why am I afraid of starting a new career? Will I be able to live alone when I get old? Am I making the right choices about my life? We live in an age when mistrust and suspicion is a cultural past time. Collectively many people do not trust politics, religion, schools or professional sports. Most often many of us do even not believe in ourselves.

Some say that doubt is a good thing. Peter Abelard, a 12th century musician, philosopher and theologian, said, “by doubting we come to inquiry and by inquiry we arrive at truth.” Eventually, the early Christians came to believe in themselves and that they could turn the FUD factor into a positive experience. The first reading today lists their early accomplishments.

The Easter season is less about an empty tomb and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Joseph Ratzinger writes, it was not about a dead person coming back to life. Rather, it was like a radical evolutionary leap in which a new dimension of life emerges … creating for all of us a new space of life. [1] This is something beyond our ability to grasp.

Easter, then, is about how you and I can rise up. It is about learning to take leaps in life, turning experiences of fear, uncertainty and doubt into kernels of truth for ourselves. Embracing the FUD factor, then, is to embrace life with all of its imperfections and then move forward. Like our ancestors in faith, we can imagine new possibilities for ourselves and others. We can practice the virtue of hope.

___________ 

1 Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press) 2011, 274