Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 27 October 2013 – Sacred Strangers in Our Midst


30 Ordinary C – October 27, 2013 – Sacred Strangers in Our Midst

Sirach 35:12-14,16-18; Psalm 34:2-3,17-19,23; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted his opinions about the Roman Catholic church in 1517. Soon after large numbers of Christians broke from Catholicism and started their own churches. Lutherans and Protestant religions commemorate that historical transition today — Reformation Sunday. What reformations are going on now?

The Roman Catholic church is still in a time of transition. The Vatican Two Ecumenical Council redefined the church, it reshaped our worship life and opened the doors to dialogues with other religions. We are still growing in our new identity in the world. In the second reading this morning Paul announces he has completed the race. However, the church continues to be a work in progress. We are not yet finished.

Our own diocese is going through a slow reformation. We have closed and merged parishes, we recognize more laywomen and men in leadership positions and soon we will be waiting anxiously for a new bishop. Our parish itself is in a transition. We are growing in membership and outreach ministries and next year we will rearrange our church to reflect our ongoing development as a place where all are welcomed. 

But not everyone likes transitions. They take us out of our comfort zones. They turn things upside down. They reverse trends. In 1932 Howard Becker conducted a study on societies undergoing transitions. He compared traditional groups which refused to change with new societies that were more open to transformation. [1]

Becker wrote that the most creative leadership in times of transition comes from “sacred strangers.” They embrace new possibilities without abandoning the values and principles of their traditions. The sacred stranger participates in creating a new order but is not consumed by it. It is something like a parent learning to text in order to keep valuable lines of communication open with a teenage son or daughter.

How does a church remain relevant without being consumed by a secular society or itself? Was Luther a sacred stranger when he called for reforms in the sixteenth century? Is Pope Francis, who is slowly changing the Vatican establishment, a sacred stranger? How about you and me?

The first reading from the Book of Sirach focusses on religious and ethical questions. Scripture scholars believe that writings from sources like Sirach can help Christians understand  “Jesus as a wisdom figure” [2] who helps us make sense of our lives in terms of our final destiny. Where are we going? How do we get there? How do we tap into the wisdom of Christ?

In the Book of Sirach we read that God has no favorites but does listen to persons who are oppressed, abandoned, brokenhearted, crushed in spirit. These could be the sacred strangers who quietly lead us through transitions in life. They also could be our closest loved ones who help us along. Entering retirement, going through a separation, leaving home to go to school, changing jobs, struggling with a disease, dying … all are transitions we experience in life. Are they total hardships? Are they opportunities for something new?

Not all transitions are bad. This weekend several parishioners are at Coxsackie Correctional Facility ministering to prisoners whose lives are in transition. There are sponsors and catechists helping the young adults whose lives are being transformed in our Christian Initiation process. Ministers in our food pantry are working to help thousands who are hungry. All of these persons are sacred strangers helping one another find new directions in their lives.

In Luke’s gospel today Jesus is presented as the embodiment of divine wisdom, a sacred stranger. He tells a story about two Jews who ignored the 613 laws in the Book of Deuteronomy. The pharisee was in denial boasting about all he did. The public official was more realistic in admitting his shortcomings. [3] In the story Jesus reverses the two. The pretentious man gets humbled and the self-deprecating man gets the praise. What a transition!  Just when you think you are on the top of the world, you all of sudden find yourself at the bottom! 

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy reminds us that our worship of God is intended to be a life changing experience for us. The idea is that if you celebrate the liturgy long enough something begins to change inside you, too. The liturgy is no longer just about someone else. You discover that it has to do with you, too. The radical adaptation of the liturgy (CSL, No. 40) is one way to accommodate diversity in the the church. Some say liturgical changes are good as long as there is continuity with the past. Others see them as opportunities for close scrutiny and true reform of the church and its members, you and me. 

This coming year our diocese and our parish will see some changes. We can greet these transitions as opportunities to adapt new and creative ways to worship God, conduct church affairs and serve others. We can become sacred strangers in a time that needs new voices.

______________

1 Becker, Howard. “Processes of Secularization: An Ideal-Typical Analysis with Special Reference to Personality Change as Affected by Population Movement.” Sociological Review 24 (1932): 138-54, 266-86 in Rasmussen, Larry L. Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. (New York: Oxford) 2013, 364

2 Fuller, Reginald. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), 514-16

3 Fuller. Ibid

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Homily – 20 October 2013 – Do Good on Earth


Homily – 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 20 October 2013 – Do Good on Earth

Exodus 17:8-13; Psalm 121:1-8; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 and Luke 18:1-8

Imagine this. It is the bottom of the ninth inning, the bases are loaded, there are two outs, the score is tied and you are up to bat. What is the first thought that comes to your mind? If I get a hit I will be hero? If I get a hit my team will win? A little bit of both?

You may recall the story of the Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head one year ago this month.  At the age of 11, Malala took a public stance against a Taliban edict banning all girls from going to school where she lived. Was Malala thinking only about herself? Did she have in mind the rights of all the girls in the Swat Valley and around the world? Or both?

There is a lot of conversation today about how we make decisions in our lives and whether we even think of how our choices will affect others and not just ourselves. Some studies in our country suggest individualism has replaced a more socio-centric attitude and that it is slowly eroding the moral character of our nation; affecting institutions like religion, state, family life and relationships in general. 

While there is some evidence of this behavior we all know how important it is to develop ourselves — our bodies and minds, our spiritual lives, our sense of self esteem and value. We cannot contribute to the common good if we have not taken strides to advance ourselves often with the help of others. There is an old saying, “you can’t give what you don’t have.”

In the gospel story today we meet a very gutsy female — the widow who pestered a judge to make a just decision in her case. In the culture of that time some women were silent and would not wander in public places. This widow, like Malala, was determined to be heard. 

This was a public event and a village crowd gathered to see how the judge, who had a reputation for being unfair, would act. The judge is unsympathetic but nevertheless, impressed by the woman’s bold courage, he finally responds to her favorably. Was the widow thinking of herself? Was she thinking if I back down now women’s rights will never take hold in the world? What if young Malala did not miraculously survive that bullet wound? Would her voice die with her? What message does this gospel have for us?

Many commentaries say the story suggests that if we pray for something long enough, no matter how tired we might be, God will answer. There are other ways to look at the story. The judge represents power. The widow represents those who are vulnerable in society. The gospel raises a question for us. What is our role as Christians when it comes to making decisions about our personal lives, our church, our larger community? Do we think of ourselves first and what we benefit from church membership? Or do we think about how our own talents, strengths and resources serve the common good? Is it a little bit of both?  

Today is World Mission Sunday and the theme is “Do Good on Earth.” It highlights the work of missionaries around the world who are helping disadvantaged people. The phrase echoes what Pope Francis said recently, “give voice to those not able to make their cries of pain and oppression heard.” How do we strengthen our common bond to give voice to the voiceless?

We believe the liturgy we celebrate together is the source and summit of all we do. Although it is not the only sustenance, the liturgy of word and sacrament nourishes us in our efforts. Liturgy is not a private act of the ordained priest or anyone else. We do not gather to watch others do something for us whether it is a priest, a cantor, a musician, a reader, a communion minister or anyone else. One could say the liturgy is a ritual game that we play together.

The World Series starts this coming Wednesday. Although no longer the national pastime baseball still reminds us of how important team work is in any human activity. It is a game where the job of the manager is to find ways to use different players in a team effort. Each player has to train and work hard to be ready to perform at any given time. That is what Paul seemed to be saying in the letter to Timothy which we heard in today’s second reading. It was perhaps advice originally given to the elders (bishops) in the church. Today we can understand it as words of wisdom for all of us — do not forget what you have been taught and … become competent in whatever you do.

In our church each of us is called to develop our gifts and resources not only for individual gain but for the common good. The Pashtun teenager Malala, the widow in the gospel, the missionaries who work in far away places all are examples of helping others imagine the possibilities in life. In this parish we can continue to do the same. “Together we can do anything.”


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Homily – 13 October 2013 – Insiders, Outsiders and the City of God


23 Ordinary C – October 13, 2013 – Insiders, Outsiders and the City of God

2 Kings 5:14-17, Psalm 98:1-4, 2 Timothy 2:8-13, Luke 17:17-19

Last week while the country was focussed on the ineptitude in Congress a rally took place on the Washington Mall and in other cities. Large numbers of people assembled to urge the House of Representatives to coalesce around a plan, schedule a vote and send a bill to the White House. The protest was not about the government shut down, the debt ceiling or the Affordable Heath Care Act. It was about immigration reform!

According to the Pew Hispanic Center every year about 300,000 unauthorized people enter the country mostly from Mexico. It is a nation that struggles with poverty and where it is impossible for many to earn a living wage and provide basic needs for their families. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops has joined other religious leaders with its support for comprehensive immigration reform.

Naaman, the protagonist in the first reading, was considered a foreigner in the land of Israel. This prominent general in the Syrian army, was an outsider. But in the eyes of God he was no different from the Israelites. At first Naaman thinks Elisha healed him from a skin disease. Then he realizes that the hand of God does not require the power of a prophet.

(There are interesting side bars in this reading. 1) Elisha does not want to be paid for ministering to Naaman; 2) the Greek word for the “washing” that cured Naaman is baptizein meaning to be dipped in water. Christians could interpret this word as a reference to baptism and 3) it was thought that God only resided in a certain place like Israel which is what prompted Naaman to ask for dirt to  take back to his country so God would dwell there as well.)

This parable, however, is about human plight, those dilemmas in life that none of us can escape. Naaman’s healing symbolizes that the gates of restoration, reconciliation and salvation are open to all peoples regardless of who they are or where they are from. The gospel story has a similar theme. There are no barriers where God dwells. There are no outsiders. For example the Samaritan who was healed by Jesus was not allowed in the Temple. But that did not stop him from thanking Jesus personally.

Insiders and outsiders. Everyone of us sets up certain boundaries in our lives. We build fences around ourselves for different reasons. Some people are shy. Others are afraid of strangers and think that a strong defense will protect them. Of course the walls that surround us also strengthen our identity. They give us a sense of belonging to a family, a church, a nation. But these same comforts can also be exclusionary. Not all fences make good neighbors much less advance the causes of peace. Consider what exactly is being accomplished by the construction of fences between Israel and Palestine and along the border between Mexico and the United States.

Our religion, which is catholic, meaning for all peoples, also has many boundaries. We Catholics love our traditions, our stories, our rituals, our sense of community. However, even though today’s biblical texts offer us a vision where everyone is welcomed in the house of God we still treat other religions as outsiders. We even act toward some of our own members as if they were outcasts.

Scripture scholar Diane Bergant suggests that the people who live on the margins of society or religion perhaps are not on the fringes after all. Maybe they are the new centers. She proposes when outsiders are respected, acknowledged and greeted with kindness, when they are given a chance, they become the symbols of restoration, for healing and salvation. They reveal the presence of God working in our lives.

Our worship provides a way for us to tap into the unrestricted  presence of God. We do not make God present during this liturgy as if God were not present beforehand. Brazilian theologian Claudio Carvalhaes writes that our liturgies have structures within which we can expand human possibilities. While this is true our worship can also divide us into different theological and ethical camps. Some of our prayers, biblical texts and song lyrics are still exclusionary. Our liturgical spaces create boundaries between clergy and laity. All of our ministries are still not open to all baptized members of the church.

At St. Vincent’s we say all are welcome in our house and at our table. But we know in our hearts there are limits to the hospitality we can offer because of our borders, our laws. Nevertheless, we move forward doing what we can do and always looking for ways to improve. We move forward like Elisha and other prophets who challenged the status quo. Humbly we raise our voices like the protesters in Washington, DC demanding immigration reform. We do what we can in this parish and in the larger community to advance the kin-dom of God on earth.

That was the message of Pope John XXIII when he opened the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council fifty-one years ago this past Friday. The Pope said the Council “prepares a path that leads toward the unity of the human race, which is so necessary if this earthly city of ours is to resemble the heavenly one….” It is a message we cannot afford to forget.