Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 23 February 2014 – When To Turn the Other Cheek


7 Ordinary A – February 23, 2014 – When To Turn the Other Cheek

Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18; Psalm 103:1-4,8,10,12-13; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Not far from here in Rifton, NY, there is a community of women, men and children called the Woodcrest Bruderhof. [1] Their history dates to 1920 in Germany when the founders were looking for answers to the devastation of a post-war society. Frustrated by the silence of the established church in the face of widespread chaos in Europe, they decided to act. Because they were pacifists they were banished from Germany. They moved to England, Paraguay and then the United States. The community in Rifton was established in 1954.

The members of the Bruderhof do not serve in the military. They are non-violent, peaceful people who own nothing and live in common. The Sermon on the Mount is the basis of their philosophy — love your neighbors as yourselves.

Today’s gospel is the continuation of the Sermon on the Mount that we heard last week. In this week’s section we are asked not only to love our enemies but to turn the other cheek whenever we are bullied, offended or harmed by someone. Turning the other cheek is very hard to do. There may be times when we do have to fight back.

Barbara DiTommaso, while Director of our Diocesan Commission on Peace and Justice, shared a story about a man, a villager, who took up arms to protect his family from the Nicaraguan counter revolutionaries (Contras). Barbara wrote “loving enemies does not absolve us from loving those who are not our enemies.” She explained that what she “opposed was not self defense but any government’s imperialism and repression of another people’s legitimate right to self-determination.” Consider what is happening in Egypt, Syria, Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela. 

Here at home we cannot be indifferent about bullying in elementary school, date rape in college or economic inequity. Our awareness of issues here and beyond us can generate our action. At the same time it can help us discern what we need to live humbly, peacefully and justly. Soon you will hear more about our parish Lenten program “Freedom From Want” designed to help us deepen our relationships with God and one another.

Our first reading today, from the Book of Leviticus, [2] has two themes. The holiness of God’s creation exists side by side with imperfections and evil. Like our ancestors in faith we have been elected to sanctify the world, removing from it whatever deprives humans, other creatures and the environment itself of respect and care.

Leviticus also teaches us that the presence of God is realized in ritual action. Our worship serves as an avenue leading into the life of Christ where we are united in a holy spirit. It is not just a time to hear sermons, say prayers and sing music. What we do here in this church is a rehearsal for living out there. Our celebration of the eucharist cannot be divorced from the injustices around us. There is a moral foundation for what we do during worship. 

Scholar Keith Pecklers once warned against “liturgical isolationism.” Is the sign of peace, for example, merely exchanged by families and friends? Or does it symbolize our role as peacemakers in a world where evil is real? The gospel says it is easy to be friends with friends. We cannot worship God and love those we know and then ignore, deride and despise evil people and their actions without doing something to stop it.

The Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton NY is one example of a community of believers inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The members of that collective abide by the radical nature of his message to love each other as well as our enemies. 

Here at St Vincent’s we may not live in common or share our goods like they do at the Bruderhof in Rifton. However, we have committed ourselves to becoming a hospitable church, one that practices a radical hospitality. We care not only for ourselves but also for others through random and not so random acts of kindness. 

It is so good for all of us to be here today. And if you are visiting or come to church only once in awhile, know there will always be a place for you at our table.

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1. There is a Bruderhof Community in Albany, New York as well. I am, however, more familiar with the one in Rifton.

2. Leviticus was a Priests’ Manual. The role of the priests was to teach about the difference between what was holy and what was not.

 

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Homily – 16 February 2014 – Thy Will or My Will Be Done?


6 Ordinary A – 16 February 2014 – Thy Will or My Will Be Done? 

Sirach 15:15-20; Psalm 119:1-2,4-5, 17-18, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37

Several years ago the Sisters of Divine Providence in Allison Park, Pennsylvania renovated their Motherhouse Chapel. There was an inscription in the old chapel “We exalt thy providence O Lord and we submit to all its decrees.” Today the Sisters describe themselves with these words: “Making God’s Providence Visible.” The new statement implies that the Sisters have more to do with revealing God’s providence than just submitting to it.

Today’s first reading attributed to Sirach is the clearest statement in the Old Testament on free will. But the psalm reminds us — blessed are those who follow God’s laws. So which is it? It’s the same question the Sisters of Divine Providence had. If everything happens according to God’s will what about our free will? What can we do?

The passage from Sirach also exonerates God from all that is evil in the world. Don’t blame evil on God. We humans have the free will to do good or evil. The text reads, if we choose evil it shall be given to us. Does God, therefore, allow evil to happen as well as good? What does it mean to say in the Lord’s Prayer “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

As human beings we have the freedom to make choices, to follow our consciences. A mature conscience helps us make good decisions based on wisdom, experience, the expertise of others, and the guidance of our religions. As social beings our decisions in life cannot be made based on our own agendas, in isolation of others. We discern ahead of time the impact our actions may have on our relationships not only to other humans, the environment and other creatures, but also to the God of all creation. 

We choose to be fully human by respecting all people made in the image and likeness of God. We regard and care for our planet because it is part of God’s ongoing creative work. When we disrespect other people and the planet we actually destroy our own humanness, our relationships with others and with God.

This is where the commandments and the teachings of our religions come into focus. Although the gospel was written long after Jesus it tells us that he reinterpreted the old commandments so they make some sense in life. The gospel was probably written to address the issues prevalent in its own time. If any commandment is to continue to serve as a guidepost it will require new interpretations from time to time. That is where we come in. 

We profess our trust in an ineffable and mysterious being. No one has ever seen God. We also believe God is the prime mover behind the entire creative process. God communicates God’s love with all of creation. Made in the image and likeness of God we are the manifestations of that love. Jesus of Nazareth reminded us we are called by God to take care of this gift of creation  — all of it. We trust in God. God trusts in us.

This means we will work to counter any leadership model, or cultural, political or religious movement — any action that diminishes the presence of God in our lives. The second reading speaks of that challenge. Wars, autocracies, conspicuous consumption of goods, economic inequity, human cruelties, abuse of the planet and animals all can overshadow the work of God. When these influences obscure the God-ness in our midst we act to stop the evil from spreading and diminishing the radiance of God.

God’s will or providence does not mean we are objects subject to God’s whim or master plan for the multiverses. Rather we are subjects who act in an interdependent way with the creative process. Participation in the work of God presents a unique opportunity for us not only to bond with other humans, the environment and other creatures on earth, but also to enter into a rewarding relationship with the God who is the source of all life. 

When we say “thy will be done” we are accepting the call to cooperate with God’s creative energy in building up the kin-dom of God on earth. As the Sisters of Divine Providence said, they are making God’s providence visible. By changing the words the Sisters were reinterpreting their age old understanding of God’s will. 

As we go forth these days doing random or not so random acts of kindness, wrestling with difficult decisions in our own lives we, too, give new meaning to God’s will. 


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Homily – 2 February 2014 – Presentation of Jesus in the the Temple and Super Sunday Traffic


Presentation of Jesus in the Temple – 2 February 2014 – Super Sunday Traffic

Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 24:7-10; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

Today while lighting and blessing candles we remembered Jesus of Nazareth as a burning light revealing the presence of God; as a refiner’s fire restoring beauty to God’s creation (Malachi). In the gospel, (the final infancy narrative attributed to Luke), we heard how Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple to present him to God. Anna, a wise widow, was there and spoke in a loud voice that echoed throughout the Temple precincts, “This child is the one we have been waiting for.” 

Simeon was the other sage present there. He tells Mary and Joseph that Jesus would bring salvation not only to the Israelites but to all peoples. That’s new information. He also gave a quiet but dire warning to Mary that would break her heart. Jesus would also be a sign of contradiction and that the inmost thoughts of many people would be revealed. Scripture scholars say when Luke uses the words “inmost thoughts” he is referring to evil intentions. [1]

We know that this gospel was written fifty years after the death of Jesus. The author already knows what happened to Jesus and inserts the warning into this story as if it were a prophecy. How do we deal with this alarming prediction by Simeon in our lives and on Super Bowl Sunday, a festive day for many?

Statistics, predictions and post-game commentaries are plentiful before during and after big sporting events. More Americans will watch the Super Bowl today than the Olympics in Sochi. Racketeers revel in knowing that countless people will gamble in some way. Marketeers marvel over the impact 30-second advertisements, each costing four million dollars, will have on viewers.

Other statistics, however, bear out the bad news that Simeon had for Mary in today’s gospel — that Jesus’s message of justice and peace would butt heads with inner most thoughts and actions that are evil and hurtful. One disturbing global reality that has received an extraordinary amount of attention in recent days leading up to the Super Bowl is human trafficking. 

On one hand there is the claim that sex trafficking increases during huge sporting events; that these competitions provide a huge lucrative market for human traffickers. [2] The people working in the sex industry themselves say this past week, leading up to the Super Bowl, was very profitable. [3]

 On the other hand “no data actually support the notion that increased sex trafficking accompanies the Super Bowl, World Cup Soccer games or the Olympics.” [4] Nevertheless, a lot of resources have been spent by law enforcement agencies, Amtrak, airlines, hotels, truckers and nuns to alert the public to the issue. The flyer in today’s Parish Bulletin was issued by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Super Bowl or not “Human trafficking in the sex trade and labor industries is big business. It denies freedom to millions of women, children, and men in the U.S. and around the world. [5] The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 21 million victims of human trafficking worldwide and 80% of the victims are women. 

Hundreds of thousands are forced to provide commercial sex, labor, or services against their will right here in the United States.”  [6] The crime exists in all communities — our Albany New York Capital District is not immune.

The 32 billion dollar a year illegal industry, second only to drug trafficking, victimizes up to 500,000 American children every year in some form of sex-trafficking. The Department of Justice reports the average age for entering into child prostitution is thirteen. [7]

So why raise this appalling issue on Super Bowl Sunday especially when there are no reliable data that directly connect the popular event to sex trafficking? Human trafficking, a form of slavery, is a problem all year long, everywhere. Because it has received so much attention these days (January was Human Trafficking Awareness month) it is a good time for us to grow in our realization that this despicable crime is committed all around us.

In the second reading we heard that the purpose of the death of Jesus of Nazareth was to free those who had been subject to slavery all their lives. We can play a role in stopping human trafficking by understanding the facts and contacting the national human trafficking hotline if we suspect someone is being victimized. 

We blessed candles at the beginning of this liturgy to remind ourselves that the light of Christ — which we bear as baptized members of this church — can expose the evils that are rampant in the world … among them is human trafficking.

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1 Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2000) 34-36, Brown, Raymond. An Adult Christ At Christmas (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1978) 32

2 Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center. http://ipjc.org/links/HumanTraffickingisNotaSport.pdf

3 Pilon, Mary. “Jump in Prostitution Arrests During Super Bowl Week” in New York Times, January 30, 2014, B16.

4 Kate Mogulescu “The Super Bowl and Sex Trafficking” in The New York Times, Opinion Pages, February 1, 2014

5 Susan Grimes and Bradley Miles. “Sex Trafficking at the Super Bowl? It’s An Everyday Problem.” in Huffington Post, January 31, 2014

6 Source: http://www.polarisproject.org/media-center/news-and-press/press-releases/945-national-human-trafficking-hotline-takes-100000th-call

7 The U.S. Department of Homeland Security quoted in “Super Bowl Is Largest Weekend in US Prostitution, Advocates Say.” ABCnews.go.com January 29, 2014