Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – Sixth Sunday of Easter – 25 May 2014 – Crossing Borders, Bridging Differences


6 Easter A – May 25, 2014 – Crossing Borders, Bridging Differences

Acts 8:5-8,14-17; Psalm 66:1-3,4-7,16,20; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

In 1904 Pope Pius X met with the Viennese writer Theodor Herzl who advocated for the creation of a State of Israel. That pope scolded Herzl saying Israel does not deserve to be a state because of the Jewish failure to recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ. This weekend Pope Francis while visiting Israel, along with the Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Palestine, will lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl one of the founders of Zionism. 

How times have changed. But have they? Yes. Israel became a nationstate in 1948 and in 2012 the United Nations declared Palestine a State. But the people in these places, a holy land, are still not at peace. Many of them do not trust each other; some hate each other. Just two months ago the negotiations collapsed with both sides blaming each other. The historical ground work for the division is long and deep and is sifted through political, geographical and religious filters. 

According to John Pilch, the Middle Eastern culture, in which the early church emerged, was conflict-prone. Its basic social institution was the large and very extended family. Everyone outside the family was suspected of being an enemy. [1] In the first reading we heard about the challenge Philip faced while preaching to the Samaritans. They had their own cultic practices and worshiped in their own temple (Mt. Gerizim). They were suspicious of the Christians. Philip was in dangerous territory and had his hands full until they saw the signs he worked. [2]

The first letter of Peter was addressed to Christian communities scattered over the northern half of Asia minor. At that time the Roman authorities were suspicious of any foreign religion. Christians faced slander, misunderstandings and even persecution because of their beliefs. The unknown author encourages the Christians not to retaliate but to continue to practice their faith, abide by their values and keep up their hope, all in a spirit of charity. The letter presents Jesus of Nazareth as a model who suffered unjustly but never gave up. [3]

Part of the Christian conundrum in Israel and Palestine today has to do with religious freedom. Attacks against Palestinians and Christians by Jewish extremists have escalated in recent weeks. Such hate crimes are becoming more ubiquitous around the world. Consider the pregnant woman in Sudan who was sentenced to death for marrying a Christian man and refusing to deny her faith in Christ. [4]

 All over this planet religion appears to be a tool for division not only in politics but among religions themselves. The same is true in America. Suspicion of people who are strangers to our own cultural households runs high. Immigrants, gays and lesbians and people of color still experience intolerance in many parts of this country.

Jesus’s command to love one another extends beyond the family unit and neighborhood. It is easy to love those we are familiar and comfortable with. In his farewell address Jesus challenges his followers to be true to that spirit of love, a love that knows no limitations.

The primary purpose of Pope Francis’s journey to the holy land is to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. It seems to me that Francis is one of those “signs” we heard about in the first reading. Maybe his pilgrimage offers new possibilities not only for the reconciliation of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches but also for peace in the Middle East. We hope so.

But we cannot depend entirely on Pope Francis. His journey inspires you and me to take similar risks like he has — to cross difficult borders, and to build bridges broken down by prejudice and stubbornness. This is our hope for him and for one other.

It is good for us to be here. Whether you are visiting or come to church only once in a while, know there is always a place for you at our table. This is a church built of “living stones.” (1 Peter 2)

__________

1 John J. Pilch The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1995. pp. 79-81.

2 DeBona,Guerric. Between Altar and Ambo: Biblical Preaching and the Roman Missal Year A. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2013, pp. 134-137.

3 Balch, D. revised by Achtemeier, P. “The First Letter of Peter” in Attridge, H Ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible (San Francisco: Harper) 2006. pp. 2059-60 

4 News in Brief: Africa in The New York Times (May 14, 2014, A14)

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Homily – Fifth Sunday of Easter – 18 May 2014 – We Are Living Stones!


5 Easter A – May 18, 2015 – We Are Living Stones!

Acts 6:1-7; Psalm 33:1-2,4-5,18-19; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

When I was about eight years old I tried out for the Little League. I wanted to play in the outfield like my hero Mickey Mantle. Well there I was along with other kids chasing fly balls at the try-outs. One ball, hit high in the sky, was coming right at me. I thought to myself this was my big chance. There I was getting my glove ready to make a spectacular catch. But guess what? The ball sailed right over my head! I did not make the team. It took me a long time to get over feeling rejected. 

Not making a Little League team seems small now compared to the rejections other people endure in life. Being turned down for a promotion, spurned by your best friend, ignored by your parents, not getting into a college, repudiated by your church, are just some examples. Being rejected because of race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or age is an even more devastating experience. 

Feelings of rejection are also intensified today by popular social media like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The desire to be connected is nothing new. Psychologist Matthew Lieberman writes, “What social media exacerbates is the satisfaction of feeling part of a group and the pain associated with feeling excluded from a group.” [1] In a religious context the feeling of belonging to a faith community is usually the first step in wanting to join that congregation. [2] 

The Acts of the Apostles portrays a young church as a community that took belonging seriously. They shared their goods and stood up for one other. There was a spirit of collaboration between the leaders and the members in order to advance the word of God. In today’s reading there is a concern about not neglecting widows, orphans and strangers. 

The passage from Peter speaks of the demands of a baptismal life. The people chosen by God to make a difference in the world are called “living stones.” In this passage we are challenged to imagine ourselves as a spiritual house, a priesthood of faithful persons. We provide physical and emotional shelter for others as well as ourselves. The cornerstone for this holy dwelling place, this church of ours, you and me, is Jesus of Nazareth who himself was rejected. [3]

In his farewell address Jesus tells his followers not to be afraid of rejection. Although departing this earth the strength of his spirit would remain with them to guide them. Further, if they continue the work he started there will be an eternal dwelling place for them with God.

That same spirit is with us today as we welcome our little brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, to take holy communion with us for the first time. They belong to our church and just by being here we promise now never to neglect or reject them. 

So what does this have to do with all of us? Think for a moment of the times you experienced rejection. How did you handle it? To whom did you turn for help? What can you and I learn from being rejected in our lives that can help us not neglect the needs of others?

I started this homily with the memory of not making a baseball team as a youngster. Recently I learned of a biography about a famous ball player who experienced a major rejection as a youth. When the boy was about eight years old his parents had no time for him and signed over custody to the Xaverian Brothers who ran the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore, MD.

One of the Brothers there took an interest in young George Herman Ruth whose life as some of your know was bittersweet. I wonder. Would Babe Ruth ever have become the great baseball player he was if it were not for those Catholic Brothers who took him in? How many countless others, young and old like, who have been neglected or rejected, have never had the chance to bounce back because nobody cared? 

It is good for us to be here this morning. If you are visiting or come to church only once in awhile know you are always welcomed here. There is always a place for you at our table. This church is built out of “living stones.”

____________

1 Lieberman, Matthew D. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. (NY: Crown) 2013 

2 Butler Bass, Diana. Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (NY: Harper) 2012

3 DeBona, Guerric. Between the Ambo and the Altar: Biblical Preaching and Roman Missal. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2013, 129

 


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Homily – Fourth Sunday of Easter – 11 May 2014 – Mothers and Shepherds


4 Easter A – May 11, 2014 – Mothers and Shepherds

Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 23:1-2a, 3b-4-6; 1Pt 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

Wanda Pratt was a twenty-one year old single Mom who raised two boys by herself. She rose 5:30 every morning to get them ready for school before working multiple jobs. According to her son, “she kept us off the streets, put clothes on our backs and food on the table. When she went to sleep hungry she made sure we ate.” She sacrificed for us, he said. 

These are the words of Kevin Durant who was just named the Most Valuable Player in the National Basketball Association. It is hard not to be moved by Durant’s thoughtful, humble and emotional acceptance speech. His stardom would not have been possible if it were not for his mother. 

Today’s scriptures are about shepherds and sheep and beg the question: who leads whom? Where would we be without the direction we received from our parents, teachers, friends and co-workers? How do we take our turn today? How do we assume leadership roles?

There are about 200 references to sheep in the bible. Jesus used the sheep and shepherd metaphor as a way to speak about unity and security. He is called the sheep gate in today’s gospel. As Christians we believe anything is possible in this sheepfold. The earliest known artistic images of Jesus first depicted him as a shepherd. Only after the church absorbed imperialistic tendencies was Jesus painted as a ruler and judge.

Sheep are social animals. They stick together even when attacked. They do tend to follow the sheep in front of them. When some sheep take a different course, the rest will go along. Some studies suggest sheep are not as dumb or slow as we think. In fact certain sheep can lead others safely, wherever they are going, without shepherds. 

Why, in our church, are the clergy always thought of as the shepherds and the laity as the sheep? Over the centuries church governance slowly shifted from a domestic model where Christian households met together to make decisions with their elders. Eventually, emperors, kings and clergy alone governed the church and established its rules and doctrines. The laity were treated like serfs or … sheep that needed to be kept together and prevented from falling out of line. 

How does anyone create a sense of unity today when there are diverse opinions in every sector of life on just about any issue? Is there only one way to happiness, a spiritual life and God when there are other reasonable and worthwhile paths to follow? How do any religious leaders keep the multitudes together when some of the other sheep in the same flock are also capable, talented trailblazers?

Pope Francis presents a different image of the shepherd when he says that bishops should “smell like the sheep.” He warns against careerism and autocracy. He echoes the spirit of the pastoral teachings of the last ecumenical council, that call for a more collegial relationship between church leaders and other members of the church. It is a spirited strategy whereby all baptized people are co-workers in the fields, walking arm in arm together. 

The idea of being part of a flock is not limited to our church. We belong to a much larger cohort, the herd of humanity if you will. In the first reading there was the call to do something, however small, to reduce the corruption that is all around us. This task is difficult. According to Emily Welty of the World Council of Churches, “the prevailing globalized culture seems to accept and legitimize social, economic and ecological injustices.”

The Easter season provides a time for us to remember what we have been called to do. It is a springtime of passages and transitions celebrated in graduations, baptisms, confirmations, and first communions. These are life cycle moments of hope and possibilities not only for ourselves but for the world. We are thrilled to welcome our little brothers and sisters to the eucharist today. They will share with the rest of us the spiritual food and drink that gives sustenance and energy for their life journeys and ours.

On this Mothers’ Day we think with sorrow of the parents of those young girls abducted in northern Nigeria. We mourn the loss of those teenagers who drowned in that South Korean ferry tragedy. And, we cry for those who know not their mothers. We give thanks for our mothers, our parents and guardians who brought us and continue to bring us to where we are. They are indeed the “most valuable players” in the game of life.