Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily 28 September 2014 – A Change of Mind


26 OT September 28, 2014 – A Change of Mind

Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25:4-5,8-10,14; Philippians 2:1-5; Matthew 21:21-32

Yesterday many members of our faith community participated in the second annual initiative “St. Vincent’s on a Mission.” We visited several places in the Capital District to make a small but valuable difference for plenty of other people. 

I surmise that those of us who went on the mission also benefitted from our experience. I did. It changed my mind. In the brief time I joined other parishioners at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore I kept thinking of all those people who can only afford to buy second hand furnishings and appliances if at all. I wondered what more could I do to help them.

This parish is active in social justice issues. St. Vincent’s on Mission is designed in part to emphasize the connection we have with the life of our patron St. Vincent de Paul.  He was raised on a farm in southwest France by peasant parents. He dreamt only of getting a secure job that would provide a good income for his family and him. 

Educated in Toulouse, he became a priest, received an inheritance, was robbed and thrown into slavery. After his release he served the wealthy Countess de Gondi who endowed missionaries to work with tenant farmers.  She wanted Vincent to lead the effort. He first said no. Then something happened to him.

Legend tells us, after hearing a confession of a dying peasant, a household servant, Vincent had a metanoia. It was a deep spiritual experience that prompted him to change his mind. Along with a wealthy widow, Louise de Marillac, he organized charities throughout 17th c. France to provide health and social services for others.

What experiences do we have from time to time that can change our minds? Today’s biblical texts address this question. Ezekiel was a prophet who insisted that individuals accept responsibility for their actions. For him corporate responsibility for problems affecting others grows out of a spirit of personal responsibility.

The second reading for today, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is an ethical exhortation. Do nothing out of selfishness, he wrote. Do not look after your self interests only but also those of others. [1] This is clearly our Christian agenda.

Last week Betsy Rowe-Manning [2] reminded us that we are a sacramental church; that we mirror the mission and message of Jesus of Nazareth. Everything we do can make a difference not only in our lives but the lives of others. As Christians we join other faith traditions and cultural groups in doing so. Here are a couple of examples.

Last Sunday Sisters Marion Honors and Honora Kinny [Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet] participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City. Sister Marion told me she found that being part of a crowd of 400,000 “accessible hearts” was deeply inspiring. She said she was moved by the collective concerns about how “to draw the earth back from the profound losses and suffering caused by climate change.” 

Closer to home Sister Cathy Encarnacion from our sister parish in Darien will be speaking later today about ecology, creation spirituality and the ongoing destruction of the fresh water wetlands in Darien. That crisis is caused by the illegal drainage of those wetlands by the Panamanian government to benefit the rice plantation of a major Colombian company. 

I did not walk in the climate march in New York City last Sunday but I did attend the closing ritual in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Religious leaders from many cultural and faith traditions spoke. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, said that our list of most other social justice issues is disrupted, altered, by climate change. 

Any efforts to care for human beings with food, water and shelter, for example, will not matter if we do not care for the earth. Wallis said, peacemakers do not merely respond to consequences caused by difficulties. They try to fix what causes those problems.

The gospel story puts more pressure on you and me. One son said “Yah, I will go to work” but then did not. The other son said I will not go to work but then changed his mind. You and I are left to decide which son did the right thing. St. Vincent’s on a Mission does not have to be a once a year effort to spread our wings in the larger community. 

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1 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Third Edition (Collegevile: Liturgical Press) 2006, 166-68

2 Betsy Rowe-Manning is the Parish Life Director the Church of St. Vincent de Paul

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Homily – 14 September 2014 – The Cross of Possibilities


24 OT – 14 September 2014 – The Cross of Possibilities

Numbers 21:4B-9; Psalm 78:1BC-2,34-38; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

While traveling in Ecuador some years ago I visited a small church in the village of Otavalo. Inside I noticed a woman bringing her little son to a large tall cross propped up against the back wall. It had no image of Jesus on it but it was decorated with vibrant colors. The mother was showing her son how to venerate that cross with a kiss and a hug. I was moved by the tenderness as they touched the cross. Surely I thought, their lives are filled with many unrewarding challenges. Maybe she was introducing her son to a symbol of hope and sustenance.

Today we join other Christians to celebrate the exaltation of the cross. [1] As I think of today’s readings about serpents, sins and salvation and as I try to imagine what went through Nicodemus’ mind as he encountered Jesus, that image of the mother and child sticks with me. 

What does the cross mean for us today? What is conveyed on all those signs waved at sporting events proclaiming John’s gospel 3:16 – God sent God’s only Son to save us from our sins?  Is it a judicial expression associating repentance and forgiveness with acts of penance and suffering? Is it an expression of retaliation? Could it be an expression of restorative justice?

No doubt looking at an image of a suffering, bloodied Jesus executed on a cross can fill our minds and hearts with feelings of remorse and gratitude. However, Richard Rohr in writing about the mystery of the cross reminds us that Jesus’ death as an act of atonement or a heroic sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin was not the normal interpretation held by Christians in early centuries. [2]

For many generations they were scandalize by the very thought that Jesus suffered such violence.  In fact, early crosses had no images of a suffering Jesus on them.  

This way of thinking, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Mat 5:38), suggests that to counter evil and hardship something has be sacrificed, that blood has to be shed, that someone has to be killed. According to Fr. Rohr this attitude is what “creates religions of exclusion and violence.” This is not what a community that practices radical hospitality stands for.

Still we are challenged. Many biblical texts and devotions, prayers and lyrics in our songs continue to employ retaliatory images like Israelites killing opponents in their way or Jesus as the Lamb of God dying to take away the sins of the world.

Jesus was the real life icon of an invisible compassionate God. He exposed injustice, upset the status quo and suffered a humiliating form of capital punishment. Rather than looking at this history as some form of violent action carried out on our behalf we can also see it as an act of love. It is a gift to be accepted and shared with others. The cross represents both the evil in the world and the possibilities for doing good by people who identify with that cross. 

We are invited to embrace the cross that symbolizes the injustices in the world — lack of education, inadequate health care, a broken immigration system, and sex trafficking — one might say, everything the Nuns on the Bus are trying to remedy. By embracing the cross we stand ready to bring hope in the world.

Moses lifted up a serpent on a pole to cure people from wounds inflicted by venomous snakes. Early Christian writers compared that image with Jesus nailed to a cross beam and dropped on a pole to save people from damnation. The cross is a sign of hope in the face of despair and victory against all odds. I believe that is what that Ecuadorian mother was teaching her son.

The cross and image of Jesus in our renovated place of worship will no longer be mounted on a distant wall out of reach. Rather, it will be placed in our midst reminding us of our duty to pick up where Jesus left off; to lock arms with others to advance causes of peace and justice. 

In our enhanced place of worship we are placing a new eight foot high cross, and the body of Jesus we have looked at for years, within our reach and the reach of our children. It will beckon us to touch and embrace it in thanks for the possibilities we enjoy in life and in covenant with one another to work against injustices. 

At times our cross will not have a suffering body of Jesus on it. Instead it might be decorated with ribbons and flowers to remind us that the death of Jesus, a first step to restore creation to its original goodness, is a gift, an act of hope and love, that you and I are called to share. 

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1  The date for this feast is based on the day after the dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre September 13, 325 when the cross was brought out of the Basilica to be venerated. According to legend St. Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, found what is believed to be the cross that Jesus died on.

2 Rohr, Richard. “The Mystery of the Cross” in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality. Chapter 9


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Homily – 7 September 2014 – Who is Watching Out for Us?


23 Sunday OT – 7 September 2014 – Who is Watching Out for Us?

Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1,2,6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

I met a Muslim woman not long ago whose name was Fatimah. This is the same name of Muhammed’s favorite daughter who is held in high esteem in the Muslim world because of her purity and courage. She is considered the counterpart to Mary the Mother of God who is one of the four women named in the Koran. Fatimah and I got into a conversation about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or Syria). I asked her how could some Muslims so misinterpret the commandments in the Koran? Fatimah’s answer was one word. “Arrogance.” She said that the Sunni extremists are arrogant when it comes to abiding by the teachings of Mohammed. 

The United States and nine allies are now strategizing on how to counter ISIS, to prevent it from spreading its brutal assassination of religious liberty, homeland security and human dignity. Our Christian posture however is that violence does not resolve conflicts. We right here and now just heard readings that challenge us to be pro-active sentinels of peace and justice in our own communities.

In the first reading Ezekiel names the responsibilities of the prophet in helping Israelites protect their new found freedom after the exile. He suggests that the prophet is accountable for not warning evil doers of the consequences of their actions. However, if the wicked persons do not heed the exhortation the prophet is off the hook, not liable.  [1]

What does this mean for you and me? The gospel suggests that we all are responsible for the welfare of others near and far. This responsibility is linked to the presence of a holy spirit in our lives. We share in those gifts and acknowledge them in others. They include respect for all peoples, reaching out in a spirit of unbridled, boundary-less hospitality. 

This is why the situations in Ferguson, Missouri, in Ukraine and Russia, and in the Middle East have our attention. We read and hear about these events. We watch them on the internet and television. We shake our heads in utter disbelief at police brutality and racial profiling. We are disgusted at the thought of, the sight of, the beheading of innocent Americans or the bombing of schools of Palestinian children. [2]

What can we do about it is always a conundrum for us. The gospel calls us to correct one another. When someone offends us we are to tell them to stop. If that does not work then we ask others to assist us. Then the gospel says if that does not work we are to go to the whole church for help. Can you imagine a middle school or high school student saying to a bully, “Stop hurting me or I will go to the authorities” without worrying that friends will call him or her a “snitch?” Can you imagine a fraternity brother saying to the fraternity, “Let’s stop our hazing tradition because it might cause harm or even death?” Can you and I imagine speaking up at work when we see something happening that is wrong?

We might wonder why the author of this gospel used the word church as if Jesus said it. Jesus did not start a church. He came to expand the meanings of Judaism in his time. Writing many years after Jesus the author had the small communities of Christians in mind. They not only watched out for one another they shared their goods with less fortunate persons. 

Today is the feast of Blessed Frédéric Ozanam. He was a 19th century activist in the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Paris. Ozanam understood that charity must lead to efforts to remedy injustice. Charity and justice go together. We who are called by our faith to make a difference in the world cannot sit back and do nothing while others suffer. We are encouraged to watch out for one another in a variety of ways. As many of us do, we can write to our elected officials, join protests and, on a local level, support our food pantry. 

In the second reading attributed to Paul we heard the well known aphorism “love your neighbor as yourselves.” This is really the only commandment that seems to cover every situation. But, this message has failed to reach the hearts and minds of arrogant evil doers who thrive on hatred and greed and fill innocent people with fear. The psalmist reminds us, if today we hear God’s voice asking us to do something, let us not harden our hearts.

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1 Fuller R and Westberg D. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today.  (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006 Third Edition) 176-178

2 See David Brooks “The Body and Spirit” for a thoughtful column on the ISIS problem in The New York Times 9/4/14 – A27.