Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Palm Sunday of the Passion of Jesus – 29 March 2015 – “What Are You Afraid Of?”


PALMS & PASSION B – 29 March 2015 – “What Are You Afraid Of?”

Mark 11:1-10; Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22:8,9,17-20,23-24; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark’s Passion 14:1-15:47

What are you afraid of? I started thinking about this question after seeing the movie “Still Alice.” As you may know Alice was was a highly respected professor at Harvard who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. My mother had the late onset version. What am I afraid of? The possibility of losing my mind.

What are you afraid of? I have asked many people this question and the answers vary. Some are afraid that something awful could happen to their children or grandchildren. Others fear losing their job. While some do not fear death most are afraid of what happens while dying. And others are afraid of being punished for doing something they were told is wrong. Are we afraid of being abandoned, of being left alone?

We human beings are fraught with phobias. Although we can work to overcome many of them some of them are life altering. An immigrant without papers. A college co-ed being raped. A person of color profiled by police. We are surrounded by such fears each day yet we have a hard time talking about them or doing something to change them. Sometimes there is little we can do to change what we are afraid of.

We just heard this morning a terrifying story (the passion narrative of Jesus of Nazareth) that is full of irony. The very person who was to save the Jews, restore God’s creative process (Tikkun Olam), give hope to every one who is oppressed, is, himself, crucified for threatening the status quo. 

The story began with Jesus coming into Jerusalem. The hosannas that we read about and sang earlier are found in Psalm 118. I was surprised to learn in a recent scripture class that hosannas are not really cries of victory. The word hosanna is a supplication that in the Hebrew language literally means “save us!” One wonders if we should change our tune next Palm Sunday.

Upon his arrival in Jerusalem Jesus plans his rallies and starts to stir up the crowds. After supper he goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. The gospel of Mark, unlike the other versions, tells us that Jesus became deeply emotional in the garden. He was troubled and agitated. 

In the time that Jesus lived, men, especially those who were public figures, were not suppose to show emotion. Jesus of Nazareth was different. He was filled with fear, terrified of the death he was about to experience. The gospel said Jesus cried out to his father Abba to save him but there was no answer. There was nothing but divine silence. Did God actually forsake Jesus? Ever get that feeling yourself?

Scripture scholar Robin Whitaker comments that towards the end of the story there is a call to action. Jesus, angry and disappointed with his disciples who did not keep watch with him, says to them “get up, we have to go, we have to get out of here.” Is it possible that Jesus frantically wanted to escape and find refuge? How would the story end if he had? Would we be here in church if he had?

Often we resist admitting or talking about what we are afraid of. Whitaker suggests that in this world of ours, filled with so much terror, we are summoned to be in solidarity with those who are suffering and living in fear. The disciples failed miserably at this task and eventually left Jesus alone to suffer and die.

During this coming holy week you and I have an opportunity to ponder what frightens us. The liturgies this week offer us “calls to action” — to wash one another’s feet (on Holy Thursday) and to embrace the cross that symbolizes the injustices of the world (on Good Friday). We may not be able to eradicate all the fears that we and others have. We can try to name them, deal with them and help each other rebound and rise up in spite of them.


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Homily – Fifth Sunday of Lent – 22 March 2015 – “Rebounding in Life”


5 Lent A – 22 March 2015 – Rebounding in Life

Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

March Madness, a phrase used to describe high school basketball tournaments as early as 1931, has put a full court press on millions of people who, last week, made their prophetic picks. Whatever you may or may not think of the game, which, like all organized sports, is fraught with many shortcomings, March Madness is still here.

Some of you know I like the game of basketball. I would like to tell you why. I have  learned to use the game as a metaphor for life. You shoot the ball and hope it goes through the hoop. If it does then you are successful. If it does not go in, you can rebound the ball and shoot again and again until it goes in. Games are won because of coaching, good defense against the opposition and the ability to score points.

Sports psychologists find many similarities between the games we play and the lives we lead. There are not too many games that you can play alone and with a team. Practicing alone you keep shooting until the ball goes in. With teammates the ball is passed around before the shot is taken. Teams who do not rebound their missed shots have to play strong defense to stop whatever and whomever prevents them from getting ahead. A secret to winning is practice, hard work and determination.

The purpose of the readings during Lent is to prepare us for the big game which is celebrated in the feast of Easter. The first readings in this season speak to us about salvation and point ahead to the coach who would show everyone on the team how to win. His name was Jesus from Nazareth.

In today’s passage from Ezekiel we heard about how bones, dried up on a battlefield, were restored to life. It was a reference to the Israelites who were emerging from years of losing seasons. God honored their contracts and stuck with the team that was put together at the beginning of the season.

The second readings throughout Lent speak about our participation on the team and what we have to do to win. There are references to baptism as the way to make the team and the spirit on the team that will propel us to victory. Like it was for coach Jesus, who always practiced what he preached, winning would not be easy. Baptism alone would not be a turning point in the game. More hard work would be required throughout the game. Life is not an easy game to play.

Today’s gospel, if we use our imaginations, draws up another game plan for us. It is a story featuring a player named Lazarus and his teammates, Martha and Mary. As the story goes Lazarus was not playing well, couldn’t score a basket and eventually would be taken out of the game. Coach Jesus was recruited to fix the situation, to help Lazarus get back up on his feet, to give him confidence in his game. Jesus also showed the team the importance of playing together. Life is a team sport.

Not only is Lazarus given a second chance by the coach his teammates are encouraged to get back out on the court. (Remember the disciples are watching all of this happen.) They have to show faith in the coach, trust in his experience and play the game according to plan. The coach was convincing in his pep talk. Jesus said, if you believe in me you will never lose!

Last week Betsy [1] gave us that wonderful homily about seeing beyond externals, to view the deeper dimensions of life. She spoke of the large scale sculptures of the phoenixes hanging in a New York City cathedral and how you had to take a closer look to see what they were really made of. I was thinking about what she said. The phoenix is a mythological bird that rises up from the ashes. Often shown with a halo it was a popular symbol of resurrected life in early Christianity.

A few weeks ago, when ashes were smeared on our foreheads, we remembered that we are mortal beings. Sometimes, no matter how much we practice, the ball just won’t go into the hoop. Rather than be discouraged and defeated we think of everything the coach taught us about the deeper dimensions of the game of life and how to rise up again like the phoenix, or Lazarus or Jesus himself.

Whichever team you picked to win the women’s or men’s tournaments remember — basketball is just a game. But it is one game that teaches us about shooting the ball with confidence, rebounding with determination and playing good defense with the will to win against all opposition on the courts of life.

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1. Betsy Rowe-Manning is the St. Vincent de Paul parish life director.


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Homily – Lent 3A – 8 March 2015 – “Nursed With Living Water”


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3 Lent A – March 8, 2015 – Nursed With Living Water

Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42

On this Third Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2015,  there is an amazing coincidence. Last week Jews celebrated the Festival of Purim. It is a joyful event honoring Queen Esther who saved the Jews from annihilation by the evil Haman. Jews today continue to rejoice in the promises of peace.

Today we Christians remember Photina, [1] the bold woman who bumped into Jesus at the well. Although Jews and Samaritans were enemies their meeting also gives us a story of promise and peace.

March is Women’s History month, this week is National Catholic Sisters’ Week and today is International Women’s Day. What a coincidence! We celebrate the accomplishments of women of all ages. Yet, we mourn how they continually are physically and mentally raped of their dignity and still robbed of equal status in both religious and secular cultures. We honor the women who have sustained us in good times and in bad. We commit ourselves to acknowledge and affirm them.

In the first reading from Exodus we are reminded of how God herself nursed the thirsty and impatient people of Israel with life giving water although they had given up on divine help. It is the story of a tender, motherly God nurturing her relationship with her children.

The gospel also focuses on the role a woman plays in revealing the presence of God. Both Jesus and Photina were cautious at first. Eventually they traded secrets. Neither was judgmental. Although we know Photina struggled in her relationships with others maybe she thought this stranger might be different.

Jesus — on his way to death in Jerusalem — was thirsty. Photina gave him a drink. He in turn offered her life giving water. Drinking deeply of his message of peace and justice she would not thirst again. This was a negotiated truce between enemies, an exchange of human respect and hope between strangers.

All of these women, Queen Esther, Photina, women religious, and the women in our homes and nations around the world, teach us that the ways in which we respect one another are pivotal for human well being.

Here in our midst Meg Bassinson and Jessica Burns [2] have made spirited decisions in their lives. Meg and Jessica are showing us that relationships with God and with one another can grow within a caring faith community.

As members of the priesthood of Christ we constitute a sacrament of unity. Baptized in living waters, we foster boundary-less relationships like Jesus did. During liturgy, which rehearses us for doing good the rest of the week, no one should feel like a stranger.

Liturgical theologian Nathan Mitchell wrote that we often forget liturgy is always an act of hospitality and pastoral care, where we make room for one another. Ours is a God who opens up space for the stranger, the other. [3]

In his Lenten message Pope Francis said in the Eucharist “we become what we receive: the Body of Christ. In this Body there is no room for the indifference which so often seems to possess our hearts.” The next Bishop for San Diego Robert McElroy, an advocate of immigration reform, said last week, “It is important [for] the church be one of inclusion.”

Many of the problems in the world are caused not only by suspicion and hatred of those who are not like us but also a lack of respect and care for those who are like us. The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman offers another way. We who are nursed by God with living water are called to make space for others in our lives. Imagine such a world!

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1. The name of the woman is not mentioned in the biblical text. The Orthodox church knows her as Photina (Svetlana in Russian) “Equal to the Apostles.”

2. Jessica is a member of the elect. Meg is a candidate for full communion. Both will be welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil.

3.  Mitchell, Nathan. “The Amen Corner” in Worship 78, no. 2 (March 2004), 165-75