Richard S. Vosko

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Homily for Trinity Sunday 31 May 2015 – “Partners With God”


Andrei Rublev's Trinity

Trinity B – 31 May 2015 – “Partners With God”

Click here for today’s scripture readings

On Pentecost we unveiled our own collection of original icons. Three of the saints were obvious choices — Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac and Rose of Lima. The other five were selected by you the parishioners — Francis of Assisi, John XXIII, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Dorothy Day and Kateri Tekakwitha.

Looking closely at them we find they reveal something of ourselves. They mirror for us the values and beliefs of this particular faith community — our care for one another, social action beyond these walls, our attention to faith formation, prayer and worship.

Today we celebrate a key doctrine in Christianity. And, there’s a famous icon for that. In the 15th century Russian artist Andrei Rublev wrote an icon for the Cathedral of the Trinity Lavra (monastery) of St. Sergius. The original hangs in the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow where I had the chance to view it some years ago. That icon is known as “The Trinity.”

It depicts the beauty of the hospitality that Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:1-15) showed to three strangers near the oak trees of Mamre. The visitors are depicted as angels — the embodiment of God shown in equal dignity. When the icon was created, the Trinity was thought to symbolize spiritual unity, mutual love, the world and a readiness to serve.

That icon could be understood literally — three angels sitting around a table under a tree. As a metaphor, however, it reveals the nature of God and how we relate to God. It is the setting for Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality toward the visitors. It is also God’s place of hospitality for us. Our place of worship here at St. Vincent de Paul reflects that same spirit of inclusivity and hospitality. Our gathering in a circle as an assembly of saints continues to reshape the way we pray, sing, and treat one another.

The secret words for grasping the Trinity are “relationships” and “hospitality.” The feminist Reformed theologian Letty Russell uses one word to explain ways in which we connect with God and each other — partnership. She wrote, “The partnership of God in the persons of the Trinity provides an image of mutuality, reciprocity, and a totally shared life.” [1]

Some parishioners helped me understand this partnership in different ways. One quoted spiritual writer Philip Yancey. [2] God is without us  (in the sense of being more than we are). Jesus is with us. The Holy Spirit is within us. Another offered a reference to St. Bonaventure who called the Trinity a fountain of love. The author Richard Rohr [3] said this ever flowing font of love is the blueprint and pattern for all relationships and thus all of creation.

The first reading today speaks of God being revealed in creation. God is present on the edge of the world and very much in the world. God is both immanent and transcendent. There are references to God, Christ and the Spirit among us in the second reading. And, although the gospel refers to a Trinitarian formula for baptism the Trinity was not defined as dogma until the early fourth century at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople.

If we believe that the Trinity is about relationships and partnerships then it makes sense that we live accordingly. Here is where we have some work to do. Our Catholic tradition continues to establish partnerships with other Christians, Muslims and Jews. Our church is also very much present to people living in poverty and on the fringes of society.

However, when it comes to the members of our own church our religion still struggles to find ways to employ a Trinitarian based hospitality in relating to women on equal terms, opening new doors for divorced and remarried persons, respecting the relationships of same sex unions and honoring emerging definitions of the word family.

Works of art in our churches tell stories. They speak of the lives of women and men, saints and sinners, our ancestors in faith, models for living justly and humbly. They also say something about us and they speak to us. Those ancestors of ours continue to invite you and me into a loving partnership with them, with God and with one another.

____

1. Russell, Letty M. Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church. (Westminster: John Knox, 1993)

2.  Yancey, Philip. Reaching for the Invisible God: What Can We Expect to Find? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000)

3.  Rohr, Richard. God is in Everything. Center for Action and Contemplation, May 25, 2015

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Homily for Pentecost 24 May 2015 – An Assembly of Saints


Pentecost B – 24 May 2015 – “An Assembly of Saints”

Assembly of Saints, St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, NY

Assembly of Saints, St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, NY

(Note: Today at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, NY, we will be blessing eight newly installed original icons written by Christine Simoneau Hales (Philmont, NY). This installation marks the conclusion of the enhancement of our church interior. The subjects for the icons, chosen by the parishioners, include Elizabeth Ann Seton, Dorothy Day, Francis of Assisi, John XXIII, Kateri Tekakwitha, Louise de Marillac, Rose of Lima, and Vincent de Paul. Come visit when you can to see this assembly of saints!)

Click here for today’s readings

This weekend Jews are celebrating an ancient grain harvest festival called Shavuot. Since biblical times the feast has been associated with the giving of the Torah, the five books of Moses, on Mount Sinai and the establishment of Israel as God’s people. During this weekend Jews read the Book of Ruth. The major theme in that Book is loyalty. It speaks of faithfulness arising from commitment between God and the human beings and between members of families and our communities.

Pentecost is a celebration of the outpouring of the Spirit God. Today’s gospel suggests that took place on Easter Sunday evening. The Acts of the Apostles places it on Pentecost – 50 days after Easter. Precision is not an issue here for the Spirit is always at work. Traditionally Pentecost marks the foundation of a church that extends beyond the women and men who followed Christ. It is a gift to whole world. Thus the reference to the diverse languages in the first reading this morning.

It would take team work to establish a church. Advocates working together. The second reading suggests that spiritual gifts are diverse and revealed in many forms. The Spirit of God cannot be contained or even defined. Certainly it is not something that only a few people possess. The author here is urging the readers to reflect on what it means to live a new life in Christ.

Discovering the Spirit in one’s own life may take time. Once that Spirit is uncovered and allowed to flourish it can change a person’s life. Learning to use that spirit can strengthen us and enable us also to contribute to the common good. It is used to build up the community in the hopes that the strength of that community would, in turn, build up and sustain humanity.

Long before the young church became organized in hierarchical and clerical ways it relied on the different gifts of community members to advance the message of Jesus of Nazareth. Not all gifts were appreciated then. Not all gifts are acknowledged now.

It is a tradition in most world religions to recognize and revere women and men who have been inspiring and instrumental in spiritual, physical and mental ways. This past week the Vatican identified different men and women who continue to spark our own initiatives in the public square.

Oscar Romero from El Salvador was beatified yesterday. He was a critical public voice for victims of human rights abuses and a threat to the authorities. Some churchmen still seek to block this honor thinking it would be an endorsement left-wing Marxist ideologies.

Two of the four women religious who were named saints earlier last week lived in 19th century Palestine. Sisters Bawardy and Ghattas were signs of hope and encouragement when violent persecutions drove Christians away from Jesus’ homeland.

Most often these sacred ancestors of ours are closer to us than we think. They are our grandparents, parents, guardians or teachers we had in school. They are our close friends or co-workers. They are the strangers we encounter who live on the edges of society. They are members of our parish. I drew these examples of saints in our midst from suggestions sent to me by readers of my homily blog. Thanks to each of you.

Today we blessed these eight icons just installed in our church building. Let’s get to know them better and introduce our children to them. They complement this circle of sainthood made up of ordinary people like you and me.

Icons are not like other graphic images. They are not painted but written like holy scriptures. They do not intend to call attention to themselves. We look through them to find a deeper meaning perhaps something more of ourselves. Who were these women and men, what did they believe, what did they do, what made them do it? We peer at them but let us not forget they are are looking at us. They wonder who are we, what do we believe in, what are we doing, what made us do it?

The Catholic catechism asks this question. “What is the church if not the assembly of saints? The communion of saints is the church.” (No. 946) This teaching is a reference to us. How will we join those first Pentecost saints in building up the church so that we can build up the kin-dom of God?


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Homily 17 May 2015 – “Being in the World a Little Bit Differently”


Easter 7B – 17 May 2015 – “Being in the World a Little Bit Differently”

Scripture readings for today

When I was in the seminary the dean of students constantly reminded us that as priests we would have to be “in the world but not of the world.” It sounded like we would be able to labor in God’s vineyard but not enjoy its fruits. It would be like walking on a beach barefoot without getting sand between your toes. Now I find that the phrase “we do not belong to the world” could use a slightly different interpretation.

In today’s gospel we hear about Jesus praying to God just before his crucifixion. He hopes to God that his followers would stick together in a hostile world. Those Christians, for whom this text was intended, apparently felt alienated from society. The gospel of John was written toward the end of the first century and or soon after Jews who followed Jesus were expelled from the synagogue. There were many tensions.

Commentators suggest that Jesus asked God to protect his disciples from harm because their message of justice and peace, like his, was being rejected. This passage implies Jesus cared for his followers. He did not want them to suffer the cruel punishment that he was about to face. Yet, it seems, he did want them to remember him and continue the work he started but could not finish. He expected loyalty from his disciples.

The Mediterranean culture at that time was group oriented. People had tight associations. It meant that you stood up for one another and protected one another’s honor. In return you could count on the group to defend you against any injustice. The idea behind a group effort is that no one single handedly can take on the world. The community dynamic was important to Jesus and his followers as it still is for us today.

The followers of Jesus were to live in the world but were not to buy into any human ideology that undermined human dignity. That is what it means not to belong to the world. In fact, to be called a Christian required you to take a stand against any corruption, inequity, cruelty.

The adage about not belonging to the world is surely hard to understand today. Our very lives are spent trying to survive on this planet. We study, work, play, establish relationships and plan ahead all in order to find happiness, peace and prosperity.

In a world where, generally speaking, it often seems like radical individuality overtakes radical hospitality how and where do we find time and energy to tend to others who belong to our group and those who are outsiders? Is there a middle ground? I have been trying to find an answer.

A recent article in the New York Times talked about Mimi O’Donnell. It gave me a clue. She was the partner of the talented but troubled stage and screen star Philip Seymour Hoffman. She is the mother of their three children.

In her grieving after Hoffman’s death she withdrew from work and social life. After awhile, supported by the actors community, inspired by the passion of performers on stage, she returned to the Labyrinth Theatre Company where her deceased friend Hoffman acted and directed.

O’Donnell said, “I am being in the world a little bit differently.” By continuing the work Hoffman cared for so much it enabled her to stay connected to her deceased loved one. When I read her statement I thought that is how we keep the memory of Jesus alive — by engaging ourselves in the work he did and not just by remembering what he did.

Maybe it is forgiving someone when it is terribly hard to say so, speaking up for someone when it may cost you your a job, reporting a problem in your school even when you might be bullied for doing so, being kind to a stranger knowing you won’t be thanked, doing what is inconvenient to protect the earth for the long term.

Living in this world a little bit differently gives us some insight about what it means not to cave in to the status quo. It requires us to do something Jesus cared for so much. By living in this world a little bit differently we bring a fresh interpretation to what it means to be called a Christian.


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Homily – 3 May 2015 – “Prune the Branches. Forget the Nuts”


Fifth Sunday of Easter B – 3 May 2015

“Prune the Branches. Forget the Nuts!”

Click here for scripture readings

The sign on the front of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City reads, “God Wants Spiritual Fruits Not Religious Nuts!” Senior Pastor Susan Sparks explains: “Our church is a place that welcomes all people; a place that is safe from the shame and judgement of religious nuts and therefore a rich ground to bear spiritual fruit.”

Today’s gospel according to John says that God prunes branches so they will bear good fruit; God throws away every branch that does not. It also says those who are moved into action by God’s Word are already pruned. We do not read about what God does with religious nuts.

The Greek root for the word prune means cleanse. In the Old Testament the grapevine is a metaphor for Israel. The word prune might refer to the Jewish ritual acts of foot washing. It is possible that the Christian community understood this passage as an act of humility and love toward one another.

For us the word prune could mean a cleansing of our hearts, minds and bodies to make room for the Spirit of God. We recall how parishioner Jessica Burns was symbolically cleansed in the waters of baptism at Easter. She called it a celebration of the transformations going on in her life.

The gospel of John stresses the divinity of Jesus. This was an alienating thought that created conflicts between the Christian community and the Jewish authorities. The interpretation of how God is at work in our lives today can divide people.

If God wants spiritual fruits and not religious nuts; if the church like ours, or any religious group, is to be a rich ground to bear spiritual fruit; if pruning means a cleansing of our lives to focus more on the presence of God; what does this pruning or cleansing have to do with the challenges that face us in the world, our country and our church?

The tensions in this country over same sex marriage, income inequality and racial profiling, to name three issues, are polarizing us. That we are at odds on so many life related issues is not helpful.

Many commentators, for example, link the trouble in Baltimore Maryland to poverty but not everybody agrees on what causes poverty. The Washington Post reported that some people said their city churches are all too often absent from the front lines of poverty, that there is a feeling that institutional religion has often failed disenfranchised people.

On the other hand, during the riots and protests clergy were seen locking arms with gang members, praying with them on their knees for peace, and opening their churches for every kind of gathering. That’s Baltimore, we say. But what about domestic violence and the gang related killings in our own communities? What about the number of hungry children living in poverty right here in the greater Capital District?

These are not easy issues to discuss at family gatherings or on a summer like Sunday in church. Thinking of remote calamities overwhelms us especially in light of our own responsibilities at home, work and school. However, these problems are the concerns for people who want to be nourished by good fruit and who want to make it possible for others to share in the abundance. It is a concern for any church that wants to be fertile ground where spiritual fruit can grow.

We think of our liturgical eucharist as spiritual fruit. What we do in here, in this church, gains new significance if it is understood in terms of what we do out there. What possible meaning does sacred food and drink on our holy table here have for us if we are not working for peace and justice for ourselves and others out there?

Meg Bassinson, who also became a member of our church this past Easter, loaned me two books on preaching. In one of the books, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor offered an optimistic note regarding troubles in the world. She wrote, those who continue to practice a religion and believe that God is still working among us can turn things around.

To find solutions for the problems in Baltimore or in this Capital District requires more than doing business as usual. When we prune away the old attitudes regarding poverty and race relations we just might discover something new never thought of before.

I suspect we have to do some cleansing ourselves to allow more good fruit to grow. It is not something that God can do alone.