Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily – 28 February 2016 – Don’t Cut That Tree Down Just Yet

Third Sunday of Lent C – 022816 – Don’t Cut Down That Tree Just Yet!

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The two tragedies mentioned at the beginning of today’s gospel are sobering reminders of the recent shootings in, Michigan, Kansas and Washington and the killings occurring around the world. Pilate was known for his brutal reprisals against religious practices. The tower that collapsed was part of the wall built to protect the City of David. Both events are historically uncontested.

Why is this passage important during Lent? Some commentators say that the author Luke was afraid of God and wanted to make sure his non-Jewish Greek audiences would behave in ways similar to those who trusted that God would not abandon them.

Do you ever think that when something bad happens to you you are being penalized by God? Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne says that the victims in this gospel story were not being punished. The meaning of the passage and its reference to the barren fig tree is to remind us that we cannot take anything for granted in life. There are always new possibilities and alternatives for living and dealing with challenges that come our way.

The constant reminder of repentance during the season of Lent requires a closer examination. The word “repent” could mean having feelings of sorrow or regret. It could also mean re-thinking or changing our minds about something or someone including ourselves.

Perhaps like you I have been reading reviews about the films being nominated for an Oscar tonight. They helped me think about today’s biblical texts. Like all art forms movies can manipulate us and they can also reveal hidden truths. They can affect, subliminally or directly, the way we think about our own lives in terms of romance, evil, history or fantasy. 

Two films up for awards tonight, like the gospel, deal with brutal stories. Spliced together Revenant and Room create a visual narrative about survival, revenge, captivity and the repercussions caused by violence and indifference toward others. What is the connection with our scriptures?The Exodus reading suggests God was aware of the brutalities the Israelites suffered while they were held captive.

There is no way to know if this story is factual but a meaning behind it reminds us that a kind and merciful God promises to protect us. The covenant, however, is reciprocal. We have to do our part or experience the consequences of our apathy. But, know that God will not carry out the punishment. Rather, our bad decisions will lead to actions that penalize and victimize others as well as ourselves. Therein lies the punishment and the reason for repenting.

One woman in a scripture course I took recently said deliverance from evil comes in stages. It does not happen all at once. The Exodus story did not rid the world of diabolical deeds. So, how does God go about protecting us today? Is there anything we can do to help God?

This past month, dedicated to African American History, is but a short reminder of the gifts that black people give us. Yet, tonight no black actors or film makers will be honored at the Academy Awards. Some say this an oversight that can be corrected. Others say it is symptomatic of a deep seeded racism that continues to plague our nation? Are you racist? Am I?

Capuchin theologian Bede Abrams believes that the cultural gifts of African Americans, their sense of creativity, identity and worth has been “stolen” repeatedly by the dominant culture in power in the United States. Could this also be true about our church, which in this country is predominantly white and still mostly based on European aesthetics and cultures? If so, you and I must act to erase this prejudice. Black lives matter.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his award winning book Between the World and Me writes to his son about American exceptionalism and the struggles of African Americans. “It is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and ignore the evil.” Coates calls for holding our country to “an exceptional moral standard” when it comes to racial equality.

We’ve have a lot of work to do to advance the realm of God in everyday life. The gospel suggests we should not be quick to give up on advocating for justice or improving our own lives just because we do not see instant results. That is why Lent is forty days long. That is why we keep Lent every year — to remind us to turn barren trees into fruitful ones.

Parishioner Rebecca Maxwell wrote to me about how she and her son saw a tree that had fallen by the roadside and looked quite dead. Yet, she said, during last spring, leaves began to reappear. Good thing that that tree was not destroyed before it had a chance to come back to life.

That is what rethinking our lives during Lent is all about — giving one another the chance to blossom and grow before we cut each other down.


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Homily – 7 February 2016 – Christianity on a Collision Course

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – Christianity on a Collision Course

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It does not matter that professional football is a big business that pays huge salaries to players, coaches and owners all thanks to our cable TV bills and lucrative advertisements. Millions across the globe will still watch the game tonight. 

It does not matter whether we like football or not. Our tax dollars underwrite the cost of constructing arenas to house sporting events in our communities. Millions of us buy price-inflated tickets and flock to these temples to adore the saints in what has become a new Americanized religion. 

It does not matter that over one hundred professional players and innumerable college kids and youngsters suffer or die from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — the game of football for most viewers is still a form of entertainment.

In football, as in any game except golf, the goal is to score more points than the opponent. To do so offensive linesmen protect their quarterback who is expected to find ways to score touchdowns. The defense is paid handsomely to rush and crush the quarterback, tackle a running back or receiver. Vince Lombardi, the legendary 1960s coach of the Green Bay Packers, called football a “collision sport.”

Religion is somewhat similar. With our own rules and regulations people affiliated with a faith tradition strive to win at all costs. The objective in our game is to beat down not only hunger, prejudice and oppression but also human trafficking and domestic violence — two problems that escalate during big sporting events. Over time we find that religious cultures inevitably will clash with secular ones. Our differences are the sources of so many tensions in the United States today. Just listen to the rhetoric in the presidential debates.

Last weekend, in her homily, Betsy Rowe-Manning proposed that to live a wonderful life [as Christians] we are compelled to “make trouble.” I took her message to mean that we have to speak out and act against any person or institution, any law or cultural custom, that thrives on acts of injustice. In this sense, like the game of football, our religion is on a collision course with the opposition. Our heads are to butt up against the opponents of equality. Some people will get hurt. Some will leave the game. Some will quit the team.

How did this happen? Is not religion supposed to provide harmony and peace in our lives? Isn’t it the path to creating wholesome relationships with God and one another? Isn’t faith geared to make us feel good, give us hope especially when we are down and out? I think that to be a religious or spiritual person today requires a “both/and” attitude. We cannot be content with seeking to make things better for ourselves without doing so for others. We cannot go out on the field of life without practicing or expecting no opposition. To be good we have to be troublemakers knowing we may not win every game.

Our sacred texts, our traditions and life experiences teach us how to be good and holy, to act responsibly, to live justly and humbly. We model our lives after Jesus of Nazareth, his Spirit and other contemporary prophets, parents, coaches, teachers. 

Jesus was an itinerant apocalyptic Jew. He believed the world was in very bad shape. He saw that oppressors treated people unfairly and brutally. He sensed that society needed a savior who could cross the line of scrimmage, gain first downs and score touchdowns. He also knew that the odds were stacked up against him. Jesus was an underdog. He needed help from his teammates. The cross was too heavy.

Jesus never thought of himself as a star quarterback, the franchise player who would win every game. No. He himself got sacked, was thrown for a loss and was ultimately defeated. It was when he got up again that others came to believe in him and his game plan. During Lent we will learn more about Jesus and his desire to win — how he overcame devilish temptations and forgave adulterers; how he told stories about a long lost child who was welcomed home and how barren trees can bear good fruit.

As I read about Jesus I think he was a troubled but optimistic Jew. He passionately believed that life could be better especially if you are willing to work at it. Consider today’s gospel. “You didn’t catch any fish this morning? Go back out and cast those nets into the sea. There will be lots of fish to catch, to share and keep for yourselves.”

The disciples doubted his idealism. They said they worked hard but still came up empty handed. Life as Jesus modeled it is hard work. Advocating for peace and justice takes time. Working with enemies requires diplomacy. Overcoming illness and poverty does not happen easily. Sometimes we win. But ohh how we hate to lose.

I will watch the game tonight. I will watch it as I look at and play other games because of the challenges that face every player, every team. I will marvel at the skills honed by hours of practice. I will see the delight in the faces of little kids when their heroes succeed. For a couple of hours the game provides a fantasy filled opportunity to imagine what it takes to win — hard work and a little bit of luck.

There is something about football and other sports that could serve as a metaphor for living. Our country like our religion is built on hard work, standing up to oppressive governments, fighting for just causes and winning no matter what the cost. 

Christianity is not a perfect religion. Like football and the game of life, however, it is exciting, troubling and still very unfair. Often players, coaches and owners do not agree on how to play the game. Yet, Christianity is a two century old religion with over two billion players on the team. We still have a game to play on this planet. We just have to keep practicing with the joyful hope that mercy and justice will win in the end. But we have to play together. There is no letter “I” in the word “team.”