Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily – 23 October 2016 – The Times They Are A-Changin’

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time C  – October 23, 2016 – The Times They Are A-Changin’

Click here for today’s biblical texts

“Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If they were living at the same time and in the same place Jesus just might have used lyrics from Bob Dylan’s song The Times They Are A-Changin to make his point about righteousness — Dylan wrote, “The order is rapidly fadin’ and the first one now will later be last.”

We have to be careful about the way we interpret this gospel. Just as soon as we might be quick to say “thank God I am not a hypocritical, self-righteousness braggart who denounces anyone who is not on my side; that I am instead a regular church goer who acts humbly, walks justly and lives simply,” … we get caught in the same trap as the Pharisee in the parable who congratulated himself.

Well, you might ask, what is wrong with getting credit or points for being a good disciple of Christ? Can’t I be saved for attending to the cries of poor people, welcoming outsiders, cooking for hungry children, building shelter for the homeless, making prisoners feel better? I care for the environment and our senior citizens, our homebound and sick. And, I am active in political affairs. Why can’t I boast a bit?

There is really nothing wrong with taking some credit for doing good work. After all it can compel us to study, to make progress, to contribute to the common good, to improve ourselves along the way. But does this interpretation offer the only lesson for today? Perhaps the story is not about the Pharisee or the tax collector. Let’s take a closer look.

We often think of the Pharisees as bad people. They were one of many factions at the time not unlike the people who followed Jesus. John Pilch described the Pharisees as people who practiced strict observances — prayer, fasting, almsgiving and tithing. But the text suggests that some of them were greedy, elitist and dictatorial, thinking of themselves as superior to others.

It’s easy to critique this kind of behavior in other people.  What else can we do? The icons, right here in our church, offer an answer. These women and men don’t claim anything great for themselves. The icon of St. Louise de Marillac, for example, is not about Louise but about how she responded to the needs of others. Inspired by Louise our own pastoral care ministers provide services for our parishioners who are homebound, in a nursing home, rehabilitation center or hospital. They give them spiritual support reminding them that this faith community will not forget them.

Today, Mission Sunday, offers every one of us an opportunity to focus on how God, according to the wisdom of Sirach, hears the cries of the oppressed, is not deaf to the screams of the orphan, nor to the widow when she complains. Often we think of missions as far away places served by clergy and lay persons including college students. In fact, many regions in our own nation are so-called mission territories.

I learned this past week that there are approximately 3 million people in New York State living below the federal poverty threshold ($24,250 for a family of 4). Right here in this the 20th District of our State the percentage of children under the age of 18 living in those impoverished households is 14%. These statistics remind us there is plenty of missionary work to do in our own backyards.

In the end this gospel parable says something about who God is and how God works in us and through us to advance the kin-dom here on earth. The Pharisee went off never thinking he was arrogant or in need of any divine assistance. The tax collector, however, did nothing to claim such self-righteousness. Instead, he asked for mercy. God’s mercy embraces us when we acknowledge that the gifts we receive, the accomplishments we achieve, reflect the goodness of God. We are ambassadors of God.

Let’s be alert.Things can get worse. As promoters of another way, we will not promote divisiveness, nor abide by arrogance. It’s not easy but we can be witnesses of mercy and goodness. We do not draw attention to ourselves or take credit for the overwhelming mercy of God. We can, however, continue to spread that mercy and goodness wherever we go. Why is this message so urgent? Perhaps Bob Dylan’s 1963 prophetic voice still has some merit, The Times They Are A-changin’.



Homily – 9 October 2016 – Thank You!

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time year C – 9 October 2016 – Thank You!

Click here for today’s biblical texts

That the world was flat until Columbus landed in the Caribbean is a popular but inaccurate fable. Also, there is no clear evidence that the 15th century dogmatically inclined Spanish Church enforced that idea. It was the novelist Washington Irving who created those falsehoods in 1828 in his biography about Columbus. [1] Actually Columbus simply miscalculated the vastness of the world just like probably we cannot comprehend the immeasurable magnitude of creation.

Today’s biblical texts offer us a chance to focus on the immensity of God’s presence, God’s mercy in the world. The first reading tells a story about Naaman a respected commander in Syria who had the dreaded disease leprosy. The other character in the story, Elisha the prophet, was well known not for military strength but the miracles he worked. Elisha instructs Naaman to wash in the Jordan River that straddled Syria and the land of the Israelites. The story is often linked to teachings about salvation.

At first Naaman was angry because Elisha did not personally tend to him. But, after his disciples prompted him to enter the murky waters of the Jordan he was healed.Naaman tried to give Elisha a gift to show his gratitude. Elisha, a good not-for-profit servant of God, refused the gift. Naaman who believed that God only worked salvific wonders within the borders of Israel asked Elisha if he could bring dirt from the land of the Israelites into Syria to spread the power of God. Perhaps the unknown author of the second reading had this tale in mind when writing that the word of God cannot be chained.

The gospel continues the thread with the story about the lepers who were washed clean due to the initiative and action of Jesus of Nazareth. The message in this story, however, shifts slightly away from the messianic work of salvation to one of gratitude. Only one leper came back to say “thanks” to Jesus and he was a Samaritan, a dreaded enemy of the Jews. Once again, the message is that God’s mercy is borderless. 

These stories help us think of ways to spread God’s mercy by crossing borders to help people confined by visible and invisible barriers that prevent them from living peaceful wholesome lives. They also remind you and me to be grateful for the mercy of God made present in our ministries.

We give thanks for the volunteers who visit inmates in area prisons to bring them a spirit of care and the word of God. We are grateful for those who visit sick and dying persons in our hospitals to offer them comfort and hope. We give thanks for those who work in our food pantry every week to stock goods and serve guests who, otherwise, would go without supplies to nourish themselves and their families. 

We are grateful for those who haunt the halls of our Capitol reminding elected officials to erase laws that discount and dishonor people living on the fringes of life; to create laws that treat everyone fairly. And, we are grateful for each member of our families, children and adults, who teach each other what matters most. 

There are many borders that limit the experience of God. We Christians join members of other faith traditions to tear down barriers and to spread the mercy God everywhere like Naaman, Elisha and Jesus did. And we do so without expecting thanks or rewards. 

On the other hand we are mindful of how important it is for us to be grateful for what we have in life. The eucharistic prayer at every Mass is our premier utterance of thanksgiving. We proclaim it to remember and embrace the life of Jesus and to join Christ in thanking God who loves the human race and continues to walk with us wherever we go.


  1.  Irving, Washington. A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.

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Homily 2 October 2016 “Loyalty Costs”

27 Sunday in Ordinary Time C – October 2, 2016 – Loyalty Costs

Click here for today’s biblical texts

The other night the commentary at the beginning of a football game caught my attention. I heard the announcer of the Washington-Stanford game say “the faithful have been waiting” for their teams to take the field. The “faithful?” It is no news that sports fans are incredibly loyal to their favorite teams. Diehard fans are upset that the NY Yankees did not make the playoffs but it probably will not change their loyalty to the team.

Loyalty is a big topic today in the world of business. Most shoppers are loyal to certain products, stores, airlines. And, we expect to be rewarded for our loyalties. We also hear and read a lot about companies who are not loyal to their customers or to their hard working employees.

How about loyalty when it comes to religion? A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute reports on why people leave their childhood churches. The number one explanation from all respondents was a lack of belief in the teachings of their religion (60%). Young adults (ages18-29) were more specific. They said they are unaffiliated because of negative teachings in their churches especially about gays, lesbians and transgendered people. Justice is obviously an issue for that age group.

Today’s biblical texts raise questions about faith. Commentators say the word faith can be understood as steadfast loyalty, trust, commitment to something or someone even though there are no dividends, no rewards, to be paid out. Jesus teaches this lesson with a story about a slave and the head of a household. The parable sounds kind of harsh and implies that servants should not expect any big reward for doing what was expected of them. The same goes for us. Just do it!

Most Christians believe Jesus was a mentor. He showed people how to live, how to behave toward others, especially those who are estranged from society in some way. Actually, Jesus was a “faction founder” according to John Pilch. He built up a following of men and women and expected loyalty from them. The disciples apparently had a very difficult time saying no to him even though they did not completely understand who he was or what his intentions were. Perhaps they were recalling Psalm 95, “if today you hear God’s voice harden not your hearts.”

Christians who do respond to God’s call are not-for-profit loyalists. We do what we are suppose to do without expecting anything in return. But as far as institutional religion is concerned loyalty has to work both ways. On one hand, the church, meaning all baptized members, is expected to be loyal to the mission and message of Jesus of Nazareth. This makes it hard in trying to understand, much less defend, the many rules exercised by Christian churches that exclude people from the very life of the church.

Loyalty to the teachings of Jesus is what membership in the church is all about. So why are people leaving organized religions? Is it like giving up on a team that is losing? Not necessarily so. Those who leave say they still have faith and believe in God. It’s just that their religion, that has become more and more institutionalized over centuries, does not seem to practice the mercy and justice toward all people like Jesus did.

According to Stephen Mattson Jesus was more complex than we give him credit for. He intentionally, purposefully, and passionately addressed the diverse and complicated conflicts of he time. He shattered the status quo. Jesus was helping those who were being abused, violated, and oppressed. Mattson wrote that these causes are actually an important part of the gospel message. It is not about being liberal or conservative. It is about what it takes to be a follower of Christ.

Although some church rules are harsh we can be loyal disciples of Christ in many ways. We can care for our families, partners, spouses, children no matter how they behave. We can be counted on to work hard to take care of ourselves and to help others get by. We can be loyal in the public square taking action to erase injustices. We can do many things to be very helpful in life. What we do know, however, is that loyalty and discipleship does not come without a cost.