Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily 9 July 2017 – Lighten Everyone’s Load


14th Sunday in Ordinary Time A – 9 July 2017 – Lighten Everyone’s Load

Click here for today’s biblical texts

Earlier this week I visited the Shaker Museum in New Lebanon to see a very small exhibit called “Break Every Yoke: Shakers, Gender Equality and Women’s Suffrage.” Given the gospel for today I was intrigued by what the Shakers meant by sharing the yoke. The members (two remain) hold that God is both male and female. They have always been cognizant of the impact that that belief has on the roles women played in spiritual and secular societies. 

I read part of an 1865 speech called “The Renovated Woman” by Antoinette Doolittle. She called for women to release themselves from the yoke around their necks. Here is what she wrote about women seventeen years after the First Woman’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY.

“Now we hear a trumpet voice sounding loud and clear calling her to come forth from the tomb wherein her best powers and capabilities have been buried and lain dormant for so long.” [1]

The gospel we just heard celebrates a knowledge of God that comes to us from Jesus Christ himself. This intelligence is rooted in Jesus’ understanding of his relationship with God. We can share in that relationship by responding to his comforting invitation, “come to me, the yoke is easy, the burden is light.” What makes subjugation, bondage, light for women and men today? Who can ease our worries and troubles? 

Jesus’ words echo the passage from Sirach 51:26 “take her yoke upon your neck; that your mind may receive her teaching. For she is close to those who seek her, and the one who is in earnest finds her.” Scholars tell us Jesus is the incarnate voice of the wisdom of God. In this Old Testament passage wisdom is depicted with female pronouns.

We are thankful for whatever blessings we have in our lives. We also realize there are things that can weigh us down. Working our way through life we grow in our appreciation of the liberties we have in this nation, the support of close friends, our family members and the sustenance found in our faith based communities. Each of these relationships helps us overcome our fears by lightening our yokes and easing our burdens.

The word “yoke” can mean different things. It can be a heavy device placed on the neck of a defeated person. It can be a wooden frame placed over the shoulders of strong animals working together in the fields. A yoke can be a bad thing or, it can be a good thing. 

These scriptures help me realize how women and men, working together, pick us up, nourish us, encourage us. But, what will it take to free each other from all forms of oppression? How do we help release the gifts and talents we possess?

The poet and activist, Audre Lorde wrote directly to women, about the passion women feel in their bodies. In her words, “As we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like our only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.” [2]

As I read her essay I have a better appreciation for whatever cohorts of faith do to free people up so they can realize their full potential as children of God. We often speak about those who are hungry (like the 10,000 individuals served by our pantry so far this year), homeless people, or those oppressed because of race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation.

Today’s biblical texts speak to us, using the comforting words of God’s wisdom, to help us see where there are yokes around our necks. When we share each other’s burdens we can ease our pain if not entirely set us free.

Jesus called us to live in a kingdom where there is peace, where the yoke is easy and the burden is diminished. This is our vocation as Christians — to lighten the load for everyone.

_______

 1. Antoinette Doolittle, “Renovated Woman” in Shakers and Shakeress, No 5. January 1875.

2. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984) 58


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Homily – 2 July 2017 – Keeping Our Households Together


Ordinary Time 13 A – 2 July 2017 – Keeping Our Households Together

Click here for today’s biblical texts

This time of the year can be wonderful for many families — reunions, graduations, first communions, weddings, the 4th of July holiday. But at the same time family gatherings can also be disheartening when disagreements turn to resentment and even separation. 

On a broader scale, the same thing happens in religion and politics. For example, in our church and our nation we have discord over cultural and humanitarian issues. How do we keep our households together?

In the time of Jesus the Middle Eastern household was large and extended. Everyone — parents, siblings, cousins — all lived together in the same compound. To leave the family or marry outside it was unthinkable. Belonging to the family group provided protection, housing, food and value systems by which to live. 

The first century followers of Jesus, therefore, could not believe what they heard Jesus say as quoted in today’s gospel — that to be his disciple one must not love mother, father, siblings, children more than him. 

Today, in our society households are defined in a variety of ways.  Few families live together in the same neighborhood much less the same house like they did during times of assimilation or the Depression.

Of course, this is not true for everyone. While they learn to speak a new language and find work, refugees and immigrants in our Capital District huddle together with family members and friends in worn out apartments not far from this very church building. Like our ancestors who migrated here these people sustain one another until they can get established on their own.

What does it mean to extend hospitality to strangers? The involvement of this parish in the Family Promise program brings to life the story in the first reading. A woman of influence tells her husband they should furnish a room for the prophet Elisha who was holy not because he preached orthodox doctrine but because he did the work of God. Grateful for what we have, we extend hospitality, new life and hope, to strangers because it is the responsible thing to do.

During this Independence Day weekend these readings help us think about the ideological American household and what is keeping us together. We examine the relationships between faith in God and faith in our nation. According to Massimo Faggioli Church teaching actually favors acceptance of the nation-state as the ideal means to develop a political dimension of human life that promotes the common good. 

This assertion creates a conundrum for Catholics in the United States. Not all of us agree on every cultural issue. How do we look out for one another at the same time we respect our differences? When do we oppose the passage of laws that deny human beings the right to live decent lives without fear? What words do we use to voice our abhorrence when elected officials use morally reprehensible rhetoric?

The Second Vatican Council taught us that God works through culture. When dominant trends in a society contradict faith in God and Christian values, faith communities tackle the causes of those trends. Confronting such inclinations by employing Christian perspectives on community life becomes a task especially for the local parish family.  [1]

Perhaps this is what Jesus was talking about in today’s gospel. Adhering to and acting upon the values he taught will require serious consideration on our part. He was not really commanding his followers to leave their families as much as he asked them to extend the hospitality, the values, the security they experienced in their Mediterranean households.

On local level it may mean being involved in our parish social justice programs — the food pantry, the sister parish in Darien, prison ministry and Family Promise to name a few. On another level it may mean listening to others intently, understanding different viewpoints on issues, seeking ways to keep the family together.


  1. Curran, Larry. Overview of the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life, Report #10, 1989. An old study but still valuable.


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Homily – 25 June 2017 – Fear Nothing


Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time A – 25 June 2017 – Fear Nothing

Click Here for Today’s Biblical Texts

When he was elected president in the midst of the Great Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged the American people to regain faith in themselves. The depression took a toll on this country – taxes were rising, industries were unproductive, foreign trade was almost non-existent, farmers had no markets and the savings of many families were erased.

In his inaugural address, FDR outlined in broad terms a perspective he would bring to his leadership. He reminded Americans that the nation’s common difficulties concerned only material things and, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Not all people in this country today have the same fears that some of our forebears had in the 1930s. But different kinds of anxieties can create a collective panic attack. Journalist Edward Luce lists these symptoms — a growing opioid epidemic, the decline in life expectancy, increasing intolerance for other people’s points of view, and a fading enthusiasm to join social groups.  [1]

If you are in prison today you fear the inmates and guards. If you are homeless you are scared of other people on the street. If you are without food you worry about your health. If you are a gay or lesbian or transgendered person you fear prejudice. Whatever your color you are afraid of the consequences. If you are traveling you worry about terrorism.

How does God figure into these concerns? In the first reading Jeremiah delivers bad news to the Israelites. The city of Jerusalem would be captured; Jews would be arrested and detained in a humiliating encampment. Although he described God as one who would protect people from oppression Jeremiah himself was persecuted and jailed for “denouncing” the ruthless king Nebuchadnezzar. (DeBona 193-94) 

In the gospel Jesus sent his followers on a mission and, as he often did before, he predicted that they would face difficulties, that their message would be rejected. Many early Christians were persecuted, jailed, murdered for sticking to the moral principles and lifestyles Jesus modeled for them. Nevertheless, Jesus told them to “fear nothing.”

Pope Francis added his thoughts in a recent TED talk. He warned the world’s powerful leaders to be more humble or face ruin. He called on all of us to join him in a “revolution of tenderness” to “react against evil” by putting ourselves “at the level of the other,” to listen and to care.

We do not face the same problems that existed in this nation after the Depression. But whenever we are afraid to speak up for justice or to practice a Christian way of living we contribute to the problems. Sometimes we let the opinions of others, true or not, prevent us from doing what we know to be right. Sometimes, by ignoring the problems or pretending they do not exist, we perpetuate them. 

President Roosevelt died in 1945 while in the fourth term of his presidency. In 1960, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt published a book called You Learn by Living. In the chapter titled “Fear – the Great Enemy” she wrote, ”The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  [2]

Our belief in God’s unconditional and tender love for us gives us strength and confidence to advance the kingdom of God against all odds. However, belief will not by itself accomplish peace and justice in our communities unless we take action. In that 1933 inaugural address FDR also said “this nation asks for action and action now.”

Many of us agree but do not know exactly what to do.  Today as we eat bread and drink from the cup, as we claim again that we are the body of Christ, let’s imagine our lives not marked by fear, but rather by bold determination and solidarity.


  1.  Luce, Edward. The Retreat of Western Liberalism. (NY: Atlantic Monthly Press) 2017, 38
  2.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1841 essay Heroism, “Always do what you are afraid to do.”


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Homily – Trinity Sunday – 11 June 2017 – Reimagining a Mystery


Trinity Sunday A – June 11, 2017 – Reimagining a Mystery

Click here for today’s biblical texts

Apple just released a new device called HomePod. It is designed to compete with other companies in the field of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality. Farhad Manjoo wrote, “Apple seems to be transforming itself into a new kind of company, one that prioritizes the nerdy technical stuff that will become the foundation of tomorrow’s intelligent machines.”

Many mainstream religions also are experiencing transformations while others avoid making any significant changes. Our church, just like Apple, eager to serve its customers in order to stay in business, also needs to reinvent itself from time to time. Theologian Fr. Joseph Martos wrote, otherwise Catholicism is destined to become a church of beautiful ceremonies that have little to do with the real lives of people. [1]

In this light, how do we grasp one of the doctrinal anchors of Christianity, the Trinity? It cannot be ignored or dissolved but it does need to be reinvented or re-imagined in order to make sense in this age. The doctrine is not explicit in scripture and took close to 350 years to develop in theological circles. So too, to grasp what it means to say we believe in a triune Godhead today requires continued investigation.  

Jesuit Roger Haight writes that although God is a mystery the doctrine of the Trinity, should not be beyond our comprehension. Haight continued, it is the story of human salvation as the Christian community has encountered it.  [2] For us then it is a very real story of the creative action of God; the failure of humans to care for one another and creation; the liberating mission of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s chosen one; and, the spirit of that mission entrusted to us as a powerful force in our lives.

Today’s gospel helps us focus on one part of the story. The passage this morning follows Jesus’ conversation with a Pharisee, Nicodemus, about what it means to be born again of water and the spirit. The reading calls our attention to the action of God in our lives, revealed in three persons: “God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” How this Godly action is manifested today depends on our response to it. 

We strive to love the beauty of creation without trying to control it. We yearn to repair the world and to rejoice in the wonders of God’s continual creativity. We strive to make the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth tangible by our deeds and to pass those teachings on to others. We look for ways to give thanks for our liberty and to embrace our responsibility to redeem others. Our calling is to create a kingdom of  God on earth, a beautiful, peaceful world filled with dignity, truth and justice. [3]

These three actions — creation, redemption and revelation — comprise the narrative shared by all of us. They recognize that the work of God continues in our lives today. They remind us of the healing power of reconciliation. They give us hope for tomorrow.

There is really nothing mysterious about the doctrine of the Trinity unless we choose to keep it a secret. Karl Rahner was keen on saying the Trinity resides in us. Built on centuries of human narratives, the teachings about the triune God continue to pave a path for us. Although our journeys are not the same, they are guided by the same holy spirit. 

Apple did not invent the computer, the smart phone or any other popular device. It is a successful company because of its willingness to reinvent technologies in order to be relevant in the marketplace. Religions like ours need to do the same. 

Our belief in a triune God is not to be underestimated or disregarded. However, our convictions need to be lived out in ways that are constantly being reimagined in order to be effective in a modern world.

__________

  1.  Martos, Joseph. Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual (Eugene OR: Resource Publications) 2015, 298
  2.  Haight, Roger. “What is the Trinity?” A lecture at Carrs Lane United Reformed Church, Birmingham, UK, October 27, 2011
  3.  Paraphrased from Turning Life Into a Prayer. Central Synagogue, New York, NY 2014

 


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Homily Pentecost – June 4, 2017 – It’s Getting Warm in Here!


Pentecost A June 4, 2017 – It’s Getting Warm in Here

Click here for today’s biblical texts

A recent issue of Sports Illustrated published a story on Jeffrey Glasbrenner who lost his leg as a young boy while working on the family farm. In the hospital, another boy, in the adjacent bed, was dying of cancer. His mother said to Jeffrey’s mother, You can “raise him to be independent, or raise him to need everyone around him for the rest of his life.” [1]

Traditionally, on the feast of Pentecost, we analyze the meanings behind the graphic images of hurricane force winds and descending tongues of fire. We imagine a group of people with overlapping questions. What’s next? How do we do it? Would their mission, to establish unity among God’s people, be an independent campaign or a movement that would depend on a partnership with others?

Let’s first look at the imagery. The driving wind described in the reading from Luke/Acts echoes God’s presence in several Hebrew scriptures — the radiant sunshine that would come after raging storms. There is the warmth of hope and a new creation emerging from frightening times.

The reference to fiery tongues suggests, in a modern day context, that we have moved away from the scattered, independent communities, described in the text as a cacophony of diverse voices, toward unification by the Spirit. [2] No one person, no one religion, no one country can survive alone on this fragile planet. Solidarity and interconnectivity fill us with blessings, gladness and new life the Spirit.

Although in John’s gospel the reception of the Spirit occurs on the day Jesus was raised from the dead, it is celebrated, as we do, fifty days after the resurrection. Pentecost is a word Christians borrowed from Greek speaking Jews and occurs at the same time our Jewish friends celebrate their second greatest feast, Shavuot, a commemoration of the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. This year these two feasts occur during Ramadan the month of fasting and prayer on the Muslim calendar.

As a trinity of religions, linked by common ancestors, we are distinct but not separate in our peace seeking efforts. Our task is to foster unity and love among all people, and even among nations. As Christians we give primary attention to what human beings have in common and what promotes unity among us. [3]

President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw our country from the Paris climate agreement presents another viewpoint on how people might work together. Two of the president’s top advisors wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the president has “a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” [4]

This executive decision is of concern for Christians and others because it contradicts the story and the spirit of Pentecost that extol working together to solve problems, to move forward, to make progress. The Spirit in that upper room did not suggest that the mission of Jesus should be kept a secret or, that it was to serve only a select few.

Ironically, tomorrow, June 5th, is World Environment Day, a United Nations initiative to raise awareness around climate justice. It could be a day when, as a Christian church birthed in the spirit of Easter and Pentecost, we recommit ourselves to the reduction of our own carbon footprints.

We can undertake the mission of Jesus alone or with the help of everyone around us. Jeffrey Glasbrenner, the subject of that sports story, grew up to become a world class athlete and the first American amputee to scale Mt. Everest. He did not do it alone.

____________________

1 Murphy, Austin. “Peak Performer” in Sports Illustrated May 8, 2017, 27

2 DeBona, Guerric. Between the Ambo and the Altar: Biblical Preaching and the Roman Missal Year A. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2013, 147-48

3 The Vatican Two Ecumenical Council, “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (October 28, 1965) No. 1

4 McMaster, HR & Cohn, G. “America First Doesn’t Mean America Alone” in the Wall Street Journal. May 30, 2017


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Homily – 14 May 2017 – Things of Heaven & Earth


Fifth Sunday of Easter A  – May 14, 2017 – Things of Heaven and Earth

Click here for today’s biblical texts

Fatima 051317

Thousands of pilgrims at Fátima this weekend!

This weekend Pope Francis is visiting Fátima, Portugal’s most renowned pilgrimage site. The pope will canonize Jacinta and Francisco Marto, two of the children who saw visions of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, 100 years ago.

Apparitions of Mary like the one at Fátima and others in Mexico, Ireland, France and Belgium, challenge the limitations of human thought. Consider what Hamlet said to Horatio after seeing a ghost: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your (our) philosophy.” Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

Each Easter season our scriptures give us some idea of what may have happened to the followers of Christ after his post-resurrection appearances. They are stories of fear, disagreements, excitement, hope, skepticism and belief.

What is most curious is that, although Mary the Mother of Jesus is so highly regarded today as a model for facing problems of adversity and healing and even political strife, the bible does not tell us much about her presence or her contributions to these emerging communities after the resurrection of Christ.

What we do know about Mary is that she knew Jesus better than anyone else and after his death she had to confront loss, misunderstanding, isolation. You would think that early church leaders eagerly would have turned to her for her wisdom about what she had learned as the mother of Jesus and what he would do and say in various circumstances.

Spreading the gospel in the first century was not easy. Tensions existed because missionaries like Peter, Paul, Barnabas and others were evangelizing in places where there were diverse cultures. Just as in any community today the questions had to do with leadership, community power, political resistance, jealousy, fear and handling emergencies. Today’s first reading tells us the community was concerned about who would tend to hungry persons and those with few resources especially some widows?

To address this concern for people who were hungry the author of Luke-Acts wrote that seven reputable men were chosen to serve, a choice that was not arbitrary but acceptable to that community. Guerric DeBona, an expert in biblical and cultural studies, wrote that “consensus occurs when the community is gathered for consultation,” and that the “good order of the community allows for the word of God to move among the people.” [1]

Similar realities and diversities are present in our church today. As memberships in mainline religions continue to dwindle in some regions, the question for you and me is: how do we experience and sustain a modern day faith community? Our house has cracks in it that need attention otherwise the structure will collapse. 

Fixing the fissures, keeping the family together, requires teamwork, sharing the blame, telling the truth, seeking consensus and listening to different voices. Sometimes we will discover that clinging to the status quo is no longer sufficient and that new spiritual awakenings are important.

The second reading from Peter offers a blueprint for renewal and restoration. We are the living stones, the ministers chosen by God to be built into a spiritual house where we and others can find purpose, refuge and strength. [This is the kind of home where our children who share in holy communion with us for the first time today will find new life and nourishment.]

Jesus also used architecture to make a point. In his farewell address to his friends in that “Upper Room” he urged them not to be troubled. He said he was going home, to a very big house, and he would reserve a room for anyone willing to live justly and walk humbly. God’s house is so big there is room for everyone. No one is turned away.

Like a mother comforting her children Jesus’ words were reassuring to his followers. Our Lady of Fatima offered similar consolation in 1917 when she promised that prayer and good works would help end World War I. Her message still has merit today. At a candle light vigil Friday night in Fátima, the pope urged the pilgrims to “tear down all walls and cross every frontier … to make known God’s justice and peace.” This is something we can do together.


DeBona, Guerric. Between the Ambo and the Altar: Biblical Preaching and the Roman Missal Year A. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2013, 130


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Homily 7 May 2017 “Open Wide the Gates!”


Fourth Sunday of Easter  – May 7, 2017 – Open Wide the Gates!

Click here for today’s biblical texts

A classmate of mine in the seminary has a son who is a border patrol officer in Arizona. His job is to keep Mexicans and other Latin Americans from crossing illegally into the United States. Fair enough. 

Human rights groups, however, are concerned about the way border crossers are detained while waiting for their cases to be reviewed. Other sources tell us that, since October 2000, more people have perished trying to enter this country than have died in the September 11 attacks and in Hurricane Katrina combined.

The biblical texts for today are familiar. They are about gateways, gardens, and gatekeepers. We’ve heard the comforting words of the psalmist often, in different contexts — God is a shepherd who protects us and provides verdant pastures and restful waters and, we have need of nothing else. But this promise cannot be true. There is plenty we want.

Consider the children, men and women in refugee camps worldwide trying to cross borders into more secure and fertile pastures. Hundreds of thousands are stuck in Uganda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Jordan. These are not temporary settlements. The gates in these camps do not swing both ways. Too far away for you and me to be concerned?

As many of you know the fastest growing immigration detention system in the world is right here in the United States. It holds illegal immigrants caught trying to enter this country; asylum seekers escaping brutal regimes; anyone with or without a criminal record. Sometimes legal, permanent residents are detained on the suspicion of being here illegally. 

How would we talk with those confined in these camps and centers? How would we explain an absentee shepherd? The passage from Peter reminds us that the death of Jesus, the good shepherd, liberated all of us. But that theological aphorism does not seem to apply to everyone. How do we understand this promise in light of present global realities?

What locks the gates of opportunity for ourselves and others? Could it be power mongers who govern nation states? Could it be that the privatization of detention centers is a big business? Maybe what blocks us are our own cultural mindsets, our personal political leanings, our subjective fears of the stranger or ancient theological assumptions about who gets saved. Who gets into the sheepfold? Who is left out?

The gospel of John insists that the only way to have life more abundantly is to repent, get baptized and follow Jesus into the safety of the sheepfold. And then, what?  What happens after repentance and baptism? Tithing? Ministry? Charitable works? Is that it? How does the care of the divine shepherd reach oppressed people or those who have been shunned by their church? Where is the shepherd leading you and me?

Lutheran theologian Anna Carter Florence wonders if, unwittingly, the church itself is a boundary between the saved and the not- saved. She suggests that the sheep gate we heard about today merely marks the boundary between where we are in our lives and what we are to do next.  [1]

If Jesus is our liberator; if his life’s work is a model for us; if his cross is a symbol of injustice; if you and I are called to tackle the sinfulness symbolized by that cross then … you and I are bound by our baptism to open the gates that lead to pastures where all people can find food, shelter and the opportunity to grow in freedom.

Samuel Moyn, a religion and ethics writer for ABC, reminds us, historically societies world wide cultivated robust theories of governmental obligations toward individual rights, but also of individuals toward one another.” However, the problem today is that my right to be free from oppression does not always translate into my duty, my obligation to eradicate injustices so that others would not have to suffer.

Our religion and our nation are both founded on making it possible for all to live in freedom and without fear. We, as human beings, are called to be gatekeepers of heaven and earth; to open wide the doors of opportunity for ourselves, for others close to us and for all people on this earth. 

1. Florence, Anna Carter. Working Preacher Year A.  (St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary 2016) 62