Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 28 May 2017 – In Between No More and Not Yet


EASTER 7A – 28 May 2017 – In Between No More and Not Yet

Click here for today’s biblical texts

Last Thursday the church celebrated the ascension of Christ into heaven. However, today, the seventh Sunday of Easter, we just heard a segment of the priestly prayer said by Jesus before his death, resurrection and ascension.

This quirk in our liturgical calendar prompts us to remember the departure of Christ from planet earth. At the same time we anticipate the celebration of the presence of the Spirit in the world Jesus left behind. In other words, you and I are in between no more and not yet.

The world was a dangerous place during the time of Jesus. Although he coached his disciples, teaching them everything he learned from his parents and his God, he worried that they would not be able to carry on without him. Would they give up in the face of life’s challenges? So Jesus prayed for them: “I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me.” He asked that God would keep them united; that they would be loyal to his teachings and that they would grow in holiness.  [1]

Jesus’ commission was not only to the disciples but to all those, through the ages, who would come to know and believe in his teachings. The continuation and hopeful completion of his works of mercy, blessings and goodness, involve all of us. How does Jesus’ prayer relate to us? How do we handle life’s pressures?

Our social climate is tenuous. Denis Johnson, a poet and novelist who wrote about people living on the fringes of society, died last week. One obituary said Johnson’s “America, past or present, is a troubled land, staggering from wretched excess and aching losses, a country where dreams have often slipped into out-and-out delusions and, people hunger for deliverance, if only in the person of a half-baked messiah.”

In a season when we would think that Christ’s resurrection, our graduations, baptisms, first communions and weddings would make us leap with joy, we cannot forget where we are in history. Nor can we overlook the significance of Jesus’ farewell prayer that calls us to holiness, unity and mission.

In this parish we frequently focus on our baptismal calling to work for justice. As a part of that vocation prayer is critical. In the passage from Luke-Acts we read that the disciples devoted their lives to prayer. We too are called to be united in our efforts, strong in prayer and faithful to doing good works.”  [2]

Psychologist Martin Seligman and journalist John Tierney write that human beings are not built to live in the moment but to contemplate the future. It is our foresight that created civilization and sustains society. While some research has suggested we are imprisoned by the past and the present, looking to the future is what makes us wise. Those studies suggest a purpose of the brain is to continually rewrite history. 

Our lives are constantly moving in between no more and not yet. What does this timeframe invite us to consider? We remember the past for moorings but we do not dwell there. We wrestle with the present to survive but we do not stay here. We look to the future to imagine possibilities where we find unending hope. As we prepare for Pentecost we contemplate how the Holy Spirit of Justice moves among us, stirring up in us lives of prayer and action. We may be in between no more and not yet but as spiritual visionaries, we are not afraid of tomorrow.

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  1. Perkins, Pheme. In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall)1990, 978
  2.  Martens, John W. The Word on the Street. Year A (Collegevile: Liturgical Press) 2016, 53-54


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Homily – 2 April 2017 – Become One With God


Fifth Sunday of Lent A — April 2, 2017 – Become One With God

Click here for today’s biblical texts

These biblical stories are so vivid there is the strong temptation to imagine them as if they were true stories. We know that one of the purposes of scripture is to enlighten us about how God works in our lives. Parables and testimonies are helpful to us. However, all too often, we focus on the spectacular parts of a story (creation, the flood, the exodus, or miracles of Jesus) rather than trying to unwrap their deeper meanings. 

The first reading from Ezekiel is a good example. The cultural identity of God’s people was threatened by the severe unjust treatment by more powerful nations. Freedom from that oppression, Ezekiel wrote, will be like rising up out of a grave. Further, Ezekiel identified God as the one who would deliver the people out of captivity and into a new age.

What about Lazarus? Scholars continue to debate whether or not Lazarus was really dead or in a coma. No one really knows and it doesn’t really matter. Rev. Beverly Bingle remarks that the story is a statement of faith in ongoing transformation made possible by following the life of Christ. Scholar John Pilch puts it this way. The eternal life that Jesus gives his followers does not abolish death but rather transcends it.

For the past weeks we have been focusing on the miracle stories in the gospel of John purportedly to promote belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the messiah. The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was an “aha” moment. When she became aware of who Jesus was she became a disciple. 

Similarly with the man born blind. That act of healing conveyed how living a life of faith and good work can bring about great rewards. So too, the story about Lazarus signals to us that death is a sign of a deeper awakening to the fullness of life, the “eternal life” that comes with Christian faith. 

I like to think that Jesus was giving Lazarus a second chance. Lazarus you cannot die yet. You have too much to do. Get up and get out there to take care of others. It was also a clear message to Lazarus’ sisters and friends that the promise of eternity comes after hard work.

In metaphorical terms, if the stories about the woman at the well and the one born blind are references to Jesus as the living water and the light of the world then this gospel refers to Jesus as a liberator from all that holds us captive.

What the scriptures ask us ultimately is to become one with God. This is hard to do if we keep imagining that God is out there somewhere, different from us; that God is pulling all the strings — forgiving us, pushing us, getting us out of hot water. 

To become one with God is a day to day commitment to practice compassion, to stand by those who are excluded from society, denied food, health care and living wages, abandoned by surrogates and peers, entrapped by power and greed. 

Jesus of Nazareth was the premier revelation of a God who desired to communicate with us. God cannot be apprehended by temptation, oppression, suffering and death. By becoming one with God we too can transcend death.

Christopher Dean is coming closer to his baptismal bath often described as dying and rising with Christ. Both Katria Foster, who is seeking full membership in our church, and Chris will celebrate the spirit of God that dwells within them and sustains all of us on our journeys. Together we dare to be witnesses of a God who cannot die.

 


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Homily – 5 March – Giving Up Sin for Lent


First Sunday of Lent A — 5 March 2017 — Giving Up Sin for Lent

Click here for today’s biblical texts

Lutheran pastor Dawn Hutchings, wrote these words about Lent: It is a season when we are reminded over and over how sinful we are. So, we thank God that Jesus died that bloody death on the cross to redeem us.

Where did we get this notion that we are such bad people and that Jesus had to die to save us? As I look around this church I don’t see any really bad people. Go ahead. Look around. Do you see any really bad people here?

The English philosopher, John Locke, like other later Enlightenment thinkers, believed that humans were born clean and pure, and that it was society that caused evil. We are innately good human beings until, of course, using a free will, we make bad decisions that can be sinful.

As we embark on the season of Lent — forty days of fasting, praying, reconciling, almsgiving — we ask ourselves why exactly was Jesus’ death on a cross the only way for us to be saved from our sins? This season focuses on that teaching. Commentators tell us that without this sense of personal and corporate sin we will fail to grasp the necessary role that Christ plays as redeemer. 

But why would God, who stopped Abraham from slaying his son and who established a motherly covenant with the Israelites, send Jesus, God’s only son, to be sacrificed? Couldn’t the all loving and merciful God who created everything and everyone come up with a better plan? 

This perplexing question begins with Adam and Eve in that familiar but non historical narrative about creation. Eve is often blamed for the sins of humanity but it was not her fault. If you read the verses before the ones we heard today we learn that Adam was warned by God to stay away from that tree of good and evil. 

But Adam never told Eve! So Adam (a name that means “humankind” or “of the earth”) was the problem. That act of disobedience set the stage for a history of salvation whereby we would have to be saved by someone other than ourselves.

The second reading provides further clues about why Jesus had to die to save us from our sin. Theologian Kevin McMahon wrote that Augustine developed the notion of original sin in the 6th century. He did so after reading Paul’s discussion of sin in the letter we heard this morning. Jesus, unlike Adam and Eve, was obedient to the will of God. He died on the cross not so much because he chose to do so freely but out of an acceptance of God’s will.

It wasn’t until the 11th century when St. Anselm reasoned that redemption could only be the work of a sinless man who was also divine. This is called atonement theology. It teaches that Jesus’ life and death makes it possible for us to be “at one” with God. By following the life of Christ as an exceptional model of human behavior we can restore our relationship with God and live in harmony with each other.

Jesus knew first hand how difficult it would be for us to continue his mission. He himself struggled to overcome temptations like the ones listed in today’s gospel. New Testament scholar Audrey West, suggests Jesus beat the devil, a symbol of the cultural pressures of his time, because he refused to be distracted from his mission by alternative temptations. 

No doubt we are both saints and sinners. We cannot negate the Catholic theology of atonement and the importance of Jesus’ redemptive life or our reliance on the grace of God given freely to us. Our prayers and song lyrics during this season are infused with that language. 

We can however look for ways to focus less on our potential for being bad. Instead we can concentrate on the goodness of God’s creation and the innate goodness of humanity. It is not to ignore the need to forgive and be forgiven but to recognize that God is still at one with us. 

Through our faith, our hope and our social action we can appreciate and celebrate that, fundamentally, we are really good people who occasionally make bad decisions.


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Homily – 2nd Sunday of Advent – 4 December 2016 – Hoping Against Hope


Second Sunday of Advent A – 04 December 2016 – Hoping Against Hope!

Click here for today’s biblical texts

How often have we heard someone say “it is all downhill from here” meaning things are looking good. Two weeks ago in the food pantry, however, a woman used the same words to mean things were not looking good for her and her family. 

Last week after Mass a parishioner said to me his life is going up hill now. He was once at the bottom of the heap and now things are looking better but getting to the top is slow and hard work, he said.

Daunting as they are such challenging journeys are normal. They are the storylines for films, music, poetry and literature — our everyday lives. A person trying to overcome difficulties enters a land of possibilities where there may be unknown dangers. Only with perseverance and help from others will the person survive the journey and come out of it transformed.

In the biblical and religious imagination mountain tops are thought to be close to where God lives. If you could just reach that summit you would be OK. Last week the scriptures summoned us to that mountaintop, the eternal City of Jerusalem, a place where one could be safe, secure; living in harmony with other people. 

In the first reading today Isaiah brims with enthusiasm with the hope that a commander will emerge to lead people up to that holy mountain. The larger context for this prophecy is helpful here.

The Israelites were being pummeled by a powerful Assyrian regime that would destroy the people and their cities. Isaiah prophesied that the people would bounce back thanks to a leader who has wisdom, strength and … fear of God; one who will maintain justice for poor and afflicted people. The “shoot of Jesse” rising up from the stump (the destroyed City of Jerusalem) is a reference to military victories.

We Christians have interpreted Isaiah’s prophecy to mean that Jesus will be the hero when actually Isaiah was referring to the liberator of the Israelites at that time — the boy king Josiah. Josiah, a descendant of David, did initiate a religious renaissance, rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. Sadly, the peace lasted for only about 30 years when the Babylonians recaptured the Israelites and placed them into exile.

Much later John the Baptist also preached enthusiastically about a hero, the Coming One, who would be the liberator. John, the educated son of a priest, would be part of an elite class today. Feeling the need to change his life he retreated to the wilderness where he lived off the grid. Like mountains, the desert also has symbolic meaning in the bible. It is a place of transformation, a sacred space where one could go to the depths of one’s body, mind and soul, wrestle with the challenges of life, all with the hope of rising up again renewed.

Because of his desire to change, John identified with those living on the fringes of society. He condemned the elite class for paying attention to their own agendas at the expense of others. His message to repent, that is, to change our ways of living, challenged everyone within earshot.

The gospel of Matthew, which we will read all during this liturgical year, begins with an account of the birth of Jesus, the visit of the wise astronomers and the massacre of innocent children. 

This sets the stage for the passages we heard last week and today. People were frightened. What would happen to them next? Many of them, rich and poor, powerful and weak, scrambled to the wilderness to hear what John the Baptizer had to say. The apostle Paul also addressed the tensions between classes and cultures. He called for endurance and harmony. 

Today, there is great apprehension in our nation given the possibility that the laws of our land could run contrary to some of the values held by us. The passage in Isaiah calls for justice. In Hebrew the word is tzedakah which refers not merely to acts of charity but to a social obligation to defend people from the ills of humanity and oppressive leadership. 

Our role is to assist people living on the edges of society in troubled times. Angela Warner [1] reminded me that the modern day prophet Dorothy Day put it this way. “The greatest challenge is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”  

Advent is a season to think about our journeys and those of others — both uphill and downhill journeys. It is a time of anticipation, preparation, and in the words of Pope Francis written just this past week, “a time of mercy.” Now is the season for you and me to rekindle our faith and our hope against all hope that night will turn to the light of day.”

  1. Angela Warner is the director of the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry where hundreds of families are given food every week.


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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.


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Homily – 3 July 2016 – I Pledge to Speak Fearlessly


Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time C – 3 July 2016 – I Pledge to Speak Fearlessly

Click here for today’s scriptures

Each morning in elementary school, even before prayers, we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Say it with me now, please. You may recall the words “one nation under God” were added in 1954.

“One nation under God.” Really? What do those words mean for us now? When Jesus claimed the kingdom is at hand he was not referring to a futuristic heavenly place but life on earth free of all injustices and fears.

How does the cry of Isaiah “Oh, that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort” ring true with Lady Liberty’s invitation “Give me your tired, your poor … Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

The prophet Isaiah was writing about restoration, healing and comfort after a post-exilic period of political turmoil. He described a world renewed (65:17) in which “no longer shall the sound of weeping be heard.” 

Jesus summoned his followers to spread this same message. He reminded them that in some places the door would be open while in others slammed in their faces. When they returned the disciples reported that their mission was successful perhaps because they spoke fearlessly, believing strongly that the the words of Jesus would overcome evil in the world. 

Brendan Byrne adds this comment. They (the 72 disciples) had a “deep sense of relationship with God and a knowledge of the destiny to which that relationship leads.” [1] What is that destiny? Where is it?  Alicia Vargas had this thought. It is an “utterly new way of being for those in Christ, made right with God by faith and thereby set free to be and to live in a new, distinction-free form of life.”

For us, current global conditions are daunting, fraught with doubt, anger and despair. In the Global Trends Report for 2015 just issued by the United Nations a record 65 million people have been displaced by global conflicts. Ban Ki-Moon recently denounced what he called “border closures, barriers and bigotry.” Our own country is slow to welcome 10,000 Syrians. We face criticism from human rights advocates over deportation of Central Americans including women and children. [2] Oh, give me your tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free!

The United States Catholic bishops in their statement “Faithful Citizenship” remind us to consider how we are called to help make God’s vision a reality.  “Unlike some places in the world, we have the ability, as Americans, to take an active role in political life without fear of danger or intimidation … we must work together to transform the world around us.”

This Independence Day weekend we celebrate our freedom and abundant harvests with family gatherings, fireworks and patriotic songs. Let us also remember our Christian mission pledging to speak fearlessly, to make real “liberty and justice” for all.

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1. Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2000) 95-96

2.  Sengupta, Somini. “Record 65 Million People Displaced, UN Says” in New York Times, June 20, 2016, A3


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Next Homily on February 7th


Hi Everyone: Apologies for not letting you know sooner. My next homiletic effort will be presented on February 7th which is also the day of the Super Bowl. The gospel for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time on the Catholic calendar tells the story of the disciples working hard but catching few fish. Jesus tells them they will catching people in the future. I am wondering about how, for many, sports has not only become a national pastime and an escape from reality but also a new religion that just might be a substitute for traditional faith traditions. Check back on February 7th! RV