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Bread of Life & Affliction
The Fourth Sunday of Lent - Year C
Food is mentioned about 500 times in the Bible. Bread especially is used literally and symbolically to describe relationships, sustenance, life and salvation.
Today’s passage from Joshua (5:9a, 10-12) comes after the Israelites crossed over the River of Jordan into the land of milk and honey. Once they arrived God said to Joshua “I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” After that the Israelites ate the “produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.” (v. 11)
The Israelites survived during their arduous sojourn because they ate a miraculous substance (manna) found on the ground each day. Jews continue to remember their exodus at Passover as they share the matzah, the “bread of affliction,” and other symbolic foods.
Bread is also important in the Second Testament.The miracle of loaves and fish was made possible because people unselfishly shared the bread they had with others. Jesus called himself the bread of life. At the last supper he broke the bread of affliction and called it his body. Early Christians recognized Jesus in the “breaking of the bread.”
Bread is indispensable. It is essential for human survival and relationships. The word companion is taken from two Latin words meaning “with bread.” When Jesus said we cannot live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4) he meant we also need to be fed mentally, spiritually, aesthetically, with whatever gives meaning to our lives. In reality though, the famous proverb means nothing when you are starving.
Between 1932 and 1933 millions of Ukrainians were starved to death in a famine generated by Josef Stalin to collectivize agriculture. His political decrees led to a drop in production of crops and led to food shortages. The Ukrainian word for this historic tragedy is “holodomor” taken from two words meaning hunger and extermination. Historians say Stalin did this because he was afraid of losing Ukraine.
Today because of Vladimer Putin’s cruel and inhuman invasion of Ukraine Alistair MacDonald reports the 2022 harvest is imperiled. “The crop shortfall will extend to the many countries that rely on Ukraine for wheat, corn and cooking oil.”  Putin is starving people to death to serve his own egotistical agenda to reestablish the former Soviet Union. He is afraid of losing Ukraine, like Stalin was. And Putin’s autocratic venom is spreading.
The Wall Street Journal reports the war is also “disrupting food and energy supplies world wide.” Bread prices have increased by 40% in Kenya. People in Turkey are stampeding over one another to get bread. Street protestors in Iraq call themselves the “revolution of the starving.” This past week the president of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, distributed free rice flour throughout that country.
In today’s familiar gospel story (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32) Jesus gets into trouble with law abiding Pharisees and scribes for breaking bread with outcasts. He responds to them with a parable about a lost son and grateful parents. It is a powerful lessen to autocrats around the world about welcoming everyone to the table no matter who they are, where they’ve been, or what they’ve done.
Presbyterian minister Mihee Kim-Kort wrote: “This story gives us a view of the wide complexity of human relationships, as well as insight into the kind of love and welcome that drives Jesus’ ministry.” Those who abide by laws of kindness and compassion are called to heal the deep divisions that keep secular and religious world leaders from being totally honest with one another and their constituents.
In his second letter to the Corinthians (5:17-21) Paul optimistically wrote: “the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” The possibilities for us are endless when we work together for a common global good. What stands in the way is the rise of totalitarianism fueled by unbridled power brokers, greed and fear mongering. We start by protesting tribal nationalistic theories that hurt powerless people.
Maybe we do not live by the bread of life alone but on the Word of God. Let’s try it. Would those of us who are not yet hungry be willing to give up bread and other staples made with wheat, corn, and rice until the war in Ukraine ends? Starting today … I am.
1. Ukraine’s azure and yellow flag symbolizes the sky above and the vast fertile wheat fields below. It originated in 1848. It was outlawed when Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. In 1992 it was restored as the national flag.
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Burning Bushes and Fruitful Fig Trees
The Third Sunday of Lent - Year C
Those who followed Jesus frequently asked for his opinion on current events. In today’s gospel (Luke 13:1-9) Jesus responded to the murderous actions of the governor Pontius Pilate.
The text graphically depicts Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans with the blood of their ritually slain animals. Professor of New Testament Jeremy L. Williams wrote: “Luke’s mention of Pilate, Galileans, and sacrifices are [sic] no coincidence. At the end of the gospel, Pilate will mix the blood of Jesus, a Galilean, with Passover sacrifices.”
The link between the murders of the Galileans and the execution of Jesus is significant in Christian history. Jesus, who committed no crime, suffered and died before he was raised up. Crimes against innocent people are innumerable in history. Unbridled dictators and unjust laws consistently deny the human rights of others. Who will raise up these victims?
The reading from Exodus (3:1-8a, 13-15) is a timely reminder of how a mysterious and terrifying power can save those who are vulnerable. God promised to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
However, this text from the Hebrew bible also depicts a vengeful God who destroys the enemies of the Israelites. In a bold move Jesus reversed that old law of retribution where a punishment would be equal to the crime committed. He called for mercy.
Jesus challenged his brother and sister Galileans to change their minds about taking an “eye for an eye.” This message is hard to hear today as many nation states look for effective strategies to halt the brutal actions of Vladimer Putin against the Ukrainians.
Why did Jesus use a fig tree to make his point? It was barren and the gardener wanted to cut it down. Jesus said not so fast. Professor Williams suggests: “Jesus’ message is clear: do not be like the fruitless tree. Rather than focus on the gravity of others’ transgressions, make sure you are producing good.” This advice puts a lot of pressure on us these days.
Learning to be compassionate toward those who harm us requires a substantial change of mind and heart. Jesus’ message reminds us that we all need a second chance to straighten out our lives, to do something good for ourselves and humanity.
But what if someone like a ruthless autocratic government leader never produces good fruit? Cut that barren tree down and throw it into a fire? That contradicts the gospel message. Although there are varying levels of evil in the world, the fundamental reasons for all injustices are found in the ways we human beings relate to and treat one another.
Ukrainian history is a record of Slavic peoples fighting for generations to be free from dictators. Now they are in a struggle for democracy. In his address to our Congress, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine, we are defending the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives for the sake of the future … to keep the planet alive, to keep justice in history.”
Many if not most Russians and Ukrainians share strong religious roots and ties as Eastern Rite Christians yet they are killing one another. Closer to home, in a country where many religions are practiced, innocent youths are trafficked and abused, crime in our streets is on the rise, acts of prejudice and hatred continue toward minorities, family members fight one another.
The psalmist (103: 1-4, 6-8, 11) reminds us we ought not be afraid. God is kind and merciful, redeems lives from destruction, and anoints us with kindness and compassion. God secures the rights of all the oppressed. But divine intervention only works if we are willing to cooperate with one another in acting with justice.
The burning bush was on fire but was not consumed by the flames. It was located on the same Mt. Horeb where Moses and Miriam were summoned by God to lead the Israelites out of danger. The bush is a symbol of the energy and light that is required to overcome what is wrong in the world. It cannot be snuffed out.
We are called to be burning bushes and fruit bearing fig trees. By our baptisms we are under contract to make the world a better place for all peoples. The season of Lent is a good time for renewing that covenant with God and with one another. It may require giving up some of what we are used to. It may mean taking on a task that will benefit others as well as ourselves.
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Our True Identity
The Second Sunday of Lent - Year C
Who are we? How do we identify ourselves? Years ago I was part of an interfaith team hired to train Navy chaplains. One of our sessions was on discrimination. It began with each chaplain thinking about his or her own identity. How did they describe themselves — by rank, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, conservative, liberal? And, how did that self-image affect their relationships with others?
Discussion about identity today matters a great deal. It affects our relationships with one another. It is easy to feel more comfortable with those who are similar to us but not with those who are different from us. For some people identity can be a matter of life and death.
Consider for a moment what is happening to some of the refugees fleeing from the horrific war in Ukraine. It is reported that at train stations and border checkpoints anyone whose color is anything but Caucasian is turned away even if they are true Ukrainian citizens. That their nationality is printed on their passports did not matter.
Today’s gospel text (Lk 9:28b-36) comes right after Jesus informed his followers that he would soon suffer and die. They were on their way to Jerusalem and he said to them the journey would not be easy. Then all of a sudden Jesus was transfigured right in front of his disciples Peter, James and John.
“While praying, Jesus’ face changed in appearance.” In a biblical context to experience such a metamorphosis is to become more radiant, more beautiful in the sight of others. The transfiguration of Jesus is an image of God as light and salvation. (Psalm 27:7-9, 13-14)
His transfiguration was an indication that he would pass through the bonds of death to eternal glory. But even more … it revealed the identity of Jesus as an itinerant prophet and messiah. Hearing this story prompts us to show our true identities as Christians and our willingness to make the world more radiant, more beautiful, more free.
Neither for Jesus, nor his followers, nor for us do acts of transformation happen quickly. Jesus grew in his understanding of his role in society. So does our awareness of our baptismal calling help us become better Christians.
Making changes in our different identities — as a church, a nation, a local community, as individuals —- takes a long time. Sacrificing something, volunteering for a cause, or being open to others’ differences during the Lenten season is a good start that can lead to a larger transfiguration not only of ourselves but society in general.
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (3:17-4:1) reminds us our citizenship is in heaven. I know … some of us cannot wait that long. We want life on earth to be a happy and healthy experience now. Still we are reminded that life is short and if we want to achieve something that will make a difference in people’s lives, and our own, do it now.
We do not achieve a transfigured life by ourselves, however. Jesus relied on the wisdom and prophecies of his ancestors (Elijah, Moses, Miriam, Abraham, Sarah). He also depended on the loyalty of his followers. Jesus’ identity was wrapped up in relationships with other people as well as with God.
In a contemporary context Ukraine needs help from other nations to keep its independence. Our country relies more and more on alliances aware that our nation is no longer the international force it once was. Working together in our communities can improve everyone's lives. The same is true in our church. The clergy and all the people of God depend on one another for their identities and their ministries.
There are no borders in the cosmic realm. We are part of an eternal and universal family who wants to live freely and responsibly. Along the way our identity as citizens of earth and heaven suggests that we are in a serious live-giving relationship with one another and our planet. Yes, that bond can be fractured by selfishness, deceit and power but it can also be repaired with love and honesty.
The season of Lent calls us to see ourselves as we truly are. As Christians abiding by the Word of God we join other faiths and non-believers in striving to treat others as they are … especially the ones who are not like us.
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A Terrifying Power
The First Sunday of Lent - Year C
Christianity in Ukrainian and Russian lands dates to the earliest centuries of Christian history. Legend has it that the apostle Andrew traveled over the Black Sea to the Greek colony in Crimea where he converted thousands of people.
Throughout centuries of its history religion and politics have both united and fractured Ukraine and Russia. The reality today that complicates the war is that both Russian and Ukrainians are linked by their Orthodox faith. Their religious leaders, however, are not united to stop Vladimer Putin’s invasion into Ukraine even as they offer prayers for peace and the safety of Ukrainians.
Only a fierce cultural pride and identity, a steady historical resilience against oppression, and a loyal faith in God gives strength to Ukrainians and their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to push back against Vladimer Putin’s plan to reestablish the former Soviet Union by encroaching upon independent nations.
The first reading today (Deuteronomy 26:4-10) tells a similar story. It reports what Moses said to the Israelites, who were seeking their independence from Egyptians. “When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the God of our ancestors. God heard our cry, saw our affliction, and with “terrifying power,” brought us out of Egypt.
Ukrainians are pleading with God these days with words taken from their national spiritual anthem written in 1885: “Lord, Oh the Great and Almighty, Protect our beloved Ukraine … Bless us with freedom, bless us with wisdom, Bless us, Oh Lord, with good fortune, for ever and evermore.”
What Ukrainians want is a chance to live freely and without being afraid that their children’s dreams will be erased by oppressive dictators. Their battle is important on a global scale where many countries are ruled by autocrats.
The Ukrainian dream is like the Israelites’ in the Hebrew bible who yearned for a promised land. It is like those who still pursue the American dream. It is an aspiration for all of humanity to live in a world measured by justice and peace.
On this first Sunday of Lent we begin a liturgical journey to repent and transform our lives while the world all around us is in trouble. So what are we to do? Give up something for Lent while others are fighting to keep their freedom? Repent and believe the good news while evil people in the world never ask for forgiveness? Renew our lives while millions of people in this nation have no way to do so?
We have innumerable freedoms in this country thanks to the courageous stories of our ancestors in faith. Those who fled one captivity after another, who journeyed long years in the desert, who fought religious wars in Europe, who faced prejudice as immigrants in this country. We are summoned by our baptism to protect the common good so no one person or institution or political party steals it away.
We are part of a long history of humanity, a larger global dynamic, a cosmos without boundaries. We travel bravely to proclaim justice and truth with countless caring Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and people who practice no religion.
Along the way we are urged by our tradition to avoid any temptations that distract us from our calling as Catholic Christians to “stand as living witnesses to truth and freedom, to peace and justice, that all peoples may be raised up to a new hope.”
In today’s familiar gospel (Luke 4:1-13 ) a smooth-talking devil tried to break down Jesus with physical, political and spiritual temptations but the Anointed One from Nazareth never gave in. Jesus snap back at the devil: “Do not tempt God!”
Jesus desired no power or dominion over anyone. He did not want possessions. He stood up against corrupt civic and religious leaders. He taught that only love and compassion matter most. The Ukrainians are not giving in to the devil and neither should we.
And, there is something we can do. We can believe what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (10:8-13) that everyone who calls upon God will be saved. The Ukrainians, like other people struggling in tyrannical countries believe that God is on their side and is still walking with them.
These scriptures are good lessons for us. During this season of Lent let us walk not only with God but with someone who is not doing so well in the world. Let us find the time and a way to give a portion of our resources, however large or small, to people in need. For example, consider donating something to ease the pain of the people in Ukraine.
Our faith coupled with our good works can be a “terrifying power” in a world where evil lurks in our midst … sometimes closer than we think.
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Brendan Fahy Bequette Funeral
Dear Friends: I was honored to deliver at the funeral liturgy for 25 year-old Brendan Fahy Bequette who passed away on 28 February 2022, after a 20-month battle with an aggressive, rare mediastinal germ cell cancer.
BRENDAN FAHY BEQUETTE
A Funeral Homily by Rev. Richard S. Vosko
St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, New York
March 5, 2022
There is an anonymous 9th century manuscript called “The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.” It is an example of an entire genre of Celtic literature known as immrama or stories about journeys.
These Irish tales are concerned with a hero’s voyage west of Ireland across the sea to a paradise, a land of perpetual youth, abundance, and happiness also known as the Promised Land of the Saints.
They are vivid accounts of the heroic lives of Christian pioneers like Saint Brendan the Sojourner. The narratives provide insights into the realities of life and death, a mix of life’s anxieties and yearnings.
On their dangerous journey Saint Brendan the Sojourner often said to his monks: “Do not be afraid O you of little faith. God has always looked after us and God is sure to save us … and from all perils to come.” (Is 43:2-3)
This tale and other stories about Saint Brendan gave our Brendan hope and resilience during his sickness. Spiritually and philosophically inclined, Brendan sought the protection of God and St. Brendan. The connection was important as he came to realize that, after many months of treatments and the tenacious and loving efforts of his parents and medical team to make him better, he was about to die.
In the final months of his life Brendan found comfort in the Prayer of Saint Brendan. “Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown … O Christ of the mysteries, I trust you to be stronger than each storm within me. I will trust in the darkness and know that my times, even now, are in your hand.” (Ps 31)
Amidst innumerable joys, life on this planet can be hard. People of faith claim God is the creator of all life and should protect them always. What we can believe is that God is first one to cry when someone dies.
Still, in spite of our faith in a just and loving God it is so difficult for us to be in the presence of someone we love who is no longer alive. However, science tells us that energy never dies, it merely takes on a different form.
Some religions like Buddhism hold that death leads to rebirth. Others like Islam believe that the real life begins after death. In our Christian tradition we abide by what Jesus said to his followers “I am the bread of life; even though you die you will live forever.” (Jn 6:47-48)
In the meantime as sting of death hurts us it awakens us to be more mindful of how we use our time on earth, how we live. In one example, the gospel of Matthew (6:19-21) we just heard advises us to seek only heavenly treasures, infinite blessings. Everything else will soon pass away.
Brendan was blessed with ever emerging gifts. A look at some of his earlier work as a director of film suggests he had an artistic and sensitive understanding of the scripts and an imaginative way of expressing them by using light, shadows, and color. He identified with those story lines that speak of the risks and rewards in life and he gave them new meaning.
Brendan’s own life story will continue to run as an model of the sensitive respect he had for everyone — his entire family, close friends, companions, his colleagues, health care providers, and many others.
Beneath his quiet almost shy demeanor, he was strong and resilient while methodically wrestling with a rare disease. He showed faith both in God and humanity. All of his attributes live on as we tell his story, share his faith, his love, and what he did for us and gave to us.
Although shattered by the death of someone we dearly love we do not grieve forever. There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to live, and, yes, a time to die. (Eccl 3:1-8)
With time and memory, stories and prayer, we find a way to carry on with Brendan’s spirit — working, playing, teaching, serving, and loving others. As we heard in the second reading we want to be patient and kind; never jealous; not boastful or conceited, and never rude. (1 Cor 13: 4-8a)
The Jewish word for funeral is “Halvaya.” (hal-va-YAH) It means to remember and accompany the deceased person. Brendan’s parents and sister held on to him in his difficult journey. We now travel with Brendan as he moves through what Irish mythology calls a mesmerizing and mystical “thin space” that separates heaven and earth.
Brendan was a curious and brave traveler in life just like his namesake and favorite saint. And now, like Saint Brendan and those Irish monks, we believe Brendan has arrived at the Promised Land of the Saints.