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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Wild Grapes

This past Sunday was my first opportunity to celebrate mass at the parish where I served as a deacon. It also had, as I mentioned in the last post, somewhat challenging readings. I got a request to post my homily, so here it is:

I’ve spent a lot of time here in the last few years, teaching the children, helping with RCIA, and serving last year as a deacon. So, it is with great joy that I have the opportunity to come and celebrate mass with you today. This is a special moment for me, returning this fall as a newly ordained priest to the city and the people with whom I’ve lived and worshipped for the last three years. So, I would have hoped that the readings for today would have been a little more, well, celebratory. Really, as I set to preparing myself for this homily, taking into account the occasion, I couldn’t help but think: Now I’ve only been a priest for three and a half months, so I might be missing something: But are these really the readings for “Respect Life Sunday”? How exactly might I approach this? Point to the wicked tenants in today’s Gospel and say, “Hey, look at them. Don’t do that.” We’ve got vineyards being torn down because the grapes have gone wild, and we’ve got people driven by greed, beating, stoning and killing others. It would seem that the only way to go at the life theme is by way of a negative example.

But then I thought about “Sideways,” the surprise hit movie of a few years ago about the misadventures of a group of wine enthusiasts. It too, wasn’t the most uplifting story, but what intrigued people about it was its passionate, even beautiful dialogue about wine. At one point, for example, the pathetic and depressed Merlot-hating main character is asked about his passion for Pinot wines. He says in response, “I don't know. It's a hard grape to grow. It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.”

The Pinot grape which Miles describes is a far cry from the wild grapes of today’s first reading. Yet the vinegrower he describes sounds a lot like the vinegrower whom Isaiah speaks equally passionately about in the first reading. “Let me now sing of my friend,” Isaiah begins, telling us of a vineyard owner, who places his vineyard on a fertile hillside, clears away the stones, plants the choicest vines, and builds a watchtower, treating his grapes with the utmost of care. This care promises a rich harvest. So, why, we are left to wonder, does he get “wild grapes” instead of rich grapes with the flavorful potential of a Pinot? Why is it that all that hard work and great care is not reflected in the final product?

You might say to me, well, Father, isn’t it obvious? He’s not really talking about grapes! The vinegrower is God and the grapes, well, they refer to God’s people. That’s why they’ve gone wild! Because they have a will of their own. And if you said that to me, I’m pretty sure you’d be right. But if you’re right, then we ought to be concerned about the fact that faced with us wild grapes, the vineyard owner decides to tear the vineyard down!

Today, in the pictures of both vineyard owners we can take away the image of a harsh God, one who tears down the unfruitful vineyard, and another who’s likely to kill the greedy and unfaithful tenants who have killed his son. These stories are meant to strike us this way, because they are meant to serve as a warning to us not to live lives unpleasing to God. Some are positively motivated by the idea that they better shape up or God will punish them. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t the view that will motivate us long-term. And I think to focus too quickly on this would be to miss the more positive point that like the passionate vinegrower, God is passionate about caring for us. And that, truthfully, we cannot do without that care. The speaker of today’s psalm realizes that, crying out to God: “Once again, O Lord of hosts, look down from heaven and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted . . . restore us; if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.”

Positively, this means that as people cared for by God we are called to reflect the work and care of our Creator and sustainer in our lives. In essence, when people see us, they should also see the God who cares for us, the God who sends his Son, even in the face of danger, to save us. Respecting life begins with accepting the care of God for us, of cooperating with God’s determination, as Miles puts it, to “coax [us] into our fullest expression” rather than growing wild, as if we were on our own. That is how we become, as Saint Paul encourages us to be in the second reading, people devoted to whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious and excellent, keeping our minds and hearts focused on the things of God. If we do that, then we can’t help but have an appreciation for life, because we recognize that every person is loved and cared for by God. Their life and ours comes from God, and cannot be without God.

This is the message of today’s readings. And this is what marks the difference in our respect for life from those that do not see the rights and dignity that come as a result of that reflection of God’s care in every person. We are called to cooperate with God in loving, caring and advocating for the preservation of the dignity of the lives of others whether that life be that of an unborn baby, the homeless beggar in Harvard Square, the “enemy,” the death row prisoner, or the person nearing the natural end of life. We are challenged to see these and indeed all lives as objects of God’s love and care, especially because we know we cannot do without God’s love and care for us.

The mass and the homily were received well, and I got one especially interesting reaction. A couple approached me after mass and said, "Father, we have to tell you that your homily had a very particular importance for us." My heart swelled a bit. How wonderful, I thought, something I said really touched these people. "Oh father, yes," they went on, "you see we spent about four hours yesterday trying to remember the name of that movie."