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Friday, September 26, 2008

“Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.’” (Matthew 21:43)

“SOUL-SURFING” – October 5, 2008
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Matthew 21:33-43)
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

I confess, I even boast, of knowing nothing at all of fine wines. I have no idea what is a “proper” wine to accompany red meat, white meat, fish or desserts. I only know what tastes good to me and what does not. That’s about it. Actually, since anything alcoholic tends to make me woozy rather quickly, I rarely imbibe at all.

Though my general wariness of alcohol goes way back to alcoholic ancestors, my developing distaste for wannabe oenophiles was further bolstered a number of years back when I was invited to a wine-tasting dinner hosted by a nurse with whom I worked at an Indiana hospital. There were to be, I learned, just 10 of us dinner guests, the other 9 women and men all nurses on the hospital’s oncology unit. Having worked with them day by day for several years, I knew them to be compassionate and down-to-earth, surely people with whom I could share a pleasant meal. Only too late did I discover that these nurses had been transformed into wholly different creatures, almost snobs, once they’d traded their hospital scrubs for evening wear to gather at a lavish meal whose table centerpiece was 10 bottles of wine. When Randy had invited me weeks before, I confessed both my discomfort with alcohol and ignorance of wine, but she assured me that it was to be no more than an enjoyable evening away from work. “You’ll have a great time! Be sure to bring a bottle of wine with you.”

Stopping by an upscale package store en route to the dinner, I sought out the oldest, wisest looking clerk. I explained, “I’m totally ignorant of wine, and I’m on my way to a wine tasting. What can I bring that will neither embarrass me nor cost me an arm and a leg?” Smiling either out of compassion or because he knew he had a dumb sucker on the hook, the man plucked a corked bottle from the shelf, rang me up and sent me on my way. I had to trust him; and if things turned out badly, I could also blame him.

A bit lost locating the address, I was last to arrive at the dinner. Answering the door, David, the host, handed me a sheet of white paper and scotch tape, instructing me to conceal the label of the wine bottle I’d brought. “Whew!” I thought. “That ought to save some embarrassment.” Dutifully wrapping my bottle, I placed it in the center of the dining table next to the other 9 similarly concealed bottles. Then, being invited to offer grace, at which I prayed more for escape from this gathering than thanks for the food on the table, we began. Bottle 1 was poured into the 10 glasses at each place setting. My colleagues sniffed, swirled and sipped, finally offering astounding accolades. “Bursting with boysenberries,” exclaimed one. “Woodsy,” proclaimed another. When all 10 of us had tasted bottle 1, the wrapper was removed, the label read aloud and the wine acclaimed with applause. Suddenly, though, with no regard for the established rule preserving anonymity, the provider of bottle 1 blurted out, “I brought that from my wine cellar. Glad you like it!” I knew then there was to be no graceful exit for me.

Things grew more intense as, during the multi-coursed meal with several desserts, the next eight bottles were opened and their providers revealed. Solemn, scholarly pronouncements were made about the table. Spoke David, the host, of bottle 4: “Yes, a dignified vintage surely! It carries weighty authority while also amusing one with a trace of citrus and almond.” Even Randy, who’d invited me, had become a total stranger as I heard words tumble forth from her. Holding up a wine glass half full of the contents of bottle 7, she offered an assessment. “I taste a dark, mahogany-paneled room filled with the bouquet of fine Cuban cigars.”

Bottle 10, the wine I’d brought, was the last to meet the judges. And, of course, by now everyone knew bottle 10 was mine. As it was poured round the table, I re-assessed my chances for a graceful exit from this painful evening. Nine bottles having glazed the eyes and loosened the tongues of my colleagues, I braced myself. The final pronouncement of the evening was upon us. Sylvia, by day the brutally honest nurse-manager of the oncology unit, sniffed, swirled and sipped. Then, holding aloft her glass, she seemed to hesitate just a bit. All eyes were upon her. She spoke. “This wine is very (a painful interlude as she searched for the perfect adjective) adequate. Yes, indeed, this wine is very adequate!”

Three of the four readings we hear today make mention of a vineyard: the first reading from Isaiah; the responsorial psalm (Psalm 80); and the passage from Matthew’s gospel describing Israel as the Lord’s vineyard. And in each case, we find lament because the vineyard has not yielded a bountiful harvest or because those tending the vineyard have not been careful stewards. In conclusion, “Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.’” (Matthew 21:43)

It’s been 20 years since that dinner gathering, and still do I wonder if I’m serving anything more than “adequate” wine. Each day, as I encounter people thirsting for something of God, I wonder if my ministry to them is anything more than “adequate”. On really bad days, it can seem that my service is of the cheapest vintage. But then I remember the miracle at Cana, Jesus transforming common water into the finest wine. He’ll do it again, I trust.

Indeed, we are, each of us, called to be fine wine for others. Though we may deem our service to be no more than “adequate,” God daily touches us with the same hand that touched a water jug at Cana, our humblest effort becoming gift of God for another.

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