Saturday, October 11, 2014

Are We Stuck Moving in One Direction?

Despite the sophistication of the modern aircraft carrier, it will never be known as nimble, or highly maneuverable…they just don’t turn on a dime. And that’s because of what they call inertia.

Newton’s law of inertia tells us that a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by another force. What that basically means is that it’s hard to get something moving in the first place, and that once it’s moving, it’s hard to stop it, or to change direction. While Newton’s law was meant to be applied to things that have mass and form, think of it for a moment in terms of things like beliefs, or corporations, or institutions, or behaviors…especially behaviors. Think of it in terms of friends; and of families, and of communities. Think of it in terms of relationships. God designed and built us to live in relationships…with Him, with our spouses and children, with our parents and grandparents, with the people around us. It’s no wonder, then, that since the Fall of Adam and Eve, our biggest defect is our tendency towards self-absorption…that interior inertia that makes it so difficult for us to turn away from ourselves, and towards those around us…our husbands and wives, our moms and dads, our kids and grandkids, our co-workers, our fellow parishioners, the widow and the orphan, the hungry and thirsty, the sick and the lame, the imprisoned, the homeless…so difficult to turn away from ourselves, and towards God.

The story has always been the same, and our scriptural readings today poignantly outline for us the problem…and the solution.

The prophet Isaiah was called by God during the decline of the Israelite kingdom; he lived during a time when the people of God were far from Him; unwilling, and unable to turn towards God for help. Isaiah gives us the image of the vineyard that was carefully prepared and planted with the choicest vines. While poetically evoking this image, Isaiah leaves nothing to the imagination at the end: “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant…” God’s relationship with the Israelites was one of recurrent episodes of betrayal and infidelity. Despite God’s careful tending to the vineyard, all they produced was wild grapes. God never turned away from his people, although at times He stood at a distance; it was Israel that turned away from God. And the harder and faster and longer they turned away, the more difficult it was to turn back…the law of inertia in relationships; and the more they turned away, the more it actually became a turning towards selfish desire. In those dire circumstances, they couldn’t even see God.

In our time and space, this we have come to know as addiction…that state of being where we can’t turn back. We have done the “…oh, one more time won’t hurt anything…” line of reasoning enough times that all we can see is our own disordered desire. It’s almost ironic in a sad sort of way…only God can save us at that point, and He is the very one we have turned completely away from…and that is the experience that we are all familiar with…the experience of sin.

Our responsorial psalm gives us a sense of repentance, and hope…that first step towards recovery: “…Protect what your right hand has planted…then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name…”

And now in our gospel reading, the story Isaiah started is finished by Jesus. Even though Isaiah and Jesus are separated by some 750 years, the strength of the metaphor is not lost; it is completed. The landowner sent his son. Isaiah has already told us in his prophecy that the owner of the vineyard is the LORD of hosts, God himself…and now as Jesus completes the story, God sends his son. In both Isaiah’s story, and Jesus’ retelling, the landowner has sent his representatives to collect what is rightfully his. What appears to be the fruit of the harvest is actually love, the fruit of relationship. That’s what God wanted from the Israelites; that’s what God wants from us…our love. It’s bad enough that the landowner’s representatives were killed, but when the landowner’s son is killed, the insult and the injury are tragically magnified. The tenants’ depravity, their addiction to self-gratification, their sin, drove them to the point that they could not see what they were doing, or the consequences that would surely follow…and the landowner was left not only with righteous anger, but also the anguish of an unspeakable loss. What a moving description of sin, and its effect on us…and on God! What a moving description of the impact of inertia on our relationships!

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes.” The inertia of our addictions blinds us, and we reject the stone; we ignore it; we don’t even see it. But God never abandons us; through the death and glorious resurrection of his son, Jesus, he has poured out on us what we need to recover from our addictions, what we need to heal our incurable wounds, what we need to turn away from sin; he has poured out on us the answer to the inertia that impacts all of our relationships…and that is his Grace; and with Grace we can stop what we are doing; we can change our course in an instant. Inertia can only be countered by the application of force, and in the case of our relationships, that force is Grace…and not even the most sophisticated aircraft carrier afloat has access to that…only we do.

Deacon Bill Whibbs

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Readings
Is 5:1-7
Ps 80: 9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20
Phil 4: 6-9
Mt 21: 33-43