Saturday, September 10, 2016

Lost and Found, Divided and United: A Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Portland Peninsula and Island Parishes

Homily for the
Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year
Cycle C

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
September 11, 2016

Maybe your house was foreclosed on or your beloved pet went missing. Maybe your best friend moved away or your husband walked out on you. Maybe your son was diagnosed with cancer or your mother with dementia. Maybe your grandfather passed away unexpectedly or your aunt perished in the terrorist attacks fifteen years ago. Whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, if you’ve got breath in your lungs and blood in your veins, you know what it means to lose, to experience loss. Sometimes it’s a little petty, and sometimes it’s horrendously profound, but none of us are exempt from the experience. It’s one of those things that every man, woman, and child has in common…something that people of every race and tongue and nation share. It can make us stronger and it can beat us down; it can open the door for new opportunities or cast us into the throws of depression. Loss is blind and it chooses its victims arbitrarily most of the time, forgetting any sense of justice or fairness. Is there any human experience more gut-wrenching or agonizing than the experience of loss?

Putting it in sterile, but straightforward words, the dictionary describes “loss” as the state or process or feeling of grief when being deprived of someone or something of value. At first glance this seems to be a sufficient description of the experience. When we value a person or a thing and then this person or thing is removed from our lives we quite naturally mourn and miss what we once had. But I think there’s more to the experience of loss than simply the devastation of being deprived of someone or something of value. I think it has a lot more to do with our basic desire and need for unity and completeness.

Our modern English word “loss” itself comes from the Proto-Germanic word “lausa” and the Old Norse word “los” – words that were used to describe the breaking up of an army, or the division and separation of a clan. These words developed fairly organically from verbs in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit which literally mean “to untie.” Thus the origins of the word “loss” describe an experience where something that was once united and one had become separated and divided: what was tied had become untied and what was once whole had been cut. This separation and division caused the felt experience of grief not simply because an individual assigned value to something or someone, but because there was objective value in unity and wholeness. It was better to be one than many, to be united than divided, and thus a “loss” wasn’t simply a personal tragedy, it was an objective and a communal tragedy.

A lost sheep. A lost coin. A lost son. Our Lord in our Gospel today places these three “losses” before us and, calling upon our own wide-ranging and personal experience of loss, He invites us into a deeper consideration of this mystery. He wants us to go beyond the personal angst we feel when we lose something we value and to consider loss as it really is: a deprivation of unity. The man who lost his sheep is distressed not simply because he lost 1/100th of his property value, but because the wholeness and integrity of his herd had been undone. The value of the sheep gone astray wasn’t just a matter of calculation, nor was it simply based on the affinity that the man had for this particular sheep, but because this sheep was a vital part of making the sheepfold one. The same thing is true of the woman who lost her coin and even more so of the father who lost his son. When the son left his father and brother and went off to live a debaucherous life, he untied a unity of persons. Common flesh, father and sons, shared a common home, a common hearth, and a common life. They were one and united, but when the younger son abandoned the family, he left them divided and separate. In a very real way, the son completed his father and brother and the father and brother completed the son, and when they were torn apart, when their unity was compromised, devastation and sadness and grief followed. And when the sheep was found, when the coin was rediscovered, when the son returned home, there was rejoicing and gladness among family, friends, and neighbors not because possessions were reestablished and value returned, but because unity was restored. God’s world, our world, was made for unity, and thus it mourns for all that is lost and rejoices for all that is found. Deep down, beyond all the sin and division that drives us apart, struggle as we might, we know that we were meant for unity.

The experience of loss is felt personally, but it’s not simply a personal experience. It is something, as our Lord Himself tells us, that both heaven and earth lament over. When death, sickness, disease, and sin creep into our lives and deprive us of the unity that God intended for us, all of creation mourns. But this is why Christ has come into the world: to destroy death, to cure sickness, to heal disease, and to eradicate sin, and in doing so reunite us who have gone astray with each other and with the Father. He accomplished this on His Cross and the effects of His work will continue to make themselves known until all is brought to perfection and glory at the end of time. In the meantime, He graces us to be His instruments, giving us the power to destroy division and restore unity in our own little corner of the world. But this requires us to go beyond ourselves and our own immediate concerns. It requires us to care about the good for each person in this life and to be invested in their eternal salvation. It means that we give bread to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. It means we clothe the naked and welcome the stranger. It means we care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. It means that we teach the unlearned and counsel the doubtful. It means we call ourselves and all sinners to conversion and bear wrongs patiently. It means we forgive those who offend us, that we console those who are sad, and that we pray for all, both the living and dead. And why? Because we are all called to be one before the Father, and we must work, with His grace, to tie what has been untied, to make whole what has been cut, to find what was lost. This is when heaven and earth rejoice, because God’s family – one person at a time – is restored to wholeness.

Every bit of loss that we experience in this life, tragic as it is, is a reminder of the unity that we were created for. Let us take our Lord’s words today to heart and allow them transform our lives. Let us value each other not just as objects that increase or decrease our pleasure in this life, but as family, as sons and daughters of the Father who were made to be one. Let us dare to see that the Lord has created us to complete each other, and that together in Him, and in Him alone, do we find our complete joy.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

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