Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley’s Homily – 24th Sunday in O.T.

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

First I want to assure you
that it has not been my absence over the past few months
that motivated me to read the long version
of today’s gospel,
as some sad attempt to make up for lost pulpit time
and missed evangelical words.

No, my reason for having you stand through these
32 verses from the 15th chapter of Luke
is because only when read as a single periscope
together with the first and second reading
can we adequately confront the mystery
at the root of these texts,
a mystery that lurks in contemporary society.

Admittedly it is tempting
to take the gospel shortcut
allowed in the lectionary
and drop the two brief parables at the beginning
about sheep and coins,
jumping directly into the famed prodigal parable,
and hold forth about the father
who is the true profligate in that story,
a spiritual libertine
freewheeling with mercy and love and forgiveness,
even though the youngest,
in asking for his inheritance,
basically announces that
he wished his father was dead.

But then after his own financial demise,
that same son expects the father
to be some source of resurrection in his life,
and the father does not disappoint.

It’s a spiritually juicy tale, to be sure,
from which one can extract no end of moralizing,
with permission to wag fingers at wayward children
and cajole parents and presidents
to be more merciful, forgiving, welcoming
to the delinquent and the disregardful.

But to do so seems to overlook
the aching reality that threads through all of these readings –
in a word, the anguish of being “lost.”

Ponder that first reading through the lens of lostness,
and consider how God’s chosen people,
liberated from Egypt,
were yet lost in their desert wanderings.
And with Moses having vanished up into the mountain
for a private consultation with the Divine,
their lostness quickly bubbles to the surface,
even enveloping Moses’ own brother Aaron,
who appears to be the shocking architect
of this calf-creating and idol worship.

God’s people are here revealed again
as utterly lost.

Similarly, in that second reading
Paul recounts his own litany of lostness:
a recovering blasphemer, persecutor, ignorant and arrogant,
including how the Holy One dissolved his lostness
in the mercy and grace of the Christ.

Thus that long gospel
serves as a kind of cumulative narrative
about the lostness of coins,
and of sheep,
and of sons,
and probably even of fathers.

Now that last statement might be a little shocking,
because of all the characters in the prodigal tale,
the father seems the most centered,
the most together.

He knows exactly what to do when his youngest comes home,
resulting in a no holds barred blowout,
with family and friends surely partying
into the wee hours of the morning.

On the other hand, the father seems lost
when it came to engaging his first born,
who in my imagination
never shows up at the party.

So, was he such a jealous sibling
that he couldn’t brook Dad
lavishing gifts one more time on his baby brother?

Or was he a lost soul,
so bruised from years of being taken for granted,
of parental neglect,
that his loner instincts prevail?
Being lost is not always a bad thing.

Barbara Brown Tayler, in her endlessly insightful
and entertaining
An Altar in the World [HarperCollins, 2009],
offers this reflection on the valuing of practicing getting lost:

It has happened more times than I can count.  I set out to be married, and ended up divorced; I set out to be healthy, and ended up being sick; I set out to live in New England and ended up in Georgia;   I found things when I got lost that I would have never discovered if I had stayed on the path.

She continues:

You can get lost on your way home. You can get lost looking for love. You can get lost between jobs. You can get lost looking for God. However it happens, take heart. Others before you have found a way in the wilderness, where there are as many angels as there are wild beasts, and plenty of other lost people too. All it takes is one of them to find you. All it takes is you to find one of them.

She concludes:

The best way to grow empathy for those who are lost is to know what it means to be lost yourself.

These are comforting words
as so many of us get lost in the meandering of life.

But it takes some resilience
to get found in the swamp of such lossness.
And it is not clear to me from the ambiguous ending
of that prodigal tale
whether the older son was ever found.

While I have missed being away from Old St. Pat’s
these past few months,
there were moments when I was grateful
that I did not have to preach,
especially after one more mass shooting,
after one more senseless act of random violence.

Last month, after the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton,
there was an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal
that in part read:

American politics will try to simplify these events into a debate about guns or political rhetoric, but the common theme of these killings is the social alienation of young men that will be harder to address.  This is the one common element in nearly all mass shootings … all were deeply troubled and alienated from society in our increasingly atomistic culture. 

This is one price that we are paying for the decline in what the late sociologist Peter Berger called the mediating institutions that help individuals form cultural and social attachments.  These are churches, business and social clubs like the rotary, charitable groups, even bowling leagues and especially the family.  Government programs can never replace these as protectors of troubled young people.

… revitalizing these private institutions of social capital is crucial to reversing the cultural decline at the root of so many of America’s ills.

That text came to mind
as I pondered today’s readings,
and especially the seemingly lost older son in the gospel.
And for a moment I wondered:
if he lived among us today,
would he have a gun with or without a permit?
And what would he have done with his rage?

Finding lost sheep is a noble enterprise,
and spiritually energizing.

I remember a very uplifting film I saw many years ago
created by Franciscan Communications in LA.
It was a retelling of the parable of the lost sheep
reshaped as a tale about a gregarious adult
who takes 10 grade school kids to the zoo.
And, as you can guess,
one of the kids gets lost
amidst the roars of big cats
and the mysterious chatter of the birds and monkeys.

The intrepid adult,
as though on a safari,
hunts for the child until he is found
cowering in a corner of this urban jungle.
And as the loudspeaker announces the closing of the zoo
and the steel gates begin to lower all around the park,
the slightly out of shape adult races for the exit,
child on his shoulders,
just ducking under the closing gates in the nick of time,
to the cheers and delight of the other 9 waiting kids.

Great stuff.
And of course it feeds my instinct
to be a kind of gospel cheerleader today,
and urge all of you to go out there
and find the lost … and save them
from whatever wilderness they currently occupy.

But I don’t think such is really possible –
as illustrated by another zoo story,
this one told by a father about his autistic son.

In a quiet corner of the Los Angeles Zoo, an 11-year-old boy in an orange fleece jacket paces in front of the lemur cage, his eyes tracing the movement of the limber creatures as they bounce from floor to limb to ledge. “I love these guys!” he says, barely able to contain his glee—or his volume. “They’re sooooo cuuuute!” Other visitors come and go: moms pushing strollers, couples, a den of cub scouts. But 20 minutes later, the boy is still there, so enthralled he’s leaping in the air while passersby exchange looks that ask, “What’s wrong with that kid?”

That boy is my middle son Ezra, and this hour among the animals at the zoo is a ritual the two of us share almost weekly. Other fathers teach their kids to golf or fish. I take Ezra to the zoo. Ezra has autism, and though doctors label him “high-functioning,” the neurological disorder affects everything about him. If most boys are a whirlwind of motion, he is a hurricane. On a bad day, he sits at the dinner table for 45 seconds, exactly long enough to down a few spoonfuls of macaroni before jumping up to pace the kitchen. In the midst of a loving family, he prefers isolation—what my wife, Shawn, once called “Planet Ezra.” ….

I bring Ezra to the zoo, usually on Sunday afternoon, because there, all of that melts away. I let him flash our membership card, we pass through the familiar gates, and I watch him sprint to the sea lions. And he transforms into a different boy: calm, open and happy. “Oh, there’s the little ocelot. You see it?” he says later, a lilt in his voice, eyes wide with innocent delight.

In our 70-plus visits I have struggled with the monotony. How many times can a grown man watch a meerkat nibble a nut? But I have never tired of watching my son. Something here pacifies him: the animals, the familiar routine, maybe the combination. What does he find so soothing? Ezra can’t, or won’t, explain: “I just like looking at the animals,” he says.

When Ezra was younger, Shawn and I carried the hidden wish that with enough intervention, perhaps one day Ezra would fit in like any other kid. Now our dreams are different: that he will make a friend; that one day he can live on his own; that perhaps he’ll find love. As he and I walk hand in hand toward the [zoo] exit, I wonder if the joy Ezra feels among his animals will ever permeate the rest of his life—and hope my little boy will someday feel as content and comfortable among [members of] his own species.”.

[Thomas Fields-Meyer, “Finding My Son at the Zoo,” People, April 23, 2007.

Data from one insurance company survey suggests
that the average person misplaces up to 9 objects a day,
which means that by the time we turn sixty,
we will have lost up to 200,000 things.

But while we can find a coin, a sheep, the iPhone or our car keys,
we cannot mentally or spiritually find
our neighbor, our friend, our lover, or even our child.

Rather, we can only accompany and support them
as they try to discover themselves
in their journey from lost-ness to found-ness,
from isolation to community.

That is what Jesus did with his disciples,
and does with us …
And maybe in the process,
like that prodigal troupe
we call the twelve apostles,
we, too, will find ourselves as well.
Through Christ our Lord.

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