“Lost and Found According to God’s Time”
Homily for Annual Blue Mass
September 11, 2022; St. Mary’s Cathedral
The memories are still very vivid, still very painful, of what happened in New York City and Washington, DC twenty-one years ago today. For many there is a sense of irretrievable loss, especially the loss of the loved ones who perished in the terrorist attacks and perished trying to save others. There is a sense, too, of a corporate irretrievable loss in our nation in more of a spiritual sense: we discovered that we are not so invincible, that we are not immune to acts of war on our own turf, that we, too, are vulnerable to being humiliated just like everyone else.
In Our Time
While there is a sense that we have endured a loss that we cannot get back, the readings from the Bible for Mass today teach us lessons about lost and found. Is this not how God works? In the midst of the tragedy and the terror, let us think about what our nation gained, or perhaps regained, in the aftermath of those terrorist attacks.
First of all, there were the inspiring acts of heroism by the local firefighters, police officers, and other first responders. We won’t know all of the acts of heroism they carried out at great risk to their own lives that, and often losing their lives. Their example must serve as a powerful reminder to us, though, of their commitment to putting their lives on the line for our safety and the good order of our communities every single day.
Dear police officers, firefighters, sheriffs and park rangers of our city of San Francisco: it is an honor for us to host you here at our Cathedral for this Mass in which we thank you for the sacrifices you make for us, sacrifices mostly which we do not even see. Words are insufficient to express our thanks, but I say thank you just the same, and we are happy to pray with you and for you at our worship today.
Perhaps a renewed sense of heroism is something that we gained in the midst of the tragedy. But think, too, about what our nation was like for the months following the attacks: a renewed sense of national unity and national purpose, a heightened sense of solidarity and a concern for one’s neighbor, even a turning back to God, with people returning to worship and prayer in droves. Could it be that God was allowing us to be brought low in order to turn us back to Himself?
God Acting in Character
It is not out of character for God to do so. We see this happening in the story we heard from the book of Exodus in our first reading. The people had lost their trust in their God because Moses was delayed in coming down from Mount Sinai. So they created a god that was the work of their own hands, a god made in their own image and likeness that they could control and command. They lost sight of God and turned to their own devices, something that always brings suffering and disorder. As they continued their journey through the Sinai desert on the way to the Promised Land, God repeatedly had to bring them low to quell their rebellious hearts and win them back to Himself.
This is a painful lesson modeled for us by our ancient ancestors in faith, and one repeated ever since. It is a lesson learned over and over again, both corporately – whether as a nation, a family, a tribe, or any other type of local community – and personally: if one turns away from God and lives as if God didn’t exist, doing things one’s own way apart from God, things will always go bad.
And then there is the example of St. Paul. In the passage from his First Letter to St. Timothy we heard proclaimed moments ago, St. Paul holds himself up as a model of conversion. He does so, though, not out of arrogance; quite the contrary, he candidly confesses his sins, publicly. He confesses to having been “a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant.” He does so not to draw attention or acclaim to himself, but for those who would come to believe after him, to believe in “Christ Jesus … for everlasting life.”
And so it is that the path of conversion, turning back to God, always begins with repentance, which is made possible by the virtue of humility, so necessary in order for one to admit one’s sins. God so wants us to love Him so that we can be happy with Him in this life and perfectly happy with Him forever in heaven that if we won’t humble ourselves, He’ll do it for us! These are the opportunities He gives us to discover His love and to love Him in return, so that we can be truly happy.
In God’s Time
Which brings us to the parables we heard in today’s Gospel reading, from the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. Notice that they all have the same pattern: loss, search, finding, and rejoicing. In God’s time, there is no such thing as an irretrievable loss. We can always be found by Him if we allow ourselves to. He wants our happiness, and this is why turning back to Him brings such great rejoicing in heaven, as our Lord makes clear in today’s parables. Notice: conversion is not something that takes us away from being human, turning us into bodiless angels or some such thing. No, conversion, on the contrary, is what makes us truly human, human in the fullest sense according to what God originally created us for: sharing His very life and love. This is what it means to “be found.”
This teaching comes out most clearly in the beloved parable of the prodigal son, or, as some Scripture scholars would call it, the parable of the prodigal father, seeing the father in the story as the central figure and his quick and abundant forgiveness and generosity a display of his prodigality. In fact, the loss here is that of the father, because of the harm his son does to himself, not to the father. The father is aggrieved not because of the disrespect his son showed him in asking for his share of the inheritance before his father died – basically, writing his father out of his life – but because his son was acting against his own good.
Notice the disorder that takes over the son; he ends in misery, which is always the consequence of trying to order things apart from God (whom the father clearly represents in this parable). It is only in “coming to his senses” that his life returns to being properly ordered. “Coming to his senses”: literally, this is translated as “came to himself” or “returned to himself.” Apart from his father, his family, living in communion with his loved ones, he was not himself. He became a different person. This is what it means to turn back to God: to come to our senses so that living in communion with God we can be who we truly are and who God created us to be.
In God’s time there is always the possibility for repentance, for conversion, to allow ourselves to be found by Him and so that He might restore right order to our lives and we might find the true happiness He wants us to have. This is our God: rejoicing in heaven over our own happiness, over our eternal salvation. And it is a principle that applies corporately as well as on the level of the individual.
The consequence is that, the more rightly ordered our society is, the more it will be a reflection of the life of heaven and a place where people can find true happiness. So this is the reason we have law enforcement and other first responders: fire, police, sheriffs, park rangers – you are the forces of order in our city. Again, we thank you for the great risk you take with your lives every day to ensure good order and our protection. We don’t know what we’d do without you, but one thing is certain: life would be in a constant state of chaos!
Of course, along with the great weight of responsibility you carry is the authority entrusted to you. That is why you carry a badge: it is a symbol of your responsibility and a reminder of your authority, and to use that authority responsibly. Doing so will help make our city a place where everyone – no matter what losses they may have suffered – can find peace, security and safety, and so make their own contribution to the common good of their fellow citizens. It is my pleasure now to bless those badges that you wear and carry, that God might watch over you and keep you safe as you ensure the safety of others.