“What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8-9)
The donkeys at the Sosian Lodge in the Laikipia district of central Kenya do not have a great deal of work to do. There are five or six of them that graze freely on the lawns around the lodge. And on the day that I arrived there last month their number included a little foal that had been born a few weeks earlier. I did witness two of the donkeys pulling a cart one day to go collect firewood, but that was the only work I ever saw them assigned to. Their presence is otherwise benign and unquestionably welcome, even though one of them had a habit of braying loudly outside my room in the middle of the afternoon, just about the hour a siesta seemed like a good idea to me.
At night, the donkeys are led into a small, stone-walled enclosure by the Samburu tribesmen who look after them on the ranch, and who generally provide security for guests who stay there, as well as for the cattle, horses, and other domesticated animals (including the donkeys) who inhabit the large ranch in the African bush.
From my bed that first night I did not hear any of the commotion when a lion crept toward then donkeys’ enclosure, leapt over the wall into it, and grabbed the young foal by its throat. The guards heard the noise, came running, and fired gunshots into the air, sending the lion off without its prey. I did not hear the gunshots, and I did not hear the lion’s roar as it ran off into the night. But I did hear about it the next morning, when I learned that by the time the guards got there, it was too late for the young donkey, whose dead body they carried out.
As I said, the donkeys roam the property freely during the day, sometimes wandering onto the large veranda that looks out over the lawn and toward the bush. And on the day after losing her foal to the lion’s jaws, the grieving mother went a few steps further, venturing through the open doors of the lodge and into the entrance hall, where she was found, time and again over the next several days, staring sadly into a mirror. In an effort to be sensitive to the donkey’s grief, but to keep her out of the foyer, the staff placed a mirror on the veranda just outside the entrance hall. But the donkey seemed to want to share her grief with those of us in the house, and she clearly preferred to conduct her mourning inside the house.
Well, it was only one little donkey foal, and I am assured that donkeys are a fecund species, and that the mother will have no trouble producing another foal. This little donkey was by no stretch of the imagination the lost one-out-of-a-hundred that we hear Jesus talking about in the Gospel. It had not wandered off, and no one could go looking for it; and it wasn’t even a sheep, it was a donkey, so this would appear to be the wrong illustration for the Gospel reading this morning.
But I am stuck this morning with the image of that mother-donkey insinuating herself and her grief into the lives of those of us who inhabited the lodge, and indulging her mourning with long periods of staring into the mirror. What did this mean? Why the mirror? And why was it so important to her that it took place inside the house?
A month ago in Africa, I was paying no attention to the calendar as its pages ticked by. And it never occurred to me that the violent invasion of a lion, breaching the walls of the donkey enclosure and stealing the life of an innocent foal, could echo with the roar of violent death that still feels all too easy to remember fifteen years ago to the day, when proverbial lions flew in and killed our children, our fathers, our mothers, our sisters and brothers, our friends with a roar of fire and flame.
No doubt the analogy is imperfect – so please forgive me. It is not, in any case, the real parallel I wish to draw. No, I do not want to ask you to dwell on the attack on the donkeys in their enclosure, or on the slaughter of the innocent foal. Rather, at this long remove of fifteen years, I want to ask you to consider the mother, compelled in her mourning to enter into the house and gaze dolefully into the mirror. What can she have been looking for, except something, someone that has been lost? And what creature (even a donkey?) looks into the mirror for a child that has been lost? She is not stupid. She does not believe (I think) that the mirror is a portal into another lodge where her child might still be found.
No, she is staring into the mirror, looking for something that has been lost; and she is looking at herself. For in herself, she knows, something has been lost that she fears is irretrievable – snatched away from her and from life in this violent act of terror. In mourning she stands, looking at herself in the mirror, looking for what has been lost.
In the course of the past fifteen years it is not too much to say that nearly the entire world has been changed by the aftermath of that violent attack that left us all reeling with grief, and anger, and fear. The sound of the roar of the lions still rings in our heads. So much has happened. So much has been remembered, and so much forgotten. So much has been buried, and so much built. So much more blood has been spilled. The course of so many lives has been altered by the need to navigate the walls of the enclosure of that horrific tragedy and its airspace. So much grief has been poured out, so much mourning drapery has been swagged, then folded up and put away for future use.
But, while I cannot speak for everyone, I have to wonder whether something important remains undone these fifteen years later. I have to wonder whether at least some of us have not yet done what that sad and simple donkey did after losing her child. I wonder whether or not we have spent enough time looking in the mirror: searching our selves for what has been lost in us, looking for the only retrievable casualty left from this cruel act of terror – for what’s missing in our selves that was lost when the lion’s teeth ripped the life right out of the throats of people we love, whether we knew them or not.
For it is true, I think, that something has been lost that we fear is irretrievable – snatched away from us and from life in that violent act of terror fifteen years ago. And so the grief and the anger and the fear have taken their places almost permanently in our lives and changed us, too.
But I want to stand inside at the mirror for just a moment to recognize that truth, and also to ask whether or not we can’t find what has been lost to us - not our beloved dead, of course - but whatever in us was replaced by the grief, and the anger, and the fear? And if, standing here at the mirror, you agree with me that something has been lost, then I wonder if it isn’t time for us to light a lamp and sweep the house and search for it.
Part of the redemption of sinners is the discovery that we do not have to be lost in our sins, that nothing is irretrievable – not even that which was taken from us in acts of bloody violence. Not the foals killed by lions, and not the parts of our selves that we can no longer find when we look in the mirror. God holds the lives of the dead in his hands as he carries them into the life to come, where we will meet them again. And we are called to faith in order to see that living our lives defined by grief, and anger, and fear is really giving in to a kind of sin, because it separates us from God – and that we don’t need to stay lost this way.
The donkey, simple creature that she is, will get over her grief, because (I think) it’s just not that hard for donkeys to do. And she will bear another child, and hopefully that one will be safe from lions, and all will be well.
But things are more complicated for us. The lives lost to us will never be forgotten, and the world needs must have been changed by their dying. But that leaves us with time to step inside and look in the mirror. And when we do, do we discover that God does not want us to lose so much of our selves to grief, and to anger, and to fear?
God wants us to light a lamp, and to sweep the floor. Better, yet, (as Jesus’ parable implies) God wants us to know that he has lighted a lamp, that he is sweeping the floor, that he is in search of all that we lost, that he holds all life in his hands, including ours. And as long as we have life to live in this world, God does not want our lives dimmed by the darkness of so much grief, so much anger, so much fear. God wants us to know that nothing has been lost that will not be found – not on that awful day fifteen years ago, and not in all the intervening years.
I never expected to be shown an insight about life and death, about sin and self, about the goodness of God’s grace, by a donkey. Perhaps it would have seemed self-centered, up till now, to consider what part of you and me had been lost in that awful attack. Perhaps it has taken all these years to be ready and able to step inside and look in the mirror and try to see what part of our selves has been lost to sin as a result of such cruelty inflicted by another. Perhaps it has been difficult to see ourselves as the lost one-out-of-a-hundred sheep who need to be found and restored to the grace, safety, security, and love of the shepherd. And perhaps it has been impossible for us to even hear the word, let alone actually consider rejoicing with the good news that nothing that was lost is irretrievable to God.
So much was lost that day – not only the lives that God now holds in his hands, but parts of our lives that we are still called to live, and that we have suspected we might never find again. But God has lighted a candle, and God has swept the floor. And he has found everything – for nothing can be lost to him. Perhaps it is time to join the Psalmist in his prayer: “Make me to hear of joy and gladness once more, O God; that the bones that you have broken may rejoice!” Yes, perhaps it is time to remember that God has lighted a lamp and swept the house. God has found everything that was lost - and everyone - and perhaps it is time to rejoice!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
11 September 2016, Homecoming Sunday
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia