Wayne lived next door to me; in a house he once shared with his mother. He inherited the house when she died. A small, slight man, with very bad teeth and yet a sweet smile; we became friends. Every morning, I stepped out to get my newspaper. And every morning, Wayne had already been there; placing my newspaper in perfectly horizontal alignment with the edge of my doormat.
Wayne lived in the care and keeping of a court appointed guardian. He kept pretty much to himself. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that sometimes Wayne had bad nights. He suffered from psychotic episodes. And when he was suffering, he would step outside and howl at the moon until his voice grew quite hoarse.
Yet every morning after leaving the newspaper just so, his arms full of plastic grocery bags, Wayne walked to the municipal golf course at the edge of our neighborhood. There, he set about the work that filled his days. Wayne looked for lost golf balls. All day long, he searched: digging lost balls out of thick tufts of grass in the rough, climbing under shrubs and bushes when he spotted a stray ball, wading into the creek to find balls lodged in the mud or tucked among the rocks.
Occasionally, Wayne picked up a ball still in play, to the irritation of the golfer. To Wayne, the ball was simply lost and needed to be found.
Almost everyone who played the course knew Wayne. His persistent seeking and his sheer joy in finding lost golf balls created community: contagious, humbling, tender.
Wayne carried his bags of golf balls home at the end of every day; to clean them up and return them for use. Sometimes, he came walking up the street just as I was arriving home from work and standing at my mailbox. Wayne delighted in telling his stories of discovery: where he had found the lost Titleist, the Nike, the Top Flight. Talking about the searching and the finding, Wayne would speak more words than I ever heard him say. The joy of this little man; who suffered so painfully and publicly at night, was contagious and overwhelming.
When Jesus chooses “finders” in this morning’s parables—a common shepherd and a woman—he could easily have chosen Wayne. People the elite scribes and Pharisees viewed as beneath them; unacceptable at best, and at worst unclean.
“That’s odd” says Jesus “because to me, these people look a lot like God.” Jesus intends for them to represent God, to embody God’s passion: passion bent toward the lost, diligent and determined in seeking, recklessly merciful, astonishingly full of grace.
God’s ecstatic joy permeates these parables. God rejoices in the growing gathering of the community of the lost that lives in God’s holy imagination.
God’s joy stuns the righteous. It has never occurred to them to consider themselves lost, or that God would search for anyone. The righteous find God, they reason. And they find God by not dealing with women, by eating with the right kind of people, and by praying in properly prescribed ways. These men think of themselves as finders.
And we understand. We live as finders ourselves. We find a house, a job, a good investment. We find a love, a spirituality that suits us, a God we like. We even say we find ourselves.
Except these parables of Jesus suggest otherwise; here Jesus suggests an active God, and God’s action matters. God’s love, says Jesus, seeks, searches, and saves; reaches, intrudes, turns things upside down, finds, and restores. And even more importantly, says Jesus, the deepening of our life with God begins when—and only when—we recognize the value of our found-ness.
Allowing ourselves a spacious honesty, we recognize a profound difference between being lost and being found. Any child can name the difference. Listen! Lost means alone, afraid, anxious; found means relief, embrace, home.
We sure-footed finders can so easily lose ourselves. Not all at once, but slowly, one little bit at a time. Mike Yaconelli, who lives in the cattle country of northern California, shares a farmer’s observation allegedly about cows. I wonder.
It seems a cow, nibbling on a tuft of grass in the middle of a large field, will nibble their way from one tuft of grass to the next, until that cow ends up nibbling some grass right next to the fence. Noticing a nice tuft of grass on the other side, the cow stumbles through an old break in the fence and finds herself out in the road; out in dangerous territory.
“Cows don’t intend to get lost,” the farmer explains. “They just nibble their way to lostness.”
John Wesley, of the Anglican tradition and my own United Methodist one, experienced lostness differently. Powerful priest, preacher, and reformer, Wesley lacked any real assurance of his own found-ness. Wesley discovered that we cannot find this assurance. God gives it as a gift of grace, for our hearts to receive.
Many of us keep the rooms of our hearts under lock and key: the guilt room and the room of grief; the room of shame and the room of sin, the room of loneliness and the room of fear. And then there is the deepest room of all; the secret room that will lead to a kind of living death, unless we open ourselves to receive God’s assurance; a holy assurance that no lostness lies beyond the seeking, finding, restoring love of God.
When I moved to Washington, I sold my house. So I do not know what happened to Wayne. What I do know is this: Wayne remains in my heart as an incarnate parable of the passion of God; who seeks the lost and rejoices in the found. Thanks be to God.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Resources: Michael Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith, Colorado Springs, NavPress, 1998.