“The Gift of Misfits”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
March 20, 2016 • Palm Sunday
“Hosanna!” Call to Worship featuring Youth Quintet
“What the Lord Has Done in Me” The Word in Song featuring Carla Dennis on flute
During these weeks of Lent we have been exploring the “Dark Wood,” the shadow side of our lives, those feelings and situations where we seem out of step with the rest of the world, uncertain of what to do next, lost in a place not of our own making, tempted to settle and not rock the boat, lacking the knowledge or the tools even to fake it until we make it, but occasionally being gifted with glimpses of what might be if we persevere and don’t give up. Somehow what seems to be in each case a loss, proves to be a gift when we allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit to depend less on ourselves and what we think we know or must have for sure, and depend more on the revelations that come to us when we are stripped clean of all of our props, excuses and defenses.
The truth is that in vulnerability we find our strength, in losing our lives we find them; in surrender we gain victory. And through those experiences, we find the last and perhaps best gift of the dark wood, the gift of misfits, ourselves and others, all of us experiencing our own “endarkenment” and finding companionship as we help one other, taking turns being guides, mentors, and friends.
Jesus and his disciples could be thought of as a group of misfits – a carpenter, some fishermen, a tax collector – all from the country, trying to be leaders, bringing the unorthodox message that the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand to other misfits in the world – the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted, the powerless, telling them that are blessed; they are the ones for whom God has a special affection; that in the midst of the deepest challenges of their lives, God has somehow placed the most profound joys.
Jesus tells them that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor; that the hungry will be filled, the weeping will laugh, and those who are excluded, hated, reviled, and defamed can rejoice because their reward will be great. He doesn’t idealize or romanticize or spiritualize any of these conditions; they are real evils, communal, social evils, contrary to God’s will and love for the world, and they will be addressed and eradicated. These were – and still are – scandalous promises because they upset the way things are. To eliminate poverty, to feed the hungry, to comfort the hopeless, to welcome the stranger – all these things require a overturning of conventional expectations and norms. Jesus’ mother Mary had sung about these things before he was born – “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. . . . brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Lk 1:51-53)
Scripture can be breathtakingly contemporary and disconcertingly political. As is so often said, Jesus was not crucified because he said “consider the lilies of the field;” he was put to death because of the incredible inversion of the social order that he was proposing – not for some time in the future, in the great by and by, but right here, right now, whether in the first century or in the 21st century. In the first century, the ordinary people had no voice, economic exploitation of the underclasses by the privileged was expected. The working poor were kept poor through restrictions on ownership of land, by taxation, and by indentured labor through default on debt. And below the working poor, were those in desperate need, unable to help themselves, the beggars, homeless, and destitute. The tendency then as now was to blame them for their misfortune; they brought it on themselves – which in some way then serves as a reason for not offering assistance – making a distinction between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor.
The rich were thought to be blessed by God, given special opportunities because of their virtue and hard work. Today some call that theo-capitalism. And today corporate wealth is joined with individual wealth and also entitled to equal blessings, because “corporations are people too,” as we were told a few years ago. Thus when Jesus-like questions are asked – why are the structures as they are? What can be done to economic systems that will alleviate poverty, so that the rising tide does truly float all ships and not just some, there is immediate objection. Richard Rohr wrote in his morning devotional today, “Because structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level,” greed, ride, and ambition are considered virtues. Twenty years or so ago, Archbishop Helder Camara pointed out, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.”
Now the political and religious leaders of the 1st century did not call Jesus a communist, or a socialist – they didn’t have those words – but they perhaps labeled him a misfit along with other negative terms like trouble-maker or rabble rouser, and the more directly challenged maybe chose stronger language – insurrectionist and blasphemer. It is human nature that more challenged someone is, the stronger their defensive language becomes; some things never change. And now this “misfit” had left the countryside, where he was only a distant irritant, befriending outcasts, eating with the unclean, defending criminals, breaking all kinds of rules, stirring up the poor, the oppressed, the sick and homeless, the hungry, telling them that God loves them best, reminding them of the old rule in Deuteronomy about loving God and neighbor, but insisting that they not only remember it, but actually do it. As long as he kept to the country, he was annoying but not a threat.
But then the misfit came to town, riding towards Jerusalem on a donkey, with followers galore waving palm branches, or placing them in his path and shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The stony road into Jerusalem became a spontaneous parade route with loud, poor, insignificant, no account misfits actually having the audacity to celebrate and sing.
It was Passover, the holiday when the Jewish people celebrated their freedom from captivity in Egypt, when God led them out and across the sea, killing their Egyptian oppressors and giving God’s people a place to call home, which now unfortunately was under the rule of another oppressive regime; the Romans this time. Needless to say the current oppressors, were a bit nervous during Passover; they had their own parade of sorts going on the other side of town as they reinforced their legions of soldiers and their supply of arms just in case someone or some group got out of hand with the celebration of their long lost freedom and started to do something crazy. Jesus was headed to the temple and they were headed to the military headquarters which actually faced the temple across the plaza.[i]
Jesus must have been afraid as he entered the well-armed city. He was human after all. But he did it anyway. I wonder if it felt as much like a funeral procession to him as a holiday parade. He knew where the road ended. He’d been predicting it all along. That same road strewn with palm branches would soon enough be the rocky road he’d be dragged over, and the crowd would be shouting a different message, “Crucify him!” All because he opposed the status quo and challenged the hypocrisy of the priests and authorities. He did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. It was what he had to do. And Pilate, too did what he thought he had to do to keep the peace – get rid of one more dangerous misfit.
It has been noted that “it is important to realize that [who and] what killed Jesus was nothing unusual. [As] empires go, Rome was better than most. There was nothing exceptional or abnormal about it; this is is simply the way domination systems behave. So common is this dynamic that it can also be called the normalcy of civilization. Good Friday was the result of the collision between the passion of Jesus and the normalcy of civilization.”[ii]
We today live in a very normal civilization. The normalcy of our civilization keeps the powerful in power, protects the wealth of the rich, prevents the poor from escaping poverty. The normalcy of our civilization keeps refugees out; snatches fathers from their families and ships them off to detention facilities, and leaves mothers and children penniless and weeping. “Blessed are those who weep for they shall know joy.” The normalcy of our civilization gives white men the benefit of the doubt and puts black men in jail or worse.
Thus, Holy Week serves as a template today for us 21st century would-be misfits. Sometimes we celebrate, sometimes we stumble over rocks; sometimes we are praised; sometimes we are criticized. But if we want to be a misfit like Jesus, even knowing the cost, we, like him, must press on asking questions, looking for solutions, protesting injustice when we see it. Holy Week, is not just one week, but happens every week, every year, every lifetime.[iii]
Last week during prayer concerns, Joel mentioned Berta Caceres, a Honduran activist who was murdered on March 3 because of her work for the protection of the natural resources of Honduras. Honduras in an attempt to build the national economy granted contracts to transnational companies looking to capitalize on Honduran land. The protestors’ actions against the destruction of forests and the damming of rivers brought death threats. And Berta said, last year “giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet. I take lots of care, but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity, I am vulnerable . . . when they want to kill me, they will do it.”[iv] Berta was a holy misfit.
Palm Sunday asks us to join in the misfit parade. We’ve already brought our palm branches to the altar, so we’re off to a good start. Palm Sunday tells us that we cannot stand mutely by and expect the stones to do our work for us. We must be the ones to speak out. Fortunately, we do not do this alone. We have one another; fellow misfits who want to walk fully in the path of Jesus, treating all as persons made in God’s image regardless of difference, and acting together to serve, strengthen, and extend God’s realm of love[v] whatever the challenge; whatever the cost.
I’ve told you before that if I were a church planter, two names I’d love to call the new church are St. Thomas the Doubter UMC and Christ the Hen UMC. Today I’d like to add another to the list: UMC of the Misfits. We couldn’t do much better than that.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven and hosanna in the highest! May it be so. Amen.
[i] Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, Jesus’ Last Week, 2006, 100.
[ii] Borg and Crossan
[iii] Rev. Claire Feingold Thoryn, “Power, Politics, and Palm Sunday: Which Leader Will You Follow?” Patheos, 3/12/16
[iv] Betsy Shirley, Sojourners, 3/18/16
[v] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and other Wanderers), 2015, 184-85,