Gifts From The Dark Wood, VII: Misfits
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ —Matthew 21:10
This morning we continue our sermon series called Gifts from the Dark Wood. Today, ‘Misfits’ is the Gift from the Dark Wood.
That’s fitting, isn’t it? No pun intended. I would love to take credit for that pairing, but in fact Jo and Katie and I put this series together a year ago, so it was an accident that we’re thinking about Misfits on Palm Sunday, but it’s a happy accident, or, more likely, a happy providence, because it’s apt to think about Misfits on Palm Sunday—isn’t it?—because here he comes, the prototypical misfit, entering the gates of the Holy City astride his eccentric conveyance to the “Hip! Hip! Hooray’s!” of thousands of adoring and perhaps inebriated locals and tourists celebrating the Passover Holiday, confident that this Carpenter from Nazareth will quickly accomplish the second Exodus from Roman bondage as Moses led their ancestors in an Exodus from Egyptian slavery.
His processional is happy, proud, spectacular, and triumphant, but the victory is effervescent, isn’t it? Bananas have a longer shelf life. Literally. In four days he will be in chains and in five he will be dead.
It’s amazing how quickly he fell from King of the Jews to the Suffering Servant Isaiah described 500 years before: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” They whip his back, punch his face, pluck his beard, insult him and spit on him. He is the prototypical misfit.
I love G. K. Chesterton’s tribute to Jesus’ unusual transportation. Mr. Chesterton thinks the donkey is more than a picturesque narrative detail; he finds it to be an important symbol and foreshadowing. Here comes the misfit riding a misfit. This is no valiant steed with sleek flank and lustrous mane. This is a beast,
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
Of all four-footed things.
The misfit rides a misfit.
Jesus’ descent into disgrace was abrupt but not surprising, right? We understand that communities must expel their misfits. Don’t you think ‘Misfit’ is the best word, one of the bluntest and most transparent words in the language? In six concise letters, it says exactly what it means: This fit is a mistake.
Misfits are the wrong shape to fit the one missing piece in the puzzle of the human family, so that misshapen piece is thrown in the trash can, like Jesus of Nazareth.
To change the metaphor, misfits are foreign bodies in the organism, a grain of sand in the eye that makes you weep and cringe, a virus in the blood stream the white blood cells attack. And thank God for that. The organism cannot host parasites or misfits.
John Hughes (Glenbrook North High School, Class of 1968) forged a whole career making films about misfits: The Breakfast Club; Sixteen Candles; Pretty in Pink; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Still, you can see why it can be a gift to BE or to LOVE a misfit, right? Misfits are not part of this thick salmagundi of human chaos. They are not part of it, so they can have a satellite view of the whole earthly drama. If you are a misfit, they have already banished you to the moon, so you can see this spinning blue marble for what it is.
You have so thoroughly disappointed almost everybody except for your 12 best friends that you have nothing to lose. They don’t love you, so what the hell! They’ll never accept you, so go ahead and blaze your own pioneering path.
Whenever we tell our stories about the human drama, the misfit who turns out to be a gift is one of the commonest memes in our literature, almost as common as the superpower of invisibility.
Rudolph is banished from the reindeer games because of an unsightly physical quirk, but then saves Christmas for billions of children and on the way finds homes for the refugees from the Island of Misfit Toys.
Atticus Finch is not only a misfit in his racist southern town but even in his own family. Do you remember what Scout says about her father? Atticus was feeble. He was OLD. He was nearly 50. He didn’t DO anything. He didn’t work in a drug store, but in an office. He didn’t drive a dump truck or fix cars and he wasn’t the sheriff. He didn’t hunt, fish, or play poker. He sat in the living room and READ. Besides that, he wore GLASSES.
But then there is that scene in the balcony of the courtroom, maybe the single most iconic scene in American fiction and cinema: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing by.”
Speaking of John Hughes, Kevin McAllister is a misfit in his own home. “You’re a disease, Kevin,” says the annoying older brother Buzz. And then the bad guys come and the misfit saves the day and the whole neighborhood. Kevin is the originator of that now famous phrase “Not in my house!”
Belle in Beauty and the Beast is a misfit because she reads books in her microscopic French town and doesn’t want to become Mrs. Gaston.
Now it’s no wonder that her name means beauty,
her looks have got no parallel.
But behind that fair facade,
I’m afraid she’s rather odd.
Very different from the rest of us…
She’s nothing like the rest of us.
Yes, different from the rest of us is Belle.
Then, this fair facade that is really rather odd accomplishes nothing short of redemption and resurrection, just by loving another misfit. Do you see how Gospel-shaped this story is? A misfit loving another misfit? Beauty and the Beast is almost New Testament.
I have a new misfit hero. Anybody seen this film Hacksaw Ridge? It’s a Mel Gibson film so you know it’s going to be violent, but it’s a Mel Gibson film so you’ll also know that it is about sacrifice and redemption and vicarious atonement. It’s almost as good as Saving Private Ryan.
It’s about Desmond Doss, a 23-year-old kid from Lynchburg, Virginia, who enlists in the Army four months after Pearl Harbor even though he is a strict Seventh Day Adventist, which means that he does not smoke, does not drink, does not eat meat, and does not kill, not ever, for any reason. He is a pacifist.
A soldier who will not kill is the very definition of a misfit. A soldier who will not kill is almost an oxymoron. The U.S. Army must vomit up this abomination. There is no place for Des Doss in the U. S. Army; his puzzle piece is the wrong shape and he’s throwing the whole thing off.
Naturally his drill sergeant is horrified when Des won’t even touch a rifle. Des goes to his company commander and pleads his case. “I only want one thing, sir. I want to save lives, not take them. I want to be a medic. That’s all I want. Oh, and one more thing: Can I have Saturdays off?” The Commander stares at him in disbelief and says “Sure, no problem, I’ll just talk to the Japanese and ask them not to attack us on Saturday.”
And then three years later, this misfit medic goes into the heat of battle with his buddies on Okinawa, a desperate battle for some desperately important South Pacific real estate, and Desmond Doss, without a weapon, ends up taking 75 wounded soldiers off Hacksaw Ridge and back to safety, all by himself. Seventy-five U. S. soldiers come home from the war and get married and make babies and die at home in their sleep at a great age because of this brave misfit medic. Desmond Doss is the first Conscientious Objector in the history of the U. S. Military to earn the Medal of Honor. Beautiful story.
I heard about the most wonderful idea. A while back. There is a juvenile detention facility called Echo Glen in Snoqualmie, Washington, that matches misfits with misfits. It matches unwanted children to unwanted dogs.
There are 160 kids in this halfway house. Most of them have committed serious or violent crimes; many of them have abused drugs; 70% have been diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses.
Some of them wear orange to indicate that they are a flight risk; others are so unpredictable that they are accompanied by a staff person wherever they go.
Marcy is 18 and has lived at Echo Glen for nine months. Marcy never met her father; her mother died of a drug overdose when Marcy was eight. Then between eight and 18 Marcy was shuttled back and forth from one foster home to another, 50 in all; 50 in 10 years. Talk about a misfit.
And then Marcy meets Spiker, a one-year-old pointer-labrador mix. Spiker came to Echo Glen because he was like Marcy; nobody wanted him either. He’d come to Echo Glen from death row, a kill shelter.
But he got a reprieve at the last instant. Spiker will spend two months at Echo Glen with Marcy, who will train him to be a responsible canine citizen until he is ready to be adopted by a family who would love to adopt a dog but doesn’t have the time or skill to train a dog.
It’s easy to place the dogs; if you want one of these well-trained dogs, you go on a waiting list.
Marcy and Spiker are kindred spirits. “Those dogs were in trouble like I was,” says Marcy. “I knew I could give one a second chance.”
The dog and the teenager are together for two months. Then separation for adoption. That’s hard. Some kids need grief counseling after they say good-bye to their dogs.
But it’s the most beautiful thing. It’s hard to know who gets more out of the program—the dogs or the kids. For maybe the first time in their lives, for both the dogs and the kids, they’re no longer misfits. They are wanted. They are needed. They have a place; they have a purpose; the kids are using a rare skill to amplify life’s global inventory of friendship and mercy.
I thought it was one of those Gospel-shaped stories I see it as my mission to find for you. A misfit loving a misfit, like Beauty and the Beast, like the Gospel, Jesus the misfit invading Jerusalem to track the misfits down, misfits like you and me.
Jesus’ spectacular fall from grace was precipitous but not unexpected. We should have known by his odd transportation—the dissonant braying, the clownish ears, the stupid expression—we should have known from his odd transportation that the Holy City would have to expel him from the organism like the virus he is, a misfit riding a misfit.
It’s not surprising at all. It happens in every place and in every age to the gentle, brave misfits who insist on speaking truth to power and freeing the enslaved: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela. They did not fit into their worlds and were expelled. But in the process those worlds changed, and none of us will ever be the same because of them.
A preacher friend of mine asks a rhetorical question for Palm Sunday: Why would Jesus go riding straight into the teeth of the city he knew would destroy him? My friend answers his own question: It must be because “God knew—as only God could know because the rest of us would have met violence with more violence—God knew that the only way to set things right again in a world that crucifies its best and brightest was to go straight into all that snarled injustice and unmake it from the inside out…and that is precisely why that old rugged cross is indeed the one thing we cling to, because the cross alone not only understands how this sick world works, but also opens up a path to something far, far better.”
It is the greatest story ever told, this story of a misfit loving other misfits, the likes of you and me, a misfit loving other misfits, and making them human again, and accomplishing redemption and resurrection.
“The Donkey” in The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (Dodd Mead & Company, 1927).
Almost, but not quite, the exact words of Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960), pp. 97-98.
Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken, “Belle/Bonjour,” from Beauty and the Beast, Walt Disney, 1991.
Cathy Free, “Changes of Heart: When a Troubled Teen Cares for an Unwanted Dog, the Healing Begins for Both,” Reader’s Digest, January 2009, pp. 118-127.
Scott Hoezee, commentary on the lectionary passages for Passion Sunday, March 23, 2015, The Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theologicial Seminary, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-6b/?type=old_testament_lectionary.