The Gift of Misfits – March 28, 2021

Throughout my school days, into high school and college, I had a group of four friends who formed my core group.  Some would come and go, but these three other people were the ones with whom I felt most comfortable, the ones I always wanted around me.  There was something about the dynamic between us that brought out the best in me.  One was the comedic relief.  He was able to make us laugh even when the strains of school life were weighing us down.  One was the strong person in the group, the one who was willing to stand up to others who antagonized us.  And one was the life of the party, always willing to do something no one else would dare to do.  I considered myself something of a caretaker, the confidant that people would come to when they had a problem.

I was also the more neurotic of the group.  But in many ways that was a good thing.  I was a stabilizing influence.  While the others in my group were willing to defy any rule, to disregard our parents’ demands, I was the voice of reason.  But my friends were able to help me live a little bit, to put my fears aside at times to experience life more fully.  For example, one of my friends owned an ancient Subaru station wagon.  And there were rails on top of it for luggage.  I’m not quite sure how they convinced me to do this, but shortly after he purchased it we all decided to go for a ride to experience its luxury.  But this would be no simple ride through the country.  One of my other friends decided we should test out the luggage rack as well.  So while my friend drove, we sat on top of the car holding on to the rails of the roof rack – a practice which became known as “Subaroofing.”

Today we consider the last gift of the Dark Wood, the gift of misfits.  Until this point in our series, we have been considering our ability to find our path in life from the perspective of us as individuals – the gifts of emptiness, of uncertainty, of temptation, of disappearing, being thunderstruck.  We have seen it from the view that it is as individuals we find ourselves in the Dark Wood, and each of us must find our own way through it.  But in light of the difficulties and challenges we encounter in the Dark Wood, it is not advisable to walk alone.  It is much easier to get lost without the aid of companions.

In our first reading for this morning, Jesus rides into the city of Jerusalem.  He is greeted by many people spreading their clothes on the road before him, laying down palm branches.  They are praising him, saying “Hosanna” or “save us.”  This the culmination of a long journey for Jesus.  And with him is the group of men who walked beside him since the beginning of his ministry.

Perhaps nowhere in the Bible is the gift of misfits more apparent than in the composition of the disciples.   Peter and Andrew were both fishermen.  And while Jesus is recorded as saying Peter would be the rock on which he would build his church, Peter is not without his faults.  Peter is portrayed in the gospels as someone with sort of an extreme personality.  Someone who would throw caution to the wind and jump in with both feet, sometimes without giving it adequate thought.  Peter was also very opinionated, a strong personality.  In his passion, he had a tendency to get into arguments and to say the wrong thing.  James and John were called “the sons of thunder.”  This indicates they were quick to become angry.  Not the best trait to have if you are trying to co-exist peaceably with ten other people.  Matthew was a tax collector, a Jew who decided to work for the Roman government.  Tax collectors were despised by other Jews, viewed as traitors.  They had a reputation for dishonesty, were considered outside the law and religiously unclean.  And he was alongside Simon who was a zealot.  Zealots were those who actively and at times violently opposed the Roman occupation.  They would hold a significant amount of hatred for tax collectors and anyone viewed as working in coordination with their Roman oppressors.   We can imagine this led to distrust and conflict between two men coming from such very different lifestyles and perspectives.  There was Judas, the one who would betray Jesus.  And there is Thomas who struggled with his faith, known for his doubt and perhaps his stubbornness.

We don’t often recognize it, but this was quite a ragtag group of people that Jesus assembled.  We might expect Jesus to go to leaders in the temple, to the scribes or Pharisees, people recognized for their devotion to the Jewish faith to walk alongside him.  But instead he chose people of all different backgrounds, different occupations, different strengths, and different faults to be the people who would walk beside him through life.  These are also the people that Jesus trusted to continue his work after his death.  These are the men who walked beside him in his last days.  And these are the men who will live the uncertainty, temptation, and emptiness of the difficult days ahead right alongside him.

Jesus put this diverse group together because he recognized the gift of misfits.   And this gift is one of the most important for us as well as we seek to exit the Dark Wood.  As we heard in our second reading this morning, in our journey through the Dark Wood, we are better off when we do not go it alone but are blessed with the presence of others who help us see, reflect with us, and discover together with us the richness of life.  Making the journey with a few wise companions can keep us from getting lost and make the journey less lonely, even enjoyable – particularly when we discover that we can help our companions find their paths as well.  The difficulties we encounter impact the way we experience the world each day.  And these impacts are often not supportive of our search for the path of our lives.  If we enter the Dark Wood and stay there alone, the odds are stacked against us.

All around us are things seeking to make us conform to expectations.  Social, economic, and cultural forces around us shape us, moving us away from our true path, seeking to make us conform.  These forces don’t encourage us to ask what we bring to the world, what brings us alive.  They do not ask what specific good we are called to, but they empower us to do only the good that keeps these forces moving.  These forces reward us financially, feed us entertainment which shape our desires.  They make us feel righteous or patriotic when we support them.  Pressured by these forces, we are more likely to be shaped by all of the things around us which seek our identity and remain lost in the Dark Wood.

The odds are stacked against us when we try resist these forces alone, which is why must embrace the gift of misfits.  When Elnes speaks of misfits in his book, he is referring to those who are also intentional about embracing the gifts of the Dark Wood and finding their place in the world.  People like those disciples who have their faults, are different from us, but people who give us perspective and support.  And while we may think it is difficult to find these people, they can be found everywhere.

Elnes describes three types of misfits who serve as powerful companions as we journey through the Dark Wood.  The first misfit is a mentor – someone who has spent more time in the Dark Wood than we have.  Someone who is more familiar with the trails that lead to dead ends or over cliffs.  This person isn’t always at our side, but someone we can check in with regularly when the trail starts to become too unclear.  These people could be a spiritual director, a minister, a counselor, or a wise friend.  It is someone you trust, someone who will listen without judging, someone who helps you to listen for yourself rather than trying to instill their own views on you.

The second misfit he describes is a small band of travelling companions.  These people may not be as familiar with the Dark Wood as a mentor.  They do not need to be on the same path as you.  All they need to be is committed to finding their own sense of call.  You check in with these people more frequently than your mentor.  And you can fully be yourself with them, people with whom you can share all of your triumphs and defeats, all of your fears and joys.  The most important function these misfits perform is to help you realize that you are not alone, that you are loved.  They are like welcoming campfires set up in the Dark Wood to provide comfort, warmth and light.  This is what we are creating with our Geography of Grace groups.  These are friends with whom you get together with some frequency to ask questions, to study, to encourage one another.  People we can trust with our deepest concerns and fears.

The third form of misfit Elnes describes as rarer and harder to find – a misfit community of faith.  He says that just as individuals have distinctive paths and callings, so do communities.  He writes of how he has seen misfit communities rising from the ashes of the world’s dead and dying religious traditions.  What makes these communities unique is that they are in the process of finding an identity different from their predecessors.  He says that if a mentor is like an interpretive guide in the Dark Wood, and traveling companions like a group around a campfire, then a community of faith would be like an alehouse in the Dark Wood.  It is a place people are drawn for a sense of belonging and conversation.  It caters to a diverse crowd, but there is a spirit within that transcends those differences.  I think we have one of these communities.  Each of us here has received the gift of misfits if we are just willing to reach out and embrace them.

Those three friends of mine growing up may have been very different from me, but they were a source of strength through some of my most difficult times in life.  We formed our own community in which we supported each other.  And even though they may have convinced me to ride on the roof of Subaru, I would have been lost without them.  And they are still people I can call today.

Today we tie a ribbon that we will embrace the gift of misfits.  That we will recognize and embrace the people God has provided to give us solace on our journey through the Dark Wood.  That we will embrace the differences which exist, so that we can learn from each other, encourage each other.  And together to ensure that we are on the right path out of the Dark Wood.