Friday, February 24, 2017

The Courage of Misfits

Albion District Day
February 4, 2017

Scripture Readings:
·        I Corinthians 16:13-14
·        John 16:25-33

Thank you for coming today and thank you for inviting me to be a part of this day with you.  It is my privilege to be here.
Misfits.  We have a certain warm place in our hearts for misfits in this culture.  Maybe some of you remember the Christmas special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  It was filled with endearing misfits.  Of course, there was Rudolph himself, a reindeer with the red nose.  There was the elf who aspired to be a dentist.  There was an island of misfit toys: a Charlie-in-a-box, a train with square wheels, a water pistol that squirted jelly, a bird that could not fly only swim, a boat that did not float, a cowboy who rides an ostrich.  Yes, I did watch some of this on You Tube – who says that sermon research has to be dull!
Maybe some of you remember the famous movie “The Wizard of Oz.”  When I was a child, we had to wait a year to see the movie.  It was broadcast once a year on network television.  “The Wizard of Oz” is also filled with misfits.  There is the talking scarecrow without a brain – though he is often wise.  When asked by Dorothy how he could talk without a brain, he replied: “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”  There is the tin man without a heart, who, when he gets one utters one of my favorite lines in the movie.  “Now I know I have a heart, because it’s breaking.”  There is the lion with the basic fault, he lacks courage.  The Wizard of Oz himself is a misfit, all puff and smoke with little behind it.
In our culture we have a warm place in our hearts for misfits, and I could argue that this may be rooted in some residual sense of God’s grace that yet permeates our culture.  God’s grace is grace for misfits.  God often calls misfits.  Scott is right.  Think of some of the famous characters in our Scriptures: Abraham and Sarah called to conceive a child in their old age – Sarah can’t help but laugh; Jacob the scoundrel also the parent with Leah and Rachel of the tribes of Israel; Moses – he of staggering speech; David – too young and small, and then too enamored with another man’s wife; Mary – young and unmarried; James and John – sons of Thunder; Peter – impetuous; Paul – dripping with raging self-righteousness.  This unlikely cast of characters are the “heroes” of our faith.
I stand before you in this wonderful tradition, a misfit bishop.  Some can recall grandparents who nurtured them in the faith.  Two of my grandparents were marginally churched at best, one was hostile to the church, and my dad’s mom a Catholic her entire life, but not a woman who shared her faith.  My own father was unchurched.  I remember his presence at my confirmation, joking with another unchurched dad about how the building might collapse because they were both in it at the same time.  My mom got us to church often enough, but it was not a center for our life.  My journey of faith has not been a straight line.  I think questions can be as important as affirmations.  Such a background does not really fit one for the role of bishop.  Yet God called me, first by name to tell me I was loved in Jesus, and then into ordained ministry.  Continuing to follow the Spirit on this adventuresome journey has brought me here, as a bishop of the church, the United Methodist Bishop of Michigan.
I do believe I am here as part of following the call of God in Jesus Christ in my life.  I also believe God calls each of us.  God has called each of you by name to tell you that you are loved in Jesus Christ.  It is good to be reminded of that call often.  In a world that frequently beats against us, tells us that we are inadequate, reminds us of all we don’t yet have or all that we are not yet, we need to hear that call of God, speaking our name in love and care.
God also calls each of us to be about God’s work in the world, the work of sharing good news, the work of healing, the work of compassion, the work of feeding the hungry, the work of justice, the work of peace, the work of reconciliation.  God calls us to this work.  God equips us uniquely for this work – calling forth our best gifts, inviting us to develop our gifts and skills.  In a word, God “fits” us for this work.  For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Ephesians 2:10).  Later: But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift….  Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:7, 15-16)
Yet even as God is fitting us for God’s work, we find that we remain misfits.  We are mis-fitted for so much of what is going on in our world.  I love the way Eugene Peterson renders part of the early verses in Romans 12.  Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  In fitting us for the work of God, the work to which God calls us, the Spirit of God is inviting us to be intentional misfits in an often strange and estranged world.
We are misfits because we are people of faith in a very cynical time.  We believe trust is possible.  We trust that God remains at work in the world, even when we hear God’s name misused and abused.  We trust that God continues to work for love, justice, peace, healing reconciliation.  We trust that persuasion is important and that conversation matters.  John Wesley believed that people coming together in holy conversation was a means of grace, and we trust that in a time when people talking at and past one another seems the current standard of communication.
We are misfits in that we are people of hope in the midst of despair.  Because we trust that God continues to be at work in the world, we do not give up.  That does not mean we do not feel discouragement or despair, but hope lets those be what they are and helps us move through them.  The poet and author David Whyte writes, Despair is a difficult, beautiful necessary, a binding understanding between human beings caught in a fierce and difficult world where half of our experience is mediated by loss, but it is a season, a waveform passing through the body, not a prison surrounding us.  A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition.  (Consolations, 57)
We are misfits in that we continue to trust in the power of love in a world that is so often fearful and cruel and unkind.  I think I will just let that statement stand.
We are misfits in that we trust in the value of humility in a time when hubris seems quite valued.  Hubris is a fancy word for pride, but I like the alliteration with humility.  Humility is not groveling or weakness or feeling lousy about yourself.  I think of humility as a gentle strength that helps us approach the world and other people with openness and curiosity – knowing that in this wonderfully complex and beautiful world there is always more to learn, and honestly acknowledging that sometimes we get it wrong.
This invitation to be intentional misfits is an invitation and a call to courage.  We need courage to be intentional misfits.  A favorite Scripture passage of mine is I Corinthians 16:14: “Let all that you do be done in love.”  It is a verse I have carried in my heart for a long time, and it is easily remembered.  Since my election as a bishop this summer, though, I have begun to appreciate the verse that immediately precedes it and provides some additional depth.  As someone who believes passionately in reading the Scriptures in their widest context, I am embarrassed to admit that I had not paid sufficient attention to verse 13.  Here are the verses together: Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.  To live in this world with gentleness, kindness and love asks of us deep courage.
Jesus asks of us deep courage.  In this exchange with the disciples in John 16, which has a bit of humor, I think – Jesus talking about coming from the Father and coming into the world and going back to the Father, that interesting “John” language – and the disciples responding, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly” – really!!.... in that exchange Jesus ends by saying, “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!”  The courage of misfits.
If being fitted for God’s work of love means being intentional misfits in our world and being intentional misfits requires courage, what is this courage and where do we find it?  These are large questions and I am aware of the time, so I want to explore these briefly.
Writers like Parker Palmer and David Whyte have noted that our word for courage comes from the French word for heart – Coeur.  Whyte writes: Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with one another, with a community, a work; a future….  Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive. (Consolations, 39,40)  Courage has to do with hanging in there with life, even in the discomfort of being a misfit.  “Courage always includes a risk” the theologian Paul Tillich reminds us (The Courage to Be, 155)  I have been challenged recently in my thinking about courage by Gil Rendle’s monograph on courage entitled “A Call to Quiet Courage.”  It is a document being read by the Bishop’s Commission on the Way Forward.  Rendle talks about the courage we need in the church right now as a quiet courage, a steady purposefulness.  Leaders, and I would say intentional misfits, need to be able to focus on our purpose, the mission God gives us, and remind ourselves and others to keep moving.  This kind of courage is characterized by thoughtfulness – we recognize risks and challenges, and resolve -  we focus on moving forward.  This kind of courage risks disturbing others in purposeful ways.
Courage is having our hearts committed to the work of God in Jesus Christ, focusing on that work, taking thoughtful risks for that work, being willing to be intentional misfits for that work.
So where does such courage come from?
It comes from staying connected to God in Jesus Christ.  In his unique way, Paul Tillich affirms that by saying that “courage needs the power of being” (155).  In fact, Tillich argues, to know courage is to know something of the very heart of God.  “Courage has revealing power, the courage to be is the key to being-itself” (181)  When we know we are loved by God, we know courage.  We need not be afraid to trust in a cynical time, to hope in the midst of despair, to love in an unkind world, to be humble when hubris is so often rewarded.
Courage also comes from connecting with the deep places in our hearts.  I love these words from Parker Palmer from his essay “Leading From Within.”  We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith.  We can choose to lead from one of those places to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. (94)  If there is something of the nature of courage in the very nature of God, and we are created in the image of God, then there is courage in our hearts, including the courage to look deep within and see those other realities – fear, despair, anxiety – to see them, to know them and to know that we do not have to live them.
Courage also comes from connecting with each other in our communities of faith.  You are here today to learn, and that is wonderful.  I hope you have also come to be “encouraged” by each other, literally to get some courage from each other.
A number of years ago I was driving between appointments as a pastor on Minnesota’s Iron Range.  On public radio that day was the Irish poet Seamus Heaney speaking from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis – reading poems and sharing a bit in-between.  After reading a poem dedicated to his brother called “Keeping Going,” Heaney commented: “Keeping going in art and in life are what it is all about, getting started, keeping going and getting started again.”  It is a word about courage that I’ve never forgotten.

Imagine, God calls each of us by name, and then calls us to share in God’s work in the world, as misfit as we are.  God fits us for God’s work, but in the process we are often misfits in this world of ours.  God grant us the courage to be God’s intentional misfits, to get started, to keep going, and to get started again.  God’s Spirit nurture within us with the courage of misfits.  Amen.

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