Here is what Christianity is not, what Christianity was never meant to be: respectable. We may have fooled the world once, may even have fooled ourselves, playing the part of pillars of the community – soccer moms and company men, people with good morals and good manners; our churches may have passed once for dispensaries of vague, inoffensive religious sentiment, but the word is out. The word is out about us, about us Christians: we are … kind of crazy. We have always been this way; it is in our DNA to be different. Jesus was a strong flavor, and he said himself that there is no such thing as low-sodium faithfulness. To follow him never was and never will be to fit in. The first disciples knew this. They did. There they were, minding their own business, not bothering anybody – when God happened to them. Specifically, the Spirit of God happened to them, came at them, came upon them. One minute, they are just sitting around in someone’s living room, and the next thing you know, out of the clear blue, the tchotchkes and the dishes in the china cabinet start rattling. The wind howls and the earth heaves and their hearts tremble. Everything shakes and breaks. Everything in them shakes and breaks. It is an ordeal on the order of ‘Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore’, only it is not a strange, distant wonderland they are swept off to. God happens to them, the Holy Spirit happens to them, and what they come to see and to experience is that the world as they had always known is its own kind of Oz. And they come to see and to experience themselves as outsiders in it.
God happened to them, the Holy Spirit happened to them, and almost immediately these disciples found themselves on the wrong side of everybody who was anybody. God had gotten a hold on them, and at once, the fledgling church fell afoul of the powers-that-be. Public opinion tanked. God happened to them, the Holy Spirit happened to them – but for what their neighbors and their families and their old friends from high school and the guy in the next cubicle over could see, they were off their rockers. ‘Others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine,”’ is how the scriptures put it. The Greek word there for ‘new wine’ – or some translations opt for ‘sweet wine’ – is gleukos, from which we get our word glucose. The wine is sweet because it is new, and you know it’s new because it’s sweet, because it’s still sweet – which is to say that the wine is as of yet unfermented; it’s Welch’s. That’s the gist of the joke. That’s the point of the put-down. The jeering crowd thinks the disciples are drunk on grape juice, thinks that they are dolts, twice over! Not only are these first Christians making clowns of themselves, but it is all in their heads in any case. Their foolishness is fueled by fantasy. So some said.
And that’s what some have always said. There is a story back, back in the book of 1 Samuel – the story of Hannah, praying in the sanctuary at Shiloh. It is one of those guy – has – two – wives, — and – the – one – we –are – NOT – supposed – to – like – so – much – delivers – more – babies – than – she – knows – what – to – do – with – but – the – other, — favorite – wife – is – barren – and – so, — despondent stories. And Hannah is the second one, the second wife, the one who is desperate for a child, but alas. Anyway, she is on her knees praying, praying hard, praying holes in the rug. Hannah is weeping bitterly, is pleading with God, promising God all the things you promise God when you are bartering with empty hands but from the bottom of your heart. She is so distraught, and praying so plaintively, fervently, maddeningly that when old Eli the priest comes along whistling, with wood polish to buff the altar or whatever, he is scandalized by the scene. He thinks she’s sloshed and tears into her like there is no tomorrow: ‘How long, woman, will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?’ the priest scolds, ‘put away your wine.’ And through her tears, Hannah responds, ‘No, my lord, I am deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.’
God happened to Hannah. The Holy Spirit happened to Hannah. God, by Holy Spirit, surrounded and upheld Hannah as she begged help of Heaven, hoping beyond hope. God happened in the upper room on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit happened in the upper room on Pentecost. God, by the Holy Spirit hit those gathered there with everything God had got. And while it may be that God, that the Holy Spirit does not happen to you all of a sudden with hurricane force, in such a way as to blow the wash off the line and whip up litter and loose newspaper and the housecat into its surging and bring down a tree on the attic, be ye forewarned: nevertheless, when God happens to you, your world will be turned upside down. You will find yourself, maybe sooner, maybe later, falling out with old assumptions and habits of mind you had taken for granted. You will be confronted with decisions – rarely epochal and momentous, more often small and seemingly insignificant, but you will be confronted with decisions all the same; and should, in responding to those decisions, you honor that of the Holy Spirit which is happening in you, others will be left out of sorts, and you yourself will be left misunderstood, perhaps not taken seriously. Others will mistake your faithfulness for foolishness, dismiss your dream, your calling, question your judgment, and write off your commitment to live with spiritual integrity as but the nonsense of another ridiculous religious person off his or her rocker. But even so, I do believe that we are called – and that we actually equipped by the Holy Spirit, that are we readied and steadied by its power and presence within us – to live with such hope and with such faith and with such generosity and with such patience and with such courage and with such selflessness and with such longsuffering love and with such passion and with such compassion, to live with such pious daring that, were there no God, outside observers might well be right in thinking us stupid and worthy of scorn. Which is to say: I believe that if nothing about our lives as Christians, if nothing about my life as a Christian, and nothing about your life as a Christian, strikes someone outside the faith as off-putting and strange, perhaps it is a sign that we are playing it safe spiritually, that we are asking too little of ourselves, that we are making an idol out of reasonableness and taking too few risks for God. That we are, as they say, atheists, for all practical purposes.
There is a little quip I like from Flannery O’Connor – ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you … odd.’ I think it fits here. And I hate to be the one to break it to you, but I think it fits you, too. As they say: some of your freak flags are flying. And weird looks wonderful on you. Tracy Keene comes to mind, Tracy who stood up to his boss, who refused to do his job as it was asked of him, because the work would have involved advocating against the interests of the poor and the un-housed. Suzanne Bacon and Alice Verhoeven come to mind, Suzanne and Alice who forget that retirement entitles them to some sweet R+R, and who instead spend their vacations volunteering, teaching kids how to read. Holly Gooding comes to mind, Holly who is helping smarty-pants doctors-to-be at Harvard get out of their heads and descend to their hearts and do the sort of emotional self-work that will make them immeasurably better physicians but will put them at odds with the healthcare machine. Jan Monsma comes to mind, Jan who gets up in the stealth of night and goes out guerilla gardening, planting flowers and bringing beauty to the forgotten corners of the concrete jungle. Judy Fischer and Candace Kosturko and countless others come to mind – who have spent months and even years logging serious miles, schlepping hither and yon, who have moved heaven and earth to accompany and to care for aging, ailing loved ones in the twilight of their lives. Colin Pape comes to mind, Colin, a workaday dad who was arrested protesting the hijacking of our democracy by dark money. So many come to mind, so many of you come to mind, who make choices, big and scary, and scarcely noticed, but hard them all, who make choices to live to honor that of God, that of the Holy Spirit which is happening within you, who live to honor the bizarre illogic at the heart of our faith that sets us on a collision course with the rest of the world and that will leave us looking crazy: that we who would save our lives must lose them, that the last shall be first, that the poor are rich, that the children are wise, that it is better to serve than to be served. Here is what Christianity is, what Christianity was always meant to be: radical and challenging and counter-cultural and confrontational and weird. And Church: Christianity, weird looks wonderful on you.