Carnival & Celebration for a Post-Covid Church
Carnival & Celebration for a Post-Covid Church
May 16, 2021
Rev. Christian Iosso, Interim Pastor
Texts: 2 Samuel 6: 3b-5, 12-16. Luke 7: 31-35.
Today’s question is: are we holding back too much? Are we too restrained, not only in our worship life, but in our church life? Are we the people Jesus is addressing when he quotes children from the marketplace, “we played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.” Those kids were trying to get others to play a mime game of weddings and funerals. Jesus was saying that there were Jews in his time who responded neither to his message nor to the message of John the Baptist. Are we like those people?
(The first part of the sermon answers,) No! We are an alive people of God. We are responding to Jesus’ message.
True, the past year is tricky to assess. Of all the activities put on hold for the last 15 months of covid, the cancelation of public mourning and funerals, celebrations, ceremonies, and joyous assemblies was perhaps the greatest loss. We are only now coming to terms with what it has meant to live our communal existence largely online. This past year may appear in our history like a very thin growth ring in a cross-cut tree, marking an inflection point for our society, and a defining point for our culture. (The President’s question to the USA today, in the recovery projects, may be like Jesus’ question to afflicted people: do you want to be healed?)
The word church comes from the word for gathering, ecclesia, and public worship has been key to our being a body, and to the exchange of blessings that sustains us. We use ancient language and bind ourselves to deep memories and eternal hopes, not just our own profit and pleasure. Church-going stimulates the imagination—even when the sermon is weak, and the person in the next pew may be dressed way unfashionably! Few of us come to church out of habit or to look good: we come out of abiding hope, loyalty, and friendship, and for our spirits to be fed.
As a church, we celebrate the feasts of the Christian year on the great holy days, and we celebrate baptisms and confirmations and weddings and ordinations and installations. Funerals are not as happy as other rites of passage, but even in honoring our bodies and returning them to earth in some form, we are to “accompany them with singing.” The church, as a body of believers, celebrates the entry of a new member in baptism or dedication, and also marks their departure from the community with thanksgiving. The church year itself is a procession that models the journey of life.
Our rituals point to life’s unseen dimensions and essential patterns. We may be quite diligent and disciplined workers on the weekdays, but we are not prisoners of rationalism; we know there are things that cannot be measured but are like the “pearl of great price” for which we steadily give our lives and our souls.
There is an internal intensity to our life because it is overlaid and undergirded with an abundance of meaning: we share in a “mysterious origin and a cosmic destiny.” We live between the great symbols of the Garden of Eden and the Kingdom of God; by the Holy Spirit we walk by faith and not by sight. No wonder the secular world thinks we romanticize things—we use phrases like “infinite worth” when we talk about people—we feel called by God to take on a different identity that transcends our jobs, our family roles, our ethnic backgrounds.
Our faith is entwined with our creativity; a quick glimpse of God can become a vision of a new future, and we try to look at others with the empathic eye rather than the evil eye. We share our money and time with people who aren’t family or friends. When we use the word, stewardship, we partly mean resistance to the gods of our consumer society. We go against the grain of success-worship to be part of this transgenerational conspiracy of good.
We mark a history of spiritual heroism and pass on traditions that reveal God’s lover’s quarrel with the world (William Sloane Coffin’s phrase). We lift up the courageous reformers and revolutionaries of our tradition to learn from them. We share in the prophetic reaction to injustice and try to be scrupulous in our moral lives, telling the truth, not exploiting people, nor allowing exploitation by others.
There is also an aesthetic dimension to our love of God. We build and maintain beautiful buildings that have no instrumental value. We use words like “glory” and “incarnation,” “resurrection” and “redemption.” We sing hymns that are unknown to our neighbors, and listen to complex pieces of music that capture feelings they will never have. These are spaces and words that cut through the everyday, every week.
So yes, Jesus, we are stepping up. We heard last week that Woman Wisdom has set her table and we are sharing in the bread and wine with Jesus’ community. And we are sharing it with others.
But what if we are the people Jesus was addressing? What if I was idealizing us too much? We are certainly not ascetics in the desert like John the Baptist, but are we not leery of a Jesus who could be called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”? (The phrase, “glutton and drunkard,” comes from Deuteronomy—marks of disobedience to God).
Back in 1969, theologian Harvey Cox recalled a peculiar medieval holiday called The Feast of Fools.
“On that colorful occasion… even ordinarily pious priests and serious townsfolk donned bawdy masks, sang outrageous ditties, and … kept the whole world awake with revelry and satire. Minor clerics painted their faces, strutted about in the robes of their superiors, and mocked the stately rituals of church and court. Sometimes a Lord of Misrule, a Mock King, or a Boy Bishop was elected to preside… [even over] a parody mass. During the Feast of Fools, no custom or convention was immune to ridicule.” (Harvey Cox, The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 3.
The Feast of Fools was condemned (by the Council of Basel in 1431,) but it persisted for another hundred years, into the time of the Reformation. The holiday Foolishness or Folly sometimes did “degenerate into debauchery and lewd buffoonery.” It was a time of letting off steam, of dancing it out of one’s system, of throwing off some of the repression that comes with every system. Having a holiday like that—a kind of New Year’s, Mardi Gras, April Fool’s day, A May Day around the may pole, a Halloween costume party—these events reduced authoritarian tendencies, kept the powerful a little more humble, helped make the truth-telling of the court jester a safer job.
For Harvey Cox, the elements of festival and fantasy were essential for individuals, for societies, and for the church. To be full humans, we need to dance and dream, to feed our imaginations and emotions. Religion is a fundamental part of this healthy unity of conscious and unconscious, and it has spontaneous and ritual dimensions, solemn play. Children learn to access those deep emotions of weddings and funerals partly through play—if they have been exposed to religious ceremonies. And we certainly have in the far background David dancing before the Lord around the ark—scandalizing the daughter of Saul with his partial nudity.
Yet this playful and religious dimension of human consciousness can be suppressed or repressed, and sometimes can come out in violence, or be mixed with violent emotions.[i] What happened to this element of festival and collective fantasy? (Cox would argue that our Puritan ancestors are largely not to blame—their lives still had a lot of natural, earthy joy.) The bigger impacts were from industrialism, capitalism, individualism, and secularism that wiped out not only the feast days, but the rhythms of pre-modern society. The Feast of Fools died out when “mirth, play, and festivity” were overcome by “sobriety, thrift, industry, and ambition.” (A more recent book, Dancing in the Streets, by Barbara Ehrenreich (2006), sees “social hierarchy” as the biggest force shutting down ecstatic rituals, p. 251).
The counter-cultural energy of the 1960’s was a partial recovery of festival and fantasy, even in the protests against Jim Crow and the Vietnam War—which were collective emotion and the non-violent mocking of military power. This church, First & Franklin, and many other Presbyterian and ecumenical Protestant churches marched with the historically Black Church for civil rights—not all of us, but many—and we sang songs and carried those banners and principles and experiences of liberation into other civil rights: Women’s and Gay Rights and other social change movements. (Many of us remember those songs—folk and Gospel, even some Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell).
And then we saw the massive back-swing in the last administration and its religious services, those Christian nationalist rallies. Faced with the demonic energy that we saw in the attack on the capitol—which also had its Feast of Fools elements—our reasonable Protestant Christianity can look pretty anemic.
As we think of how to come out of the covid shutdown, do we celebrate enough? What new celebrations do we need, and what kinds of block parties and opening up of our campus do we want with our neighbors? Today’s Stewardship Picnic is a step in the right direction. We celebrate the financial commitment we are making to this adventure. We don’t forget that this whole enterprise is an extravagant, both very wise and deeply joyful, leap of faith. This church has the right instincts; we may not do much dancing today, but we will have music. But how can we share this spirit of collective joy with our neighbors and with our struggling city? We may have to risk a bit more, and be friends with (party with?!) more tax-collectors and sinners—as did Jesus, the Lord of the Dance.
In the name of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer; Conductor, Music, and Dancer in Chief.
[i] In delivery, I made reference to the excesses in the worship of the Greek god, Dionysus, which involved destruction and self-destruction. When religious ritual is done right, it should both inspire and channel spiritual energy, but mass religious ecstasy is hard to contain. This sermon did not have space to discuss archaic and archetypal elements; I was making a case more for our current leap of faith to look more like dance steps with the community around our church.