May 14th – Steve Jungkeit
Texts: 2 Samuel 6: 12-15; John 2: 1-12
Festivity and Foolishness
I know I talk about New Orleans a lot, probably way too much, but I beg your indulgence on yet another Sunday. Because I’d like to share something of what I experienced last weekend, when Rachael and I spent four glorious days in that beautiful gritty city.
To start, I saw a man riding a bike in the wrong direction on a one way street, wearing a disheveled shirt and a top hat out of a Dickens novel. I saw people the age of my parents, 70, 80 maybe, swing dancing in a field of dust and mud to the sound of Cajun accordions. I heard Stevie Wonder deliver a short sermon about the state of the world that moved me to tears, after which he played his song “Higher Ground.” “Teachers, keep on teaching….preachers, keep on preaching,” he sang, as a sea of humanity swayed and bobbed. I saw black New Orleanians arrayed in magnificent costumes of feathers and beads, singing rhythmic chants that link them to Cuba, and to Haiti and to West Africa. I felt the thunderous and nasty bass lines of a funk band deep in my chest, tones so deep they could have flattened houses. I saw a cross dressing transsexual hip hop queen from an uptown housing project twerking. As strong tobacco smoke wafted through the air, I saw a Cuban rumba group, clad all in white, call forth ancient spirits using rhythms first heard on the coast of West Africa. I saw Native Americans in regal costume, and I raised my arms in praise of Jesus in the Gospel Tent. I heard one of America’s finest jazz musicians deliver a deafening and blistering and funky tribute to Malcolm X. I sat beside a woman in a hijab as we listened to a trumpeter mix electronic beats and jazz riffs. I saw a supremely talented singer exhale in what seemed like emotional exhaustion, after performing a song based on an old slave narrative. I biked through the French Quarter, dodging inebriated college boys as well as families with their children in tow, cognizant that those buildings and streets had received every form of human behavior imaginable, welcoming and receiving them all, like a sacred river, like a bonfire of the spirit, like a god. I went to bed late, dusty, sweaty, with my ear drums still ringing, and I woke up early, unable to sleep any more because of the promise of the new day.
Rachael and I witnessed all of this and more last week during our annual pilgrimage to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It can all be understood religiously, theologically even, as a liturgical celebration and affirmation of life. For me, the display of human creativity and eccentricity discovered there is one of the most necessary and hopeful signs of Spirit that I have discovered, especially in what feels like a gray and benighted cultural moment. But it’s even more than that. The festivity on parade can be understood as a parable of the Spirit that we can all learn from, one that all of us who care about religion and faith need to rediscover right about now, in ways large and small. I’ve come to believe that we need the Spirit of festival and play in our lives now more than ever, for those constitute essential elements of what it is to be human.
Many of you know of my deep admiration for Harvey Cox, a theologian and ethicist up at Harvard who several years ago visited us here in Old Lyme. In 1969, when the world was on fire, he published an unlikely book entitled The Feast of Fools, a book I have returned to in recent days for the wisdom it possesses. Cox cites the medieval practice known as the feast of fools at the beginning of his book, a carnivalesque festival in which social conventions and established identities were lifted, and a spirit of Dionysian play swept through cities and villages. It’s a practice that gradually disappeared after the Reformation, and especially after the Protestant work ethic was introduced and enforced. According to Cox, many of us in the West have paid a frightful price for our material abundance, gaining the world while losing our souls. We have been deprived of vital elements of life, which include the capacity for genuine celebration, and the faculty for envisioning radically alternative life situations. In a technologically saturated, screen oriented, success driven culture of affluence, we have gradually become shrunken souls, unable to imagine, let alone to dwell within, a spirit of creative and joyful play.
There are exceptions to that assessment, of course. The global South, of which New Orleans is but the northern tip, preserves the practice of carnival every year, using masks and costumes and dance and parades as a means of tapping into this vital spiritual dimension of life. Cuba and Haiti and Brazil preserve that dimension through their ritual patterns and musical rhythms, expressed in Santeria and Vodou and Candomble ceremonies. In South Africa, and in nearly every other traditional culture I can think of, pleasure is built into the life cycle of human beings through music, dance, and celebration. I think it’s something of what our young people sense when they travel to Haiti, and witness both crushing poverty and a celebratory spirit of life, both existing side by side. I think it’s something of what drew many of you to travel to South Africa, to witness the artistic and musical abundance that is Soweto. It’s why I long to visit Havana or Jacmel or Rio or New Orleans during Carnival season. There’s something powerfully important for our collective humanity in those celebrations, a spirit of deeply, deeply serious play and frivolity. I sense there a powerful liturgy of the Spirit, a performative theology that explodes into the streets in those moments. It’s an expressive theology that’s every bit as nuanced and world orienting as a systematic theology text from Tillich or Bonhoeffer or Niebuhr. As my favorite documentary filmmaker of all time, a creative eccentric named Les Blank, puts it: “God respects us when we work, but loves us when we dance.” That’s a mantra we in New England, we in the Protestant north, we in churches still dominated by an austere sobriety, desperately need to heed.
That’s why the two Scripture passages we heard earlier are so very important. One of the single greatest images in all of the Bible is that of King David in the book of II Samuel, making a holy fool of himself by taking off his clothes and dancing at a particular festival moment. He had his detractors. The former king’s daughter spies him dancing, and clucks at his lack of decorum, his lack of modesty, his lack of sobriety. David shakes it off, as Taylor Swift might say, and he keeps on dancing. The text informs us that the former king’s daughter remained barren throughout her life, perhaps symbolizing what it means to be cut off from the spirit of play and creativity, the spirit of celebration and frivolity. Perhaps some vital element within each of us does become shriveled and malnourished from our inability to become as fools, moving our limbs and torsos to rhythms newly discovered. Perhaps in a very real way, we do render ourselves unable to nourish and birth new life.
Jesus understands this basic component of our human condition as well. Yes, there’s a tragic dimension to life. Yes, there’s an ethical dimension to life. We ministers talk about those dimensions ad nauseum. But there’s also an aesthetic and playful dimension that must never be dismissed or forgotten if we are to experience wholeness. Surely that’s why the first public miracle that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John has to do with a party. Surely that’s why his first demonstration of power isn’t the healing of the sick or the raising of the dead, but a simple gesture that keeps a party going, turning water into really, really, fine wine. In a very real way, Jesus is raising the dead in that moment. He’s saving the host from embarrassment, to be sure, but he’s also signaling the profound necessity within each of our souls for celebration, for festivity, for frivolous play. Absent those things, something inside us truly is dead. Absent those things, something inside us really is in need of resurrection. First things first, the Gospel of John seems to say: above all, keep your capacity for celebration alive. That will carry you through all manner of adversity. Remember to celebrate
. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a hard time remembering that of late. I’ve had a hard time feeling much beyond a sense of anxious foreboding, coupled with the sense that there’s work to be done. Don’t mishear me: there is work to be done. But we need a celebratory sense of life to remind us of what it is we’re actually striving for – the fullness of life in all of its dimensions, in all of its messy complexity, filled with flourishing, abundant, creative, zestful, and deeply serious frivolity. And we need those moments to remind us of the many good things within the world that we actually do have, and that we already do participate in. Say what you will about the world, but there are things to celebrate, even now. I hope we all refuse to yield to the apocalyptic mood that seems to have set upon us of late. It’s why it was great to have Tom McDermott come to Old Lyme. It’s why it was great to have Julius Kyukawa come to Old Lyme. It’s why we’ll have to keep finding ways to create celebratory and playful moments that pull us into that wide open sense of human flourishing. It’s why in the coming months I want to explore the lives of various dreamers and fools who exhibit a wisdom that I sense we all need right now, people like Don Quixote and Falstaff, Ignatius Reilly, and perhaps even a man riding a bike down a one way street, wearing a top hat and a disheveled shirt. I wish to elevate the clowns and the saints, the fools and the poets, those who demonstrate the mad wisdom of folly.
Let’s start right now. I know it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, but communion is a way of helping us recall the importance of doing just that, discovering moments of pleasure in simple gestures like eating, touch, and human contact. We do so in the midst of a wider celebration on this Mother’s Day, a time to celebrate any and all within our lives who have offered us nurture and guidance, whether that came from a biological mother or someone else. If you’re alive, you experienced that somewhere. As we take communion today, give thanks for the people that have cared for you. Give thanks for the ways you have encountered the grace of the world. Give thanks for the people sitting to your right and to your left, to whom you belong. Give thanks for the food that you do have, for the relationships that you do have, for the blessings you do have. Some of us have more, some have less, but we all have them. Give thanks for them.
And then later today, my God, find a way to celebrate it. Call your mom. Call your kids. Call someone you love. Fire up the grill. Eat something decadent. Make a cocktail. Go for a walk or a run. Do something, anything, that will bring you a sense of pleasure and joy, even if it only lasts for a minute or two. I’m telling you, pleading with you, to do it in the name of Jesus. Do it in the name of that batty Old Testament king. Do it in the name of your own God given, precious, glorious, off-kilter and frivolous humanity. Do it. Because God respects us when we work. But God loves us when we dance.