March 3, 2019
Greeting: Welcome to our Shrove Sunday celebration, also known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday! It is celebrated 47 days before Easter. Mardi Gras traditionally goes on for at least 2 or 3 days before Ash Wednesday, and since it would be difficult if not impossible to get you all here next Tuesday, we’re celebrating today.
The roots go back to pre-Christian, ancient Roman festivals celebrating fertility, spring, the rebirth of nature and the hope for good crops. It was adopted and adapted by the church as a way to subtly convert local pagans to Christianity. It became an important celebration in Anglican and Catholic European nations and was brought to New Orleans in 1699 by the French who settled there. Mardi Gras celebrations and Fat or Shrove Tuesday rituals still go on in various parts of Europe and North and South America.
The Word: Psalm 130 from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”
Fat Tuesday is also known as Shrove Tuesday, taken from the Old English word “to shrive”, which means ‘to confess’. The Catholic church referred to the two or three days before Lent began as Shrovetide, a time of cleaning house and cleaning the soul in preparation for Lent. In earlier times people would flock to confession. So the scriptures for this time are about seeking forgiveness and trusting in a forgiving God. Today I’m using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Psalm 130.
Help, God -- the bottom has fallen out of my life!
Master, hear my cry for help!
Listen hard! Open your ears!
Listen to my cries for mercy.
If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings,
who would stand a chance?
As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit,
and that’s why you’re worshiped.
I pray to God -- my life a prayer --
and wait for what he’ll say and do.
My life’s on the line before God, my Lord,
waiting and watching till morning,
waiting and watching till morning.
O Israel, wait and watch for God --
with God’s arrival comes love,
with God’s arrival comes generous redemption.
No doubt about it - he’ll redeem Israel,
buy back Israel from captivity to sin.
So beginning on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent we spend some time of introspection. Where is my heart open to God and where has it been closed. But today is a day for sacred laughter and celebration, for reminding ourselves that the human condition is made bearable by humor. Have you ever found yourself crying out to God in anguish or frustration only to have something silly, irreverent, unexpected send you into gales of laughter? Here is a brief example:
It happened to my family on an elevator at the University of Iowa hospitals, on our way to a waiting room after my mom went into an emergency surgery to save her life. We knew she could die in that surgery and were in a state of extreme anxiety. We had been praying all morning. Just as the doors opened to let some others on, my father, how can I put this delicately, let some gas escape. We all looked at each other and burst into laughter. For a moment it broke our anxiety.
I believe God has a sense of humor. I believe that Jesus did too. How often do people seem to forget Jesus was Jewish. He was steeped in Jewish humor and irony. As Doug Adams, one of my professors at Pacific School of Religion pointed out to us time and again: the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with humor. What did Sarah, Abraham’s wife, do when she was told at an advanced age that she was finally pregnant? She laughed.
Do you honestly think Jesus would have had such a following if he wasn’t fun to be with - if he didn’t have a sense of humor? We seem to make him out to be this gentle, solemn, serious, suffering guy and forget that in the scriptures we often find him at dinner parties: at Simon’s house, at the rich Pharisees’ house, at Matthew’s house, at Zaccheus’ house, at Peter’s mother’s house, at Martha and Mary’s for tea, at a wedding changing water into wine to keep the party going.
Which brings up another Jewish tradition, dancing! Jews today follow in the dancing feet of Miriam, King David and Saul. You can’t have a wedding or bar mitzvah without dancing. I’ve been to many a shabbat service where we danced, even out into the streets of San Francisco. They know how to worship with joy and laughter.
Purim, one of the most joyous and fun holidays in the Jewish calendar, is often referred to as the Jewish Mardi Gras. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination. The story is contained in the book of Ester and is read in its entirety during the service and often acted out. A church at which I was interning in Oakland during seminary celebrated Purim every year because it was so fun - dressing up in costume and acting the story out, booing the villain and cheering the hero.
Listen to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s take on laughter and the celebrating of Purim:
If by the word “sacred” we mean that we cannot laugh at it, then it is less than sacred. … Laughter is so important that Jews have institutionalized it into a holiday. Purim does more than celebrate the foiled attempts of anti-Semites everywhere, it makes us laugh at ourselves… Furthermore…we have made Purim, which celebrates the foiling of our enemies, into a time for laughter by dressing up like them… When the Purim play is over, all the actors get applause, but Haman, the villain, gets the most. Access to the most joyous part of ourselves comes through ritualized reminders that we are as bad as our enemies… Indeed, only our ability to laugh at ourselves keeps us sane and from becoming like them. (THE BOOK OF WORDS pp.63-64)
My friend Anne Cohen, who celebrates Mardi Gras each year during the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, relates the two celebrations this way: “if we look at the Christian-sanctioned secular celebration of the Mardi-Gras (Fat Tuesday) Carnival – there are echoes of Purim. People wear masks and costumes, overturn social conventions, dance through the streets in parades dressed like parodies of the ruling class. Kings and queens and courtiers – Heads of State and Heads of Church are brought off their pedestals – the powerful are brought low – and the commoners celebrate a one-day (or week-long) revolution.
Her comments reminded me of Mary’s words to Elizabeth in the gospel of Luke, praising God in the Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Even the traditional colors for Mardi Gras, chosen in 1872 by the King of the Carnival Rex, have symbolic meaning that ties into this theme: Purple represents justice, green stands for faith, and gold stands for power.
Mardi Gras reminds us to level the playing field. We’re all equal in the eyes of God. We all have plenty to repent during the six weeks of Lent. But as Kushner says, “only our ability to laugh at ourselves keeps us sane and from (becoming as bad as those we perceive as our enemies.)” So today we need to get off our high horses and be able to laugh at ourselves. God has a sense of humor. So should we.
So to help us have a good laugh at ourselves, I’ve located some of those delightful church bulletins, signs and announcements that travel via email into our homes. Barbara Oppenheimer even gave me a book of them entitled “Church Chuckles.” Here are a few:
The sermon this morning: ‘Jesus Walks on Water.’ The sermon tonight: ‘Searching for Jesus.’
The peacemaking meeting scheduled for today has been canceled due to a conflict.
Our pastor will be attending a weekend seminar on mental illness. Please pray for his sane return.
Church Notes: Ushers will eat latecomers.
At the evening service tonight the sermon topic will be ‘What is hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.
Eight new choir robes are currently needed due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.
Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered.
Thursday night: potluck dinner. Prayer and medication to follow.
The pastor would appreciate it if the ladies of the congregation would lend them their electric girdles for the pancake breakfast next Sunday.
A little boy’s prayer: “Dear God, please take care of Daddy and Mommy and my sister and my brother and me. And please take care of yourself, God. If anything happens to you, we’re gonna be in a big mess.”
and finally, a piece of advice; Don’t let worry kill you off - let the Church help.
So now that we’ve engaged in the sacred practice of laughing, let’s hear what Ann Weems has to say about Jesus and dancing:
LORD OF THE DANCE
by Ann Weems
When they ask what happened here,
We’ll simply say
Christ came by and we learned his dance.
The Lord does his dance on the temple floor
And the Pharisees are properly shocked:
A mad man,
Unfit to guide our youth,
And they flee to the public
Where their praying can be seen.
The Lord does his dance with a tax collector
And the Sadducees scream: Now!
Now do you see who he is? He dines with sinners
While we - we have all this work to do.
The man’s a winebibber!
The Lord does his dance with a woman of the streets
And the church people rub their hands together gleefully.
Aha! Now we’ve got you!
But he looked into them
And they crept away,
Unable to throw the first stone.
The Lord does his dance with all the wrong people:
With slaves and lepers and tax collectors,
With cursing fishermen and adulterers and thieves,
With outcasts and castoffs.
He dances with the unclean, with the orphan, with the displaced,
with the unwhole.
And he won’t dance with us,
No matter how plaintively we call
He won’t dance with us
Until we become
(Of all things)
As little children;
Until we admit we are the needy,
we are the outcasts,
we are the orphans.
Then he says to us:
Come unto me!
And we become the accepted unacceptables,
Our brokenness is bound,
And we are able to follow the dance.
The music is never-ending
And if we miss a step or two,
Or if we fall exhausted,
The Lord is always there to pull us to our feet.
So come now, let’s dance in the temple!
Let’s dance in the city!
Let’s dance in the sanctuary and in the streets!
Let’s join hands and dance where
The music leads us,
For the Lord’s dance is never ending;
The music goes on forever!
Dancing to The Lord of the Dance