(John 13: 31-35)
Last week we began a new sermon series entitled “Finding God in Everyday Places” as we considered then some of the ways faith and work might converge and co-mingle and the implications of living as those who know and are known by God. Leading lives out in the world as clear witness to what we believe even at times and in places we might think far removed from the sanctity of these walls.
This week we turn our focus to play. Perhaps an easier concept to grasp for members of this congregation still on retreat in the North Carolina Mountains. And perhaps an easier Biblical mandate to accept – yes, the Bible has something to say on the topic – when requirements are waived for those who are full-time employees, second-career students, plus parish interns. I must admit, I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like just to play! And I doubt I’m alone in this regard whether for you the constraint is an equal abundance of obligations and deadlines or something else like advancing age, declining buy viagra health, tight finances, or too few relationships creating opportunities around something as light hearted as play. Indeed it is rare for anyone much beyond adolescence to think of playing and it can feel more than a little indulgent, even irresponsible if we do.
But a moment ago, I said there was a Biblical mandate for play. Actually the imperative is to rest, and you must consider the commandment about honoring the Sabbath in view of God’s work in creation and know something about ancient Jewish cultic practices to make the connection. Still there doesn’t seem to be a lot of playing, let alone resting, recorded in Scripture.
We see in the Old Testament that survival can be a full-time pursuit in and of itself. A new creation ravaged by flood. Forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Prophets warning against growing too comfortable or complacent under God’s law. It’s hard to imagine these as relaxing scenarios.
And by the time of the New Testament as the Roman Empire has spread, play as the opposite of work becomes more about social standing further separating those who are free from those in bondage. One person beholding to another lest the whole system should crumble and fall. It’s not hard to see how both playing and becoming idle might be seen as offensive depending on which side of the equation you’re on. And the One who comes ushering in a new economy and inviting all who would follow to serve a different Master…well, His way is not always the path of least resistance.
Understandably, we can get our priorities confused. American cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, observed as recently as the nineteen seventies how modern culture had rendered play as something to be earned by work and good works. Mead went on to say that in order for play to be enjoyed by most it also had to be seen in light of future work and good works. It seems we have dismissed play as conditional upon or as conditioning for work. Hardly much of a reward at all!
So are we being asked to do the impossible: to find God where we seldom, if ever, find ourselves? I want to suggest to you today that play is not limited to participation in team sports nor does it require that we still are able to get down on the floor and crawl around. Some of us were never that athletic to begin with and something about passing age forty makes bending that far rather painful.
I want to suggest also that play does not necessitate leaving town, although a change of scenery and some mountain air can help us shift gears. Nor does proper play demand the price of admission to an exotic resort or an entertainment venue. Play doesn’t even mean the absence of all work or a break from life as we may know it. No, play, the kind of Godly play today’s scripture passages hint at, is not as dependent on our activity as it is our attitude. The delight one feels just knowing we are God’s children. It’s something we carry with us. It resides deep inside each of you. You feel it in your heart. Such joy can break forth at any time and in anyplace. Even in everyday places and faces, in what one of my friends describes as those tuna casserole moments. Basic fare, but not entirely without some seasoning. To that end, some of the most playful people I’ve ever known, on the surface, seemed to lead rather ordinary lives without much fanfare. But at heart…well that’s another story. Here, let me show you what I’m getting at. Won’t you play with me for just a moment.
Look! There’s Dr. Hardee, an Episcopalian by birth and an Anglophile by grooming. He’s just now getting back to town. You see, he leaves here during the week to teach at a nearby college but always returns home in time to host Sunday afternoon teas. Not once has the Queen accepted an invitation to attend though her country’s flag always flies out front as do assorted other banners when there is a royal birth to celebrate.
Scholarly research takes Dr. Hardee to London several times a year, making people worry all over again that he may one day jump the pond for good. But no sooner over there, he starts mailing bunches of postcards back here just to say hello and eventually to say when his flight will return should someone be inclined to meet him at the airport. A deep kinship with the worlds of Faulkner and Flannery always brings this would-be Shakespearean home to a smaller pond he knows by heart.
Next door to Dr. Hardee is Mrs. Lee: Methodist grandmother of the meanest kid to visit for two very long weeks each summer. Spencer usually gets to know the local police pretty well during his short sojourns. Nothing major. Just some perishables the postman leaves unattended at someone else’s door. The London Times and the literary journals remain unspoiled atop the now empty box of English tea biscuits.
It will take the officers sometime before they reunite this petty thief with his guardian. Seems he tells them first he is orphaned and later that he has been kidnapped and is being held against his will. We all can laugh because everyone knows the only things Mrs. Lee holds hostage in her house are a mess of cats and several dozen pieces of antique cut glass she has collected over time. Spencer will gradually mature from one visit to the next and ultimately help care for his grandmother in her final days; giving away figurines, punch bowls, and stemware to all who bring food and the cats to someone who apparently has a heart for all things furry rather than fragile.
Just the other side of Spencer’s grandmother sits the Tanner’s whose hold on that property will remain long after the namesakes leave town. Eventually, the house will become known also as the place where Mayfield tore up the front steps after tying one on. The following Wednesday the local paper will print a photo of Mayfield, the best yardman in town, and his date, someone no one seems to recognize, still sitting inside Mayfield’s big Buick which fortunately has come to rest a few feet clear of where Big Joe, Junior Jackson, and Little Joe the III – the never once churched, the churched only on Christmas and Easter if you’re lucky and the churched most anytime there’s food – remain seated in rockers on their front porch.
Mayfield’s wife will be livid to discover through the newspaper that her husband has lost his license this time. Still, there’s no hiding any of the facts. They’re all right there on the front page. “Daredevil Date” is not the headline though. “Yardman Cuts Things Close at the Tanner Place” goes to press instead.
The senior Jackson will remain silent about the evening’s events, passing no judgment on what he has seen with his own two eyes. He simply reckons that Mayfield might ought to cut the grass for free a time or two until they’ve settled the cost of any damages amongst themselves. At heart, the state of their friendship is never once in question.
But Mrs. Brown who has already called it a night does question all the commotion outside her window just now. She phones across the street to the church where some lights are still on. Soon a cloud of witnesses gathers. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to adjourn a late night deacons meeting to get first crack at some news that will be old gossip by morning!
Everyone knows the caller as “Bees”, not because she is a busy-body but because she buzzes around town with her grocery cart. You see, Bees never learned to drive even after her husband died. As a single mother, she raises two fine boys, putting them both through college and graduate school on a teacher’s salary. One becomes a religion professor. The other a guidance counselor. Both somewhere out west. They will try to convince their mother to move closer once retired.
Still Bees insists she has plenty of folks looking after her right where she is. And it isn’t hard to keep tabs on Bees. You see her cart parked along the sidewalk and know she is inside the grocery store, the library or Frank’s Variety Store – the only place in town likely to carry educational toys that Bees will send grandchildren who fill her heart with delight though far away.
Back at Frank’s Variety Store, the display windows don’t change much through the years. Apparently, something was lost when translating German into English as “variety.” It’s all pretty much the same, regardless of which tongue you speak. Still day in and day out, Mrs. Frank and her daughter will sit just inside the door in long sleeves or sweaters. “Can you believe that? And in the heat and humidity of eastern North Carolina!” The garments help cover markings, though: random numbers given long ago when stripped of a God given name. The husband and father, a prominent Jewish judge, and the son and brother, one still too young to know anything but captivity, will die in their homeland. Just not in their home.
But the survivors, who somehow find their way to our little town, don’t lose hope and they don’t harden their hearts. Mrs. Frank, formerly a concert pianist, finds ways to bridge the language gap with songs. When the time comes, a Baptist minister will be asked to play for Mrs. Frank’s funeral.
That’s hardly an odd request. You see, we tend to be an ecumenical bunch anyway because our numbers are too small for religious segregation. All hearts are in mourning as piano concertos are played and selected verses from the psalter are read.
“He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay. And he set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth. A song of promise to our God;…many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.” (Ps. 40:1-3)
You can’t sing or say those words without deep conviction. No. Chords that resonant can only come from down in the heart.
These familiar faces and places come from the heart. They are forever engrained and entrusted there with all the humor, heartache and honor that surround any life. But they are more than the makings of good fiction. They are gifts from God.
“I will write it on their hearts…”
According to the ancient understanding of the human self, the heart is the deepest seat of both thought and feeling. It is there that the whole of you responds to God and to life. The utterances of the heart, unlike those of the discriminating intellect, always relate to the whole. What you commit to heart you are unlikely to forget. The heart hears and holds the fullest measure of our lives.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
Love. The heart hammers it out. One life giving beat after another. So whenever you want to come out and play, just consider what you already know by heart – those most holy faces, places and sacred spaces held in covenant with God.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.