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First Congregational Church
Greenwich, Connecticut
August 12, 2007
Rev. Alexander Harper

The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. —Exodus 32.6

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness; that my soul may praise thee and not be silent. —Psalm 30.11

David danced before the Lord with all his might . . .Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. —Samuel 6.16

A Parable

IMAGINE that the great Day of Judgment has come. Now your turn has come at last. You find yourself standing before the throne of heaven. You're asked what were the most significant things you ever did on earth. After you stop trembling and your teeth stop chattering, what do you think you might answer? What was most important in the days of your years on this earth? You might remember your work, some of the ways in which you bore your share of the world's labor. You might recall your friendships, those you loved. You might report your worship of God, your loyalty to the church of Jesus Christ. All those sound respectable, even a little noble.

When you've finished, God looks at you and smiles, with what for all the world looks like a twinkle in a divine eye. Then the Voice from the throne asks, "Didn't you ever play?"

You can't quite believe what you think you heard. Surely, on this most awesome of occasions, the God of heaven and earth couldn't have asked that. "I fear I heard you wrong, Lord. Did you ask if I ever prayed?"

"No, played," replies the great Voice, with an eye still twinkling. "Didn't you ever take a vacation from seriousness, let down your hair, trip the light fantastic?"

"Well, yes, of course, Lord," you answer, still flustered and puzzled. "I played, but mostly as a child. Grown up, well. a little poker (low stakes), a little golf (well, a lot), races with my 50-foot powerboat. I certainly didn't think that would be important here!"

The great head above the throne shook slowly — not up and down but from side to side, head in hand.

That's the end of my parable, but not the end of the serious question embedded in it: Have you ever played? If you've grown up, do you still take time to play? Can you be playful without embarrassment and apology? Of course, everything has its time and place. Writes Ecclesiastes (3.1-3): There is . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

Or have we grown so stiff and formal, so captive to a sober-sides image of adulthood, that we've forgotten how to play with abandon -- without looking at watches and fearing that we're "wasting time," "being silly" and "forgetting our age"?

I'll make a confession to you: ministers are especially prone to this disease we can call "rickets of the playful joints." But you knew this anyway. Whether ministers naturally speak, dress and act with such rectitude, or whether we're like that because people expect it, the clergy image is heavy with solemnity. Just look at this black robe!

You may have the same problem as you grow older. If so, beware! A wise Boston physician, Dr. Richard Cabot, once said, "We do not grow old because of years or lack of exercise; we grow old because we lose our ability to play."

Play and Religion: Friends or Enemies?
Why on earth should a sermon deal with play anyway? Didn't we come to church (wiping the smile from our face) to worship, not to play? You'd rightly resent it if I turned our service into a game of hop-scotch or indoor baseball. Eyebrows are still raised at clowns in church or balloons on Easter or Pentecost. (I should know: my late wife Jean (some of you knew her) was such a clown.)

Yet worship includes reflection on how God sees and wills our life, our whole life and not just our prayer times. Play is indispensable to wholeness of life; it's just as vital as love and work and worship. Without play, they go sour too. In the right time and place, and in rhythm with the rest of life, play is as necessary as the air we breathe and the food we eat.

Surprising to some, the Bible affirms the importance of play for adults and not just for children. To be sure, the prophets often show a profound uneasiness about "playing like the pagans."

Consider one example: In the book of Exodus, the Israelites are camped beneath Mt. Sinai. They've been waiting for weeks for Moses to come down the mountain. The Bible describes their routine: The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.

Now Moses is uneasy when he sees them playing, but largely because they were picking up other pagan habits as well. Idolatry is what he fears, not playfulness. Worship of false gods is what does you in, not games. On the other hand, Moses may have been a sourpuss.

Later in the Second Book of Samuel, we encounter King David before the famous Ark of the Covenant, that "portable church" the Hebrews carried on their pilgrimage to the Promised Land. What does David do at the ark, before the Holy of holies? How does he worship?

And David danced before the Lord with all his might.

He danced! He worshipped with artful play. But Michal, David’s wife, a puritanical princess, spots David. He’s stripped down for strenuous body movement in sacred dance. She scolds him mightily for what she thinks blasphemy. For her, dance and play are enemies of religion.

Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. (6.16)

Poor Michal! Dance and play are at once natural, human, profound as well as delightful. But the Michals of the world don't know it. There are always misguided souls embarrassed to have a smile on their faces, a twinkle in their eyes, or a joyful lilt in their step. Such sourpuss party-poopers have forgotten that deep, double wisdom of Ecclesiastes: There is a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

Jesus and Playfulness

Notice how Jesus makes reference to play in his teachings. He must have known children's games firsthand from his own childhood in Nazareth. He likens many adults of his day to children quarreling and pouting about what to play. They can't even get together on a single game. Those of this generation, says Jesus sadly,are like children sitting in the market place and calling to one another, "We piped to you, and you didn't dance." "We wailed, and you didn't weep." (Luke 7.32)

I suspect Jesus was referring to those delightful imitations which kids of every age play as they copy adult behavior. He’s talking about kids playing “weddings” and “funerals.”
Jesus seems to mean something like this: "Alas, dear friends, you're missing God's signals for the game of life—by fighting over who calls the tune, who names the game. For a wedding or wedding-game, pipers pipe the tune and that's the signal to dance. For a funeral or funeral-game, someone starts the mourning, and then we weep with him or her. But you, it seems, can neither rejoice nor weep. You may miss God's kingdom if you don't watch out!"

A Foretaste of Heaven

Now I dare to make an even bolder proposal: Play, more than work, is a foretaste of heaven. You may be closest to the kingdom of God, not when you're working your fingers to the bone and hating it, but when you're playing with abandon and delight and loving it.

For one it may be baseball, for another a game of checkers or chess. For you it may be folk-singing, for me playing the viola in a string quartet. For one it might be a bridge group or weekend painting, for another devouring a novel, still another an evening in a discotheque, or sitting around swapping jokes.

For our soul's sake, getting away from the grind on a little vacation is necessary for most of us at least once a year, with a few weekends away in other seasons. Whatever your play or art (play and art are kissing cousins), lose yourself from time to time in something delightful, something worth doing for its own sake

Do something, but not for the sake of a pay check or someone's opinion of you. Let yourself go in the joy of something absolutely impractical, and just for the fun of it. Don't try to justify it as edifying or "educational" -- as we say when we buy toys.

When you can do that, when you can play with conviviality, you're close indeed to the kingdom of God. You're actually practicing for the great Day when all is fulfilled, all battles won, all hurts healed, all noble dreams realized.

Then what will you do? The hope we're given is to live with all redeemable souls, giving and receiving freely with one another in the dance of a life fulfilled -- all in the light and with the music of the presence of God.

Fruit of a Lifetime

When retirement from paid employment comes -- in mid-sixties for most of us -- the saddest sight I know is those who have nothing to do that doesn't bore them to death. Their lives, and sometimes their marriages, fall apart. Once-happy husbands at the office now drive their wives up the wall by hanging around the house, useless, petulant and usually in a supervisory mood. They never learned to play, or if they did, they forgot how and left "all that" behind with childhood.

By contrast, the most beautiful sight I know is those who are never bored when their work is done. They keep a spirit of playfulness alive. They know how to enjoy almost any moment. They find music in common sounds; they dance a little as they move about; they find poetry in ordinary conversation with everyday people. They're never far from playfulness.

Does that sound childish? It may well be child-like. Said Jesus: "Unless you can become as a little child, you won't enter the kingdom." "I was born able to paint like an adult," the great painter Picasso once said, seeming to boast. Then he added: "It took me forty years to learn to learn to paint like a child." Just so, it may take us years to recover our ability to play, when we've been conned into thinking that adults should be practical and purposeful at all times.

So hang on for dear life to your spirit of playfulness! If you've lost it, then for your soul's sake work at recovering it. It may be your surest ticket to the kingdom of heaven when you can pray with the writer of the 30th Psalm:

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing, thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness.

I began with a parable. I leave you with another one, a bit cryptic, this time by the late cartoonist Jim Crane. I won't even tell you what it means. Crane calls it "Lift-off."

Charlie, his mother said, you're 10 years old,
and it's time you stopped playing with blocks.
Charlie, his teacher said, you're 15 years old,
and it's time you stopped daydreaming.
Charlie, his father said, you're 20 now,
and it's time you stopped writing those plays.
Charlie, his advisor, said, it's time you concentrated on meeting graduation requirements.
Charlie, his wife said, you're 30 years old and have a family to support. It's time you stopped having visions.
Charlie, his boss said, there is no place in this concern for fantasy.

On May 15th Charlie sat at the controls of his flower and lifted off in a stream of soft magenta smoke.

He waved a tender good-bye to his
mother, father,
teacher, adviser,
wife, children,
and the boss.

Goodbye, he called back. What a pity! You could all have come with me— if you'd only known.

What St. Augustine said 1600 years ago about dancing may apply to all play — play that’s really light-hearted and not just a grim mirror of our competitive business life.

Augustine said: “Better learn learn to dance, or the angels in heaven won’t know what to do with you!”