Preached at my home congregation before I even went to seminary. The theme (chosen for me) "Laughter and Play vs. Dead Seriousness." The texts: Psalm 104:24-26 and Psalm 98:4-8. I know, it's an odd choice for Lent.
My father taught me how to play. Oh, it wasn't that he couldn't be strict, if the occasion demanded. But he remembered how to play, and he played with us. He knew how to turn ordinary activities into GAMES. Take bath time, for instance. In order to coax us out of a hot bath, he would play a "let's pretend" game with the towel. As he was drying us off, the towel became many costumes, and we became everything imaginable from Casper the friendly ghost or Little Red Riding Hood to Superman or even an Arabian sheik.
Or, take prayer time. Sometimes when my father walked in our bedroom door in the evening, he was not our father but -- Methuselah, the world's oldest man! He could tell us stories about Abraham and Moses and he had known Jesus personally, but he had a hard time remembering some of the words to the prayers, and we had to fill them in for him. This was the way my sister and I memorized the Lord's prayer -- with laughter and imagination.
But I have a confession to make. I have grown up -- and I have all but forgotten how to play, how to imagine and pretend. Caught in my literal dismal present, I can't see beyond the nose on my face, beyond my dreary desk piled high with files, to a more promising future. I see only day after day of drudgery, work that I have to do. Like many others, I suspects, I work earnestly at a job I no longer enjoy, work earnestly at fulfilling my church obligations, work earnestly even at having fun. I have not only forgotten how to play, I have forgotten what play is. What is it? Play is what children do. It is the foolish abandonment and joy of children when given a surprise. It is the ability to play unself-consciously a game of "let's pretend." But I am an adult. I know there are no more surprises, and I am too serious about doing my work to pretend much. I have learned my lesson well. Play is for children. Work is for adults.
The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time and a season for everything under heaven, for weeping as well as laughter, and the season of Lent is most often skewed toward the weeping side. Traditionally, Lent is a season for self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter, as well as remembrance and re-enactment of the life of Christ. In other words, Lent is a lot of work. As adults, we know about work. Plodding drudgery and dead seriousness. But the Scripture tonight speaks of God's work of creation as sheer delight. We see God as One who plays with, delights in, creation. Even the dreaded sea monster Leviathan is God's playmate. For God, Creation is play and we are created to play with God. But we don't, do we? We walk with our heads down, trudge along like unredeemed slaves, fulfill our obligations to God as though God were some harsh taskmaster hurling edicts from heaven. In the Nicene Creed, though, we confess that, rather than being a harsh taskmaster, God, for us and four our salvation, came down from heaven. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The early Church imagined that the almighty Word leaped down from heaven, such was God's eagerness to be among us. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are freed again to play with God.
What is our response then? Can play be as appropriate a Lenten discipline as the works of prayer and meditation, hospitality and service? Joyous Psalm 98 has a clue. We can, along with all of creation, the roaring seas, the stars, the hills, break forth into joyous song, make a joyful noise with hearts and hands and voices. We confess that it is not only our duty, it is our delight to serve and worship God. For we know the end of the story; we know the life beyond death; we know the love of Jesus Christ who was crucified and has risen triumphant. And if we do not know, at least we can imagine.
An amazing thing happened to me during a recent worship service. Me, the unimaginative one, drowning in dull repetitious days, unable to see the hope that lies in wait for me. "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord, God of power and might," I sang. "Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory -- HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST." Suddenly i felt like I must be in one of Walter Cronkite's historical re-enactments: "You WERE there" -- and if I could stand on my toes a little higher I just might see, out in the narthex, Jesus on a donkey getting ready to ride into the sanctuary. For a fleeting moment, the work of worship became the grace of play to me, and I became aware that God was there, playing out His life for and with us -- a holy game of "let's pretend."
You don't believe me? Try it. The next time you sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God's people on earth<' sing as if you were the angels are Jesus' birth, proclaiming the good news to a bunch of illiterate shepherds. Because that's who you are. Or, singing "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation," be, not yourself, but -- old Simeon, holding the baby Jesus in his arms to bless Him, and getting a blessing instead. When you sing, "Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life," imagine that you are that rag-tag group of disciples, meeting the Lord, dropping your nets, following Him -- because you are.
Our Creator taught us how to play, but we have forgotten. We know the duty, but not the delight, and we cannot imagine the redemption of our pointless present, much less the resurrection that awaits us all. Jesus reminds us that we are children still, calls us to give ourselves to our tasks in abandonment and joy, as he gave Himself to us in abandonment and Joy. Our highest work, then, is to play -- with the One who made us, who is (wonder of wonders) also the One who saves us.