sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Proper 9A [Track 2], The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017
“Hey, Dad, let’s play fairies!”
The phrase burst out of a seven-year-old girl who was brimming with hope and anticipation. It fell on the ears of her forty-year-old father: “Dad, let’s play fairies!” Here was an invitation to intimacy, to quality time, to everything that parenting was supposed to be.
The man almost gave a knee-jerk reply, something like: “I’m sorry, kiddo, I’m busy right now.” But instead he checked himself. It would have been an excuse. Sure, the man had a lot on his mind. But he had heard recently a study that showed that American parents only play with their children, on average, for twenty minutes per week! And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, and next thing you know, you’ve long since retired and your kid has moved away and is just like you. “Not me,” he thought to himself. “I’m not going to be that dad today!”
|Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (Wikimedia)|
But neither could he throw himself into playing fairies with abandon. He wasn’t going to go all Mr. Banks, get fired from his stuffy, selfish job, and spend all night mending a kite. So feeling too weary to play but too guilty not to, he hedged. “Hmmm … playing fairies? Well, what would that be like?”
The little girl was too young to really roll her eyes, but he heard a preview of that phase in her reply: “Dad, you know! I’ll be Silvermist and you can be Oberon.”
Oh, if only it could be so easy. For this man remembered being a child, possessing the natural ability to play in just this way, taking on a character and immersing himself in a fantasy world. Every day at recess, he had been Luke Skywalker! And then, somewhere along the line, that creative, playful impulse grew up and became much harder to capture. So how about a board game instead? Or a card game? Something with legitimate rules to follow? No, not stuffed animals—what would they say or do? This man desperately wanted to spend time with his daughter, but he wanted to do it on his own terms. And it turns out that he was exactly like those in the generation of Jesus. (Stick with me on this.)
Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” The problem with Jesus’ generation was that they would only play on their own terms. I suspect the problem wasn’t limited to that generation, either.
What does it mean only to play on our own terms? The comparison Jesus makes is a strange one, and he does so in order to call out those who have been bad-mouthing not only him but also John the Baptist. They gripe about John, the grumpy, teetotaling radical, and then they gripe about Jesus, who drinks plenty of wine and hangs out with all the wrong people. Why are they OK with neither one?
To illustrate his point, Jesus compares his critics to children in the marketplace who begin by playing games but who end in an argument. One group wants to play wedding, and the other wants to play funeral. Both groups are too obstinate to compromise, and as a result, they miss out on the one thing they set out to do in the first place: to play! Instead, we might imagine a schoolyard scuffle breaking out, resulting in bloody noses and broken friendships.
In response to his critics’ grumbling, Jesus gives an invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Grumbling is a very heavy burden. So is needing to be in control, and choosing the game ourselves, and failing to use our imaginations. Living an abundant life in God’s world takes imagination, but these critics could not imagine the vision Jesus offered them.
Yet can we be held accountable? Is it really our own responsibility to lay down this burden? When I try to let go of control, often I find that I can’t. When I try to muster more imagination, sometimes I find only futility. Paul got it right: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Why must we always seek to be in control? Why do we cling to our pride? Why is it so hard to suspend our need to be right? Sometimes we even decide we’d rather not love at all than leave our comfort zone. Graham Greene once wrote, “Hate is a lack of imagination.”
Laying down this burden is not easy. We will fail to do it time and time again. But circumstances keep conspiring to give us another chance. And in the times when, with God’s help, we do manage to lay down our burden, wonderful, graceful things can result. Relationships can deepen. Unforgettable memories can be carved. People can be helped. Justice can be done. God can be honored. To relax into the invitation to play means to let go of our self-consciousness and play this God-given game called life. Kids get it, says Jesus. God has hidden these things from the supposedly wise grownups and revealed them to the youngest among us. They never hesitate to play—their play is their work, and vice versa. We can, indeed, learn from our children, not just about how to play but also about Christian practice. A friend of mine once commented, “Kids do ministry like they do breathing.”
Yet maturity is also to be valued. Kids play, but they also fight, and bully each other, and selfishly cling to whatever it is they most want to do. Kids throw temper tantrums. Adults have known what it is to play, but hopefully, we have also learned what it is to set aside our own agenda and play someone else’s game for a while. We can always draw on the unique wisdom of each of our previous ages.
It may feel like this takes boundless energy. But what if it’s not up to us to conjure all that energy? Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Oxen are yoked together by twos—imagine that you and Jesus are carrying a yoke together. Who is shouldering the greater share of the burden? Or imagine a bicycle built for two. Who is the stronger pedaler—you or Jesus? “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
And what is the nature of this yoke that Jesus offers? We take it upon ourselves by meeting Jesus in Scripture. We absorb the complex and beautiful person Jesus is, and in so doing, we let the living Christ speak to us in our own day. We hear his words about the Kingdom of God, and we begin to imagine it. Then we take on this yoke in service—in meeting others precisely where they are and learning from them. As we help provide for some of their needs, we also find our own spirits strengthened. The yoke of love—a love that is centered on God’s dream for the world—is a yoke we take on ourselves, not a yoke others place on us. We carry a burden we choose to carry—like in that old song, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
The burden of loving is a burden that can feel so light we don’t necessarily notice it … or, at other times, so heavy that it demands our very lives. We walk the path Jesus walked. It’s not necessarily the kind of path people appreciate or give honor to. But then, Jesus never did go in for conventional glory. When it came time to ride into Jerusalem, he did so on a donkey, drawing a direct connection to the prophet Zechariah: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Who knew that fulfilling prophecy could be so playful? And Jesus’ unbridled compassion was free of pretense and social correctness, and this is one reason his followers began to identify him with the God the Father and to worship him: “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.” So when Jesus invites us to play, we don’t need to muster any energy in particular. We need only lay down our burden and say, “Here I am.”
Jesus invites us to exchange many burdens—distracted busy-ness, self-conscious pride, helplessness, smug certainty—for the more playful yet often arduous work of really loving each other. Hopefully, if we let go of our need to control everything, we can continue to carry the yoke in faith, knowing that even when it leads to a place of death, it will also lead through death into new life. When I look at it this way, I can see that everything I do in life involves a decision about whether to cling to my own crippling burdens, or to accept Jesus’ yoke instead.
So if you’re striving hard to earn God’s love, you’re wasting your energy. That’s like striving to make water wet, or striving to make gravity take effect on Earth. God’s love is not something to strive for, but something to relax into. There are many other things to strive for in life. Let the never-failing love of God serve as your main source of fuel.
But back to the man and his daughter. It’s been a few years, and fairies don’t come up as often in conversation, though Legos and dragons do. And stuffed animals still play a role: the stuffed cats have even formed their own ninja training school. The man is still busy a lot of the time, but slowly, gently, he is learning to play again. It hasn’t been a born-again experience, like it was for Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. It’s been slow and gradual—two steps forward, one step back. But that creativity of childhood isn’t gone; it’s just showing up in new ways, only one of which is a dedication to play with his little girl. Amen.