Sermon: August 23, 2020

Play: God’s Laughter & Wisdom’s Fun

Preached at First Congregational Church, Loveland UCC www.lovelanducc.org By Rev. Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson Scripture Passage: Selections from Genesis 37 & 45

And now, will you pray with me? God of smiles and tears, laughter and song, God of frolicking rollicking fun and play, may the words of my mouth and all of our thoughts bring you delight. Amen.

“Do you think they’ll let me play?” Jesse looks down at his son Shay’s face alight with hope and joy. It is a September afternoon and Jacob is walking Shay home from school. They have stopped in front of a park where some neighborhood kids are playing baseball. It is the perfect afternoon for a game of pickup.

“Dad,” Shay says again. “Do you think they’ll let me play?”[1] Jacob looks at his son. He wonders how to explain: joining in this pickup game is not so simple for Shay, and not just because he’s not so athletic. Shay was born with Downs syndrome.

Play…. Usually, we associate play with children — and sandboxes, swings, the pool, a soccer field or volleyball court, with legos or stuffed animals, jostling with friends. We picture laughter and fun, delight so catching that even as onlookers we can feel it. 

Did you know that play is so important that the United Nations “has recognized it as a… right for all children”?[2] Author, psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play, Stuart Brown “compares play to oxygen. He writes, ‘it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.’ This might seem surprising until you [think about all the things play includes]: art, books, movies, music, comedy, flirting, daydreaming”[3] and the list could go on.

Play is not only integral for children but also for adults, for all of us. “Play [adds] joy to life, relieve[s] stress, supercharge[s] learning, connect[s] you to others and the world around you [and even] make[s] work more productive and pleasurable.”[4]

That’s all well and good. We can concede that play is essential. But we’re in the midst of a pandemic. We have more important matters to address — like mere survival.

Now I do not want to make light of millions of people’s actual life and death situations. Many Americans and indeed people around the world are in fact struggling simply to survive.

But maybe play is still important. Maybe it’s part of what will sustain not just our bodies but our spirits through this time. Play, humor, laughter, music, art, delight – these maintain our humanity in the midst of crisis. Think of the incredible music that has come out of the African American community’s experience of slavery, Jim Crow and continued oppression: from gospel to the blues, from jazz to R&B, hip hop and rap. Remember how laughter has been a balm to your spirit in the midst of grief or illness or loss. Play, music, laughter – this reminds us why we might want to go on – what is beautiful and good and true about God, creation and humanity. Play keeps us going. It gives us hope. And we need hope as much now as ever.

In the scripture reading I shared with our children, Jesus, exhausted though he is, chooses to play. “Don’t chase away the children! Children are God’s delight.” Then Jesus gets down and plays with them. I imagine children hanging off Jesus’ legs, riding on his back and shoulders, giggling and falling over themselves and climbing back up again. I imagine little hands and feet wanting to touch this man whose holiness feels like love and whose grace looks like play. Jesus understood that he wasn’t the only one giving a blessing. The children were blessing HIM with their play, with their laughter, with their presence. Indeed those minutes of play were exactly what God’s dream for the world looks like. And we can only see it through a child’s eyes.

And perhaps we can only practice it through play — by holding things lightly, not getting too attached. By not taking ourselves or our roles too seriously. By sharing and taking turns. By always having room for one more person to join – whether they are like us or not. By laughing, and yes sometimes crying. By making up, forgiving and starting again.

Perhaps the only way we can practice living into God’s dream is, in part through play.

[PAUSE]

“Dad,” Shay says again. “Do you think they’ll let me play?”

Not having the heart to say no to his son, Jacob approaches one of the players and asks. “Sure,” the kids says. “We’re losing and the game’s almost over, but Shay can be on our team. [PAUSE] Totally.” 

When it’s Shay’s turn at bat, it doesn’t matter that he has no clue how to hold the bat let alone hit the ball. Shay steps proudly up to the plate. The pitcher moves in a few steps and lobs in a soft pitch. Shay takes a swing and a miss. There’s a momentary pause, a quiet, then one of Shay’s teammates comes up, holds the bat with Shay and together, the two face the pitcher. As the pitch comes in, they swing together and hit a slow ground ball…. Straight to the pitcher.

The pitcher picks up the grounder, looks towards first base and then back at Shay and throws the ball in a high arc just outside the reach of the first base player. His teammates starts yelling, “Shay, run to first! Run to first!” Not quite sure what to do, Shay heads up the baseline startled and wide-eyed.

The first base player finally gets hold of the ball but instead of running back to tag Shay out, she throws the ball towards second base in a high arc just beyond the second base player’s reach.

His teammates yell: “Shay, run to second, run to second.” As Shay reaches second base, the opposing short stop runs to him, turns him in the direction of third base and shouts “Run to third!” As Shay rounds third, the kids from both teams have come out of their dugouts to form a human tail running behind Shay. They all scream: “Shay run home! Shay run home!”[5]

Playing is about more than winning or losing. It is about more than following the rules. Play is about including everyone, making room, seeing the best in others and ourselves. It is about surrendering what is supposed to happen to the possibility of what can happen. It is letting go of our vision for the world to let in God’s dream.

“Shay run home! Shay run home!” the children yell. And Shay does. He runs all the way home, steps on home plate and all 18 players lift him onto their shoulders and make him the hero of their game.

This, beloved of God, is what play looks like.

This is the wisdom of which we read in Proverbs —

The wisdom to delight, to co-create, to have fun and indeed to fall in love again and again with all that is and the Creator of it all.

And so, during this time of such upheaval,

May we have the wisdom and the audacity to play.

And to delight. It may just be our window into God’s dream for the world. Amen.


[1] Adapted from Rabbi Paysach Krohn, Echoes of the Maggid, 1999 “Perfection at the Plate” as retold by EJ Nolan, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_shay.shtml

[2] Wikipedia, Play

[3] Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. “The Importance of Play for Adults” https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-importance-of-play-for-adults/

[4] Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Jennifer Shubin. “The Benefits of Play for Adults” https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/benefits-of-play-for-adults.htm

[5] Adapted from Rabbi Paysach Krohn, Echoes of the Maggid, 1999 “Perfection at the Plate” as retold by EJ Nolan, https://www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_shay.shtml

© 2020 Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson, all rights reserved. Please contact thandiwe@lovelanducc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.


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