Play – A Sermon for June 13

Texts: Ex. 20:8-11; Mark 4:26-34

My sermon this morning is another in our congregation’s series of short summer sermons on the theme of joy. Today I will begin with the gospel reading assigned to us by the lectionary.

Recall these lines: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground. . . .” This is Jesus speaking. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

The paragraph that comes next in this reading from the gospel of Mark is the analogy of the mustard seed and the kingdom of God. Readers of Mark’s gospel are often drawn to that image, but today let’s stick with this first one. In particular, I would like to draw your attention to the opening lines.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed . . . and then buys an insurance policy on the crop. No, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed . . . and then takes on a side hustle working for a neighbour to make sure the family has enough money to buy their dream boat from the marina in Galilee. No, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed . . . and then abruptly moves on to another aspect of the agribusiness to fulfill his religious obligation of working 70 hours a week. No, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed . . . and then waits anxiously, watching each individual seed, analyzing the moisture content of the soil, tracking weather patterns off the Mediterranean, all while developing HR policies and modelling various ROE scenarios.

No, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed . . . and then goes to sleep. Eventually the seed sprouts, but how that happens is a mystery to the farmer. All the farmer knows is that the “earth produces of itself.” The kingdom of God is like this. Or, as I prefer to say, the economy of God is like this. The economy of God is one where you do your work and you rest, and the “earth produces of itself.”  

What I want us to notice is that in the economy of God there is room to breathe. There is room to relax. There is room to rest. Yes, we do our work, our little scattering, but it is God who does the heavy lifting. It is God who carries the worry. It is God who stands in charge of ultimate outcomes. This is a remarkably different economy from the one in which we usually live and move and have our being.

The French cultural critic, Jacques Ellul* described our modern age as a “technological society.” It’s one where we try to break down every activity into its technical parts. We’re constantly searching for ways to be more efficient. We want to find quantitative ways to understand everything. We’re infatuated with numbers, rates, risk analysis, dollars per hour. We want to take hold of chaos, and sometimes mystery, and make them transparent, technical, and rational. We want to wring more bang out of every buck.  

You probably don’t need a cultural observer like Jacques Ellul to tell you that. Many of us feel pressure to be more efficient, to study harder, to find exactly the right technique to produce the best result possible. And, of course, these results are relative because very often you’re evaluated against your peers. If you improve, so does someone else. If someone else volunteers to work all night, you risk being left behind. Not everyone can be the best in the class or submit the most billable hours. It often looks like the economy of the world wants to turn us into machines.  

But this is not the economy of God. Jesus’ description of the economy of God here in the gospel of Mark is just one clue that the Bible points us in a different direction. A more obvious clue, a neon-sign-level clue, is the fourth commandment from Exodus 20. That’s the one about the sabbath.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

Don’t miss the fact that the instruction about the sabbath is given in the midst of a fallen social order: non-race-based slavery is taken as a given in the text. We know that God’s Spirit will eventually lead in a better direction. But let’s also not miss the way the sabbath is connected to the rhythm in which God created the world. Because God rested, you should all—all—rest too. Notice that God wasn’t tired. The life of every individual, in every situation, is about more than labour.

The first verses of the first psalm suggest that following God’s instructions, instructions like the one about the sabbath, leads to happiness. “Happy are those . . . .” The situation is like that of a tree living close to a stream. It never withers, never grows tired, never dries up.

I’m not enough of a linguist to have made this observation myself, but apparently the word used for “happy” in the Greek translation of Psalm 1 is the same word used in the Greek translation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Oddly, in one case we get the word “happy” (Psalm 1) and in the other we get the word “blessed” (Sermon on the Mount). It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, if our translations of the Sermon on the Mount also began with the word “happy.” As in, “Happy are the poor in spirit . . . .” or “Happy are the peacemakers . . . .” Later in that same sermon about “happiness” Jesus tells his listeners not to worry, not be anxious, not to strive single-mindedly for financial success (Matthew 5-7). The sabbath is one clue. Jesus’ description of the economy of God is another, and the Sermon on the Mount another still.

Of course, people can get anything wrong. There’s a story in one of the Little House on the Prairie books about observing the sabbath. It’s an old family story about Pa’s ancestors. For them the sabbath was a solemn observance that started at sundown on Saturday evening. After that point, no food could be cooked, no work could be done, no voices could be raised, and no fun could be had. On Sunday, after listening to a two-hour sermon, the children would have to spend the afternoon sitting in the parlor studying their catechism.

Now, as the story goes, one Sunday afternoon the father fell asleep while reading the Bible. The kids were anxious to try a new sled they had built and snuck out for just one run. The best sledding track ran right by the house. The kids knew they would have to keep quiet as they zipped past. Everything was going as planned at the start of the run. That is, until a large pig stepped in front of the careening sled. The porker got caught on the front of the sled and squealed loudly as it and the kids zipped past the house. Their father was standing in the doorway: the kids were having too much for the sabbath.

The Little House on the Prairie books, like many others, are instructive in the shortcomings they depict. The way they represent indigenous peoples and gloss over land rights is one example. But another is this little story about sabbath observance. Jesus tells us clearly the sabbath is created for the benefit of people, not the other way around. The biblical sabbath shows that life is more than productivity, more than efficiency, more than accruing and developing and competing, and, yes, more than dour religious duty.

Think about this: We have no reason to believe that God’s creation of all that is was a necessary act. The biblical witness seems to indicate that our wonderfully complex earth and the cosmos in which it resides is an over-the-top, unnecessary, act of creative generosity.

My suggestion today is that to fit ourselves to such a world, we need to make space in our lives for play. Consider it a spiritual practice if you must. “Do everything for the glory of God,” Paul tells us in I Corinthians. He was thinking about eating. James’s circular letter tells us that all the good things in life have their origin in God.

If you need more theology to give you license to enjoy playing a bit, think of play as recreation. And remember that recreation is re-creation. Through the joy of re-creation we are renewed. Through the joy of re-creation we are re-made. The redemptive work of Jesus is not intended to make us better workers or religious fanatics. The redemptive work of Jesus is intended to liberate us for the joy and satisfaction of living well in God’s good creation.

I have no desire to put therapists out of work today, but I do think that finding joy means making space for play. In the economy of God there is room for such things. Far from standing in the way of play and recreation, the biblical witness calls us to relax, rest, to do our work and then to sleep, to watch with wonder what “the earth produces of itself.”

Here’s my closing thought: To enjoy the world, to take pleasure in it, to be awed by it, to allow it’s brilliance to move our hearts—all that is an act of true worship.  

So, loving God, we thank you for rest and for joy, bur also for bicycles, lawn darts, croquet, basketballs, baseballs gloves, garden trowels, puzzles, crosswords, hiking shoes, paddles, and floaty lake toys. Surely, you are good. Amen.

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