The Art of Play

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/23/16 and imagines what it means to be a “people of play.” Our text is based on “The Little Prince.”

This summer has been a reflective one for me. We watched some of our youth graduate from religious education and go away to college. Two of them, one from this year’s class and one from the last, I first met at a youth leadership school I led in our region before I came to our Fellowship. In August about fifty of us, I mentioned in the beginning of the service, enjoyed a week together at summer camp and watched a bunch of about 17 youth full of tears and joys, after being raised with love from their childhood, knowing that it was their last year there. I’m thinking of the parents here today who are suddenly aware that they are empty nesters and other parents who feel like that is so far away but coming too fast.

Brian and I got married and enjoyed a fabulous honeymoon. One that I never imagined I’d have the good fortune to enjoy. This week my friends and I mourned the death of a friend of ours we lost forty years too young. It’s been a reflective summer. If you are new to our community, a large part is celebrating the major transitions in life – we often think of memorials and weddings when we talk about this – but our children are probably celebrated even more. We have a perennial program we do for our younger grade schoolers and we have a really intense coming of age program for our junior youth. The twelfth graders, you will hear in 10 months, from this pulpit, as they graduate our program. Recognizing the mass of life transitions for our children and youth, UUs celebrate a ritual that is a sacred occurrence. A childhood of scraped knees, stressed out test taking and more head colds than anyone but a parent can truly appreciate. Sacred is the most apt word I can name of that moment that this all led up to. That moment that in turn will yield to a life time more. Whether they are graduating or moving away, it is just sort of starting there as well. But before that moment whether we are parents or not, and I probably never will be, there is our first conversation together with our kids around us. Most often we have this conversation with our toddlers. We heard it a little bit ago from the excerpt from The Little Prince. Come and play with me the Little Prince proposed. I can’t play with you, the fox said, I’m not tamed. By a show of hands, who here is a former toddler… most of you then, great. You may not recall asking this to an adult, you are likely too young to remember, but I imagine you can hear the same question asked back at you from our youngest children. One of which shares the chairs with you most Sundays, our children ask us, the whole congregation, the whole Unitarian-Universalist faith, to come play with them, to share in joy and silliness, and chalice lightings and play dough. They come to us asking to be in relationship with us. Only they use the word play, instead of big and fancy words, but it means the same thing in the long run. Hopefully, some of us as adults will remember that when we talk to each other too, right?

How it starts. And the congregation responds, I can’t play with you. I’m not tamed. It takes years to tame us, right? You have to be very patient. First you sit down a little away from me, over there in the grass and I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye and you won’t say anything. Language is the source of misunderstandings. This is child’s stuff right? But day by day you will be able to sit a little closer. Countless Sundays teaching us through snack times, reminding us of your needs, and the infant’s cries at worship reminding us to take solace in one another. For the goings will not always be smooth. But, even the noise of community is better than the silence of isolation, especially, better. Not in those words, but I think every time I hear a baby cry in here, life is just so much better than not having the baby there to be crying. And it is also true of life, community is often hard or uncomfortable but it is much better than doing it alone. Over the years our children and youth call us back to relevance for them, requesting a worship service that leads us to set aside time for them with the dream that someday the whole thing will make sense. Our youth have taught us to offer an education that speaks to where they are, what they might become and what gives capacity to make the life decisions they’ll need to make. And I bet for those of us that were raised in a different way of thinking, a different kind of religion, we might be trying to create a space that is welcoming to our kids, our children who might not be welcomed other places, or what we might not have been given, particularly around our LGBT youth. They create a space where they can be themselves and they can teach us from that place.

Not all foxes out there learn to do this, but this one has been tamed enough. I realize our role. This fox here, this room, our role is to be tamed, or as the fox puts it, to create ties. We are here to help bring more of our relevance to community with one another. We are here to learn to forge real connections to people that are near us and to develop a sense of compassion for those who are not in safe.  You know so often we find out these platitudes like: be nice to people, be compassionate, try to remember when someone is not around. Oh, yeah, that is easy, we get it, we know that. Okay, how often do we do that all of the time? Anyone, do that all of the time? I think, it is the hardest lesson, the most simple lesson out there, and we say it over and over again because we can pass by it the second someone is nasty to you on the checkout line, everything is thrown out the window. Right? If you are waiting a long time, you get a bit rushed.

So, we are here to forge real connections and this can begin with play, learning to lose with kindness, to trust when we don’t all agree and to win with grace. Do you folks still play board games? Yeah, right? Do you ever play with family? Is that ever stressful? No, no, okay. Whoever says “no,” you can lead the adult education class on temperance next week. Learning to lose with kindness with family and to trust when we don’t all agree and to win with grace, think about those moments, think about those moments when really stupid things become really difficult.

This month we have been talking about play at our services and imagining what it would be like to be a people of play, what it would be like to not always take ourselves so seriously or so earnestly Not that there aren’t things that are serious. Most of the time you are going to hear me preach very earnestly and very seriously. But that is not always and forever what we are about and I think playing sometimes can open us up to being a little more human. Summer camps can open us up to being a little more human.

And when the time to leave was near, the fox said, I shall leave, but I get something because of the color of the wheat. Then he added, go and look at the roses again, and you will understand that yours is the only rose in all the world. So the rest of our kids have moved away or elders have retired to be closer to their grandkids, or sadly a number of friends or family have died, the color of the wheat in the field is different now for having that. All of life has changed and we are together for but a time, for some of us, thankfully, it might be a lifetime. Where ever you travel remember that you have been here. We are more than a place of people who tend toward an open view in life. We are not the sum of beliefs or opinions. Unitarian Universalism, this congregation, and our relationship is a way of living and acting and interacting. It is religious and it is cultural in differing ways. But essential to this is our commitment to walking together. Even when we are apart, the fox reminds us of this, here is my secret, it’s quite simple, it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. That which is essential is invisible to the eye.

Facts and details give way to relationships. I am personally glad for this point, I was raised up in a faith that gave me the impression that it had given me all of the answers and when I came to the realization that that was far from the truth, I felt a bit lost, because I had put my faith into beliefs and knowing. I found myself searching and I found myself in this faith as a late teen. This congregation, this community of friends and family will remain where ever we go. When you feel backed into a corner, give us a call, or post on a Facebook wall, our pastoral care team is here and it is here for you and my cell is in the Directory. When you call, we very likely will not have all of the answers and on occasion we will have none of them. The answers may still be just as elusive, but we have never been in the business of answers. We have been in the business of building a bigger and closer neighborhood and hopefully, changing the world through that. I know that that might be hard to believe, the bit about a closer neighborhood. This can be true for our folks in our seats this morning. Some of us know you pretty well, some very well and it will feel like a lot of folks barely know you at all. Of course any ordinary passerby would think my rose looks just like you because she is the one I watered.

You know when I first read The Little Prince, as a high school student in French class, I totally missed all the important bits like this because I was so focused on learning the words. It makes so much more sense in English. The message is completely true. I joined my first congregation 20 some odd years ago and whenever I run into them wherever I go, whether it is somewhere in New Jersey or out in the coast of New Hampshire, they look at me with a look of, you are one of us, and that has been true of other congregations I have been a member of and ones that I have served. We even had someone from my last church here visiting his kids and it is that moment that we had, like yes, we are still here, we are still together. You are one of ours. As long as we are here, we will be proud of you, in your successes and ever available in your hardship as best we can. I say all of us convince you with sincerity when I say, reach out to us whenever you need. Not everyone does when they need. And all of this begins with a place a play. We build community from lightheartedness. Remember that when you find yourself stuck in a place of complaint or curmudgeonliness. Staying in a place of harshness keeps the richness at bay and we all do it. And it never really helps but we all do it.

When we take seriously the fox’s last statement, people have forgotten this truth but you must not forget it. You become responsible for whatever you tamed. You are responsible for your rose. This is where it all kind of gets tricky. What does that mean? Who is the rose? We all are at times. You are part of the creation and you both cared for us as this rose is your years of attention and commitment and the caring you have given as a youth or as an adult to our youngest children, or our oldest adults and all of the stories that took place before I got here, a whole lifetime of stories in this community. You are also the rose for all the reasons I mentioned and all those you can imagine. We likewise feel responsible for you as we water you.

Where ever we are on our life’s journey, we are probably a little bit fed up with it. Who here is fed up with where they are on their life’s journey? Oh wow, a lot of enlightened people here. That is amazing. We are afloat, a bit weary for the tides and storms and feel like we have come this way by doing mathematics in the dark of night with nary a compass or sextant in hand and yet this is also the beauty of a faith without neat, clean answers. We get to travel with an ancient star as our guide, a lot of ancient stars as our guides, finding directions as best we can, interpret with the tools we have been given, as a sense of wonder and knowing the story may never truly end. This adventure demands of us the “we” in our lives. We never adventure alone. We always and only do it in relation. So each of you this morning, I ask you to think about, for our new year coming in, where shall we adventure in the months ahead? Where shall we do this together?

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