Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jacob said, “How awesome is this place!” (Genesis 28)
The philosopher Alan Watts once said, “This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, to realize it is play.”
Watts might have fit right in here at St. Michael’s. He was British by background, giving him that lovely English accent that we Anglicans so admire. He attended the King’s School, right next door to Canterbury Cathedral. By his own assessment, Watts was imaginative, headstrong and talkative.
And at one point he went to seminary after emigrating to America, and then was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1945. But he turned rather quickly from that toward Zen Buddhism, and set about devoting himself to interpreting Eastern spiritual practices to Western audiences.
In any case, Watts had this idea, popularized in his book Play to Live, that we human beings thrive most when we understand our life’s activity to be a form of play, rather than of work. That is, being alive is essentially an activity that engages our imagination in the creative exploration of our innate wonder and joy, rather than in the fulfillment of social obligations.
Now, if Watts’ spiritual eclecticism is a little too far out there for you, we could turn toward something a bit more orthodox. The Catholic theologian Hugo Rahner (elder brother of the more famous Karl Rahner), explored in his own book from 1963, Man at Play, the ways in which even worship itself is more like children playing than otherwise. His point was this. What we do here in church has all the elements of play: story, song, imaginative response, movement, and so on. And just as grown-ups look on with pride and delight at children playing, so too God looks on what we do here with the same kind of joy and appreciation.
The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, our patronal festival, is an occasion that especially calls to my mind this idea of play. In the biblical imagination, it seems, angels are used to describe a whole network of spirits who bask in the beauty and wonder of God—the proverbial angels of Jacob’s ladder, for example, about whom we read today. The idea of dancing angels has become a part of popular culture, and even the medieval mind famously asked the question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
So let’s follow this idea of playing—dancing—before God in church a bit further, and see where it might take us. What might the idea of play tell us about what we do here together in church?
Well, in the first instance, it takes the pressure off of whether there is a right or a wrong way to worship. Just as children experience a great freedom in the way they play, so too worship is also something we create, even “make up” (if you will), as we go along.
And worship as play also puts the emphasis more strongly upon the dimension of story. Each time we gather, we are here to tell a story—some part of God’s story with us. So now two Sundays are ever alike, because each tells a different part of the story. The gospel reading is the most obvious example of that, because the gospels are themselves the story of Jesus, and within the gospels Jesus himself tells many stories, or parables as we call them.
But every other piece of our worship also helps to tell the story: the songs we sing, the prayers we offer, the silences we keep, the movements we make. Many of those elements repeat themselves week by week: part of the story we tell, for instance, is always that we are invited to sit down at table with Jesus, to know ourselves there to be one of his friends. Getting up and coming forward for communion tells exactly that story.
But other elements of the story change. Sometimes the story that needs to be told is of the way we fall short of friendship with Christ—and so we pause to confess our fault. Sometimes the story that needs to be told is of how we share a common faith with Christians of all times and places—and so we take time to express that faith publicly (as we will do here today, on this occasion celebrating our parish identity).
Worship thought of as play, in other words, has more to do with a drama performed in a theater than with a lecture given in an auditorium; and it has more to do with the movement and music of a dance hall than with the hush of a theater; and it has more to do with the noise and improvisation of a playground than with the regularity of a dance hall. Church becomes a place of imagination, wonder, creativity, and improvisation—rather than a place of propriety and restraint.
But even more importantly, worship as play affects the way we live the rest of our lives as well, for it returns us to our daily living with a different sense of our true self. As Rahner explores, the homo economicus of modern society—the human being defined by what he or she produces and consumes—blocks us from experiencing our authentic nature as homo ludens, the playing human being. Worship reminds us that we are not ultimately defined by what we have, but by the relationships we have with one another and with God, shaped by the time we spend in nonproductive activity, in other words, in playing. And just as children become friends by playing together, we become friends of one another, and of God, in play.
Last Saturday, we happened to have both a funeral and a wedding here at St. Michael’s. At the funeral in the morning, Entourage Jazz made a surprise appearance because one of the scheduled musicians was ill. And so, instead of the Pie Jesu, “Fly Me to the Moon” became the offertory anthem, bringing smiles and laughter to many a sad face. Later that same afternoon, Entourage Jazz and I joined up again downtown, in this case for a lively outdoor wedding. At the reception, as the musicians played “Fly Me to the Moon” yet again, the children just let loose, dancing enthusiastically and unselfconsciously to the rhythms. What a scene it was!
Times like those don’t just happen. They are the result of years of people like us being woven into the fabric of family, community and church by the time we take to be together without any other purpose than simply to know ourselves to be the holy common people of God. And that, I think, is what our stewardship team has in mind with this year’s campaign theme, beginning today: “A Gift to One Another.” What we are about in this community, is truly pure gift, not unlike the gift of play that children give to one another. And to paraphrase Jacob, with whom we began this sermon: “How awesome is that!”