Sacred Soil

You Can’t Say You Can’t Play
September 16, 2012, 3:15 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Lectionary 24

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Words are dangerous. Powerful enough to be used as weapons to destroy, or as hope to heal. I’ve never really bought into the idea that “names will never hurt me.” How we use language matters, how we hear and listen matters. James knew this. So did Isaiah.

One of my dear friends runs a preschool co-op out in Portland, Oregon. Melody has this way of honoring children that creates a holy space in her classrooms–a space to learn the true gifts of being human, of being a child of God.

One day she mentioned this book, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. And I felt compelled to buy it immediately. It’s a beautiful story of a teacher’s journey through the question, what if we established this as a rule? What would change? Could we actually learn to stop excluding? What if we said, you can’t say you can’t play?

And the thing is children’s play is very serious business. Indeed, it is how we who are grownups learned to interact with each other, to negotiate our differences, to establish our social structures. Child’s play lays the foundation of all our social interactions through our whole lives.

And so, Vivian, the author of this book, becomes very concerned at the exclusion she sees in her classroom. The uncomfortable dissonance between students, as they create games that include some, and exclude others. She wonders aloud, is this how we learn to stratify ourselves? How we set ourselves against each other? From as early as kindergarten?

This is a very serious question indeed. One as ancient as our texts for today. James knows that our tongues lead us in dangerous directions, serving to cut ourselves off from each other. The words of exclusion and harm seem to flow like the spark of a fire, igniting a whole forest ablaze. In our tongues lies the power to bless and the power to curse–but our jealousies and selfishness lead us too often toward that cursing. Toward the division. Toward the bitter words of exclusion. And this is something we learn from a very young age. Very young.

Vivian notices Clara in her class, a young kindergartener who is not popular. Rarely chosen for games, she is often also excluded. Lisa is quick to declare, Clara, you cannot play with us. And so Clara retreats to her cubbie, sad and dejected.

Now, Isaiah might try to pull Clara aside and give her advice on standing strong in the fight, about staying stalwart and setting her face like flint. Isaiah is good like this. He knows that it does us no good to merely slink away to our cubbies, and neither does it do us good to come out with our fists, as other students in Vivian’s class are often tempted to do. No, Isaiah would have advised Clara to stand there, firm, let them pull the hair out of her beard… or well… you know what I mean.

But the problem is that for Clara, a kindergartener, subject to the rules of exclusion, well, this is a terribly advanced thing to suggest she actually do. In fact, it is difficult for all of us. I think it is true of most of us in this room, when we have faced exclusion (and I know you all have), we tend to either run to our own cubbies, or fight back, baring our teeth, our words, our fists. Rarely do we stand firm as Isaiah would advise.

Vivian realized this for her class. And so she wondered with the kids, what if we made this rule, what if we said, “you can’t say you can’t play?” The book is a beautiful retelling of the conversation and deliberation–and in the end, she chose to do it. Though the older kids thought, “start with the kindergarteners, we’re too mean to make this work now.” But, Vivian reports that the change was dramatic. The tensions in her classroom melted, saying, “Indeed, it is a ladder out of the trap we’ve been in.”

Here’s what I think happened in that space– in that school: The paradigm shifted. No longer was their time together defined by figuring out who was the boss, and who got to play with whom. Those social jealousies evaporated. As each child entered the space to play, things got more creative and imaginative. And the children learned to play in a new way. But most importantly, they knew inherently that they were all valuable. That none of them deserved exclusion. They learned that they were all beloved children of God. And their play reflected it.

The adjustment took some work–but the ones who tended to be excluded especially appreciated these words: you can’t say you can’t play. It was their strength in the face of exclusion. It was their internal reminder–I too am worthy. Indeed, these words made it possible to take Isaiah’s advice, and stand firm in the face of those who would pull out their beards. To take insult, without feeling shamed. For these words represented for them the promise we all have, the promise that our God is here to vindicate us. To stand up with us.

But what’s beautiful about this, this reminder of the rules, is that the defiance is not an exclusion. Rather it is an invitation. An invitation to play. To participate, to be fully human together. Clara was given the strength and capacity to stay, to engage, to befriend. She did not need to choose between her cubby and her fists.

Turns out we have that rule too. Though we phrase it differently. It appears over and over again in the Bible in different forms. John 3:16 is one you probably remember: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…. the whole world. You and me, the stranger, and the one, that for whatever reason we might have, (kindergarten taught us a lot of stuff that we’re not fully aware of) that we feel compelled to exclude. It is a rule that comes to us in the form of Gospel. In the form of the good news that each one of us is loved beyond our comprehension–so what business do we have in excluding anyone?

But there are consequences for living this way. Vivian isn’t here to enforce the rules. Indeed, most of our systems of power work against this model. And so, many would laugh, I’m sure, if you showed up at work and declared: you can’t say you can’t play.

But, Jesus did this all the time in his ministry–openly declared that our systems of exclusion and rejection were evil. He set his face like flint, and did let them pull out his beard. Indeed they did even worse than that, hanging him on a cross. And he knew it would happen. He knew that God’s rule of love was too threatening to the Lisa’s of this world, to all those who are committed to their own power. And he knew that this would get him killed. He knew this wasn’t child’s play.

Yet, he also knew that this love, this rule of God’s wide embrace, God’s all inclusive love—he knew that this rule was stronger even than death. And indeed, it was and still is. He knew it, and gave himself completely to the hope that we might know this rule too. This Good News. This love.

And I am grateful that we do have a place where we can experience what that feel like, what it is like to be in a space where all are welcomed, where no one is rejected. Our foretaste of the feast to come where God’s love rules– it’s at this table. Christ’s table. So come, receive this bread. The bread of love. The bread of life. And know, everyone gets to play here. Everyone. And that’s serious business.


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