Games People Play

Slide2Sermon for the sixth Sunday in Easter, Acts of the Apostles 17:22-31 ….

Some of you know that I was in Springfield on Friday. I offered the invocation for the day’s session of the Illinois House of Representatives. I was the guest of my state representative, the Honorable Katie S., who just happens to be the daughter-in-law of Bob and Sandy S.

Given our system of government, a representative of the Church offering a prayer in the context of a State assembly naturally prompts questions about proper content. So in the formal invitation letter, the clerk of the House provides some guidance.

 As you might expect, there is advice about prayers being respectful to other traditions, not demeaning another faith, not proselytizing. But there is also this sentence: “Further, prayers should not make reference to religious figures that are unique to any one religion, or make any other denominational appeal.”

Some of you saw my Facebook post about this letter. I’d rather hear a rabbi, imam, or other religious leader pray authentically than listen to a generic prayer that “should not make reference to religious figures that are unique to any one religion.” We would learn so much more about one another!

The letter reminded me of Yale law professor Steven Carter’s book  “The Culture of Disbelief,” in which he argues that contemporary law and politics tends to trivialize religious devotion. Often it is assumed that religious particularity, like praying to Jesus, is unimportant and easily discarded, a facet of human personality with which public-minded citizens would not bother.

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As I prepared for the prayer, I saw three choices. I could disregard the instructions (but I’d rather build good relationships). I could try humor (which probably doesn’t work well in this context). Or, I could try to be creative and faithfulat the same time. I ended up framing a prayer to the God of the universe, addressed by many names, but never limited by any one name, the “Great Resister Of All Labels.”

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The prayer went something like this:

God of the universe, addressed by many names, but never limited by any one name, you are the Great Resistor Of All Labels. The breadth and depth of your being are beyond the comprehension of any one individual. Limited is our understanding of your design and purposes.

Great Resistor Of All Labels, to call for your aid in a room like this always is a risky undertaking. A prayer for freedom and change may be heard as a call to anarchy; A prayer for order and stability may be heard a call to oppression. Demands for resources may seem unlimited, and the supply of resources scarce. But since the challenges we face seem overwhelming, and remembering that you have a reputation for solutions, we dare to ask for your help.  

May your Spirit inspire the members of this house so that in today’s work they may prove themselves faithful servants of Illinois and its people. During moments of discouragement, remind them of the power in simply showing up, and working with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. As Desmond Tutu once observed, the forces that want to frustrate the ends toward which you are drawing history already have lost. Therefore, in the roles we all play for the public good, may we accept daily your invitation to join the winning side. So let it be. Amen.

For better or worse, there was a kind of gamesmanship in this prayer. In this context, to pray in both a faithful and relevant way required some attention to the perspective of those who framed the instructions, and attention to what needed to be said in that context. Conversation about God in a seat of government can feel a little like a game of hide-and-seek.

In the 17th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we get of glimpse of the Apostle Paul in a public place every bit as impressive and diverse as the Illinois House of Representatives. When Paul arrives in the city of Athens, he encounters a great and complex culture in which it is possible for people to hide from spiritual truth behind the competing claims of hundreds of small gods and teachers of philosophy. Referring to a statue dedicated to an unknown deity, he finds a way of explaining the way in which God has been hidden from the eyes of the Athenians, but now can be found in Jesus Christ.

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In the context of this sermon, Paul is not reluctant to say that the God of the universe, the great Resistor Of All Labels, has been revealed in the particular person of Jesus. But many Athenians remain skeptical. Granted, they didn’t have much time to warm up to Paul’s preaching. But over time, many probably continued on in the belief that God has been hidden, and always will remain hidden. In some sense, they act like the people my college philosophy professor described, by saying, “Always interested in talking about the truth, but never interested in actually finding it.”

From my perspective as a pastor, there are occasional conversational threads like that. People approach the church with requests for help of one kind or another – financial, emotional, relational, or spiritual. We listen to the need. We try to match the need to the best available resource. But sometimes a seeker of help is stuck in a very unhealthy cycle. He or she ignores or rejects advice. Some time passes by, and a request comes for additional advice. The advice is ignored or rejected a second time. Some time passes, and again the person phones or appears at the office.

After two or three cycles, I begin to feel like I’m a player in another person’s game of hide-and-seek. Sometimes, we are so confused that we think God never will be found. Or we’re so hurt, we can’t believe that we are worthy of being found. Sometimes, we’re more interested in talking about solutions than actually experiencing them, more interested in hiding than in actually being found.

In these moments, I sometimes remember another game, a game my children liked to play when they were very young. I remember a night long ago when I arrived home after a meeting. As I walked into the house, I found only a kitchen light on. Everything had an air of quietness that rarely existed in a house with preschoolers.

It suddenly dawned on me that no one seemed to be at home. I walked from room to room looking for a clue as to the whereabouts of my family. I wondered if an evening trip had been taken to visit the grocery store or to see the doctor at the urgent care clinic.

When I walked by one of the bedrooms, I saw a strange lump under the bedcovers. As I turned on the light, and reached for the covers, a huge laugh erupted. It took just a split second to move from surprise to a smile. Under the covers were my wife and kids, who had patiently outwaited me to unleash a joke.

 

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You might remember that there’s a game like this called “sardines.”[1] One person hides, and each time another person finds him or her, they all hide together.  Like me, sometimes we may not even know we are playing it. We may not even have considered the possibility  that when this life ends, we will find the hidden God, the One we thought would never be found, in a game of sardines. Along with Robert Fulghum, the author who gave me this idea, I like to think He will be waiting there with all those we love, welcoming us home with joy and laughter.

[1] Robert Fulghum uses the game of “sardines” as an analogy for heaven in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, New York: Villard Books, 1988, p. 58.

 

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~ by JohnH1962 on May 24, 2017.