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The Revd Canon Christopher Irvine

Trinity 20, 14 October 2018

Joshua 5.15-6.20; Matthew 11.20-30

What kind of instructions are these? ‘Do a whole circuit of the city each day for six days…just walk once around its walls, and don’t shout as you go. On the seventh day, go round the city wall seven times, and at the seventh time, when you hear the blast of the ram’s horn shout for all you’re worth!’

These were the instructions that Joshua gave to the Israelites when they sought to capture the city of Jericho. But when you take them out of context and read them as they stand, they sound like the rules of a child’s game. Walk round once each day for six days, and on the seventh day walk round again and give a deafening shout!’ It could be one of the playground games that Iona and Peter Opie recorded in the mid-20th century. They discovered in their research that children played, and handed on to successive generations, some extremely complex rule-governed games in the school playground: these were games such as hopscotch. Then there’s the way in which the child walks along a pavement carefully avoiding the gaps between the paving stones. That again is only a game, but the rules are to be followed with the utmost seriousness, just like the game of hopscotch: feet together here, apart there, and do not land on the lines drawn on the playground. There’s a definite pattern to it, and it’s one that the child simply has to follow in order to stay in the game. Hopping, skipping, jumping, or simply walking around. It’s a rather serious business, this play!

Some years ago a young child was interviewed after a service in Exeter Cathedral. Her response has often been quoted, but it is certainly appropriate to mention it again here: ‘I know what happens in church is true, because they walk about in patterns.’  

We’re all familiar with those particular rituals, set pieces of behaviour, like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, or laying flowers at the scene of a traffic accident. And even those of us who disdain mere ritual, happily do these things in the course of our lives. For these and other conventionally repeated patterns of behaviour, such as the farewell hug, or putting a post card in the post, are important moments in our relationships and shape the pattern of our lives.

This is especially the case as we play out our relationship with God in worship. There is, as one liturgical theologian so eloquently put it, a serious playfulness about worship, and when we look, for example, at the worship of the Eastern Orthodox Church with all its colour and movement and song, we’ll only get what it’s about when we begin to see that it’s a question of playing heaven on earth.

Now some of us may be beginning to feel a little uncomfortable with all this talk about play. After all, we’re educated people and  begin to feel immediately suspicious when we get a whiff of irrational belief and behaviour. We’re certainly suspicious of the kind of ritual that seems to be a mindless going through the motions, or just doing something in a particular way because it’s always been done that way. Any rational human being would feel the same.  And in any case, didn’t even St. Paul say that when he was a child he spoke like a child, and thought like a child, but on becoming an adult Christian he put away childish things. But being childish is not the same as being ‘childlike’, and the connotations are very different. Being childish is wanting your own way and being oblivious to everyone and everything else. It’s a blinkered self-centred view of one’s place in the world. And on this reckoning, even the arrogant behaviour of an adult can be childish, especially if they refuse to see something from another person’s point of view.  

But being childlike and being childish are worlds apart. For the child, the world is welcomed with wide eyed wonder: and the more the child sees, the more the child realises that there is more to see. For the world, as the poet Louis McNeice said, is incorrigibly plural. 

To take another tack, we could say that play is playing ‘as if’, and perhaps every human endeavour and enquiry advances through saying ‘what if’.  ‘What if we see it this way, rather than that way?’ Stephen Hawking’s amazing career progressed because he repeatedly said ‘what if…’ Scientific experimentation certainly  proceeds from a hypothesis, an ’as if’,  and historical research is a question of reconstructing a life, or a past event by coming to see a pattern in the fragments of the past. Quite simply, all the explanations we propose proceed from the base of an imaginative ‘as if’.

So, perhaps now we can see why Jesus prayed: ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the intelligent and revealing them to mere children…’ (Matthew 11.25. Cf. Luke 11.21) The Greek word translated here as ‘children’, nepiois, literally means ‘infants’.  It is, of course, through the senses of sight and sound and touch that the infant gains a sense of being in the world and begins to respond to the people and objects of their immediate world. The young child then plays to make the world their own. Initially I couldn’t quite figure out why the first thing my grandson wanted to do when he returned from school as a five year old was to ‘play schools.’ Playing it out is a way of discovering why it is as it is. But the real delight of play is not simply in reproducing or replicating the classroom in the play-room, but in realising that things can be arranged differently. Here again, we have an instance of ‘as if’, a shift from how it is, to how it could be. Not just reimagining, but re-arranging, reconfiguring the world so that it looks different and feels different.

Our second reading this evening told us how Jesus solemnly denounced the citizens of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, and compared them unfavourably with the gentile territories of Tyre and Sidon. ‘Woe to you Chorazin, woe to you Bethsaida!’ You saw and you heard, but you simply didn’t get it! Jesus had not only proclaimed, but also physically demonstrated the Kingdom of God. There in their midst, he had shown them what this Kingdom of God looked like when it is was played out in human lives. This playing out of the Kingdom was not a game of pretend, a game of make believe, but a real tangible expression of how things are and how things can be when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.

We have then a game to play, not only here in chapel, as together we go through the pattern of our worship, with its standing and sitting, its listening, and saying and singing, but throughout the days of the week ahead. It is a most glorious playing ‘as if’ God’s Kingdom was already here, present with us, between us and through us. And when we play this game of ‘as if’, God’s love takes shape in the patterns of our lives. This is the game that delights the child in us and shows us that what many may consider to be the folly of God is actually wiser than the so-called wisdom of men.