Pastor Stan stood at the pulpit and looked out at the congregation of the First Synagogue Baptist Church with pride. He had been the senior pastor at First Baptist Church for just over 10 years. The congregation had just celebrated with him last month, throwing a special party in his honor, and giving him a sizable gift as a way to show their appreciation. At the party, the denominational rep was there to offer his congratulations, and present Stan with a special plaque for his church’s place in the region as the highest giving church – five years running!
Not only that, but he had recently published his first book, entitled Work and Play. It was a sizable book that was aimed at helping pastors learn from his considerable wisdom and experience in the ministry for almost 30 years. The title, Work and Play, referred to his belief that if pastors are to be successful, they must learn to draw distinct boundaries in their ministry. Boundaries between pastor and congregant. Boundaries between worship and service and discipleship. Boundaries between work and play. He used his own experience in ministry as a guide for struggling or new pastors to explain these boundaries. “Six days of work. One day of play.” was the catch phrase that adorned the back of the book. It was also on the display in the back of the sanctuary, where he proudly noticed a handful of people were slow to move into the sanctuary proper, as they flipped through the book and pointed at the cardboard cutout of Pastor Stan’s face smiling back at them.
As he surveyed the congregation before him, his eyes landed on the youth in the front row. He sighed as he steeled himself for the reality that faced him. Youth. Sunday. “Here we go, again” he thought to himself. Another youth Sunday of white knuckles as he was terrified to hear what theology they would preach on this time. Another youth Sunday of congregation members smiling on the way out, winking as they tell him they are looking forward to his sermon next week. Another youth Sunday of phone calls during the week from parishioners questioning whether their music selection was appropriate for worship. But, it was the Sunday that rolled around on the calendar every year, and so he swallowed hard and smiled as he began his welcome on the heels of the end of the prelude.
Youth Sunday was really pretty good this year, Pastor Stan thought, as the worship service moved on through the hour. There were several really musically talented youth this year, and they drew several “Amens” at the end of their special music and offertory selections. The youth had done a pretty good job taking up the offering this year, as opposed to last year’s debacle where they passed it down the same row three times. And now, as the service drew on, he realized it was about time for the sermon. Another sigh.
Jesse stood to preach. Pastor Stan looked out at congregation and counted the faces who were going to call him during the course of the week. Jesse was the son of one of the newer families in church, and he could tell that Lucille in the third row was counting the number of piercings he had on his face. He stood in his black jeans and his black t-shirt, ready to deliver something, but Stan could not begin to guess what. He read from Luke and as he closed the Bible, he smiled a big smile that glinted almost as much as the metal rings and bars on his face.
“What if,” he began, “we took seven days a week to play?” Stan’s cheeks grew red. He knew immediately that he was referring to Stan’s book, and his catch phrase that stood in the back of the sanctuary. He wished that he could throw a sheet over it right now, as he watched eyes dart to the back, clearly figuring out the reference themselves.
Jesse went on. “What if we made life a game? What if we took the example of Jesus, who was always getting in trouble for partying too much, eating and drinking too much, and hanging out with the wrong people? What if we made his call for abundant life our own call? Instead of worrying so much about the rules – who is acceptable and who is not…who is righteous and who is not…who is lazy and who is not – what if we simply played more? What if we proclaimed the abundant life of Jesus? It was what Jesus did wherever he went. To women. To the poor. To the powerless. To the powerful and strong. To everyone. All the time. Regardless of where he was and who he was with, he played!
As Stan’s face got redder and redder, Jesse went on to describe a church at play – one that was less worried about rules and programs and more worried about freedom. About proclaiming freedom from the bondage of life. Of disease. Of sin. Of brokenness.
Jesse proclaimed, “Maybe we would discover that we didn’t have to take ourselves so seriously and we could start to dance with each other more. Even dance with God! After all, it is Walter Brueggeman who reminds us that the slaves in America would talk about Sabbath in terms of a ‘hoedown.’ Literally, it would be a time when they would throw their hoes down from work and then…like any good hoedown, they would pick up their instruments and dance!”
And Stan, knuckles white on the front row, listened with sweaty palms.
“But,” Jesse paused for dramatic effect, in the way that Stan thought his sophomore speech teacher had probably taught him, “life is not just about play.”
“What if,” Stan was really starting to hate when Jesse asked that, “we took seven days a week to work?” Now he had everyone’s attention. A playful 17 year old young man just fed the stereotypes many of them had when they walked in that morning. But now he surprised them.
“What if,” he asked, “we made life work? Not a task list. Not a job. But a vocation. What if we took the example of Jesus, who was always on the lookout for another person to heal, to hear, to love, and made that our own life? What if we took Jesus’ vocation to heart, to free the prisoners and proclaim Jubilee? And then, wherever we went, we were involved in that work? Like Jesus, who worked even on the Sabbath, but did so in a way that brought freedom and not drudgery to the synagogue? Whenever he taught and healed, the crowds literally cheered! Jesus found some amazing way to work not just harder than the Pharisees, but better. His whole life was about this work, about this vocation.
Sure, he took time to pray and listen to his Father, and he spent time away from people, in his own personal Sabbath. But even that time away seemed to be in the manner of this same vocation, this same work. He did not take a break from his vocation, but recognized that all of his time, all of his days, all of his energy, was a gift from God and deserved to be honored as a gift. It was not like he had some days when he followed God and some days when he didn’t. Every minute of every day, whether he was at church or home, with congregation members or religious leaders, teaching in the synagogue or taking a day off.”
Stan’s whole head was purple now. Jesse had clearly read his book with a mind to discredit him in front of everyone. Stan had written a full 34 pages about the importance of a day off, and now Jesse was just trying to embarrass him. And what does he know, anyway? He doesn’t understand that Sabbath has to have a fence around it. You have to set up rules in order to make it work!
He was in panic mode, now, trying to figure out what to say when he stood up for the invitation, in order to fix what this young man had messed up. He was barely paying attention when Jesse continued.
“What if”, Jesse ventured once more, “we did both? What if we lived a life of play and a life of work? At the same time? Instead of trying to draw distinctions and boundaries all the time, what if we lived life in a more integrated, holistic way? What if we lived a life of playful work? A life that recognizes that our emotional well-being and our spiritual well-being and our physical well being and our economic and political well being are all caught up with one another! Sabbath is the Great Festival of Shalom, when all is ordered and in right relationship between God and humanity and creation. Therefore, when we practice Sabbath, we recognize that all of our days are meant to love God and love others and serve the world, but we do it in a way that is joy-filled and hope-filled and dance-filled!”
At that point, Jesse came out of the pulpit and walked straight to Marlene. Stan had known Marlene for the whole 10 years that he had been at First Church. She was one of those parishioners that Stan had laughed about with other pastors, naming her as his “thorn in the side.” For Marlene had always had something going wrong in her life. For the 18 years that she had been a member of the congregation, there was always a physical malady, an emotional crisis, an anxious concern in her life. She was always calling and leaving 6 minute messages on his phone. She was always taking up all the time in the “sharing of prayers and concerns” in worship. She was always holding him up in the line at the end of the church. Stan had written with pride in his book about the MFZ – the Marlene-free Zone – of his day off. Of course, he had changed her name in the book and thinly veiled the references. But it was clear that he was proud of the way that he had learned to side-step her.
So, now, he panicked as Jesse headed straight to her pew. Jesse bowed to the waist, and asked into the lapel microphone, “Marlene, may I have this dance?” And Marlene, startled at first, slowly took his hand and followed him out of the pew. Then, with music that existed in their heads alone, they danced around the area in front of the chancel for a good thirty seconds or more. And then returning her to her seat, Jesse smiled and covered his mic, as he whispered, “Marlene, you have been set free!”
Stan was practically lying down in the pew, now. What was his kid doing? He was giving her exactly the attention that she manipulated from him. Now, she would be even more insufferable! Not only that, but he would have to deal with the phone calls about dancing in church! His eyes shot around for the youth minister, to make sure he knew how displeased he was with the “Youth Sunday Disaster of 2013”. What he didn’t see were the eyes that glistened around the room, as a hundred Kleenex came out of purses at the same time. Nor did he see Marlene’s gigantic smile that looked like it would never go away.
Stan did his best during the invitation to smile and thank Jesse for the sermon. He threw in a few unnatural-sounding corrections about boundaries, making sure that we all get that Sabbath time once a week, and taking our days off. A few folks scratched their heads, wondering if he had been listening to any of the sermon. Most of what he was trying to do was to end the service and get out of there! But as he glanced down at the order of worship during the hymn, he saw his worst nightmare. By the Benediction, there was Jesse’s name, printed in black and white! He seriously considered for a moment pretending he hadn’t seen it, but he figured that he would look even more foolish if he skipped it. Reluctantly, he called Jesse back to the front to offer the Benediction.
“Before I offer the benediction,” Jesse started. “Let me tell you a little bit about how I came to this church.” Stan’s reaction was more audible than he intended. “A couple of years ago, when we moved up here from down South, we started looking immediately for a church. We visited everywhere. My parents had me pegged for one of those churches with the loud music and the stadium seating and the big crowd under 40. And to be honest, I did, too. I thought that was the best fit and where I would find my friends.
“But then I walked into this church. I saw the giant steeple out front. And I smelled the old pews that had been here since before I was born. And I heard the organ pipes, blasting as loud as any self-respecting rock concert would. And I opened up a hymnal and harkened back to a world that was deeper and more ancient than anything I had ever seen or heard. And I fell in love. I fell in love with the worship. I fell in love with the folks who greeted me – some of them five times my age – because they were genuinely happy to see me. I fell in love with Pastor Stan’s sermons – his wisdom and his thoughtfulness.” Pastor Stan turned red again and smiled weakly. “I found in these people a place where I wanted to engage in playful work. To practice it. To learn it for the rest of the week, whenever I was somewhere else. It was here I learned to dance. Thank you, for teaching me the steps.”
And he raised his arms to the heavens and offered the benediction. “You know the steps. Go now, in the peace of Christ, and dance.”