Scripture: Genesis 18:1–15
What is the most fun that you have ever had?
I want you to think about a time that you played. Unadulterated, joy-giving play. Think about it for a minute. Who was there? What were you doing? Why do you think that moment comes to mind now?
Hold onto that, and we’ll be back in a few minutes to that memory.
This morning, let me suggest that we don’t know how to really play very well. A couple of months ago, the Blue Team of Earthworks helped preach the first sermon of the Season of Creation, and Steve Yoder said something that has stuck with me: “play is a privilege.” It helped make the point about how we carve out spaces for folks to enjoy God’s creation, and I think he was absolutely right. Today I want to press that point a little deeper.
I think part of the reason why play is a privilege is that we have turned play into this thing that it perhaps was not meant to be…a commodity in our consumeristic culture. In broad terms, we tend to value work more than play. Work brings us money. Work fits that Protestant work ethic that we have been taught. Work and vocation are what bring us value as people. Play is lazy. Play is something we can only do after the work is done. After we have worked for 40, 50, 60 hours a week and made enough money, then—and only then—we can afford a vacation in order to play. Or we pay for an expensive membership at the gym or country club in order to play. Or we pay wads of money for our children to be in year-long youth sports, so that they can play. Thus play is a privilege of wealth in our culture…only for those who can afford it. Now, I am not trying to shame those of us who do those things, but instead ask if something is missing from our theology of play, if we can only see it as a commodity in our capitalist culture. Is there something more to a God-given theology of play?
Remember that 17 chapters before today’s passage, God created play. On the seventh day, God created Sabbath, making sure that we as God’s creation would take part in regular joyful, playful, restful pauses.
And 17 short chapters later, we revisit this idea of play. Now, when we look at today’s passage through the lens of our consumeristic culture, the story goes something like this: God (or God’s messengers) show up to Abraham and Sarah’s tent with a very important mission, Sarah laughs at the likelihood of said mission, and God (or God’s messengers) scold her for her lack of faith and trust in God. God can do anything, and she should know this, even though she has never met this God. She needs to stop laughing and take this serious. It is all very furrowed brow and deep voice and severe consequences. “Oh, yes, you did laugh.” You have to say it with the gravitas that it deserves!
I think we do Scripture a disservice sometimes, because we take the play out of it. Look at the story again through the lens of play and playfulness:
First, it begins with Abram hanging out at the Oaks of Mamre. This is a setting that was first introduced in chapter 13 as a place in nature where Abraham experienced the presence of God, and set up an altar. For him, this natural place was like a sanctuary in creation, a space for holy worship. The Hebrew is a little unclear whether God comes to him in the form of these three figures, or God had already come to him under these holy oak trees, when the three strangers show up. Either way, God is present in the holy, worshipful playfulness.
Which is exactly what the Blue Team preaches! Regular, everyday playfulness in God’s creation is part of who we are called to be. Richard Louv, in his book The Last Child in the Woods, laments the fact that the only times our kids are in nature are in strictly controlled sports leagues. Whatever happened to climbing trees, and building forts, and throwing snowballs? The Blue Team gets this, allowing unstructured outdoor play time. Abraham did too, under the oaks of Mamre.
Then, these three strangers show up. The text doesn’t really say who they are. Christians have noticed the number of 3, and wondered if it was the Trinity. Others have suggested that this is the two messengers from Sodom and Gomorrah, plus Godself joining them. What seems to be clear is that this is the presence of God on earth, come to visit Abraham. Our Jewish siblings use this passage as a way to teach children about the importance of visiting the sick. If you flip back to Chapter 17, you will find that Abram has just been circumcised, at the age of 99! Ouch. Dude had to be pretty sore. While we don’t know how much time passes between chapter 17 and 18, there is an ancient teaching that suggests that it was actually a short time, and that these heavenly visitors are checking in on him to see how he is feeling! Jewish spiritual formation lessons today still emphasize the importance of bringing cheer to those who aren’t feeling well. Visiting the sick and bringing joy to an often joyless situation.
A beautiful picture of holy joy-bringing, and one that we sometimes miss. Again, in our culture, we aren’t quite sure what to do with someone who is sick. Should we avoid them because they want to be alone? Should we quietly judge them for getting sick in the first place? But read Genesis 18 through the eyes of play…here are three guys showing up at Abraham’s house with a six pack of beer to watch football with him! I am not saying that we always have to show up with a set of jokes when someone is hurting or sick, but I cannot tell you how many times I visited someone in the hospital as a chaplain when they lamented the fact that everyone who came to see them had these dour looks on their faces, expecting them to die at any minute! If the time and relationship is right, perhaps playful caring is the way to approach those in pain. We would do well to remember that our English word “recreation” was originally about refreshing the spirit of a sick person. It is meant to be playful and fun!
Next, take a look at Abraham’s response to these three men. Regardless of how sore he is, he literally jumps up and runs out to meet them, invites them into the shade, and basically throws a Bedouin feast for them! Sarah and their servant make the hors d’oeuvres. Abraham hangs out with them in the meantime. They share this amazing news with him. Again, the ancient Jewish tradition of hospitality suggests that we are called to be people of welcome, of good food and drink, of laughter in the shade!
Hospitality is another one of those things that our consumeristic culture has messed up. Again, it has become a commodity. If someone invites you over, you have to bring a gift or a bottle of wine. And then you have to reciprocate and invite them over afterwards. It is all very structured. But Abram shows us that it doesn’t have to be. Hospitality is meant to be a playful, enjoyable, no-rules moment of grace. COVID has kind of messed this up for us, changing the way that we visit one another, and go over to each others’ homes. But it also demonstrates the need for us to figure it out again! Those stuck in social isolation found how much they needed someone to share that contact with. Laughter. Good food and drink. Hospitality is a work of grace. Of joy. Of play. We can do it in ways that make people feel safe and comfortable, but we need to do it! It is a part of who we are created to be.
Finally, look at Sarah’s response of laughter. Again, we tend to turn her into the bad guy here. When we view the story through the lens of commodity, we assume that faith is something that you have or don’t have. And she didn’t have it. She should be ashamed of herself to laugh at these men. Again, with the furrowed brow and deep voice.
But what if we viewed this story through a more playful lens? If you all don’t think I am a heretic yet, this should put you over the edge. I cannot help but see this story as a Saturday Night Live spoof of a Viagra commercial. Sarah overhears this conversation about how her husband—at 99 years old—is going to get her—at 90 years old—pregnant. I mean, if you aren’t laughing, something is wrong with you. What if this whole conversation was a lot more playful than we make it out to be? “I heard you laugh!” “Who, me? I didn’t laugh!” “O, yes, you did laugh…don’t you think God can do it? Nothing is impossible with God.” I mean, remember what they end up naming the kid when all of this does come to fruition: “laughter.” If this is supposed to be Sarah’s moment of the failure of her faith, do you think she’d name her son after it? Maybe, the whole thing just feels absolutely ludicrous, because it is, and faith is about being the only one in the room with enough guts to actually laugh about it! Maybe, this whole scene is not as much about furrowed brows and angry scolding, but about the overwhelming joy and playful laughter that is the only logical conclusion to all of this! Maybe if you aren’t laughing, you don’t really understand what is going on.
Now, take a share with your neighbor your memory of the most fun that you ever had! May today we celebrate the gift of laughter, of play, of Sabbath restoration that God created…for us!