Daniel Wolpert May 5, 2019
Scripture Luke 18:15–17
I couldn’t get out of here without another T-shirt sermon. When I lead retreats or speak in various places, I have a whole host of T-shirts that go with my talks, and I’ll wear them on different days. One of my favorites is one my sons gave me—a pastor’s kids’ idea of a joke for a Father’s Day gift—that says “I make stuff up.” And that’s usually the one I wear at the first talk. It just disorients everybody; it’s great. There was one particular event that really was stretching a couple of people who were there, and on the fourth day during the large-group feedback time this guy said, “It just occurred to me last night: What if they’re just making stuff up and this isn’t true?” It’s a lot of fun see how people react. I think this is my third T-shirt with this phrase because I like it so much I wear them out.
As I mentioned in my “Space Between” blog right after Ash Wednesday, this question—Are we having fun?—is a deep theological one, and yet fun is not a regular theological category. You will not find it in any systematic theology; it’s not a topic that ever occurred in any of my seminary theology classes. Karl Barth was a 20th-century Swiss theologian who wrote a nine-thousand-page systematic theology (which is no fun to read), but even Barth said that we are never closer to the grace of God than when we laugh.
Now, the unfortunate thing about all of this is that church has often not been about fun. This was really driven home for me once after a wedding rehearsal that I did. There were all these great young people there, and after we finished the rehearsal I heard one guy say, “Oh, I’ve got this great joke that I want to tell you, but it’s got some bad stuff in it so we need to go outside.” And I found this really fascinating from a theological point of view: Did they think God was not outside to hear the joke? The result was that the only person who didn’t get to hear the joke was me!
But I encounter this all the time: Church is this very, very serious place, which of course flies in the face of what Jesus says to all these people that are gathered around him. The disciples are acting like serious churchy folks: Don’t let the kids go near the teacher; the kids need to behave, do as they’re told and be quiet; don’t crowd Jesus. And Jesus of course turns this usual social conception upside down and says: No, not only do the kids come to me, but this actually is how we encounter the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is this place of enlightenment, of quality, of goodness, and this is how we enter the kingdom of God.
Two weeks ago in the “Space Between,” I talked about maybe reengaging the Bible in different kinds of ways, and I think that this particular passage is a great example of how we don’t see the scriptural world as a world that we enter. In other words, we don’t see it as being about us and our lives. I heard this in relation to this particular passage once at a worship planning meeting. When I was in seminary, we went to a big Presbyterian church nearby, and I thought a good way to learn more about worship would be for me to go to their weekly worship planning meetings, which were usually great and a lot of fun. But there was one time when one of the women who helped with the worship team said, “There’s this one little boy who sits in front of me in church, and he just never behaves properly, and I don’t think he deserves communion.” And I thought, “Okay. Are we listening to what we’re saying?” She was literally living out this story of what the disciples were doing: Don’t let the kids come to Jesus because they’re not behaving properly.
So, what is this “fun” thing I’m talking about? What does that mean theologically? What does that mean in terms of our experience? This is not about the consumerism kind of fun that we see all the time on television: If you have the right credit card, you can have the right kind of fun life. This isn’t frivolous; this isn’t about getting more stuff. This isn’t about ignoring the difficult things in life. But what it is about is sinking deeply into the divine reality that the spirit of God is very much about play. We can see this if we just look at creation, at the diversity of creation. I think that if serious church people were inventing creation, there would only be one kind of beetle. “We don’t need a lot of different flowers, we just need one kind of flower, and everything’s got to be in the right order and do the right thing at the right time.”
But that’s not what we see in creation, is it? We don’t need 300 million different kinds of bugs. Or flowers. Or bacteria or viruses or mammals or all the other creatures that we have. We don’t need them. But it sure is a lot of fun. It sure is great to go out now into the woods and see every kind of little being coming back to life. It’s pretty fun! Right now is this amazing time of year when you can go outside and you can just see everything coming up out of the ground.
A few years ago, Debra and I went to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, and we biked along this one road, and there were literally dozens of different wildflowers all coming up, every single color you could see, and it was hard not to crash my bike because I was so busy watching all the flowers go by. We don’t need that, but it sure is a lot of fun. And when we see that and when we experience that, and when we relate to it with joyful playfulness, we actually begin to enter the spiritual reality of the kingdom of God. We begin to come to life.
Now, what’s also important to realize about this “fun” thing is that this isn’t frivolous. Sometimes when I talk about this, people will say things like, “Well, you know, that’s just easy to say. You’re privileged; you’ve got everything in the world. But there’s a lot of bad stuff happening in the world. It’s not fun.” Do you really think Jesus didn’t know there’s lots of bad stuff happening in the world? Jesus was a brown, impoverished peasant living under one of the most brutal occupations in the history of the world. When the Romans didn’t like something that was going on in Palestine, the Legions—who were stationed right there, not far away, in Jerusalem and Caesarea—would come out of their garrisons and just kill everyone. We think that Jesus didn’t know that the world is a hard place? I think he did. I think he was very aware of that.
But I think what he recognized is that the seriousness that we often bring to things is not what is going to release the joy and the power of God. I saw this in a big way last year when I had a real spiritual experience at a club here in Minneapolis. One of the members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot (and that’s not a good thing to say in church either, right?) was here performing. I got the last ticket; I was just so excited. It was remarkable. This is a young woman who has spent three years in Russian prisons, three years being shifted from one prison to another so she couldn’t communicate with people, three years in some of the worst conditions in the world. When she is in Russia, her life is constantly at risk because of her activism against the oppressive Russian regime. This is one of the greatest social justice warriors in our world today. And, gosh, she is so funny. One of the things I didn’t realize about her band is that she doesn’t know how to play any musical instruments! She has this punk band; I thought she was a musician. She said, “No, you know, we couldn’t play any instruments, but what we heard was, ‘If you start a band, people will pay attention to you.’ So we started a band, and we just got some instruments, and we’d be on the street just bashing away on the instruments. We didn’t know how to play. But then we started doing all these goofy, funny things. And people started paying attention to us.” Through her work and the social justice causes she works for, she inspires other social justice movements all around the world. And that’s one of the things they do now: They go around the world, they meet with local activists, they’re incredibly engaged and they’re always having a lot of fun.
Because here’s the thing: Jesus tells us, and we know, that the problems of the world will always be with us. Every single day, there will be problems in the world, and our seriousness will not take that away. But what will take that away, in any present moment, is the time that we wake up to have fun. And church communities that are dying are usually the most serious, dreary, oppressive places in our society. And that’s why they’re dying: because there are no child-like people there entering the kingdom of God.
So my prayer for this community, for all of you, for all of us, is that we continually come back to this question: “Are we having fun yet?” Because the moment that we are having fun, the kingdom of God appears, the love of God appears, that becomes a joyous thing for all of us, that becomes an attractor for the outside world and that becomes a power for amazing change in our reality. Blessings to all of you. Practice your faith. Thank you very much. Amen.