Playing with Purpose

Sermon for Sunday, November 16, 2014 || Proper 28A || Matthew 25:14-30

playingwithpurposeAs an avid game player, one of my favorite things to do is teach other people how to play games. Leah and I have several dozen board games in our upstairs hall closet, but we don’t have people to play them with because games like Monopoly have, over the decades, taught Americans that board games are not fun. But the ones we play come mostly from Germany, and the Germans sure know how to make fun board games. These games are beautifully designed and highly strategic, so a new player often doesn’t catch on until near the end of her first game. For the bulk of that first game, she plays by the rules, but she doesn’t play strategically. Then something happens. The light goes on, and she realizes why she might do this instead of that. She realizes how a choice made now will affect the game in a few turns. I love watching for this moment when I’m teaching a game. Suddenly, the new player stops wandering through her turn and begins striding through it. She’ll need several more games under her belt before she really understands the strategy, but she’s taken the important first step. She has begun to play with purpose.

Like many of the lessons board games can teach, playing with purpose stretches far past recreational outlets and touches all facets of life. Playing with purpose encourages us to act intentionally rather than spasmodically. Our daily questions of “What?” and “How?” deepen with the addition of “Why?” We plan, we set goals, we care about the destination and the journey.

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond because he realized he wasn’t playing with purpose. He writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” *

To live deliberately. To live with intention. To waken to all the ways God could be calling you to make the most positive difference with your life. This is what playing with purpose means.

Most of us take a while to start playing with purpose. Case in point: allow me to introduce you to Glenn. Glenn graduated from college three years ago with a degree in history. He thought about law school but never got around to registering for the LSAT, let alone studying for it. In three years, he’s worked five jobs but none has held his attention for long. Same with girlfriends. A few dates here or there, but he’s never made a true commitment to any of them. He’s also moved back home twice since college for a couple months at a time. When his parents ask him what he wants to do, he says things like, “I dunno,” or “Something’ll come along.” Glenn does everything vaguely, indistinctly, like he’s a figure in a coloring book, who’s only partially colored in.

Then he meets Helen, and the light goes on. They really click, but Glenn knows that he doesn’t deserve to be with someone as luminous as she. She is so full of life. She pursues her passions. She has dreams, yes, but more than that, she has lists of conscious steps to achieve those dreams. Opening her own bakery is just a year or two away. Seeing himself through her, Glenn realizes just how listless he has been, how the last three years have been one long meander. And yet when Helen looks at him, he feels fully colored in.

Following her example, Glenn begins playing with purpose. He remembers his love for history and the high school teacher who fired that passion. He starts substitute teaching at a private school, and soon he’s there everyday filling in for a history teacher on maternity leave. He starts taking night classes to get his masters in education. Two more years sees him in a classroom of his own. His purpose is to teach, and he’s never felt more alive.

Before Glenn met Helen, he could have been the third servant in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusts his servants with extraordinary wealth. The first two play with purpose and double that wealth by the time their master returns. But the third servant never uses the wealth given to him. He just puts it in the ground and goes about his regularly scheduled life.

This story fits snugly between last week’s Gospel lesson and the one we’ll read next week, which make up the entire twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. In each parable, there are characters who make deliberate, intentional decisions to act and those who don’t. The wise bridesmaids bring extra oil. The foolish ones don’t. The first two servants invest their master’s wealth. The third doesn’t. Next week, we will hear of the sheep who feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned. And we’ll hear about the goats who don’t.

In each story, the ones who act with intention – the ones who play with purpose – remain in right relationship with the various persons of power: the bridesmaids enter into the wedding banquet with the bridegroom; the first two servants “enter into the joy of their master”; the sheep who served the least of God’s family “inherit the kingdom.”

If we stop there, however, then we will see these stories merely as quid pro quo. Do what you’re supposed to do and you’ll be rewarded. Don’t and you’ll be punished. But such a conclusion reduces our relationships with God to mere transactions. If God desired for us to live these quid pro quo kinds of lives, God would have given us a rule book or a scorecard. But God did something else. God gave us God’s son. And this Son taught us to live with intention, to keep awake for opportunities to bring the kingdom closer to earth, to play with purpose. And more than that: this Son, our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, wiped out the quid pro quo system entirely when he died and rose again.

If it’s a scorecard you’re looking for, a measuring stick to see if you’ll be rewarded or punished, then you’ve come to the wrong place. In this place, we practice playing with purpose. We act as Helen does with Glenn, as catalysts for each other’s dreams. We pray for clarity about where God is calling us. We discover how our passions fit those callings. We partner with one another to strengthen each other for service. We take risks, knowing that the Holy Spirit will lead us through both failure and success to greater collaboration with God in our own lives and in the life of this community.

If you feel like a figure in a coloring book who’s only partially colored in, then ask God to help you play with purpose. Playing with purpose is the difference between talking and proclaiming, the difference between swaying and dancing, between running and racing. Playing with purpose is the difference between floating along and trimming the sail to catch the wind.

*Henry David Thoreau. Walden. (But I first hear it in Dead Poets’ Society.)
**Image of Walden Pond courtesy of my sister, Melinda Thomas Hansen.

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