Sunday, September 23, 2012

The glad game

Psalm 98; Mark 9:30-37
First Church of Christ (UCC), Woodbridge, CT
September 23, 2012



            In the first century of the Common Era, fathers in the Roman Empire had absolute power.  The term ‘paterfamilias’ entailed more than just head of the family.  Only the father could own property; sons would receive an allowance for their own household until their father died.  Fathers could decide whether a child lived or died or was to be sold into slavery, even if the child only angered their father.  When a child was born, the midwife would place the baby on the ground.  If the father picked up the newborn, then the child was formally accepted into the family.  The father could also choose not to pick up the baby for any reason: deformity, female gender, or unwanted children for lack of support.  The child would then be placed outside in a particular place and abandoned.  Some of these children survived as slaves; others died of exposure.


            When Jesus took a little child and placed it amongst his disciples, no doubt they knew of this barbaric practice of the Roman Empire.  The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest, right after Jesus predicted his death.  Which amounts to no more than a you-know-what contest.  In today’s parlance we might have heard the words “Who’s your Daddy?”  


Jesus pulls the focus off the disciples and places it squarely where it belongs.  In Judaism the purpose of one’s life was (and still is) to pass the Torah and its teachings on to one’s children.  There is no higher calling, no greater pride.  But with Jesus we know it’s not just one’s own children, not just the children of Israel.  By picking up this child and inviting the disciples to welcome such a child and thus Jesus as well, Jesus is doing something really quite radical.  He is telling his disciples that they are to welcome the abandoned, the lost, those that don’t count and to treat them as one of their own; and that when they do so, they welcome him—the slave and servant of all.


During the terrible Hindu/Muslim riots that occurred after India’s independence, Mahatma Gandhi went on a hunger strike to end the violence.  As he lay closer to death than life, a Hindu man stormed into his presence, crazed with anger and grief.  He told Gandhi that a Muslim man had killed his son; he was only about so high.  The Hindu man, the boy’s father, in his anger and grief, killed a Muslim boy in retaliation.  He shouted at Gandhi that he was going to hell.  How could he find a way out of hell?  Gandhi said he knew a way.  He told the Hindu man to find a boy, about so high, the same age as his dead son, but he must be a Muslim boy and he must raise him as a Muslim.  This was how he could find a way out of hell.


Most, if not all, salvation stories have children as agents of change, redemption and peace.  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  (Isaiah 11: 6)  Yet children are not only our future but our right now, this minute, can’t wait any longer.  Children have the power to save us each day of our lives. They can save us from being self-absorbed, greedy, depressed, angry, and lonely, just by being themselves.  Children remind us that we are all worthy of love, simply because we draw breath.


Today I wish to place a particular child in your midst.  Her name is Pollyanna.  Over the years I believe Pollyanna has gotten a bad rap.  Her attitude of gladness is dismissed as naïveté, saccharin-sweetened optimism or just plain delusional.  If you really want to know who Pollyanna is, forget Disney and Hayley Mills—read the book.


The character Pollyanna was the child of a missionary minister who raised her by himself after her mother died.  The two were dependent upon the mercy of the Ladies’ Aid Society, donations sent in barrels and God.  Anything and everything could come to Pollyanna and her father in these barrels.  It was like a grab bag from Goodwill or a church rummage sale.  Sometimes there were useful yet damaged things, like a worn carpet or framed pictures with no glass.  But what Pollyanna longed for was a doll to play with and love.  So Pollyanna’s father wrote to those who supported his ministry the request for a doll.


No dolls had been donated.  What came instead was a pair of crutches.  It was then that Pollyanna’s father taught her about the game—the Glad Game.  The game is to find something about everything to be glad about.  At first Pollyanna could not figure out how to be glad about a pair of crutches when what she really wanted was a doll.  So her father gave her the first one of many ways Pollyanna could be glad:  “Goosey!  Why, just be glad because you don’t—need—‘em!


Pollyanna thought it was a lovely game, and the harder it was to play, the more fun it was to think of reasons to be glad.  But there were also times it was not fun, when it was too hard, like when a father dies and goes to heaven and there isn’t anyone but a Ladies’ Aid Society.  Pollyanna discovered, though, that when you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind.


Her father’s invention of this game began not with Pollyanna but with himself.  Pollyanna asked her father once if he was glad he was a minister.  He replied that he most always was, but he wouldn’t stay a minister a minute if it wasn’t for the rejoicing texts.  These are the scriptures in the Bible that begin with “Be glad in the Lord” or “Rejoice greatly” or “Shout for joy”.  In the book it states that Pollyanna’s father counted these texts and there were eight hundred of them.  Her father then said to Pollyanna, “So if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, he must want us to do it—some.”  Those texts then became a comfort to her father whenever things went wrong or not the way he wished they were or ought to be.


I wondered about that figure: eight hundred texts.  So I went to my online bible browser, complete with concordance.  Using the King James Version (Pollyanna was published in 1913) I typed in the word ‘glad’:  180.  ‘Happy’: 34.  ‘Delight’: 94.  ‘Joy’: 256.  ‘Rejoice’: 275.  All this adds up to 839 texts that tell us to be glad, happy, joyful, and to rejoice and experience delight.  But I was still curious, so I searched some more.  ‘Blessed’: 350.  ‘Mercy’: 356.  ‘Love’: 645. 


And so this morning we read from Psalm 98, reminding us to sing a new song for God has done marvelous things, to make a joyful noise for all that God has done, is doing and will do.  For God has gotten the victory—not by what human beings have done.  It is God who makes vindication known to all the earth.


So I invite you to think of what you can be glad about this church, right now, as things are.  Remember that when it is hardest is when the Glad Game is the most fun.  And being glad that the pastor isn’t here or certain people are not here to witness the way things are do not count.  That’s about the same as praying, “Thank God I’m not like that sinner over there.”  It’s not really gratitude; it’s not really gladness.  We are to serve the Lord with gladness.  Gladness is as contagious as gloom.  Which would we rather spread?  Psalm 122, verse 1 reads “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’” 


So let’s start with an example of being glad that has nothing to do with church but will certainly get us in the right mood.  This is a poem by Jack Prelutsky, who was named the first Children’s Poet Laureate in 2006.


Be Glad Your Nose Is On Your Face

Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.

Imagine if your precious nose
were sandwiched in between your toes,
that clearly would not be a treat,
for you'd be forced to smell your feet.

Your nose would be a source of dread
were it attached atop your head,
it soon would drive you to despair,
forever tickled by your hair.

Within your ear, your nose would be
an absolute catastrophe,
for when you were obliged to sneeze,
your brain would rattle from the breeze.

Your nose, instead, through thick and thin,
remains between your eyes and chin,
not pasted on some other place--
be glad your nose is on your face!

          You may think this exercise is silly, even ridiculous.  After all, it’s so Pollyanna. But it also reminds us of something very true:  where you place your focus determines your reality.  If we can’t find anything to be glad about this church, as things are right now when times are tough, then what is our faith really for?


          So what am I glad about this church, right now, as things are?  I’m glad you are here, singing, worshiping, praying, and thinking hard about this church.  I’m glad you have Barbara Marks and teachers and children and youth who are learning about Jesus and showing us what it means to follow Jesus.  I’m glad that Dean Beckert is here, leading the hymns and worship songs, playing beautiful music for us and working with the choir.  I’m glad you have caring, hardworking church officers and lay leaders on your boards.  I’m glad you are making yourselves heard about your feelings.  I’m glad you want to work on these feelings, that you’re not going to just walk away.  I’m glad I’m here to provide some comfort, to listen and to be a presence of calm, fearless joy.  I’m glad that giving continues here, in all sorts of ways.  I’m glad you’re keeping your promises to God and to this church.  I’m glad for all God is doing here, even though we may not be able to see every bit of it.


          Through the end of October and hopefully beyond, I invite you to pick up this child Pollyanna and play her Glad Game.  Teach it to others who are not here.  If you’re not willing to play, ask yourself why.  After all, what do you have to lose but anger, resentment, anxiety, sadness and fear?  Think of all you will gain.  For by welcoming one such as her, you will be welcoming not only Jesus but also the One who sent him.  Amen.

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