The Play

June 18, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings : Psalm 100; Mt. 11: 28 – 12:8


It is known simply as “The Play.”  “The Play” is arguably the name of the greatest game of football ever played- at least up until the last Super Bowl.  Can anyone here this morning tell me the teams that played in “The Play?”

Right: California vs. Stanford.

Does anyone remember the year of “The Play.?”

Right: 1982.

For those of you who have no idea what we’re talking about as to “The Play”, here’s the quick and dirty version:

With 53 seconds left in the game, Stanford was down 17-19, stuck in their own backfield. It was fourth down, 17 yards to go. But miraculously the Stanford QB (anyone? . . . John Elway) rallied, got the first down, and Stanford marched down the field. In four plays they got to the 18 yard line. With eight seconds to go, the field goal kick was up. .. and good. Stanford had won the game, 20-19, and the crowd went crazy.

But, had they won?

Four seconds remained on the clock, so Stanford had to kick off, even as their fans started crashing the sidelines and the band walked onto the field.

But this is where the game became The Game. California picked up Stanford’s kicked ball on the 39 yard line.


(Two YouTube clips of the game


(For those only reading this: As the last second clicked off the clock Cal started running up field. The first runner was grabbed and started to go down. At the last moment before he hit the ground he managed to pitch the ball to a second runner, who ran down-field until he hit a brick wall of Stanford linebackers.

Once again, just before he hit the ground at the 10 yard line he pitched the ball to a teammate, who carried the football through a field flooded with Stanford fans already celebrating the victory that was not to be. As California crossed the goal line, the crowd dissolved into hysteria. California had won the game, 25-20, on a play that will never be repeated. )

“The Play” is still to this day, unbelievable!

Today is father’s day, and no matter how old one’s children are, the role of father is always an important one. And since children don’t come with a manual, we need to learn where we can. What can we learn from “The Play”?  I think that there are several lessons that we, fathers and the rest of us, can draw out and add to our Playbook for Living Life.

  1. Leave the Bleachers and Benches and Get in the Game.

Disciples of Jesus are not spectators in the stands, or sitters in the pews, but players on the field. We have an active role to play. We are not passive observers of some cosmic contest. We are active participants, real live players. The only sure way we can’t win is if we don’t play.  All too often fear of failure, wanting to avoid embarrassment, protection of some imagined self- image hold us back from fully living life, trying new things, taking risks. Really getting in the game requires taking the focus off of ourselves and becoming invested in the process; and in our case without padding. What is most truly human is always experienced in vulnerability. When, we human beings try to avoid or deny our vulnerability, even from ourselves, when we cannot admit weakness, neediness, hurt, pain, suffering, sadness, we become invisible.  And someone who can’t be seen can’t really be loved. Vulnerability is the way we are meant to be in the presence of one another. We can’t be in the presence of a truly vulnerable, honestly vulnerable person and not be affected.  And we can’t really get in the game without being vulnerable. Vulnerability is what transforms us.

  1. The Huddle is Not the Game.

The huddle is for sharing the plan. But there is a saying that says, “We plan and God laughs”. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have written in Spirituality & Practice that all the spiritual traditions have prophets such as St. Francis and his order of Jesters of the Lord, Zen masters, Taoist sages, Hasidic storytellers, clowns and performance artists that encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously. To our sensible selves, their actions seem silly, shameless, even shocking. But they have an important role in the spiritual life. They carry the banner for the spiritual practice of play. The Brussats write that, “Play is the exuberant expression of our being. It is at the heart of our creativity, our sexuality, and our most carefree moments of devotion.  (Watch people with a new baby or puppy.)  Play helps us live with absurdity, paradox, and mystery. It feeds our joy and wonder. It keeps our search for meaning down to earth. Most of us don’t play enough. We’re either too “busy,” a code word for workaholism, or we’re too serious . . . equating free-spiritedness with irresponsibility. The best treatment for these conditions is play. We need to lighten up.

  1. Always Keep the Ball “In Play”

Rabbi Rami Shapiro describes something that will ring true for any of us who have ever attended a T-ball game. When we are kids, he reminds us, we engage in sports for the play, for the fun. Then adults begin to organize that play and things become more serious. Now there are fixed and competing teams, teams we are supposed to beat. As we get older only the better players get to play, and the word “play” loses all sense of playfulness. Rabbi Shapiro suggests that the same thing can happen with religion. As a child awe and wonder come naturally to us, but as these are institutionalized they can become work rather than play. Linking spirituality and play is to say that being spiritual is qualitatively different than being religious. Organized mainstream religion, he says, is play made serious. Spirituality is still play for play’s sake.  Shapiro writes, “The more spiritual one becomes the more joy one finds in the sheer wildness of being alive. There is something intrinsically funny about life; and the way we go about living can be downright absurd. Laughter is a natural response to seeing the irony of life and absurdity of our lives. The few spiritual people I have known”, he says, “laugh a lot, and most often at themselves.” He goes on to say that, “Play is a way of being in the world that refuses to divide into fixed and competing teams; that refuses to taking winning and losing all that seriously. It is fun to win, but the play starts anew, and the winners today may lose tomorrow, so one is wise not to get locked into any fixed notion of winners and losers.”

Another way of “keeping the ball in play” is to develop spiritual detachment, which means being aware of the fact that nothing is permanent, so holding on to things with the expectation that they will remain the same simply sets us up for needless suffering. Rabbi Shapiro cautions, however, that knowing things will change doesn’t mean we don’t engage with them deeply as they are for as long as they are. He says, “The spiritual people I know suffer greatly, but not a moment longer than necessary.”

A form of play is to keep an eye on the spirit and message of the Gospel and be willing to think and act creatively to achieve it.  That’s what the players did in “The Play” and that is what Jesus did when he and his disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them on the Sabbath.  Someone once said that if we always do what we always did, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.  Let’s not be afraid to make changes if it will help us achieve our goals.

  1. Never, Never, Never Give Up

In our first reading we heard, “Acknowledge that the Lord is God! He made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” This section of the psalm reminds us that we have the best owner, the best coach and that we are not alone.  We are part of a team.  The psalm ends with the words, “For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation.” These words invite us to enter into what medieval Catholic spirituality called “the eternal now.” “When time comes to its fullness,” is the biblical phrase.  In the Greek of the New Testament, there are two words for time. Chronos is chronological time, time as duration, how much time left on the play clock. This is what most of us think of as time. But there’s another Greek word, kairos, which can be called deep time. It’s when you have those moments where you say, “Oh my, this is it” or “I get it,” or, “This is as perfect as it can be,” or, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” things like that where time comes to a fullness, and the dots connect. We can learn how to go back to those kinds of moments or to live in that kind of space. That’s what spiritual tradition means by the word “contemplation.”  To be a contemplative is to learn to trust deep time and to learn how to rest there and not be wrapped up in chronological time. Because what we eventually learn, is that everything passes away. Some of the things that we were so impassioned about when we were 22 or 42 don’t mean anything anymore, and yet, we got so angry because of it or so invested in it or so preoccupied by it, or so worried about it.

The desert fathers and mothers coined the word “contemplation” to give us access to this deep time, and the term that kept recurring throughout the 2,000-year history of Christianity was the contemplative mind. It’s a different form of consciousness. It’s a different form of time. The old theology professors and mistresses of novices used to say, “Sub specie aeternitatis” which means, “under the aspect of eternity”, or “in the light of eternity.” Seeing things through the contemplative mind, seeing things in the light of eternity has the power to relativize things.  The situations that deeply disturb us now in our personal lives, in our country, in the world; they may seem overwhelming, insurmountable. They may tempt us to give up or even to not get in the game at all. But the team needs us. And “His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation.” There is plenty of time left in the game.

I chose a reading from Matthew today because fatherhood can be difficult.  Life for all of us can be hard.  We need the comfort of the words, ““Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I think that if we adopt some of the lessons from “The Play” we will find our burdens lighter, and we will experience rest for our souls.

I end with a segment of a prayer by John O’Donohue from his book To Bless the Space Between Us.  The prayer is entitled, “For a New Father”, but has a message for all of us:

May your heart rest in the grace of the gift
And you sense how you have been called
Inside the dream of this new destiny.
May you trust in the unseen providence
That has chosen you all to be a family.
May you stand sure on your ground
And know that every grace you need
Will unfold before you
Like all the mornings of your life.