The Rules of Improv: Fill in the Blanks
Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany
Happy new year to you all. It feels great to be here in worship beginning the new year together after a hectic holiday season. Welcome back, and a special thank you to all of you who were with us in worship on Christmas and New Year Days. I found it a particularly meaningful season because I got to worship with so many of you on both holidays.
So. We begin the new year, as is our tradition, with an examination of what it means to live in community together, to be the family of God here atCalvary Baptist Church. Part of this emphasis has to do with the new year—it’s a new time to think about what we hope and plan for the year ahead, and to ask: are you ready again to make the commitment of life in Christian community?
And part of this emphasis has to do with the season of Epiphany, which began this past week. Epiphany is a time in the church year where we get up and follow the light, like the wise men we read about today. And as we follow, sometimes shielding our eyes from the glaring brightness of God’s presence and sometimes squinting with concentrated effort trying our very best to make out even one little glimmer that will guide our next steps, we consider yet again what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ, and what it means to create a community of faith together, one that reflects God’s best hopes and dreams for the world.
So, welcome to Epiphany. In the next few weeks you’ll be challenged to think about what church membership means, to consider what degree you have and you will invest your life in a community of faith, and specifically this community. And, even more daunting, we’ll be considering together what it means to live as the church, how we best reflect the light of God’s presence on earth through our life together. It’s a big task we’re taking on!
To help us with what seems rather daunting I, naturally, turned for help to comedienne Tina Fey.
It’s true. I am not embarrassed to tell you that sometime last year, when it first came out, I purchased and read Tiny Fey’s book, Bossypants. Perhaps it’s not among the most foundational of civilization’s literature, but you have to admit that Tina Fey is a comic genius and, well, the book was a pretty funny read. In part of the book Tina Fey talks about the rules of improv—that is, the rules actors follow when they are engaged in improvisational comedy. Fey contends that some of these rules are good rules for life in general, and I immediately thought they sounded like a pretty good guide to life in Christian community, too.
Readingabout improvisational acting has led me on quite an adventure of learning. The sum total of my understanding of the craft when I began was limited to Tina Fey’s book and occasional viewings of Whose Line is it, Anyway?, but since then I have learned so much more, thanks in large part of Calvary partner The Washington Theatre Lab. After careful tutoring from directors Buzz and Deb, I learned that there are, in fact, foundational rules for improvisational acting. But following the rules for engagement in a scene together is critical to moving an improv act—or any scene at all, really—to the next level.
Sounds like Chrtistian community, right?
Over the next few weeks as we learn the rules of improv, uh, Christian community, we’re going to be assuming that we understand the main principle underlying everything—that is, SAY YES. Turns out you cannot have improvisational interplay unless everyone involved is willing to say yes. Tina Fey calls it the Rule of Agreement, but that makes it sound like you have to surrender your own opinion. That’s not it. Rather, it’s more like you pledge to live with the promise of possibility…that there just may be something to that crazy idea someone else had…and that together you will find your way to something wonderful in the end.
So if we’re going to examine the text these next few weeks using some rules of improv, we’ll have to assume that we’re willing to say yes—to say yes to the crazy possibility of Christian community, to say yes to the coming of God’s kingdom…which, as you know, is regarded by most as one of the strangest realities one might ever hope for: a world where everyone has what they need, where peace and justice are the orders of the day, where goodness and grace reign supreme. If you’re serious about Christian community, then the thing we must assume as we begin is that we’re all willing to take a leap of faith, to say yes to all the possibilities God wants to create in us and in our world.
So let’s try it; I don’t want to be assuming something I shouldn’t. Can I hear you say yes to this exploration of Christian community?
Today’s rule of improv is FILL IN THE BLANKS. Along with our text this morning we’ll consider how this rule of improv might be part of successfully creating and sustaining healthy Christian community here in this place.
As you recall, our gospel text this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter two. It’s unique in the gospel writers’ accounts of the birth of Jesus, and it’s one of the strangest chapters in the whole story. There was a star, you see, and far, far away from Bethelem/Nazareth, there were wise men, Magi, foreigners from the East who studied the stars and who were so taken with the appearance of that one bright star that they set out on a long journey to find the baby whose birth, they believed, was foretold by the presence of the star.
As with many stories of our faith, the church has embellished the story of the star followers from the East. Tradition has even assigned them names. The truth is that we don’t know much about them, other than they were students of the stars and they observed a disturbance, an out-of-the-norm celestial event, which they believed foretold the birth of a king.
See, improvisational acting is, surprisingly structured. There is, my actor friends would say, about 90% of the structure already in place, in a sense. Improvisational acting is not just getting up on stage with no preparation and hoping for the best. When you do that, the audience can always smell a rat, and you can’t really appreciate the surprising ways improv allows you to fill in the blanks of new possibility if there is not some structure, some preparation, already there and waiting in expectation for the arrival of the unexpected.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel had an agenda, a structure, and his agenda was to tell the story in such a way that we readers would know Jesus was the king, the promised Messiah come to save his people. So when Matthew tells the story of the Magi, he talks about them coming to worship Jesus, using the word for worship in Greek that would only be assigned to the worship of God. In other words, Matthew puts the structure in place from the very beginning. Anyone reading his gospel account would know that he believes Jesus is Messiah—there’s no question about that.
But God arrives unexpectedly in the birth of a baby in a manger, in the coming of the strangers from the East. These wise seekers didn’t know the culture into which they were coming; they didn’t understand that their appearance would add a whole layer of disturbance, of dis-ease, to an already tenuous social and political situation. They believed enough to set out to worship him, and when they arrived in the region ofGalilee—almost certainly years after Jesus’ birth—they went directly to the palace to check in with Herod, the ruler of the region. After all, if you were looking for a baby king, it would make sense to start your search in the palace, right? Just think about it, first from Herod’s perspective…you are the ruler of a region and someone comes to your door asking about the new king in town…a new king about whom you have no knowledge. This would be a disturbance of the highest order, and in Herod’s mind it was. It sent him into a panic and the threat of these strangers’ arrival, asking about a king, resulted in oppression of the Jews taken to a whole new level. Dis-ease, uncertainty, disturbance as the blanks are filled in with kings from afar.
And, you remember, that the wise seekers finally also made their way to the baby and his parents. They probably weren’t in the stable still, but they were living the life of peasants in the Galilean region. They did not typically entertain rich philosophers from the East; they did not often receive luxurious gifts like the ones the wise travelers brought, even they weren’t quite sure who this baby was and why there were so many strange things associated with his birth, and now his life. And you know the neighbors took note when the entourage of camels and wise travelers showed up. It was a strange turn of events, for sure, a disturbance unlike any they expected or anticipated. A strange way, for sure, to fill in the blanks.
They were all looking for the same thing…the structure of God’s promise and hope informed them all, even Herod, who was so scared of the thought of God’s coming that he lashed out violently to try to stop it. God is here, God is at work, God has sent a promise. That is the structure.
Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess.
Because you can never predict how or why or where or when God will show up. God might show up in a stable, or a star, or the presence of far-off travelers, or …who knows? God’s always up to something, filling in the blanks in ways we never, ever anticipated. Ever.
And so it is in Christian community. We have considerable structure—not just in this 150 year old congregation, but in the Christian Church as a whole. There is orthodoxy and theology, liturgy and tradition. And all of these things provide structure for our life in Christian community.
But we should never get so comfortable in our lives as the church that we are not expecting God to show up—somehow, in some (usually unexpected) way, to fill in the blanks of possibility and hope, more creatively than we could ever have imagined.
Because the life of faith in Christian community is not a prescribed, static list of procedures. We are engaged in relationship with the living God, and this beloved community in which we live and thrive must always reflect the prophetic wonder of a God who is constantly showing up in the strangest places in the most unusual ways. A star? A stable? Where on earth will God show up next???
This is the question we must ask ourselves over and over again as we fill in the blanks of the life of faith. Will we have the courage to leave the blanks open—room for God to show up even in the structures we have created, even in the flawed and often broken system of the church, of Christian community? Because we need the structure; the church is a holy opportunity for us to find relationship with God and remember our callings with each other. But we can’t forget to leave room for the improvisational God, who will always fill in the blanks in ways we never, ever expect.
I leave you today with words better than any I could come up with, written by theologian Frederick Beuchner:
“Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of [us]. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in the least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there, too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.”
Amen and amen.