The Rules of Improv: Anything is Possible

The Rules of Improv: Anything is Possible January 18, 2012

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The Rules of Improv: Anything is Possible

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Who would have thought, just a few years ago, that a pastor would arrive at church on Sunday morning, having emailed herself the sermon for that day…only to find that the Internet is completely down at church.  So, she takes a very small jump drive and walks a block to find her friend, Rachel Johnson, at Starbucks, where she attaches the jump drive to her friend’s machine, downloads the sermon, walks back to church and prints it out—all in time for 11 am worship.  Just goes to show that anything is possible….  Truth be told, that pastor was really relieved, because even though she planned and is preaching a whole sermon series on the rules of improvisational comedy, she is not interested at all in improvisational sermon delivery. 

We’re talking about the rules of improv this Epiphany, that is the rules one would follow were you in the middle of an improvisational comedy exercise. 

It might sound strange that this is the starting point for considering our texts in these weeks, but it seems that there are rules that must be followed in order for improvisational comedy to be a success, and (who knew?) many of these rules are also applicable to the creation and nurture of Christian community. 

Twentieth century theologian Karl Barth is famous for often saying we Christians should always think about God with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  I am not sure that Karl Barth would approve, but as we look for the light this Epiphany—as we try to figure out how exactly we live in community together—we’re taking the Bible in one hand and the advice of comedienne Tina Fey in the other.  Together I think we have something to learn about life in Christian community. 

Remember as we do that the underlying principle guiding the success of improv and, one might say, Christian community, is the determination to say yes…to assume a stance of openness to whatever may come and, in the case of Christian community, to the ongoing and often unexpected work of God’s Spirit.  I will make the assumption again this morning that we are willing to say yes as we move forward toward an examination of our text and our rule for today.

Last week we welcomed Epiphany with the story of the wise seekers come from the East, following a star.  We recalled that God very often shows up to fill in the blanks in our lives, introducing possibilities we never could have imagined.  This rule has prepared us for today’s text and today’s rule of improv.  Today we read about the call of Samuel and are considering the rule: anything is possible.  Anything is possible.

Today’s rule is important because in order for an improvisational comedic interplay to begin, build, and play all the way out, every one of the actors involved has to maintain the stance that anything is possible.  Anything.  Tina Fey describes it this way: “…[I]f we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun.  That’s your finger.  You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt.  But if I say ‘That’s the gun I gave you for Christmas!’ and you agree, then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.”

“Anything is possible” is the approach we must take if we want to start an improv scene or move our community to a new level of understanding and living out God’s call for us, because as we learned last week, we never know how God is planning to fill in the blanks, to lead us to a new expression of life and faith.  Anything is possible. 

What would it mean to live as if we truly believed that rule?

Guiding our consideration today is that text from the book of 1 Samuel chapter three, the very famous text about the calling of the prophet Samuel.  As you recall, the Israelites were in very desperate straits at that moment in their history.  They had lived through forty years of the Exodus and settled in the Promised Land, led by Moses and Joshua.  In the intervening years, they were governed by a series of judges—individuals in whom God placed authority and power to communicate to the people what God expected of them.  But the age of the judges seemed to be running out; there was no clear leader emerging who could take charge anymore.  And as a result, the Israelites were a largely unorganized group surrounded by increasingly fierce enemies who were often on the offensive. 

Who knew where the next leader might arise?  The people lived everyday in the quickly fading memory of the miraculous leadership of God, who had taken them out ofEgyptand into the Promised Land, but in the distance it was easy to forget God’s providence, to become complacent about their identity as God’s people.  Fear, the push to assimilate with their neighbors, the loss of memory when it came to God’s providence…all of these issues plagued the people ofIsraeland kept them from seeing possibilities. 

Anything is possible? 

No, that’s not the way they saw things.  Instead, the possibilities seemed to be getting smaller, the limits were closing in around them.  They couldn’t see a future because they could not imagine anything other than their very limited present.

We know things were tough for the Israelites as soon as we read the second sentence in chapter three, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  The regular routine, the status quo, was the silence of God, and the people ofIsraelhad come to expect and anticipate that turn of events.  Either God was silent or they were not listening, but because God equaled silence in their minds, they came to stop expecting God to show up…and so they were not ready…not in the least…when God did.

Into this dismal situation a little boy was born—Samuel—born against the odds to his mother Hannah, who had tried for years to have a child but couldn’t.  The text says she struck a deal with God, promising that the child she would have would be dedicated to the Lord.  And God showed up when Hannah became pregnant and Samuel was born.  Because anything is possible, remember?

And you can read more about the story in the two preceding chapters, but Hannah took her son Samuel, a young child, and indentured him to service in the temple, working for the priest Eli as a helper.  Eli needed Samuel because Eli’s sons—normally the ones who would take over as he aged—were good-for-nothings who would never become priests if they kept going the way they were.  Samuel was very young and doing his best when, as we read in chapter three, one night he heard a voice.  He heard a voice calling him and Samuel, the ever-diligent temple assistant, assumed the voice was Eli’s. 

You know what happened: the voice calling Samuel turned out to be God’s.  Eli was the one who started to suspect that, even though the word of the Lord was rare in those days, perhaps it was the word of the Lord that called to Samuel in the temple that night.  Maybe it took so long to dawn on him because he’d forgotten that anything is possible—anything—even a middle of the night voice of God calling a young child to lead his people.

Could Eli allow for the unlikely possibility that God was showing up?  Could he help Samuel answer the unlikely call of God that seemed to come unsolicited from the darkness that enshrouded the temple?  Who knew?  Who knew that God could be calling a young boy to respond to the possibilities of his hope for the peopleIsrael?  It didn’t seem likely, but, as Eli knew…things can change and change dramatically when you live as if anything is possible.

If you happen to be a fan of YouTube, you might already be familiar with a video of Sarah Churman that has gotten millions of hits since its posting in September of last year.  Sarah was born with a rare genetic deformity that means she’s missing the hair in her inner ear that transmits sound to the brain. She was fitted with her first hearing aid at age 2, but even with that technology she could only hear some vibrations and loud noises. She compensated throughout her life by becoming adept at reading people’s lips.

In late 2011, Sarah was fitted with a device called the Esteem Inner Ear Stimulator, an implantable hearing aid for the specific kind of hearing loss Sarah suffered.  On the popular YouTube video, you can see a video of Sarah Churnam hearing for the very first time.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with all the details of Sarah’s situation, the video is quite moving.  What would happen if Sarah could suddenly hear?  She’d worked so hard to compensate in other ways; the thought of being able to hear just seemed out of the realm of possibility.  Yet there it is on video–Sarah Churman hearing…her own voice, the voices of others…a reality she never could have imagined, not under any circumstances, not in any amount of time.  She could hear the voice of her husband.  She could hear the chatter of her children.  She could hear.  Anything, after all, is possible.

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread…”.

What if, in a world in which no one expected God to speak, that one night, late at night, God did—God spoke?  And what if God spoke, not to the status quo who had lived for so long with things just the way they were, but to a child who had no status and no power, who no one with any reasonable approach to life would expect to be the receiver of a message from God? 

The people of Israel were living day to day expecting nothing but silence from God, living in fear of the next attack by their enemies, limited by their lack of expectation so much so that they couldn’t even allow for the possibility that God’s word might come in a way that was different and unexpected, unlikely and out of the norm.

We can’t blame them, because the truth is that we do it, too.  It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of life as it unfolds around us, never expecting anything other than what we experience day in and day out.  But as a community of faith, we profess that God is at work in and among us, throughout the entire world.  And if there’s anything we know about God, it’s that we can never predict when or where God will show up, what crazy adventures of faith we’ll be invited to embark on, how in the most unusual possibilities we will unexpectedly see our next steps unfolding before us.

What would it be like if we took the “anything is possible” rule to heart and lived expecting, well anything?

For one thing, it would be awfully risky.  When you apply a guideline like anything is possible, you automatically give up any hope of controlling a situation.  And this can be scary, especially for a community like ours, with years and years of history and structure underpinning our life together.  Can we readily accept the possibility that anything could happen?  You are wearing roller skates…sure.  The sky is purple…okay.  There’s a chicken on your head…naturally.  Anything is possible. 

When anything is possible, then the old structures by which we have ordered our lives and our life together suddenly become incidental.  They do not restrict the possibilities of an improvisational scene or of life in Christian community.  Instead, when the old way of seeing the world gets pushed to the side and new possibilities become opened, you never know what might happen next!

Though Eli and Samuel had been living within the constraints of life as they knew and expected it, for some reason they had the courage to live the “anything is possible” rule that night when they heard God’s voice calling Samuel.  You can see what happened to the people ofIsraelwhen they did, too, because Samuel became the greatest prophet of the Israelite people, ushering in the monarchy andIsrael’s greatest king, David.  Who would have thought that life for the Israelites would unfold in such a strange and unexpected way?  But they never would have found their way without the courage they displayed when they believed anything was possible—anything—and God showed up.

What about you, what about us?  Do we have the courage to live as if anything is possible, to cultivate hearts and spirits that are open to anything that might arise?  If we can somehow live together as if anything is possible, then the church might become a way station in which God’s unexpected work in the world unfolds. 

What would happen, say for example, if we imagined there would be equal opportunity for everyone in our country, no matter race, color, or ethnicity? 

And what might happen if we had the courage to speak out on behalf of peace and justice, insisting that an end to the civil war inEl Salvadorwas possible after all?

What would happen?

We never will know what can happen unless we have the courage to imagine…that anything is possible.


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