The Rules of Improv: Change, Change, Change!
I’d like to begin today with a rather unusual approach to examining the text.
Look down your pew…these are the people with whom you will now commence to tell a story, in full, from start to finish. I’ll begin, then the person on the furthest left (my right) of your pew should continue, all the way down the pew until the final person finishes the story. If you’re sitting in a pew by yourself, then hop on over to another pew or join another group, otherwise you’ll miss the point.
I know this is not your typical church experience, so before we try it I am going to ask the choir to demonstrate. And so, we begin: “It was a dark and stormy night…”
Okay, now you. “So far the day had been fairly noneventful. Suddenly, from around the bend ahead…”
I have to say, you never know what people are going to come up with. What are some of the contributions folks made to your stories, contributions that threw you for a loop?
If you try to imagine being up on a stage and playing a part in a skit in front of an audience, a skit in which you are required to respond on the spot to whatever your fellow actors throw your way, well then you will have a little bit of a sense of how it feels to do improvisational comedy. Whether or not a scene will progress to its next iteration or fall completely flat is the question that hangs in the balance, and the tension of that uncertainty is what makes improv so much fun to watch when it’s done well.
The improvisational scene is utterly and totally dependent on the actors’ willingness to take whatever curve ball is thrown their way—anything—and add to it, to move the plot along. Folks who do improv professionally know this strategy as “yes, and…,” the strategy that underpins any improv situation…
…or any life as Christian community….
Just like actors in an improvisational comedic scene, we’ve got to take whatever comes our way and add to it if we want our life together as followers of Jesus to be filled with all the possibility and promise the Gospel offers for our lives.
This was certainly a challenge for folks who were beginning to get word of a carpenter fromNazarethwho was stirring things up aroundGalilee. Change, constant change, was the order of the day for sure right here in the first chapter Gospel of Mark. Here Jesus has inaugurated his ministry officially…things are about to change.
Everything changed when Jesus jumped into theJordan Riverto be baptized by John. The strangest and most unbelievable thing happened,…a dove descended from heaven and a voice announced that Jesus was God’s son. It was a change from the normal order of business, for sure.
And then Jesus went away for 40 days and nights into the wilderness, where he had an epic battle with temptation. I could be wrong, but I would expect that a struggle between good and evil may have been something of a change from his life as a carpenter inNazareth.
Next Jesus goes searching for disciples and the disciples he invites to join him change everything. The text says they set their nets down and follow him, not knowing anything about where their path would lead or what was in store for them all. Everything changed for them that day they signed on as Jesus’ followers. Everything changed for them and for all the people they knew and loved. A total change in profession? A radical, instantaneous shift in the course of your life? It was change of the highest order, a turn of events they didn’t even see coming that morning when they woke up.
And in today’s passage the change intensifies even more. Jesus starts healing people. Healing them. At first the people who started changing were the folks on the fringe, on the edge, the ones about whom nobody really knew quite what was wrong, much less how to go about helping them.
But today the change comes home, into the living room of Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ new disciple recruits. Apparently Jesus and the newly formed band of disciples were using Peter’s house for strategy meetings. That day when they went to his house, Peter’s mother in law, who lived with his family and thus contributed to the work of the household, had fallen ill with a fever.
This all sounds very benign to our 21st Century ears, but it was no laughing matter back in Jesus’ day. To say that Peter’s mother in law had taken ill with a fever not only meant the normal routines of the house were jeopardized, it also was cause for deep worry. In the ancient world, falling ill with a fever was very often the indicator of a fatal condition.
But Jesus came in, the text says, and took her by the hand. He raised her up and healed her, instantly, and, you guessed it… the whole family was thrown into utter and disturbing change. From worry to relief in one minute? Unexpected change.
And the change continued as people all over the Galilean region started hearing about the healing, about the change. They wanted it too—who wouldn’t? From all over the city they came, streaming in from every quarter, hoping desperately for healing.
But healing is change, especially for the infirm who struggled to make their way in a society that required the contributions of all its members. They wanted to be healed, but did they know that healing was change? Big, huge change? That once a situation they had come to know changed, nothing would ever be the same again.
Scientists tell us that our brains do not like change.
Certain neuropathways are formed through repeated experience, and they become like well-paved super highways in our brains. Because of this, we experience a physical resistance to change. Why?
Change is inefficient. We have already adjusted to a situation the way it is, and we know how to live and function with things the way they are, thank you very much. To change would require the development and perfection of completely new systems and strategies for getting things done. In other words, why would you take unpaved back roads when the superhighway is right there?
And change can be risky. When things change we are vulnerable to whatever may come, situations that we are ill equipped, often, to handle…situations in which we will have to quickly adjust. There’s fear in that. Change is never, ever comfortable, in other words, and we’re naturally wired to resist it at every turn, as much as we can.
But here we are, not even at the end of the very first chapter in Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus has blown throughGalileewith nothing BUT change. He’d come to turn things on their heads; this was radical, staccato change, one thing right after another, teaching a Gospel that had its foundations in the rule that the only thing that’s static is…you guessed it: change.
And here is exactly where the rules of improv and the call to Gospel community intersect today. Because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a Gospel all about change…transformation.
This means, that if we are serious about living in Gospel community, we will never be able to predict where God’s Spirit will lead us next.
This means, that if we are serious about living in Gospel community, we will constantly be confronted with the opportunity to say yes to things that are different and new, to move the scene on to its next expression…or to say no in an effort to keep things as they are.
This means, that if we are serious about living in Gospel community, we will often feel unsettled, we will often feel the compulsion to put things back to the way they have always been, the fear of what may be ahead.
This means, that if we are serious about living in Gospel community, embracing change will be the key to moving our community toward whatever is next in God’s ongoing transformation of the world and of each of our lives.
As we read the story of Jesus, who walked this earth bringing change and challenge along with his message of redemption and peace with God, we understand from our own individual perspectives how very hard change can be…accepting it, living through it, embracing a future that is new and unknown.
If it’s hard for each of us individually, well, then, imagine how it is for a whole community. Like the neuropathways in our brains, our community has come to know certain patterns, to expect certain experiences, to understand God in certain ways.
But today’s rule of improv reminds us that this one we follow is never static. He is always bringing change and opportunity, always ushering in the unexpected possibilities of the Spirit of God right here in our midst, leading us over and over again to places we never before imagined.
For this one who offers us change and possibility, we give thanks, as we wait with expectation for whatever it is we will find up around the bend.
Thanks be to God. Amen.