Jesus Improvs

Act 1:  Improv Small Group

Our Bible study small group was wrapping up in Multipurpose Room B in the basement of Allen Hall as several college students were gathering in the opposite corner of the room.  When enough of them had arrived, they formed a circle and began boisterously volleying words back and forth, their bodies loosely bouncing up and down and their mouths grinning wide.  Our group watched with envy and fascination as these ‘improvisational artists’ practiced, full of joy and energyI wondered, “Could our small group be more like this improv group or were we just supposed to memorize our lines and stick to the script?”

Act 2:  The Rules of Improv

Tina Fey, in her memoir Bossypants says the first rule of improv is to always ‘Say Yes’ to whatever has been offered to you.

A:  Which floor? {looks like he is about to push a button.}

B:  8th floor please.  You must be the new doorman?  

The first actor (A) offers a scenario where they are in an elevator.

The one thing that you do not want to do is block by denying or ignoring what has been offered to you.

A:  Which floor?

B:  What are you talking about?  We’re stranded on an island!

Fortunately, in the first example, the second actor (B) accepts the offer by going along with the premise that they are in an elevator and then adds some new information that the first person is a new doorman which leads to Fey’s second rule of improv: “Say Yes, AND…” Add something.  If you do not contribute, the creation will die.  Actor B said “Yes (‘8th floor please.’) and… you must be the new doorman?”  Now A might say…

A:  Yes, I just arrived on the Death Star last week, sir.          

You get the idea.  By saying “Yes, AND…” A does not lose the power to continue shaping the story.  Samuel Wells refers to this as ‘overaccepting’; he is not just any doorman, he is now a doorman on a moon-sized Imperial battle station.

Then consider status.  At first, you think these two people are of equal status – perhaps A is a friendly stranger offering to push a button.  But when B asks if A is the new doorman then he takes high status and A is put in low status.  A accepts the low status by calling B, ‘sir.’  Samuel Wells says that all human interactions involve choosing status and both high and low status can be ways of getting what we want.  Stories are most interesting when status roles are inverted or when we discover that the person of low status is the one who really has the power.

The final rule is reincorporation.  The best stories have no throwaway lines.  Everything that was introduced earlier is used at the end.  You might imagine that if the scene above was stretched out longer, it might end with B revealing that he is Darth Vader, and he had ‘force’ choked the old elevator doorman in anger when he accidentally hit the button for floor 9 instead of floor 8. 

Act 3:  Jesus Improvs

On Maundy Thursday, Jesus improvs.

Footwashing was a task that not even Jewish slaves were required to do – only Gentile slaves, women, and children performed this task.

“[He] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”  John 13:4-5

Jesus takes an ordinary, menial task and by moving from high status (Teacher and Lord) to low status, he transforms the task into a powerful object lesson.  By taking the low status (lower than a slave), Jesus is able to bend the disciples’ rivalry toward a posture of humility and love.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  John 13:34

“Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  Luke 22:19

The Passover meal is a celebration of God delivering Israel from their bondage in Egypt.  In eating the meal, the Jews remembered that God had set them free and would set them free again.  Would Jesus be the Messiah be the one to lead Israel back from exile?

Jesus could have accepted the role and led a violent revolt.

Jesus could have blocked by saying, “I will not eat the Passover because you have some wrong expectations about what I am going to do.”

But Jesus says, “Yes, and…”

Jesus reincorporates the Passover through his death.

Yes, freedom is coming at the Passover again.  And, I am the lamb.”  

By overaccepting (Yes, and…) his death, he subversively shifts the object of the meal’s remembrance from the Exodus to himself – as one who brings the New Exodus in his death and resurrection.

This is nothing new for Jesus.  He is the King of “Yes, and…”

Yes, and let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Yes, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Yes, and it is to such as these [children] that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

Jesus reincorporates the narrative of Scripture in his life and ministry.  He is adept at adjusting his status.  He says “Yes, and…” to all offers that the disciples, Jews, and Romans give him.  He uses improv to do the will of the Father in a world that wants to block God’s story.

Act 4:  A “Yes, And…” Church

What I did not realize many years ago in Allen Hall is that our small group could learn a lot from about our calling from the improv group.  To improv is to imagine that something new and beautiful is coming, even through our mistakes.

The best improv actors do not try to be clever or original.  They do whatever seems obvious in the moment.  They have spent countless hours practicing how to listen and to say ‘Yes, and…” so that in the moment of decision they respond out of habit.

Our church will gather this evening to practice improvWorship is our practice.  Passing the peace, washing one another’s feet, and the Eucharist are ways we practice saying “Yes, and…” And if worship is our practice, mission is our performance.  Our witness to the neighborhood is shaped by saying “Yes, and…” – listening and accepting the gifts that we have been given and then responding in ways that seem obvious after being seasoned in worship.  The principles of improv inherent in worship and witness are teaching us how to live as citizens of the kingdom.

“Yes, and…” is the place where the kingdom is breaking in and how the story continues.  We are free from the burden of making sure the story ends right.  God will take care of that.  As a missionary people, we steep ourselves in Scripture’s narrative, listen to what is happening around us, and adjust our status appropriately in our relationships to the surrounding culture and the world, so that we can say “Yes, and…” and join in the Father’s work.

For even on the cross, the world’s emphatic “NO!” to God, God says, “Yes,” and… raises Jesus from the grave.


Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Christ Shaped Character by Helen Cepero (coming in May 2014)

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