Monday, May 02, 2011

The church improvisational

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-02

John 20: 19-31
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
May 1, 2011 – Holy Humor/Bright Sunday

Recently I read Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, recalling her days as a member of the Second City improv theater in Chicago. Did you know that there are rules for doing improvisational comedy? You wouldn’t think so to look at it. There’s no scenery, no props, and no script; it’s just made up as the actors go along.

Even though the Christian faith has a script (holy scriptures—what we call the Bible), some fabulous scenery (the whole of creation and the living of our lives), and a few props (the cross, bread, juice, the waters of baptism), the religious establishment is sometimes accused of making it up as it goes along. Indeed there are some tenets of Christian doctrine that seem as though they were conjured from the human imagination: original sin, the virgin birth, even the resurrection. For hundreds of years there have been rules about what is orthodox belief and what is heresy; rules about what makes a faith community the Church rather than just a social club.

Thankfully church life has loosened up some over the years. Indeed there are some who would say it has loosened up too much. In the United Church of Christ there are no tests of faith, no creeds we must adhere to. We recognize that everyone is on a journey of faith, that every relationship with God and with the church is unique. Yet there is also an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to Jesus and his disciples and it is this faith and this community that we strive to emulate.

If I didn’t know any better, from this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, I’d think that Jesus knew the rules of improvisational comedy. Not that he or Thomas are trying to be funny but according to Tina Fey, they are following the rules. The rules of improv are also pretty good for what it means to be the church.

1. The first rule is to agree, to say yes to whatever is being created. So if your partner says “Freeze, I have a water pistol,” you can’t reply with “No, it’s not. It’s your finger,” then the scene has come to a stop rather than going on. This rule reminds us to keep an open mind to what is going on around us. Thomas is not yet ready to keep an open mind about this risen Christ. He demands to see Jesus’ wounds and to place his hand in his side. Jesus doesn’t say, “Resurrection isn’t about the body” or “Get your filthy hands off me”. Instead he says yes to Thomas and the scene continues.

2. The second rule to is to add something of your own, to say ‘yes, and’, to agree but to also go on with what has been handed to you. If I say, “Gee, it sure is humid,” and you say, “Yeah…”, then there’s really no where to go. But if you say, “What do you expect from living inside a giant rice cooker?” or “Yeah, it’s so humid even my wrinkles can’t hold out” or “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into the belly of a whale”, then we’ve got somewhere to go. When Jesus says to Thomas ‘put your hand in my side’, Thomas doesn’t say “Eew, yuck! No, thanks!” Rather, he adds his ‘yes, and’, his confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

3. The next rule is to make statements. If we ask questions all the time, we put pressure on our partner to come up with all the answers. If we point out all the obstacles, it then becomes up to our partner to solve them. Whatever the difficulty is, we need to be part of the solution rather than add to the problem. Jesus asks Thomas a question but he follows it with the answer, making a declarative statement: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Not having seen Jesus in the flesh presents a problem of faith: how are we to believe if we have not seen? Jesus reminds us that faith is not about what is certain but what is uncertain. Improvising is all about uncertainty and not knowing what is going to happen next.

4. Finally, there are no mistakes, only opportunities. Thomas wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples: rather than a mistake it was an opportunity for Jesus to teach and to help his friends understand what it means to believe and to be in community with those who may have doubts. Jesus and the disciples could have chastised Thomas for missing out the first time. Instead we have a beautifully improvised scene in which those who doubt are included and we receive the blessing of the words “come to believe”, illustrating that faith and living in community are not a place to arrive at but a journey, a process, an improvisation.

(After this point, members of the congregation took turns telling those religious jokes we get in our email--and some I'd never heard before. I should say that up until I preached the sermon I was wearing a squid hat, borrowed from my daughter's friend at school. It became too heavy to wear, at which point I took it off to reveal the tiara I was wearing underneath. It was also Communion Sunday, so we had milk and 'Nilla wafers by intinction!)

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