Monday, January 17, 2011
Second after the Epiphany, 2010: Guest Preacher
The Rev. Lucia Lloyd is Rector of St. Stephen's Church, Heathsville, Virginia--a congregation formed by continuing Episcopalians when the clergy and a majority of the members of their former parish made the decision to leave the Episcopal Church. Lucia is a native of our area and grew up as a member of the Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church. She has joined us for worship (and as a preacher) several times when returning to Pittsburgh to visit family. She generously shared this sermon with us yesterday.
Lucia Lloyd’s sermon
January 16, 2011 Epiphany 2, Year A
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh PA
I love watching improv comedy for the simple reason that it’s fun. Improv comedy has no script, no monologue that is memorized ahead of time. A comedy troupe gets ideas from the audience and from each other as the performance is happening, and the funniest parts are the parts that just pop into their heads! Oddly enough, right underneath the laugher, there is also a level of terror. After all, being on stage and not knowing any of your lines is the sort of thing people have nightmares about. Being exposed to public ridicule is one of the deepest human fears, and something normal people work very hard to avoid.
But ironically, I think that the element of fear increases rather than decreases the level of fun. There is something exciting about people who face our worst fears and overcome them. It’s why people like to watch Olympic ski jumpers, or acrobats, or race car drivers. It is why we were so touched the first time we saw Susan Boyle sing. It is why we get so attached to James Bond.
Another paradox about improve comedy is that the people who are really good at that kind of split-second humor have invested a lot of time in working on their skills. Like the skiers, the acrobats, and the people who want to get to Carnegie Hall, it’s practice, practice, practice. Ironically, spontaneity takes preparation.
The foundational skill in preparing for improv comedy is learning to say “yes and.” In a commencement speech at Knox College, Stephen Colbert describes it: “When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.”
Colbert tells the graduates, “Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back. Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.””
Colbert is right, of course, and not just for graduates, but for all of us. We can say no to what we are given, or complain that it should have been different, or reject it because it wasn’t what we expected. There are all sorts of ways of saying no. An insult is one way to say no. Severing a relationship says no. Killing someone becomes the most extreme form of saying no. Saying no feels like having control, but in reality it crushes possibilities for a better future.
Saying yes involves accepting the situation you have, whether or not it is a situation you would have chosen, and adding something that enables you to move forward with it, together with others. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Heathsville has lived the “yes and” approach to life. Four years ago, their rector and a majority of their congregation left The Episcopal Church and joined the Church of Nigeria. Despite that, 33 Episcopalians decided that they were going to continue to worship God as Episcopalians. The breakaway group claimed that the church property now belonged to them, and said they would not allow any more Episcopal worship services in the church building. The Episcopalians were left with no church building, no priest, no prayer books, no address, nothing but God and each other. So they said, “yes, this is the situation we’re in, and we’re going to improvise a parish from what we’ve got.” And they did! The local Methodist Church improvised with them to let the Episcopalians worship in their building, and other Episcopal Churches donated hymnals, prayer books, and all sorts of supplies. A retired priest came in to serve as an interim rector. They rented a dilapidated house and fixed it up to use as office space, meeting space, and space for weekly dinners. Later they expanded it so they could begin to use it as an improvised worship space. They improvised new outreach to the local community, including delivering water to people in the area whose wells had run dry or become contaminated, and who had no clean drinking water. They improvised a new parish attitude in which “we’ve always done it this way” receded and “let’s start” emerged. Most important of all, they improvised a new form of faith, in which trusting God through an uncertain future, when it would have been so much easier to give up and go home, provided opportunities for new growth, new hope, new creativity, new joy. I joined them on this journey as their priest two years ago; we improvise together as we go along. New people from our local area have continued to come join this congregation and improvise along with us. We have found new meaning in the scriptures too. We identify with stories of the wilderness, stories of displacement, and stories of hope in adversity. We identify with scriptural narratives in which people improvise because what God gives them is not what they expected. The scriptural narratives that are improv with God turn out to be almost all of them. There are some actors who say no to God. They want to stay in control. Jonah says no. Pharaoh says no. The rich young ruler says no. Judas says no. Pilate says no.
But there are other actors who say “yes and.” John the Baptist does not know in advance exactly who he is preparing for. But when Jesus appears, John says yes, and “here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The two disciples say yes to Jesus and they follow him. Jesus responds with that beautiful question, “what are you looking for?” They accept the question, and they move the conversation forward by asking him a question, “rabbi, where are you staying?” to start a relationship. Jesus responds with a “yes and”: “come and see. Andrew accepts Jesus’ teaching with a yes, and he goes to tell his brother Simon Peter “we have found the Messiah.”
The gospel of John is a carefully shaped series of encounters with Jesus, and the various ways people respond to Jesus. Some say “yes but” and “but” negates the “yes.” Some say no. Some say yes!
God is different from an improv actor because God is not limited by time: God sees the big picture, the future as well as the past and the present, and God cares for and guides them all. But from our human perspective, God has a lot in common with an improv actor too, because God keeps tossing us the unexpected. When we go with the “yes and” is when miracles often happen, as God gets creative with us.
The reason that “yes and” is so important is that in an improv troupe, the yes ands build the scene and create the humor. One “no” can kill the whole scene. The real danger in improv isn’t having people laugh at you: having people laugh at you is actually the purpose of the whole thing. They’re laughing with you. It’s fun. The real danger in improv is that you’ll be so afraid of making a mistake that you will make the biggest mistake of all: you won’t make anything, and you’ll prevent everyone else from making anything too.
Stephen Colbert tells us “You are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.”
In our worship this morning, we know that there is something even better: God will say “yes” back.
The Bible is a comedy in the original meaning of the word: a story with a happy ending. When humanity answers Jesus with the complete no in the crucifixion, Jesus accepts that. In the crucifixion Jesus says “yes.” The resurrection is Jesus’ “and.” Jesus invites us into that resurrection life with him. It is scary to respond to that invitation with “yes and.” It is also exciting. And even fun!