"Yes, And..."

Sunday, June 25th, 2017
Psalm 100, Genesis 18:1-15
Rev. Carrie Smith-Coons

yes and

Today is my last Sunday with you all as one of your pastors.  I’m sad about that.  I will miss being in ministry alongside you, and I’ve felt very honored to be part of your lives for the last five years.  It’s been a pleasure to get to know many of you more, and to discover Fairview’s many unique gifts.

I have appreciated this call as a co-pastor, and I’m grateful you all took a chance on Shawn and me together.  I will miss working alongside Shawn. That has been a joy and a gift – he has many skills and gifts I don’t, and I’ve always loved that we complement each other that way.  However, I’m very glad he will continue with you all, and I feel confident that as you move into this new visioning phase, he brings many skills that are important for that task.  And I trust that you’ll support him as he makes a difficult transition into being a solo pastor.

This is not the last Sunday I’ll ever see you, and I’m glad for that.  As I’ve said before, usually when we’ve ended a pastorate, we’ve moved out of state, and so I’m grateful to stay here in Indy, with folks I’ve grown to love, and I’m glad I’ll continue to see what Fairview’s future holds.

So, let’s move from me, to what we pray will be God’s message to all of us this morning.

I’ve been thinking about some things these past few weeks that I’d like to share with you, and I’d like to set the stage a little before we read our next scripture lesson - and I really do mean “set the stage.” I’ve been reading a series of articles about improv, and about how improv has some things to teach us about our faith.

How many of you know what improv is?  Have any of you actually done improv? 

Improv is short for “improvisation,” or improvisational theater, and it’s entirely  unscripted.  So everything is off-the-cuff, spur of the moment.  There’s no planning ahead, no cheat sheet, no one whispering your lines from the wings.  If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, then you’ve seen improv.

So, one person will start a scene, and the other people in the skit just have to go with it.  They have to take whatever they’re given and improvise.  No one ever knows quite what will happen; sometimes things go well, and sometimes NOT so well.

However, even though it’s unscripted, there are actually several very clear rules for how you should go about doing improv. 

Tina Fey is a comedian you may recognize from Saturday Night Live, or multiple movies and TV shows.  She explains the rules of improv in her book Bossypants.  She writes,

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas!” . . . then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

 . . . The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah...” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

Don’t say “No.”  Say “Yes, and . . .”  Build on what you’re given.  Trust that something good will come out of it.

Improv is supposed to be funny, but the rules of improv can challenge us in good ways with our life, and, I think, also with our faith.  What do we do – and what do we believe - when our life challenges us to improvise?

How good are you and I at responding – when something comes along that we don’t expect?  Do we protest, and stop in our tracks?  Or do we trust that we and God together can bring something good out of what happens next?

Hang on to these ideas a moment, and let’s think about them in the context of our scripture reading.

This morning we have part of the story of Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham and Sarah are two of the matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith.  They will become the ancestors of the Jews and eventually the Christians. 

But at the point where we find them today, Abraham and Sarah are pretty ordinary people, who’ve been doing an extraordinary thing.  They’ve left their home without really knowing what’s next.  Back in Genesis chapter 12, God simply told them “Go.”

 “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

Abraham and Sarah are really living out their faith in an improvisational sort of way, because they’re figuring it out as they go along.  All they have is their trust in God’s promise of land and children – and so far, neither have happened.

This story happens about midway through their lives and their journey, and it’s been many years since those first promises. 

Genesis 18:1-15

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Sometimes God shows up in almost playful ways.  Here we have three strangers who turn out to be God’s angels in disguise.  The book of Hebrews in the New Testament talks of this moment, and says that we should never neglect our own duty to welcome the stranger, because you never know when it might really be God. 

But what has always stood out for me in this story, and what stands out for many people, is Sarah’s laughter. 

She hears she will have a baby, and she can’t keep the emotion in:  she laughs out loud.  There’s no clear sense here whether or not she and Abraham knew these were divine visitors, although by the end, her fear indicates that maybe she’s caught on.  At first, we just hear her pure reaction to their conversation.

So her laughter might have been cynical at first, or it might have been a laugh of wonder . . . or laughter mixed with tears.  But what we definitely hear is her protest.  “You say I’ll have a child, BUT I’m too old, and my husband is old.  It’s impossible.”

Sarah is living a certain narrative.  She has a certain view of her life and her husband Abraham’s life, and that view does not include children.  That possibility is no longer on her radar.  Her reaction is understandable, and maybe we GET it – because that kind of reaction is something we’ve had ourselves at some point in our lives. 

We start out thinking we’re going one direction, and then something happens to change it.

And it could be a good thing – like, “Honey, we’re pregnant!”

Or it could be a bad thing.

·         “Your furnace is completely dead.”

·         “You have cancer.”

·         “I’m sorry, but we have to let you go.”

·         Or here at church, “Our membership is still shrinking.”

It’s not what we planned.  And often, it’s not at all what we wanted.  And our instinct is to answer with a “no.”  We know we’re supposed to trust God in all things.  We know we’re called to be patient, and see how God is at work.  But we’re not always ready to accept things as they are.  So, we hit a full STOP.  We protest.  

But let’s go back to our improv challenge.  Sarah has broken the first rule of improv, right?  Instead of accepting what’s being said, and agreeing with it, in order to build on it, she stops the conversation it its tracks.

God has started a conversation, but Sarah isn’t ready to continue it.

God . . . ends up being much better at improv than Sarah is.  God says, “Yes, you’re older now . . . AND watch what happens next!”  God refuses to stop the conversation going forward.  God’s grace and love are too big for that. 

And not long after - 9 months or so, if we want to get technical – Sarah does give birth to a baby – a son, and his name is Isaac, which means “laughter.”  There’s that wonderful rhetorical question the three angels ask, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

God keeps the conversation going.  God keeps moving, and working, in Sarah and Abraham’s lives.

 . . . How often do you and I respond as Sarah did, at least at first?  How often do we put a period where God puts a comma?  How often do we refuse to build on what we’re given, because it’s not what we expected?  And we dig in our heels, and refuse to see possibilities - and we say “no”?

We can take a hint from improv.  We can choose to live with an attitude of “yes . . . AND” – with an attitude of openness . . . and hope . . . and a belief in God’s grace and ability to work with us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

You could argue that improv actually isn’t going into a situation totally unprepared. It’s actually going in ready for the unexpected.  We can choose to go through life realizing that things will happen that we didn’t prepare for, but trusting that we’ll find your way through, with God’s help.

·         Build on what you’re given.
·         And trust that God is with you in whatever unfolds next.

I will be improvising and trusting God in this coming year, as I leave my position here with you all and take a chaplaincy residency at St. Vincent’s Hospital. 

It’s not necessarily what I planned, five years ago.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not good.  That decision required me to acknowledge that things had to change.  It required me to accept that one thing was ending and say “yes” to the possibility of a new thing beginning . . . and to trust that God can work through both.

So, YES -  I’ve had a wonderful five years with you all, AND – God’s not done with me yet.

And what about you?

Where are you being invited to faithfully improvise in your life? 

Is it possible for you to say YES, to acknowledge the reality of whatever situation you find yourself in . . . AND to trust God is working with you as you move forward?

Is it possible for you to say:

YES, God didn’t show up quite the way I wanted AND YET– I see God at work even in this difficult time I’m going through . . . or in the friendship that’s sustaining me now . . . or in the job that came along instead of the one I expected. . . or in the love of my family.

What about our church?

Between staff changes, and the New Beginnings process we just went through . . . and the dialogue and learning we still need to have, things are in the process of changing and shifting.  And each of you is invited to be part of it. 

And you can say “no” – you can STOP the dialogue. 

·         Or you can say, “I’ve already done my part.”  Because you’re tired.
·         You can say, “yes, those are nice ideas, but they just won’t work . . . and here’s why.” 
·         Or you can say, “YES, these things are important to talk about, but I just don’t have time to help.”

All of those are ways of saying NO, right? 

And you can do that.  But then the collaboration stops.  The movement forward stops.  And when our own dialogue stops, it also becomes harder and harder to dialogue with God.  We can shut the movement forward down.

Or you can choose an attitude of openness.  Trust that God is still speaking – that God has ideas for you, and for Fairview – that God is at work here.  You can expect laughter, and grace, and possibility.

Don’t be too quick to end the story, to make conclusions, or cut off conversation.  Be aware of ways in which you stop possibilities from emerging – with others in the church, with God, within your heart.  How can you say, and practice, “Yes, and . . .”

So, YES . . . our staff and budget have shrunk over the years – AND – we still have a lot of assets, in money, location, and especially our people. 

YES, we are a small church, AND God can do amazing stuff with small things. 

YES, we are in a time when fewer and fewer people are coming to church, AND that’s just more people to tell about Jesus.

YES, we don’t know our next step yet . . .  AND God’s not done with us yet.

YES, there are and still will be times of discouragement, AND we are people of resurrection HOPE.

God is not done speaking yet, in your life, in our lives, in the life of Fairview.  WE must not be done with responding yet.

And so I charge you to be a resurrection people, a people who continue, over and over, to live with faith, and joy, and excitement . . .  to see what comes along in your lives and in the lives of the community around us . . . and say, “YES, here we are . . . AND let’s see now what God can do through us!”

And I give you these words, from St. Francis, and may they be both a charge – a call to action – and our prayer together:

May God bless you with discomfort
with easy answers and half-truths and superficial relationships,
so that you will live deeply
and from the heart.

And may God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people,
so that you will work
for justice, freedom and peace.

And may God bless you with tears to shed
for those that mourn,
so you will reach out your hand to them
and turn mourning into joy.

And may God bless you with just enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you will do those things that others say
cannot be done.

Amen.

 

Hearing from our neighbors

At our annual Fairview Fish Fry we invited people to write a brief prayer on a ribbon and connect it to the prayers of others.  Lots of prayers for peace, the neighborhood, our nation's leaders, and for loved ones.

We also asked people what Fairview could offer that they might be interested in.  75% of people responding chose "Meet your neighbors of different race, ethnicity, and gender identities" followed closely by "Meet your neighbors of different faith backgrounds."

"Faith topics: life after death, prayer, caring for God’s creation, etc." were chosen by about 25% of people responding.

Story Time - Sermon - May 14

 

There’s something compelling about a good story, isn’t there? Who’d have thought that a good story could come out of a 50 second video about a goldfish? I’ve been thinking about story this week, and spent some time looking at short stories, and I mean really short stories.  There are a number of 1 minute stories on Youtube like the goldfish one. But there are even shorter stories. Carrie clued me in to two sentence horror stories. Like this one:

 I begin tucking Johnny into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.” I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another Johnny, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”

That’s pretty good for two sentences.  But when I think of compelling and engaging short stories, one that I think of is from the Pixar movie Up. In the first ten minutes of the film the story is told of Carl and Ellie, who meet as kids and grow old together as husband and wife.  The power of their story brings you from laughter to tears in mere breaths.

There are things that get communicated through story that can only be communicated through story. I think this is why the central book of our faith is primarily a book of stories. The Bible begins with a story of how God created the world, in Christianity our two holiest days are Christmas and Easter, the story of Jesus coming into the world and of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Stories abound in scripture.

Today for our NT passage, we are reading another story, and this is a story about a man who tells a story.  We’re going to read from Acts 6:8-7:1 and it picks up with a dispute among Jews, between Jesus’ followers and mainstream Jewish authorities.
 

6:8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit* with which he spoke. 11Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ 

12They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth* will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ 15And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. 

7:1 Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are these things so?’ 

I ended the passage here because what happens next is Stephen begins to tell a long story of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham, the Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and his journey to Egypt, the Hebrew people’s slavery in Egypt, Moses, the Exodus, through Joshua and through David. It’s a long story, an entire chapter of the Bible, a long chapter, 60 verses. 

And what happens when Stephen gets to the end of his story?  The Jewish authorities are outraged with what Stephen has said, and they kill him.  What’s going on here?  Let me suggest that if Stephen wasn’t such a good storyteller, they may not have killed him.  There was a power in Stephen’s story that moved the people who was telling it to to violence.

Stories are powerful. Story can communicate in ways that explaining cannot.  I can tell you to give to help people in need, but if I tell you the story of someone who is struggling it’s going to register with you more.  We’ve all experienced this, but it’s been studied as well. Let’s just say your listening to a me explain scientific facts about storytelling, or to a PowerPoint presentation about it, bullet points and all.  There are parts of the brain that get activated at moments like that – parts that process language, where we decode words, but there’s not a lot else going on in the brain when someone is simply explaining facts to us.

But if we are listening to someone tell a story…the language processing part of our brain is active, and so are other areas depending on what’s happening in the story. If someone is describing a wonderful meal that they ate, then our sensory cortex is active. This is the part of the brain that is active when we eat. It activates when we eat or when we hear someone sharing a story about eating.

Similar things happen if someone tells us about a dog’s soft fur, or the warmth of the summer sun.  Or if someone is telling the story about skydiving, the feeling of jumping out of the moving plane, suddenly falling at great speed towards the earth, then in our brain our motor cortex lights up. Story engages more of our brain than simply explaining or lecturing.

This is why story can be so powerful – when you tell a story to a group of people, you are syncing their brains in a real way.  You mention the smell of fresh baked chocolate cookies, and you are engaging the sensory cortex of every person listening.  Often when people are engaged in listening to the same story they will even begin syncing their breathing with the story teller and consequently with other listeners.

And when we hear a story, we instinctively want to make connections, when we hear someone tell us about a time they were really scared, we being scanning our mental files for stories about when we were scared, when we hear a story about a great trip someone took, it’s likely that we will share a story about one of our trips.  We want to connect with one another, and we get that stories of our experiences do that on multiple levels.

Story reaches us in a way that connects on multiple levels.  I can tell you that forgiveness is powerful. I can tell you that forgiveness can provide a release, it can lift a burden. But you aren’t going to hear that the same way you would hear it from Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel as they tell the story of how Mary forgave Oshea for the murder of her only son.

Story is powerful.  As I said before, this engagement with the story may have been what gotten Stephen killed, because he wanted to connect his listeners to the story he was telling, and he did so, but the connection he wanted was powerful but angering.  Stephen was brought before the Jewish authorities because the Jewish followers of Jesus were being accused of departing from traditional ways of JudaismSo what Stephen does is tell stories from Jewish tradition, he begins a grand overarching story that shows God at work through Abraham, Moses, David, and others, but he also talks about the people that opposed God’s work, kings, pharaohs, at times even the Israelites

He tells a story of good guys and bad guys, he gets these fellow Jews connected to the story he is telling, a story they are familiar with and then he ends his story this way:

‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’

He ends his story of good guys and bad guys, by saying, “We, the followers of Jesus, we are the good guys, we are the ones who have stayed true just like Abraham, just like Joseph. You are the bad guys, like the Pharaoh, like the kings who opposed the prophets, like our ancestors in the desert who rebelled against God.”

He makes a powerful connection. They get what he is trying to say, they get preceisely the connection he is making. And they react to it. Violently.

There is power in story, and there are things that can be best communicated through story.  I think this is especially true for faith. Just think about God, or try to, that’s kind of the problem isn’t it? We believe God is real, but we also believe that God can’t be contained by our thoughts. God is so much bigger than our words.  God is so much bigger than any description we can come up with.  And so we tell stories about God and how God has acted and continues to act in the world.

Have you ever had to explain a joke?  If you have then you know that you’ve lost all chance of it being funny, because the humor isn’t in the explanation.  It’s in the telling. That’s what God is like.  God and God’s plan isn’t reducible to three clear and concise bulleted statements.  God can’t be summed up with one creed or confession.  One of the many things I love about the Presbyterian Church is that we use a variety of creeds and confessions and Affirmations of Faith.  And look at the richness of the Biblical witness.  The Bible is a library of stories.  History, romance, intrigue, war, visions, parables, poetry.

We need stories.  Not only because stories are the best way for us to learn about God and God’s will for us, but because stories help us to experience God.  I love reading a book that immerses me in its plot and characters, because there comes a point where I know the people in the book pretty well.  I can imagine what it might be like to hang out with them for an evening.  There comes a point where I have been a part of their story and so I know more about them than just what the story says.

Every time I read or watch a production of Romeo and Juliet a get a little weepy.  I cry for them because by through their story, I know them and I can feel the despair and sadness they are feeling.  That’s how it is with God.  If we hear enough of God’s story, then we can know and experience God in a way that goes beyond a simple description. Through story we can connect and know God on an intimate level.

And when we tell God’s story, when we tell stories of love, of compassion, of justice then we can share God in a way that is powerful. 

My hope for us this day is that we can become master storytellers. And hopefully, our audience will be a little more receptive than Stephen’s audience. But I hope that we can tell God’s story with the same kind of power, because there are some things that can only be communicated through story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faith Communities Lead City in Sheltering Homeless

Wheeler Mission

Wheeler Mission

The Indy Star had an article recently about the resources to shelter those who are homeless in Indianapolis.  Compared to cities our size around the country, Indianapolis ranks second highest in depending on faith communities to provide emergency shelter for those in need.  77% of beds for Indianapolis' homeless population are provided by faith-based organizations.  The largest provider of shelter is Wheeler Mission, supported by many churches (including Fairview).

New Beginnings

Imagine that a family is remodeling their kitchen, and they all have different ideas of what it should look like.  Dad wants a modern kitchen for cooking extravagant meals. Mom wants a simple space designed for entertaining a few close friends, or quiet mornings enjoying coffee with a view of the backyard. 

The youngest child wants to turn the kitchen into a dessert buffet complete with a donut machine, the middle child likes it just the way it is, and the oldest child wants to get rid of the kitchen and eat out all the time.  If they start making plans for the new kitchen right away, it will end up being a disaster that no one is happy with.

This family is kind of like our Fairview family.  Except instead of a kitchen, we have different ideas about what our church should be like.

This is why we are engaging in the New Beginnings process at Fairview. This 4-5 month process invites everyone at Fairview to be part of deciding our future.

New Beginnings started in January with a congregational gathering. That evening was led by Michael Whitman from The Hope Partnership. Michael invited us to reflect on our past and present as we identified important values, strengths, and assets of our church.

The difference between the New Beginnings program and past plans, reports, and consultants is the final result.  The final product of New Beginnings is not a plan or a series of recommendations, but a commitment to a specific direction based on the discernment of the congregation and Session.

Like the family above, we can’t make specific plans for our future before we commit to a direction. New Beginnings will help us do that.  At the end of New Beginnings, the Session will act on a recommendation to make what the program calls “a bold decision” about our future.  Here are some examples of decisions other New Beginnings congregations have made:

Getting Back to Basics: A congregation with capable people and sufficient resources was able to reconsider what God was calling them to do.  After intentional reflection, and the development of a strong vision for the future, they moved from a church that focused primarily on themselves to one focused on serving their community. 

Finding a New Home: A small congregation with a large building sold their facility and relocated. New Beginnings helped them see how their savings on monthly building expenses would allow them to call a full-time pastor. The right-sized congregation is growing now, with a passion for ministry in the community.

Starting Over: A congregation averaged 30 in worship every other Sunday. After New Beginnings helped them develop a new vision for ministry, they decided to “restart” the church. Officers agreed to resign, and the church was closed. It reopened a month later with a new name. Today, more than 200 worship there each Sunday.

Embracing New Neighbors: A congregation was located in a community whose racial/ethnic demographics had changed radically. With the help of New Beginnings, the congregation decided to launch a new ministry that was appropriate for the culture of those living in the neighborhood. In an act of faithfulness, they shared both their facility and their endowed funds. As a result of their gifts, average worship attendance went from 50 to more than 300 each weekend.

It is also an option for a congregation going through this process to admit that they do not want to change enough to expect new growth or new life.  In that case, the church chooses to remain largely the same.  They seek out how to use their remaining resources to remain faithful as long as possible, and begin to talk about the legacy they wish to leave behind.

All of these options, and many more, are open to Fairview.  Whatever we decide, we will then commit to fully evaluating all areas of the church (ministries, worship, staff, building) to support our new direction.

Continue to pray and participate in New Beginnings!  Your presence, faith, and openness to God’s Spirit at work among us in this time are all important.