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