Worship | February 20

The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859.

Sermon manuscript:

Text: Luke 6:27-38

Speaker: Mark Rupp

Title: Life, Unscripted

A friend of mine from college recently wrote and published a book called, The Funny Thing About Forgiveness: What Every Leader Needs to Know About Improv, Culture and the World’s Least Favorite F Word.  I haven’t talked to Andrea Flack-Wetherald since back when she was Andrea Flack, but I knew through semi-regular Facebook updates that in the last few years she had taken up improv comedy as a hobby.  What I didn’t realize until I started seeing updates about her book was that she had taken her love of improv and combined it with her training as a social worker to create a method of conflict engagement and leadership development she calls Mindful Improv. 

Andrea’s book and much of her work is geared toward leaders in corporate work-place type settings, but she recognizes that the methods and goals behind Mindful Improv are much farther reaching than the office or the boardroom.  She even boldly claims that the ultimate goal is nothing short of world peace. 

If I wasn’t already interested, this claim definitely caught my attention. 

As I read her book, I realized that while her focus may be directed at a very specific audience, the methods she suggests do, indeed, get at some very foundational elements of relationship building, conflict transformation, and what it means to live from a place of our values.  If those aren’t some of the building blocks for world peace, I don’t know what is.

As Andrea points out, almost all of life is improv.  We don’t have neat scripts or well-rehearsed dialogue to get us through our day, and so we are all improvisers whether we realize it or not.  And when we realize this, we can begin to see how the tools that have been developed through improv culture can help us engage the “scenes” in which we find ourselves.  These tools and practices can help us find ways to more effectively build the kinds of outcomes we most desire, that most resonate with our values and our hopes for the world. 

Andrea explores a number of these tools throughout the book, and if you have any experience with improv you’re probably expecting her main focus to be the principle of “Yes, and,” which is probably the most famous tenet of improv.  The practice of “Yes, and…” is a way of engaging a scene that calls you to build on what is already happening and work cooperatively to shape the direction the scene is going by adding to it.  Rather than a “No, but…” that shoots down or negates what others have put forth, “Yes, and…” works to honor your scene partners and build something new. 

I was finishing Andrea’s book while beginning to prepare for this week’s sermon, and I couldn’t help but see the parallels between the improvisational tools she talked about and the way Jesus’ teachings in this week’s scripture passage invite listeners to engage conflict by going off the usual scripts.  Last week Joel preached on the passage immediately before the one for today, and we could already see how Jesus was flipping the scripts when it came to blessings and woes.  Blessed are the poor?  The hungry?  The mourners?  Those who are disliked?  Woe to rich, the sated, those who laugh and those who are lauded by many? 

With these comments, Jesus is already pretty far off the normal scripts that would make sense with the way the world typically works, and I imagine those first listeners being drawn in by this switcheroo, maybe waiting for the punchline to drop.  But these blessings and woes are just the warm up act for the real headliner that comes with today’s passage: 

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

With this statement, Jesus moves from the abstract nature of what it means to be blessed and who deserves woe to a much more directive teaching.  The blessings and woes were an introduction to a new way of life oriented around kin-dom values, but now we get to the invitation to action, to what it means to live out that new way of life. 

In case we were tempted to keep this directive to love our enemies in the abstract realm, Jesus goes on to give very concrete examples.  “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” These very specific examples become problematic when we hear in them only the “Yes” and not the “and” that Jesus is trying to teach his first century listeners.

To be clear, the “Yes” of “Yes, and…” is not a tacit agreement or willingness to allow other people to completely control a scene.  Saying “yes” does not ask us to become doormats for people to walk all over.  Rather, the “yes” is a humble acceptance and acknowledgement of what has been done that helps us stay in the present moment, that doesn’t allow us to ignore or avoid confrontation with things with which we do not agree. 

When Jesus tells the crowd to turn the other cheek, to offer their shirt, and to give to those who insist on taking, the “yes” is a recognition that the people who do these things are operating out of a system that is functioning exactly as it was intended.  The strike on the cheek was a way of maintaining hierarchy by instilling terror.  The ability of the ruling class to take whatever they wanted without recourse was a way of maintaining the status quo by wearing down already vulnerable communities. 

In the script of this system, the only acceptable response is fear and deference to the powers that be. It is a way of playing out the drama of a system built on power over others, and so the temptation is also there for those who have been forced into the part of the oppressed to step out of their role straight into the role of those who use violence to get what they want.  The same lines, co-opted by different actors in a drama locked into a cycle of its own logic of power.

Jesus acknowledges this script for what it is with a “yes” but doesn’t stop there.  The “and” that he offers the people is a reclamation of their own dignity and power that doesn’t require them to adopt the role of those who use power through violence.  Turning the other cheek is an insistence in one’s own worth.  Giving freely to those who steal is a way of exposing the futility of a system that relies on domination.

These examples are ways of showing that we live not by the well-rehearsed scripts of domination and fear but that we can find ways to improvise love into every situation.  They are methods of showing that our way of being in the world depends neither on what our enemies do nor on how well we are treated by our friends.  Rather than a script that keeps us in well rehearsed scenes of hating our enemies and loving those who do good to us, Jesus invites us to tear up that script and trust that love is possible in every situation. 

So how do we learn to orient ourselves to God, to love, to the values of the kin-dom that flips tables and scripts?

I said earlier that you might expect my friend’s book to focus on the “Yes, and…” principle.  While that was definitely a big part of her method, she spent more time exploring forgiveness as an even more foundational element of Mindful Improv.  This was surprising to me because I would not have connected forgiveness with anything related to improv.  But Andrea defines and explains forgiveness in a way that lays the groundwork for all the other tools of improv that she suggests. 

She writes, “Forgiveness is when my hurt is no longer writing my story.”  And a bit further on she adds, “Forgiveness has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a good person, but it has everything to do with whether or not you’re a free person.” 

Andrea makes clear that forgiveness is NOT about absolution of wrongs that have been done nor is it an obligation to pretend that injustices and harm are okay.  Instead, she says that forgiveness is an ongoing process and a cycle that allows us to confront the beliefs that keep us limited to old scripts and trade them for those that allow us to live more joyfully.  Forgiveness is “a spiritual invitation to become a freer person.” 

She uses this F word throughout the book, but to me she uses it in a way that is interchangeable with “grace.” 

Grace is when my hurt is no longer writing my story.  Grace has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a good person, but it has everything to do with whether or not you’re a free person.

Whether you talk about this as forgiveness or grace, this process of inner transformation is what frees us to do the work of “Yes, and…” in a way that comes from our truest selves revealed through Jesus.  Rather than operating in the world from a place of proving ourselves or performing for others we open ourselves to love as the ground of our being, the source from which we come and to which we continue to unfold through our ongoing response to the world around us. 

Jesus closes out this section of his teaching by making a turn to talking about rewards.  These last few verses can easily be manipulated to give people a sense that Jesus is simply handing on a new script where if you just follow these 4 easy steps riches and good stuff will come to you.  But we must put these verses on rewards into context of what Jesus has just said. 

Instead of a promise that turning cheeks and giving coats will be effective in ways that cause good things to happen to you in return or that buy into the notions of success that the system of domination have defined, Jesus is pointing people toward the kind of reward that can’t be so easily measured. 

He tells the crowd that if they do these things he has taught, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as God is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” 

The reward for living this way of enemy love is that we become more like God, more like who we were always meant to be.  This unscripted life of improvising love into every moment frees us to engage the world not from fear, not from mere obligation or from shame, but from a place of joy, playfulness, and hope that a better world truly is possible. 

And so, my wish for us, my friends, is:

  • That we would learn to recognize the well-worn scripts that operate in our lives for better and for worse.
  • That we would have the courage to say “yes, and…” in ways that create more of what we most deeply value in life.
  • And finally that we would trust that forgiveness and grace are already and always available to us and beckon us toward a new, freer way of life.