Undervalued Disciplines for Overwhelming Days: Improvisation

by | Apr 3, 2022


Meg Peery McLaughlin
Undervalued Disciplines for Overwhelming Days: Improvisation
April 3, 2022
John 12: 1-8


Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Are you the kind of person who likes it when things go according to plan?
What happens to you—to your spirit—when a wrench gets thrown in?

We’re in our last week of Lent; Holy Week is fast approaching:
the parade, the supper, the trial, the cross, the tears, the surprise,
the stone rolled away.

Now, we sit with what feels like a looming inevitable.

This story is in all four gospels. Only two gospels tell the story of Jesus birth.
Only one tells the story of the Prodigal son.
Everyone who tells the Jesus story wants us to know this part.

If you peek back to the chapter before this one—
you’ll see that Jesus has just raised Mary’s brother Lazarus
he’s just said I am the Resurrection and the Life
and that kind of power is just too threatening for the powers that be
the powers that prefer keeping life in check, rather than allowing it to flourish,
so they hatch their plan to kill him.

The verse just prior to story reads:
Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.

So what does Mary do with this wrench in the plan?

She could try to block it.
Refuse it. Right then and there at that dinner table
tried to hide Jesus away, some kind of witness protection plan,
or turn to violence herself to protect her friend.

She could just accept it.
Resign herself to what’s been dealt.
It is what it is.

Instead, she takes a third way.
She takes a pound of perfume,
and instead of anointing Jesus’ head,
she tenderly anoints Jesus’ dusty feet.
And she dries them with her hair.
It is an act of vulnerability and beauty.
And also one of stunning extravagance.
John tells us the nard cost 300 denarii, which is a full year’s salary.
Some may call that a waste,
unless of course, they consider what is about to go down with Jesus own life,
poured out in full for the dust of all creation.

Jesus has been given a death sentence.
Mary could have blocked– said NO.
She could have accepted — said YES.
Instead she does something far more faithful— says YES, AND.

It’s an act of improvisation.

Years ago at Knox College, the comedian Stephen Colbert spoke to a class of graduating seniors and he said

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.”
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. They say you’re sharks—you’re sharks. And then, you add to that:
We’re sharks and we’re in space. That’s the “-and.”
And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back.

You graduates 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.”

Sam Wells, now a vicar at St. Martin in the Fields in London, wrote an book on Christian Ethics call Improvisation, where he calls this Overaccepting.


Wells says
“Overaccepting intimates the manner of God’s reign. In the nativity, God overaccepts human life. He does not reject his people, nor does he simply accept them: instead he comes among them. If the gospel story begins with God in Jesus overaccepting life, it ends with God in Jesus overaccepting death. Jesus does not avoid the cross, nor is the cross the end of the story. In the resurrection, God shows that even the worst offer, the execution of the Son of God, can be overaccepted—even death and all its causes can be part of the story.”

In so many ways, these past two years have been a learning lab
for the spiritual practice of improv.

We haven’t wanted to, but we’ve had to dig deep into this part of our discipleship,
have we not? I wonder, what have you learned?
About yourself? About God? About this story of which we are a part?

A year ago yesterday was our Joey’s first Good Friday service with us.
And because of the faithfulness of this congregation,
your willingness to yes-and this pandemic,
this brilliant yale-trained organist put a keyboard in the back of a beat up pick up
and led worship in the basement of a grimy, cold parking deck across the street.
We walked this bright brass cross over there,
and told the story of the wondrous love that hung upon it,
a love that said yes-and to death, to show us that
no cold, grimy darkness will ever be the ultimate end of the story.

And it’s exactly that love, I believe,
that gives us the courage to yes-and
even the most troubling plot twists,
wrenches in plans that are debilitating and devastating.

Last week I read a story about executives at the company Airbnb who woke up last month to discover that people all over the globe were spontaneously using their platform in a novel new way — transforming its booking technology into a homemade, people-to-people, foreign aid system.

In just the past two weeks people from 165 countries have booked more than 430,000 nights at Ukrainian homes on Airbnb with no intention of using the rooms — but simply in order to donate money to these Ukrainian hosts, most of whom they had never even heard of.
Airbnb has temporarily waived all guest and host fees for bookings in Ukraine, so those reservations translated into $17 million going directly to the hosts.
In addition, as of Sunday, about 36,000 people from 160 countries signed up through Airbnb’s nonprofit affiliate to welcome refugees fleeing Ukraine to their homes. There is no way that America’s giant Agency for International Development, USAID, could have such an impact so fast.

Many of the Ukrainian hosts who have received these booking-donations have written back to the donors, forging new friendships and enabling foreigners to understand the impact of this war much more deeply. There is nothing like personally communicating with people in Ukraine who are hiding in their basement, while you are explaining why you are happy to rent that basement but never use it. It creates a community of kindness that alone cannot defeat Putin’s tanks, but it can help buttress those determined to resist them by reminding them that they are not alone.

I cannot tell you that life will go according to plan.
Anyone who stands in a pulpit and claims that has not read the Bible.
I can tell you that in these stories of holy scripture
we are gifted with teachers of improvisation
who equip us to overaccept, to say yes-and over and over again
as we journey together in way of wondrous love.

Love that pours itself out at this table,
nourishing us for whatever is ahead.