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Sunday Morning at the Improv

That's the resurrection story according to the Gospel of Luke. I want you to focus just for a moment on a single detail. When the women arrived at the tomb on that first Easter morning, Luke says, "Suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them." Now that's not what the other three Gospel writers report. The earliest account in the Gospel of Mark says that the women "saw a young man dressed in a white robe." The Gospel of Matthew says that the women were greeted by "an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven." And the Gospel of John says that Mary was greeted by "two angels in white," along with a cameo appearance of the resurrected Christ. You see, this story gets better every time.

So what's going on here? How can we trust the veracity of such seemingly contradictory accounts? It's almost enough to makes us agree with the disciples' response to the women's report of the resurrection: "The words seemed to them," the text says, "an idle tale," variously translated idle tale, empty talk, silly story, foolish yarn, utter nonsense, sheer humbug.

But what's going on here isn't contradiction. It's improvisation! And there's no such thing as improvisation without a major theme upon which to improvise-whether it's the music of Bach or jazz or Dixieland-each one flows in and out of a major theme. These four resurrection stories in the Gospels are improvisations on the same major theme: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! What's central and what's absolutely non-contradictory is this main theme of resurrection. Like skilled musicians, each Gospel writer adds grace notes like angels or crescendos like an earthquake or codas like an appearance, all of which augment the major theme that in Christ death no longer has dominion. Neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God and in Christ shall all be made alive; everyone in Christ is a new creation. The four Gospels are improvisations on the Gospel.

Welcome to Easter Sunday morning at the Improv!

The church of my childhood was anything but improvisational, and a lot of today's Americanized, evangelical, far-right, fundamentalist religion, which calls itself Christian and which sometimes embarrasses me also to be called Christian, is anything but improvisational. The score, the script, the music and the words with every note and line are strictly provided. The doctrines are clearly spelled out. Believe it or not! Believe it and you're in-saved, secure-and all the rest are not. If you don't believe it, you're out.

So, today I think we all have some notion to be a fundamentalist Christian, a literalist Christian, a doctrinal Christian, a creedal Christian, a Bible-believing Christian. The question is, "What does it mean to be an improvisational Christian?"

Welcome to Sunday morning at the Improv!

Right in the middle of St. Paul's letters to the early church in Corinth, the good apostle launches into a tour de force on the nature of the church, and he says-these are familiar words-"There are varieties of gifts but the same spirit. And there are varieties of services but the same Lord. And there are varieties of activities, but it's the same God who activates all of them in everyone." Did you hear that? One Spirit, one Lord, one God. That's the major theme. Varieties of gifts, varieties of services and activities, all inspired by the same God. That's improvisation. And then Paul returns to the main theme with an even clearer definition and you know it well-"Now faith, hope, love abide, these three gifts, but the greatest of these gifts is love."

Welcome to Sunday morning at the Improv!

Jesus does exactly the same thing in his teaching. When asked, "Which commandment is the greatest?"-when asked to sound the major theme-Jesus replied, "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." All the rest is commentary. You see, love is the major theme. All the rest is improvisation. Christian faith and life is an improvisation on love. Love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.

Welcome to Sunday morning at the Improv!

Now, there are always going to be times when we wish the score were written for us. There're going to be times when we want the security of having all the notes to play, and sometimes as a pastor, I wish I could provide the music. Your loved one dies and you're cast into the journey of grief, and you ask, "Why did this happen? Where is God in all of this? How does my faith help? What do I do now?" Well, as a pastor, I can provide the major theme. Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Neither life nor death nor grief nor loss nor anything else. But I can't provide the score. "What do I do now?" The answer is, "Improvise. Do the next thing there is to do and trust God's love." Patrick Henry, author and former professor of religion at Swarthmore College, has a wonderful phrase in his recent book The Ironic Christian's Companion. He says, "I can't tell you what the grace of God is. The most I can do is tell you what trusting it is like."

Welcome to Sunday morning at the Improv!

Another one of those most difficult and searching questions we all ask, "How do I know God's will in my life? What does God want me to do?" Sure would be nice to have a score with all the notes on it, written there for us to play, wouldn't it? But most of the time, the answer is, "Improvise. Walk through the doors that open to you, accept the doors that close before you, and trust the presence of God."

I'll tell you I'm absolutely convinced that the art of faithful improvisation is the key to practicing Christian values in the secular workplace. The moral and ethical choices, the dilemmas facing everyone involved in business and commerce and finance and government just permit no easy answers, no black and white notes composed on a finished score. Those who take Christian values seriously, values that flow from the major theme of loving God and loving neighbor, loving self, improvise everyday. Let me tell you something by way of confession. Compared to interpreting the faith in the secular workplace, interpreting the faith as I do from the pulpit is easy. Improvisation here is one thing. And all preaching really is improvisation. Improvisation out there is quite another thing! The real champions of improvisational Christianity are out there everyday in the office, in the classroom, in business, and in government.

Welcome to Monday morning at the Improv!

My mentor, Dr. Carlyle Marney, was fond of saying, "Don't let your credo become a creed!" Don't let your credo become a creed. That is, don't let your journey of faith, don't let your process of I am believing become a believe this or else. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it this way, "Wherever there's a creed, there's a heretic around the corner or in a grave." Now the good philosopher's words point to a truth, but they also encourage an error. The error is that all creeds are detrimental. In fact, the great creeds of the church sound the major themes of the faith. And they're meant to be themes for improvisation. In the United Church of Christ, for example, we honor all the great creeds of the church: The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and all the great classical doctrines, but our statement of faith in the United Church of Christ is an improvisation on all of those things and we call it a testimony of faith. When a creed becomes a test of faith rather than a testimony of faith, then there's no room for improvisational Christians.

In a recent issue of Christian Century magazine, Miroslav Volf, who teaches at Yale Divinity School, told of a spiritual retreat which he attended in the hills of Vermont. And this is what he says:

At the end of the retreat, we prayed for one another. And I'll never forget the prayer a musician offered for me. He asked God that as a theologian I would play to the audience of One. I was deeply attracted to that notion and at the same time frightened by it. Do I have the courage, I wondered, to play as if God, the lover of creation, were the only one listening? And, yet, unless I do, my fear and timidity will be revealed as a failure to trust and love God.

My friends, that's what being an improvisational Christian is all about-playing to an audience of One.

One of my grandmother's favorite Scriptures, which she was often wont to quote and which she taught me as a memory verse, are these words of the Apostle Paul: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." In other words, improvise! For it is God who is at work in you!

Welcome to Easter Sunday morning at the Improv!

Let us pray.
Surprise us, O Living God, as you surprised the women on that first Easter morning. The resurrection was the greatest improvisation of your presence and power among us. Now open us to the improvisation of your Holy Spirit working within us and through us and among us. Roll away every stone threatening to entomb us in a rigid and timid faith. Make our lives such adventurous improvisations upon your love that others may declare, "Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!" In whose name we pray, Amen.