Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 September 2019)
God’s Work Our Hands Sunday
JoAnn A. Post
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
“Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Our younger daughter attended a fine arts college in Boston, unlike almost any college in the United States, in that it awards degrees only in fine and liberal arts. Writing. Publishing. Acting. Cinematography. Directing. There isn’t an engineer or an early childhood education major within four blocks of the campus.
You can imagine the bohemian atmosphere, a campus so creative it glows in the dark.
A few years ago, the college added a degree program that, at first mention, seems modestly useless. It’s called Comedic Arts. Pay tuition to tell a joke? But more than teaching students to tell jokes in smoky bars (think “The Amazing Miss Maisel”), students study rhetoric, performance, writing, theater. They study the art, the architecture, the science of comedy. Shakespeare would be proud. And maybe if there are enough of them, the world will laugh a little more than it does now.
One of the intro courses for this new major is Improv 101. Since most people would rather die than speak in public, students must be taught, sometimes forces to improvise, in public, without a net. They learn to think and speak on their feet, to ignore the butterflies in their stomachs and attend, instead, to the rapid-fire exchange of ideas and witticisms. When we watch professional comedians improvise, it seems as easy as talking over lunch. But it is, in fact, an art, a skill, a finely-tuned mental discipline. Its sweaty.
One of the first lessons of Improv? “Yes. And.”
When one comedian hands the baton of a joke off to another, it is received first with affirmation. “Yes.” And then with expansion. “And.”
For example, the first comedian says, “Do you see that fish swimming toward us?”
The joke would be, literally, dead in the water if the second comedian said, “Nope. I don’t see any fish.”
Instead, the second comedian says, “Yes, and I think it’s from Loch Ness!”
The speaker is affirmed. The story expands.
It is the basis of all human interaction.
Yes. I hear you.
And. I’m willing to consider your premise.
Again, this seems a simple thing until you consider the way we mostly talk to each other, especially in public discourse. Imagine the presidential debate stage if, instead of trying to make the other candidates look like complete idiots, each one expanded, helpfully on the others’ ideas. Rather than a tedious two-hour display of arrogance and non-sequiturs, a debate might actually accomplish something.
It happens even in our homes. “What do you want for supper?”
“I don’t care.”
“OK, let’s get Thai take-out.”
“No. I don’t want Thai.” (Apparently, you do care.)
What if, instead, even if you weren’t in the mood for Thai take-out, you responded, “Yes, and, next time we’ll get pizza!”
Everyone eats. Everyone is heard. Everyone gets—eventually—what they want.
Most often we respond to any idea not our own with either an immediate “No!” or “Yeah, but.” Like I said, dead in the water. Jesus would have us improvise.
By this time in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ followers have multiplied from a handful of eager disciples, to an army that encamped around him day and night. Luke writes, “Now, large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Think food trucks, tent cities, port-a-potties.
As the size of Jesus’ audience grew, so did the outrageousness of his message. In an attempt to wean the herd, Jesus laid out seemingly impossible demands. It is possible Jesus didn’t literally mean all he asked, but he wanted to push them, challenge them, expose the limits of their love.
“Hate your father and mother.”
“Count the cost and be willing to admit you were wrong.”
“Give everything away.”
Jesus would be a challenging improv partner, since everything he says elicits either an immediate “No!” or, more considerately, “Yeah, but . . .” from us.
Yeah, my parents can be irritating. But hate them?
Yeah, I might be in a little over my head, but give up now?
Yeah, I have too much stuff, but I can’t give it all away.
Not only is there no joke there, there is also no discipleship. When we won’t even consider Jesus’ demands, or even wonder about them, or entertain the possibility, we can’t even consider calling ourselves disciples.
After all, the word “disciple” means “student.” Show me the student who says “no” or “yeah, but” to everything the teacher says, and I’ll show you a student who learns nothing.
Imagine if when Jesus asks something hard of us, we paused before pouncing. We considered the merits of his request. We imagined our way into his world, even for a moment, improvising all the way.
Forgive those who harm you.
Love your neighbor.
Share all your possessions.
We want to shout “No!” Or “You don’t understand!” Those are easy answers. And show stoppers.
Closer to home, imagine that someone with whom you live or work or study floats an unlikely idea. Instead of saying, “What, are you nuts?” or “Yeah, but that would never work.” You said, “Yes, and . . .”
There’s a conversation there. There’s life there.
There are some who follow Jesus who do so with great certainty and confidence. They are quick with “No!” or “Yeah, but . . .” Apparently, they can read Jesus’ mind. They know who Jesus loves and who he doesn’t. They know what behaviors are acceptable to him and those that aren’t. They can ascertain, even at a great distance, who is heaven-bound and who travels the highway to hell.
They don’t follow very far, I fear. Discipleships isn’t “no.” Discipleship isn’t “but.” Discipleship is “and.”
Jesus doesn’t expect his disciples to be perfect in every way, to follow without question, to be dogmatic and rigid. He asks us to improvise.
Follow me, Jesus invites.
Today we say, “Yes, and . . . “