the practice of improvisation: forming habits

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40

We begin our Epiphany theme today, the practice of improvisation,
on this the first Sunday of the year 2012!
Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in DC
(and preaching here, by the way, Transfiguration Sunday, February 19)
suggested the theme at preachers’ camp this past summer.
It fit in well with my appreciation of Samuel Wells,
Dean of the Chapel at Duke University — Samuel Wells’ book:
Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics —
a book in which he notes that the Duke of Wellington, rather famously, said
(or is said to have said),
“The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”
(Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004, 73).
Waterloo, of course: the battle in which the Emperor Napoleon was ultimately defeated
after his escape from exile to the island of Elba — all in the year 1815
(he escaped from exile, reclaimed his emperorhood
and was defeated at Waterloo all in the span of about one hundred days in 1815),
and Eton: a public school — equivalent to our own private schools —
through what we would call high school —
which most of the British officers would have attended —
on the playing fields of which they would have learned …
well, teamwork, discipline, courage, the will to win,
the importance of hydration and good hygiene,
the sweat that is effort, the pain that leads to gain
and the difference between the pain that leads to gain,
and the pain that just leads to the hospital.

The habits of our growing up shape who we are
and shape what we do in life.

In our gospel text, we read about Mary, Joseph and Jesus going to the Temple —
going when the time had come for their purification
according to the law of Moses.
Jesus was also presented as their first-born son
as it is prescribed in the law (see Exodus 13:2, 12-16).
And they offered the required sacrifice
according to what’s stated in the law.
The whole family was involved in the traditions of the temple —
the customs, expectations and law of their faith.
The habits of their growing up shaped who they were
and shaped what they did and what they would come to do.

There are five references to fulfilling the law in our passage.
But it’s a passage about more than just the religious habits of Mary and Joseph —
the faith habits with which Jesus would have been brought up.
Here’s the thing, we know Mary had to be purified
because Leviticus 12 is right at the top of all our reading lists!
Who doesn’t have a copy of Leviticus on their nightside table?
Oh. Really? A new ministry for 2012!
Leviticus 12 is where it’s very clearly laid out:
after giving birth, the mother of a boy will be ritually unclean seven days,
then have 33 day of blood purification before presenting herself to the priest
with a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering —
or, for those who can’t afford a lamb, two pigeons —
one as burnt offering, one as sin offering —
two pigeons or two turtledoves —
and a partridge in a pear tree!

So we know our story takes place forty days after the birth of Jesus.
We know Mary and Joseph could not afford a lamb.
We also know our text does not say Mary had to be purified … does it?
It reads (verse 22) that they both had to be — Mary and Joseph.
And while there may have been some reason
completely unrelated to the story unfolding,
the most likely reason Joseph needed ritual cleansing as well
was that he had been involved, hands-on, in the birth.
No other reason (in the story) for him to be ritually unclean.
Which is also to say, we’ll hear it again and again in the story of Jesus,
there are times that purity is not the priority —
in direct contrast to any strict adherence to religious expectation,
and a much-needed lesson again in Israel these days,
where a small but vocal and aggressive minority of the ultra-orthodox
have in the waning days of 2011
taken it upon themselves to accost women and girls —
to verbally and physically harass them,
to demand they cover themselves more fully,
to demand they go to the back of the bus.
There are times that purity is not the priority,
and it has something to do with how we relate to each other.
There is no purity law that justifies spitting on little girls.

We also note in the latter part of our passage,
that the identities and the living of Simeon and Anna
are all wrapped up within the rhythms of temple life.
They encounter Jesus in the midst of their hopes,
their righteousness, their worship,
the disciplines of their faith —
the habits of their living that not only shaped who they were,
but also created the context into which experience came and was interpreted.
They located their hope in their faith;
they lived in the arena of that faith,
and that’s where their hope found them —
not in the purity of their own initiative,
but in the humility of looking to someone else —
another lesson much-needed again these days.

So what are the habits with which we grow up?
What are the habits with which we grow our children up?
Because what we habitually do —
that to which we habitually give —
our time, our money, our attention, our enthusiasm —
that which we habitually say and sing and hear and repeat —
that’s where we implicitly locate our hope and our priority.

I grew up and church attendance was not an option.
In my parents’ home, Sunday morning, we all went to church.
Now it may turn out that in the course of raising our children,
the habit of church is determined to run counter
to the habit of respect or the habit of trust,
and far be it from us to do away with purity law
and then make church attendance the be-all-end-all.
Given the possibility of exceptions though,
is weekly worship a habit? A family habit?
Because it will, in the course of time, shape who you are and what you do,
as families and as individuals, in the way of God.
I guarantee it.

And here’s why:
back to Wells, who suggests that ethics has become a study
of the choice and the action in a critical moment of decision
rather than the study of the character of the person
who engages each moment in choice and action (Wells, 73).
It’s a study of the battlefield (Waterloo) instead of the playing fields (Eton) —
an examination of the moment instead of the lifetime that leads to a moment.

And Wells is actually only understating the facts.
Ours is not only an age of individualism, indeed, hyper-individualism —
but also what I will call “now-ism.”
Confusion says, “Now-ism is a philosophical or religious impulse
that does not consider any greater harmony
than the desires of the individual in some now or another,
and, maybe, some chosen subset the individual wishes to please.”
Ours an age in which you don’t even have to say what’s right in the moment,
you just say what sounds right in the moment,
given who’s listening — given what you want to accomplish.

Counter to such trends, our faith centers not on a word —
a word that polls well —
a popular word —
a soundbyte,
but a word made flesh,
and made flesh in the daily habits of God’s way.

Too much of our experience these days (in all arenas) is flesh made words —
life’s commitments made insubstantial —
life’s priorities made uncommitted —
made unincarnate in the sound of drivel.

So how do we enflesh our words?
Our most important words of faith and hope?
How do we, as a community of faith, incarnate what we believe?
Substantiate it?
How do we practice the habits that will shape us?
Wells suggests that worship — weekly worship — is, in fact,
the principal practice (Wells, 82) by which our faith is made flesh —
gathering with others —others, ideally, of different background and experience
whose different likes and dislikes we discipline ourselves to respect;
praying — praying not just for self — not just for our immediate circles —
praying beyond the circles;
giving beyond the self;
reading and hearing the stories of God over and over again;
and being sent into the world with transformative truth.
Worship is the practice that leads us into and through the way of God
in the week to come.
Worship is the practice that prepares us to incarnate the word of God
in days to come.
Because “[m]ost of the Christian life is faithful preparation
for an unknown test” (Wells, 80). A moment is coming.
It could be momentous. Are you preparing yourself?

And here’s the thing!
In practice — think about it,
you get it wrong more than you get it right!
Until you start getting it right more than wrong,
at which point, it’s time to up the challenge
and be, once more, more wrong than right. Right?
It’s how you get better.
No one gets better by not failing.
No one gets better not working through failing.
So the community of faith represents the context
in which to fall flat on our faces in the practice of living our faith,
not the one in which to seek admiration for our perfection in the faith.
I tell you, the world doesn’t know that.

Practice is also, you all know this, drills.
Not the least bit interesting, let alone fascinating.
Dare I say dreaded? Sure I’ll say dreaded. Drills.
Doesn’t matter the discipline.
You know what I’m talking about.
It’s memorizing math rules:
faith adds to living; hope subtracts despair; grace multiplies joy; love divides grief.
It’s practicing, over and over again, the scales of justice and the scales of humility.
It’s conjugating, over and over again, the verbs so irregular in our experience:
I love, you love, he/she love, we love, y’all love
they may or may not love, but that’s not the point.

In sports, the repetition of drills and mechanics
is to make specific skills second nature
so that in a game, you don’t have to think about it, you just do what you know to do —
what you’ve prepared to do in practice
and weight training and cardio-vascular conditioning.
And some elite athletes do things you don’t believe you just saw,
“[b]ut what is spontaneity but the result of years
of experiments” (Wells, 80) and drills and practice.
You don’t see the countless hours of work behind it,
and that’s part of the point. You’re not supposed to.
But neither should you think they’re not there.

Wells affirms “To live well requires both effort and habit. There is a place for both.
But no amount of effort at the moment of decision
will make up for effort neglected in the time of formation” (Wells, 75).
You can put forth as much effort as you want come game time,
if you haven’t put in the effort in practice … sorry.

So what habits do you form in your living?
Because the habits of our days shape who we are.
What do you put your efforts into?
Do we form the habits of grace?
Do we put in the hours to form the habits of compassion?
Do we work to form the habits of love?
Do we risk what it takes to form the habits of truth?
If not, we’re missing the point.
Learning to live well is about practice.
“The moral life [living well] should not be experienced as an agony of impossible choice.
Instead, it should be a matter of habit and instinct.
Learning to live well is about gaining the right habits and instincts
rather than making the right choices” (Well, 75).

Too often, and especially in the church,
we’re far too impressed with being right —
and with some sense that we should be right all the time.
Let me tell you, being impressed with being right all the time
undermines good practice.
Think about it.
And being impressed with being right all the time
also too easily sacrifices people and relationships
to someone’s idea of what’s right.

So again, what is it that elicits your discipline? —
the determination: “I’m going to get better at this.”
What justifies the hours of work you put into it?
A sport? A vocation? A hobby? Music?

David Hajdu, writing for The Atlantic Monthly back in March 2003,
remembered an August night when he wandered
into a venerated jazz haunt in Manhattan.
he walked in on a set in progress
and thought the trumpeter looked somewhat like Wynton Marsalis.

“The fourth song was a solo showcase for the trumpeter,
who, I could now see,” he writes, “was indeed Marsalis ….
He played a ballad, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,”
Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930s romance,
the piece can bring out the sadness in any scene,
and Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy.
He performed the song in murmurs and sighs,
at points nearly talking the words in notes.
It was a wrenching act of creative expression.
When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase,
the title statement, in declarative tones,
allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit longer.
“I don’t stand… a ghost… of… a… chance….”
The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point,
someone’s cell phone went off,
blaring a rapid sing-song melody in electronic bleeps.
People started giggling and picking up their drinks.
The moment — the whole performance — unraveled.

Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched.
I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC, RUINED.
The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder.
Still frozen at the microphone,
Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note.
Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune.
The audience slowly came back to him.
In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation —
which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo —
and ended up exactly where he had left off: “with… you….”
The ovation was tremendous

Now that’s theology — a tremendous theology of improvisation.
God takes the interruptions into the story God dreams —
God accepts them and works, creatively, inspirationally —
persistently working to integrate —
to integrate those interruptions seamlessly into the music of God.

What justifies the hours of work you put into it?
A sport? A vocation? a hobby? Music? Your faith?

It’s been somewhat of an odd thing
to have this worship theme we do (improvisation)
within the liturgy and expectations of our worship.
In worship planning we talked about how
we might incorporate some improvising into the worship.
None of us like that message to young worshippers in a paper bag.
You know what I’m talking about?
Where someone puts various items in a paper bag,
and the person leading the message to young worshippers
takes the various items out of the bag (not knowing what they’re going to be)
and has to do something with them.
Seems less about the children to us.

No doubt, you noticed the different location of communion in our order of worship —
not just to be different, but also to note that communion can feel like a tag-on —
slapped onto the end of our regular worship the first Sunday of each month.
What’s it like to experience communion embedded in the very heart of worship?

You’ll also notice the last hymn is left unidentified.
Did you wonder about that?
At the end of the service we’re going to ask you to pick it.
Not your favorite hymn, mind you, but the one you think fits this service —
this theme — these ideas.
Not sure how that will work, but we’ll see!

Then there’s now.
So here we go.
I need someone to tell me an important thing—
the most important thing that happened this past week — to you — personally.
I need someone else to tell me their favorite image of or name for God.
And I need someone to tell me something you experienced this past week
that sustains your belief that transformation happens—
call it redemption if you want—
the affirmation that something not good can be resolved into something better.

I’m sorry. It’s rude, I know,
to throw you something like this.
Very forward —presumptuous.
Thing is, I assume something important happened to you this past week.
I assume you have a favorite image of and name for God.
I assume you do experience transformation.
And I use the word “assume” deliberately — quite intentionally —
knowing the risk!
I could have presumed,
but there’s something about assuming that fits our faith!

So now, seriously. The most important thing that happened to someone?
A favorite name for or image of God?
An experience of the past week that sustained your belief in transformation?

I have a friend—some of you may know Kyle Matthews.
we’ve worked together on several different occasions,
and he would take three words and three notes and create a song.
Some of you may remember Ken Medema doing the same thing.

Not what I’m doing here.
Not trying to come up with a connection between these three different experiences.
Other than to say they reflect God’s will, God’s presence, and God’s work.
I believe when we specify what’s most important to us,
there’s some reflection in that of God’s will for our lives.
It may be distorted. It may be inverted.
But I believe there’s a connection there.
Then when we name our favorite image of God,
we’re talking about our vital experience of God’s presence with us.
And when we identify transformation,
we’re proclaiming God at work with us in the world.
And I think that’s a sermon — a sermon on the habits that shape us.

How did Jesus always know what to say?
How did Jesus always know exactly what to do?
It had something to do with his having been dedicated
in the temple when he was 40 days old.
It had something to do with his having been brought up
in the customs, traditions, expectations and laws of faith.
It had something to do with his study of Scripture and his life of prayer.
Who Jesus was had something to do with the habits that formed him —
and they are habits we can choose ourselves.
The habits that shaped Jesus can shape us:
knowing what’s truly important,
naming God in the consistent experience of God’s presence,
and believing in God’s ongoing work of redemption
until life interrupts God’s story in our living
instead of God’s story interrupting some other story.

Those are pretty much the habits I’d like to form.
Those are the habits I want to form me —
the habits I choose to shape me —
not for any spontaneous response to the immediate,
but for a considered and practiced response to the eternal —
the response of my living to my faith — to my belief
in the God present to and with us all.

How ’bout you?


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