the practice of improvisation: assessing status

Isaiah 53:1-12; Mark 1:4-11

Friday, December 23, we took the girls out of school
and up to New York City for the day—
a family Christmas present.
We rode the subway down to Battery Park.
We rode the Staten Island Ferry by the Statue of Liberty
over to Staten Island and back.
We rode the subway back up near Central Park,
walked down Seventh Avenue through Times Square,
down Broadway.
we walked 42nd Street.

We spent a good bit of time looking up.
One of the things I like best about New York City—how often it makes you up!
We saw the ice skaters at Bryant Park,
visited the American Girl Doll shrine,
went to Rockefeller Center and saw the big Christmas tree,
saw the window displays at Macys and Saks.
Mas, saw a five foot Christmas tree made out of lots and lots of origami cranes.
if you were to start now, we could have one next year!
We saw the light show on the Fifth Avenue facade of Saks
(it’s amazing what you can do with light!).

Oh, and we saw Mary Poppins!

What a great show.
I was particularly impressed
with the risk they took in taking such a familiar story—
such well-known and beloved music
and changing it—adding to it!—
claiming not a movie from the early 60’s, but a musical for today,
and yet with an acknowledging nod and a respectful wink.

So in the beginning, Bert, the street artist, the chimney sweep, the narrator—
the whatever he is, sings by way of introduction,
“Can’t put my finger on what lies in store,
but I feel what’s to happen all happened before.
A father, a mother, a daughter, a son,
the threads of their lives are all raveling undone.
Something is needed to twist them as tight
as a string you might might use when you’re flying a kite.
Chim chimenee chim chim cheree chim cheroo.”
(“Prologue/Chim Chim Che-ree,” Mary Poppins
[Original London Cast Recording], Walt Disney Records, 2005).

But you’re not here to hear about our trip to New York! Let alone to hear me sing!
We’re in week two of our worship series on the practice of improvisation,
and we’re talking this morning about being aware of status—
being aware of what each person thinks of his or her own status,
being aware of what each person thinks of everyone else’s status,
being aware of status as a strategy everyone employs
both defensively and offensively, to negotiate relationships,
becoming aware of how to change status,
and then playing with what you’ve become aware of!

Status awareness, transactions and manipulations are so important in improv,
and are largely and broadly played in drama—in improv—for comedic effect
like in … well, Mary Poppins!
You remember?
The so very strait-laced and tight-laced Mr. Banks asks for Mary’s references.
Replies Mary Poppins, “Oh, I make it a point never to give references.
A very old-fashioned idea to my mind.”
She’s the nanny (low status), but she’s also very clearly in control (high status),
and thus turns her job interview into his,
“I believe a trial period would be wise,” she says. “Hmm. I’ll give you one week.
I’ll know by then. I’ll see the children now. Thank you.”

She’s the nanny, but she’s clearly in control,
and not just of the children, nor of just the household,
but indeed of all reality.
She glides up the bannister; she flies;
she brings statues and drawings to life.
In fact, in an interview some of the show’s actors and writers
had extended conversation about what exactly Mary might be:
a guardian angel, a spirit,
a combination of different mythological figures with superhuman, magical powers,
a witch, a fairy, a god

Like Mary, Bert, well aware of his status in the world, sings,
“Now as the ladder of life has been strung,
you might think a sweep’s on the bottom most rung.
Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke,
in this whole wide world, there’s no happier bloke.”
(“Chim Chim Che-ree,” Mary Poppins
[Original London Cast Recording], Walt Disney Records, 2005).
And he’s not only fun and funny. He’s also powerful—
with the insight that “all that it takes is a spark,
and then something, plain as a park, becomes …
a wonderland!
All you have to do is look anew
then you’ll understand!”
(“Jolly Holiday,” Mary Poppins [Original London Cast Recording])

None of such playfulness with status should come as a surprise
to those of us steeped in our Scriptures—
with all their status transactions, manipulations and inversions.

Think through the story of Joseph.
Trying to track his every changing status
throughout the story (high/low/lower/higher) is like watching a yo-yo.
Think of all the second sons and the women God unexpectedly
chose (and still chooses!) to work with and through.
Think of Israel itself, as the author of 2 Peter does, writing:
“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (2 Peter 2:10).

Status inversions are magnificently presented in the Magnificat:
“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

They’re core to the teaching of Jesus, who said, “Many who are first will be last,
and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31; Matthew 20:16; Luke 13:30).

Scripture doesn’t have a problem with the observations
that “[s]tatus informs every single interaction between people—
no casual movement or gesture is without significance.
There are not innocent remarks or meaningless pauses
(Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004, 88),
and that “status transactions characterize every interaction
between two or more people …” (Wells, 89).

Scripture also readily acknowledges that typically “[s]tatus is a seesaw.
If people bring themselves up, they bring the other person down.
If they bring themselves down, they bring the other person up” (Wells, 88).
So it is that seesawing is typical strategy and storyline in improv.
The drama is interpersonal,
relational and competitive.
One wins, another loses,
and it’s usually funny—in improv.

Sean’s been watching old episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway.
How often do those characters raise their status at the expense of another’s—
often Drew Carey’s!

There’s something about the person of God though—
who and how God is—
that throws a curve into the seesaw strategy or storyline.

In the Old Testament, during the time of the Exile,
the people of Israel had to wrestle with their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians,
had to wrestle with the reality that Jerusalem had been sacked—
that the Temple had been razed—
had to wrestle with what that did to God’s status—
and to their own as the people of God.

And what they came up with was the idea of the Shekinah
that even with Jerusalem as the home of God, razed to the ground,
the Shekinah was present with them—
that the presence of God in their Exile was also, somehow, God exiled—
God not being where God wanted to be—preferred to be,
yet God could separate self without diminishing self—
distinguish from self without minimizing self.
So even when Jerusalem was razed to the ground,
the presence of God was raised with the people of God!
That’s all part of the Shekinah of God.

So when God’s status was low in the world,
as the God of a defeated people, it was nonetheless still high—
because God’s status turned out to not be circumstantial.
And when the status of the people of God was correspondingly low, in Exile,
it was also correspondingly high—
yet not at the expense of the Babylonians. You notice?
It’s not that the exiles dramatically, bravely, miraculously, took over Babylon.
Their high status is independent of the Babylonians
and of their circumstance. It has to do with God.

In the New Testament, in the person of Jesus,
“who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11),
the truth is personal, relational and yet non-competitive.
One wins high status not to lower anyone else’s,
but, in fact, that others may be raised as well.

And then, in the followers of Jesus, we have some evidence
that they did not continue the up and down of seesaws—
of strategy—of competition,
but interacted and acted in such ways that people said,
“These people who have been turning the world upside down
have come here also …” (Acts 17:6).
That’s not the typical seesawing.
That’s a complete upending of all categories and presuppositions—
strategies and storylines.

Now, in Scripture, we tend to miss the humor—
too focused on the theology I should think—
the oh so very seriousness—the profundity.
And not that that’s not all there, and appropriately there.
It’s just that the first level of status manipulated and inverted
is humor. It’s funny.

We read Isaiah 53, one of the so-called suffering servant passages,
and soberly contemplate the suffering.
Then we might note the inversion of status (as in the Philippian hymn)—
affirm the surprising ways in which God accomplishes God’s will.
We might talk about the unexpected
or the inexplicable.
We tend not to think this is a Monty Python skit
that somehow got included in Scripture—
that’s laughably ludicrous,
hysterically hilarious,
insanely nonsensical,
preposterous, farcical,
and just plain silly.

In theater, inversion of status is usually funny.
Nothing wrong with that.
In Scripture, inversion of status is usually profound.
Nothing wrong with that either.
They often do each need a good dose of each other though!

Because, at their best, status inversions start with humor,
but don’t stop at humor—
becoming rather poignant, meaningful, profound, revelatory—
but without losing the lightness of fun and funny.

So we load down that suffering servant passage—
with the depth of our theology,
and not just because it’s, in retrospect, interpreted messianically—
interpreted as about Jesus, but that too!
We identify something in this text as essential to and about God.
Walter Brueggemann writes “[t]he poetry cannot be reduced
to a rational formula” (Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998] 146)—
that it constitutes an invitation to faith (Brueggemann, 144)—
a faith that cannot be explained—
a faith that doesn’t make sense—
a faith that is thus non-sensical.
So it can’t be just all meaningful and serious.
Come on! As a messianic psalm, Isaiah 53 says Jesus was ugly!
Not just homely, plain, somewhat unattractive—seriously ugly.
How many of you seen pictures of an ugly Jesus—other than on the cross?

It’s precisely in the interplay of the funny and the serious—
the light and the heavy—that “[a] massive critique of our failed cultural values
arises almost inescapably from the text” (Brueggemann, 150).

I think about it every time in presidential debates
when the commentators talk about how the tallest person usually wins—
or the one who blinks less.
And while fuming at so many aspects of such commentary
(not the least of which is that it’s evidently verifiable!),
I imagine Jesus as short with what appears to be a nervous tic in one eye,
without good hair (or even any hair!)—and ugly—
because none of that is supposed to matter,
and yet it so obviously does and entirely too much.

We’ve been talking about our Old Testament passage.
In our Gospel passage,
we talk about John the Baptist assuming the prophetic mantle.
We note that he’s identified with the wilderness—
his dress and his diet that of the desert nomad.
We remember that the wilderness
is associated with a time of purity of relation with God—
when God led the children of Israel—and provided for them—
before the children of Israel had a country or a king—
when they had no status in the world.

Again, in such deep and pervasive meaningfulness,
we can overlook the fact that the prophets,
as those set apart from the norm, were odd,
outlandish, quirky, eccentric, peculiar, kooky, bizarre, offbeat—weird!

Think of Shakespeare’s fools, prophets we might call them too, no?
Mark Edmundson, Professor of English at the University of Virginia,
in “Playing the Fool,” an on-line article for the New York Times,
wrote, “Shakespeare’s fools are subtle teachers,
reality instructors one might say ….
They tickle, coax and cajole their supposed betters into truth,
or something akin to it”

And then John, our prophet, our fool, our reality instructor, speaks of Jesus,
and says he wouldn’t be worthy to undo Jesus’ sandals.
“The action of unfastening sandals was regarded by the Jews
as the most menial of all the tasks performed by a slave.
It is said in the Talmud that a disciple must do for his teacher
everything that a slave will do for his master, except this one act …”
(Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
[Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991] 38).

There’s a fluidity to status in Scripture
that’s not just the lower status assuming a higher one,
but higher status also willingly assuming lower status.
And again, it’s not competitive.
Jesus doesn’t gain high status by lowering John’s.

In fact, “[o]ne of the most significant forms of dramatic tension
in the Gospels is between Jesus [himself] as servant, slave, and crucified outcast
[on the one hand] and Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God [on the other]….
Perhaps the most poignant moments in the Gospels
comes when these two portrayals coincide” (Wells, 99-100).
One of the most significant forms of dramatic tension
is not interpersonal, but personal.

In the show, Mary Poppins—early in the show,
Mrs. Banks plans a tea party
for all the people her husband wants to impress (those of high status),
and none of them come.
Now this creates an expectation of reversal.
If we’re familiar with Scripture, we might expect some surprise invitations
issued to chimney sweeps and street artists in the hedges and byways.
As those brought up in this world of ours,
we expect those who rejected the Banks to themselves be rejected.
We expect the low status of the Banks to rise at the expense of these others, right?
And yet, it only occurred to me in reflection,
that’s an expectation that actually never materializes—
never materializes in the lowering of other people’s status anyway.
There’s not a tea party the Banks host at the end of the show
everyone who’s anyone’s clamoring to attend.
Mr. and Mrs. Banks’ status is raised throughout the show,
but without lowering anyone else’s.
It’s like in the Bible! It’s less interpersonal—
not at anyone’s expense, and more internal and personal.

It’s actually been kind of fun, this past week, to imagine Bert as John the Baptist
at home in the wilderness of London’s rooftops in soot and ashes,
waiting to recognize Mary—
to make straight a path into wonder and play and love.
It’s Mr. Banks, after all, who says, “It’s that woman, Mary Poppins.
From the moment she stepped into this house, things began to happen to me”

“In Shakespeare, to have a fool attending on you
is generally a mark of distinction.
It means that you’ve retained some flexibility,
can learn things, might change;
it means that you’re not quite past hope,
even if the path of instruction will be singularly arduous.
To be assigned a fool in Shakespeare is often a sign that one is, potentially, wise”

So your three questions for the day:
first, as you look back on this past week, for what did you give thanks?
Second, what aspect of who God is did you praise?
Third, and finally, and most difficultly
(we said last week, practice has to get harder, right?)
how did you witness the fluidity of status in the way of God this past week?

Again, no attempt to connect these three answers.
I do note that giving thanks and offering praise
are both ways of practicing looking beyond your own status.
And again, I assume, that you, as followers of God, do make a habit of giving thanks,
that you do make a habit of offering praise.
I also assume that from the moment God stepped into your living
things began to happen to you!
And that you so very intentionally watch for examples
of how true status has more to do with God than us—
that you know you are not to look at anyone—and that includes yourself—
you are not to look at anyone as defined in status
by the categories or circumstances of the world.
Because we are all, in fact, defined by God’s love.
That that’s all we need know personally,
and then in our various interactions with others.
Whomever we meet, in whatever circumstance,
God loves them, even as God loves us.

Brueggemann in writing of Isaiah 53 notes
that an “authentic Christian reading is not,
in [his] judgment, monopolistic” (Brueggemann, 149).
It can, in other words, be messianic—be about Jesus,
and yet not be just about Jesus.
It can also be about other servants of God.
And so it can also be about us—about you and me.

“Thus the tension that runs through Christ’s life
must likewise run through the heart of the disciple….
[who] must learn, like Jesus, to be an expert status player.
Discipleship involves a constant questioning, teasing,
and subversion of status, both high and low.
For the New Testament is all about status,
but its message is that, in God’s reign, status is far from static” (Wells, 101).

We’re to be as aware of status as trained improv actors,
but to practice relying on God for our status,
not our circumstances, not our manipulative skills.

“If we were to celebrate April Fools’ Day in Shakespearean fashion
rather than our own …, it would be quite a different day.
On Shakespeare’s Fools’ Day [or God’s Fool’s Day],
we’d test our capacity to hear the truth,
in slant, peculiar and painful forms,
and to use it to take a few steps in the general direction of freedom.
The day would be a trying, exhilarating,
perplexing and sometimes joyous affair ….
We’d look forward to it—and fear it—all year long”

We can’t put our finger on what lies in store,
but we feel what’s to happen all happened before.
We risk, every day and this next week, a well-known, beloved story—
claiming not a story from thousands of years ago,
but a living for today
with an acknowledging nod and a respectful wink.

“All you have to do is look anew,
then you’ll understand ….”
(“Jolly Holiday,” Mary Poppins [Original London Cast Recording])


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