the practice of improvisation: reincorporation

Isaiah 40:21-31

We wrap up our worship series on the practice of improvisation today.
We’ve talked about the particular practices of forming habits, assessing status,
accepting and blocking offers, questioning givens, and incorporating gifts—
modulating circumstance out of what is and what appears to be
into boundless possibility.
The particular practice we think about today is that of reincorporation.

Now, in improvisational theater, what we’re talking about
when we talk about reincorporation
is the careful attention an actor pays to all that happens,
so that later in the scene, he or she can draw on the energy of
and the audience’s familiarity with what’s happened before.

Let’s think about that.

At the fun level (often the funny level),
I have long appreciated my brother’s sense of humor.
I was once trying to figure out what specifically it was
that so appealed to me. It was (and is)
how he remembers what’s been said and done—
and then reintroduces that into conversation
in surprising and unexpected and wonderful and funny ways.
He reincorporates our shared past into our present.
And even when it’s funny, it’s important.

At a more poignant, richer level, think about buying gifts for those you love.
We’ve got birthdays coming up in our house so that’s a consideration!
And you can always buy a gift from the most recent list
you’ve made of answers to the question:
“So what do you want for your birthday?”
And believe me, I’m not knocking that at all!

But it is a far richer experience of giving (and receiving)
to remember something mentioned with longing,
to remember something wistfully observed,
to know something this person you love loves to do
and then being able to connect that
to a particular event or opportunity as gift—significant gift.

It’s a way of wrapping up past into present
familiarity reintroduced—reincorporated—lends a sense of completeness—
a sense of satisfying completedness—fulfillment.
And the meaningfulness of the past is deepened
in its incorporation into the present—
projecting the hope of that depth into the future.

So back in the theater, “The improviser has to be like [someone] walking backwards
[who] sees where he [or she] has been, but … pays no attention to the future.
[The] story can take [her or] him anywhere,
but he or she must still ‘balance’ it, and give it shape,
by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them”
(Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004, 148).

Interestingly enough, theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg,
best known for affirming history as God’s self-revelation—
Pannenberg offers the image of God moving backwards into the future—
looking back, gathering history into Self
in an act of ongoing completing.

So “[m]emory,” suggests Samuel Wells, “is much more significant
than originality” (Wells, 147).
Most of you will be familiar with philosopher George Santayana’s
well known assertion,
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Improvisation suggests that it’s precisely remembering the past
that does not condemn at all, but that leads to salvation.

It’s Ecclesiastes that laments
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done
is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come
by those who come after them. I, the Teacher,
when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind
to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven;
it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.
I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun;
and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-14).

But when we get to our Scripture text for today,
we remember, looking back, that it’s from the context of Isaiah.
Isaiah, as you all well know, is divided into three parts—
brilliantly named first, second and third Isaiah.
These divisions do not undermine the cohesive unity of the book,
but do acknowledge different historical realities addressed.

The first section of Isaiah, is set in Jerusalem between 742 and 701 BCE.
It’s a text of warning.
Jerusalem and Judah have failed in their responsibilities to God,
and God’s judgment is promised.
While Assyria was the feared superpower of the time,
the first part of Isaiah looks ahead to the coming of Babylon,
looks ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem—
looks ahead to the tearing down of the temple,
looks ahead to the deportation,
looks ahead to exile—
all interpreted as the coming judgment of God.

The second part of Isaiah is set, historically, in about the year 540 BCE,
so chronologically some 160 years later.
Israel, in exile, in Babylon.
But the power of Babylon is threatened.
The power of Persia grows. It lurks outside the walls of Babylon.
Its armies will eventually divert the river Euphrates
and enter the city by dry riverbed.
But all that’s yet to come.

Our text is written in the hope of Babylon’s imminent defeat—
in the promise—in God’s promise of Babylon’s imminent defeat.
As God promises liberation through the armies of Persia.
As, in fact, Cyrus the Great of Persia
is even named God’s anointed, named messiah (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1-4)!

This is an advent!
As these are the words of God after the judgment of God—
after the disaster (the fall of city and temple, the deportation),
but still during the exile—
in the silence—
within the pain—
amidst the grief—
before the release from Babylon—
before the return to Jerusalem—
waiting … hoping.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” we read.
“Has it not been told you from the beginning?”
And literally, it’s not “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”
but “Have you not understood the foundations of the earth?”
(Christopher R. Seitz, The Book of Isaiah 40-66:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in
The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume VI
[Nashville: Abingdon, 2001] 343)
Have you not recognized God
from the stories you’ve been told
not just as Creator, but in history—
as foundation of the earth—
as foundation of all that was and is and is yet to be?
You should know your story.

To consider all the deeds that are done under the sun;
is not to see vanity and a chasing after wind,
but to see the breath of God—the Spirit of God
stirring the depths of what is.
Why would you rely on anyone/anything else?

To affirm that that what has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done—
to affirm that there is nothing new under the sun,
is gospel—good news.
The past turns out to be precisely what we want to repeat—
the past of God with us that is the truth of God with us—
past, present and in whatever time there is yet to be.

And in Babylon, some of those in exile claimed a dream.
They gathered and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
And if we do not believe God works in history that way,
we nonetheless do not begrudge them their hope.
We do not begrudge hope.

Our text goes on lauding God:
all else is incomparable to the power of God.
All other power is insignificant in comparison to the Creator of all.
Look back to creation.
Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?
God who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name
we’re talking about the stars here—
significant “in a society where astronomy was advanced
and astral worship was prominent”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 in Westminster Bible Companion
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998] 26).
And because God is great in strength, mighty in power,
not one is missing—not one star is missing—not one.

So why would you ever give up on God?
even during exile—
even in the silence—
even within the pain—
even amidst the grief—
even waiting ….
The text concludes with those familiar and beloved verses:
“Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Notice the ambiguity.
Initially the text isn’t claiming we won’t grow weary.
We will—even youths and the young.
But those who wait or those who hope—
it can be translated either way
(John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66 in Word Biblical Commentary
[Waco: Word, 1987] 95)—
those who wait or hope for God,
renew their strength.
Those who look back to look ahead with hope renew their strength.
They’re weary, but they are renewed.

But the concluding affirmation is that they
(those who wait—those who hope) shall run and not be weary,
walk and not faint. So which is it?

We know weary! And we know renewed.
But we also know exhilarated.
And we look back to look ahead.
We look back to look ahead with hope.
Because history is God’s self-revelation,
we look ahead to affirm
there will come a time of no more weariness—
no more exile—no more silence—no more pain—
no more grief—no more waiting.

And while there is a rather pointed sense of
you should have known—
you should have remembered—
you should have trusted—
you should have believed,
our text is not ultimately words of condemnation,
but words of reminder—
words of encouragement—
words of hope.

It’s not just the stars of which God takes note, you see—
of whom God knows each one—
of whom none will go missing.

Let’s think about that.

I still clearly remember the conversation I had quite a while back now
in which I was told our economic system relies on a certain level of unemployment.
Still not sure about the justification for that percentage.
If it benefits enough people,
if it benefits the system as a whole,
then we justify those missing, those left out, those excluded?
Is that democracy because it’s what most people want?
That’s too many missing from the dignity of providing for themselves—
the collateral damage of our economic way of life.

On the news this past week, I caught a story, you may have seen it too,
about a man whose wife was killed and one of whose sons was crippled
when a trucker went to sleep at the wheel.
Almost in passing, the newscaster announced,
there are 4,000 fatalities a year in truck related accidents.
There were almost 33,000 traffic fatalities in 2010.
We don’t question this—no debate about it.
33,000 people missing every year at family dinner tables—
collateral damage of our driven way of life.

You may have heard the claim
that there are more black males in prisons than in colleges.
Best I can tell, that’s not true.
But 32% of black males born in 2001 will end up in prison.
That’s compared to almost 6% of white males
And that’s too many missing as sons and missing as fathers—
collateral damage of our racist way of life.

I read a provocative article this past week,
about the excellence of schools in Finland—
where there’s less homework and more creative play,
no standardized tests, no private schools—
where teachers and principals have more responsibility.
There’s no word for accountability, you see, in Finnish.
“Accountability is something that’s left when responsibility is subtracted”
says Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s
Center for International Mobility.
And decades ago, when schools in Finland were in need of reform,
the decision was made not to focus on excellence, but on equity.
“There are certain things nobody in America really wants to talk about,”
says Sahlberg. Too many children missing from their potential—
collateral damage of our competitive way of life.

Not to mention the disgusting and terrifying fact that
as many as one in four children in our country goes hungry.
That’s some 17 million children
missing from the fullness of care—
collateral damage of our chosen way of life.

Remember our theological affirmation—
our Scriptural affirmation—
God does not miss one.
In God’s way of being there is no collateral damage—
none. No one is missed.

So it’s the role of church—
the job—
the responsibility—
not just to sing, “I was lost, but now am found,”
but also to find people to whom we can say, “We missed you.
We’re so sorry. How can we reincorporate each other into our story?”

Bill lost his job. It’s a familiar story these days.
His wife had to get full-time work,
but they realized they would still have to sell their house.
Bill set out to make it more attractive to potential buyers.
Bill was not handy.
He was, you might say, the opposite of handy.
And “he lived in fear of his highly competent wife
and her withering criticism, sharpened by her exhaustion.”

It was, oddly enough, Holy Week,
and the family went through the liturgical observances of Jesus’ suffering
even as they suffered themselves.
On Holy Saturday, Bill’s wife came in after work,
wanting nothing more than some tea before the Easter Vigil.
But the house smelled of paint,
and Bill was on the stairs
his ladder stuck through the hole he had just made in the ceiling—
paint dripping from the upended paint can
down the carpet running down the stairs.
“Bill’s wife shrieked, ‘What’s the use of you? You can’t get a job,
you can’t cook, can’t keep the house tidy—
and put a paintbrush in your hand and you wreck the whole house!
You’re useless, pointless, hopeless.’
The silence was louder than the shouting that preceded it,
as Bill accepted each word.

But his daughter, a precocious eleven year old, intervened.
She looked up the stairs at her father, and back down to her mother.
‘He’s a good dad,’ she said simply.
In five words, she had taken the right things for granted,
recognized as a child it was not her responsibility
to make everything come out right,
blocked nothing of what her mother had said,
questioned the givens her mother had been assuming,
overaccepted her mother’s words,
and reincorporated the forgotten part of the story …”
(Wells, 153).
And Easter Sunday came to Holy Saturday.

We don’t just look to the past
to see the story of God unfolding,
but also, in studying it, to learn from it.
And to see, study and learn from the story of God
is to be mindful (no way around this)—
it is to be mindful of those excluded—
those left out—
those lost—
those taken for granted—
those missing.
And it is to claim the responsibility
and the privilege of working toward reincorporation—
the reincorporation of what was lost—
not just what they lost in relation to us,
but what we’ve lost in relation to them.

It’s how we participate in that story of God
that we’ve learned and heard and witnessed.
It’s claiming it to live it—
to re-member it—
to re-incorporate it—
to re-incarnate it.

The meaningfulness of the past is deepened
in what we do in remembrance—reincorporating in the present—
projecting the hope of that depth into the future.

Let’s think about that.
And we do more than think, don’t we!
Thanks be to God, and may it continue to be.


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