There is a bit of a conundrum that I have noticed in my life, perhaps you have noticed it as well. I can be a pretty funny guy but only when I am not trying. If I try to be funny it usually end up flopping. But if I just let go and go with the flow then the laughter starts to flow. I have become even more aware of this strange phenomena as I have started to train in improv comedy theater.
Strangely, I began improv comedy because I felt the Holy Spirit tell me to quit Jui-Jitsu and join an improv comedy group. It wasn’t part of my plan. I didn’t even know if there was an improv comedy group in the area till I googled it and found the group Main on Main right down the road in North Webster. I have been practicing with them and I also joined a class through the Center Street Community Theater sponsored by the Wagon Wheel . That group which we nicknamed Off Center, opened for The Foreigner, which I always have to clarify is a play and not the band Foreigner , though I could certainly do a karaoke version of I Want To Know What Love is if that band wanted me to open for them. Off Center also performed in downtown Warsaw at May’s First Friday .
Now as you can imagine the success of an improv routine largely depends on audience participation. And folks in downtown Warsaw were a little warry and confused by our small band of misfits as we interrupted their lives with absurdity. While we were there something unplanned and yet profound happened which I think relates to our passage today. We were performing an improv song called Do Ron, Ron which is based of the old song. I think it is best that we demonstrate it today. So I am going to ask for some volunteers (online readers can watch the video). As you can see the game is based off of rhyming names. One of the names we were giving was Dave. When it was my turn to rhyme I shouted out something along the lines of, “and Jesus saves”. I wasn’t trying to evangelize. But I love Jesus and it sort of rhymes with Dave so I went with it. What I didn’t realize at the time, because I was more focused on rhyming and not being eliminated from the game, was that in front of us there was a man with a big sign on a wooden stick that said something along the lines of, “Jesus is the Savior repent and believe.” After we had performed and where taking a break the man came up to me and I realized that I knew him. I had met him shortly after I arrived here in Indiana and we had a few conversations then. But I hadn’t seen him in months. I knew the man to be an incredibly committed Christian. I also knew him to be incredibly lonely. He knew the Truth but he didn’t have the relationships he was longing for. And I wondered afterwards who connected better with that crowd? The guy who randomly shouted out, “Jesus saves” during an improv game, or the man who made a sign saying the same thing and walked around downtown with his sign held high?
I don’t know the answer to that question for sure I just look at our passage today and I see that Jesus never needed a sign to connect with people. People were drawn to him. This ruler comes to him because his daughter has died, and he believes that just Jesus’ touch can bring her back to life. This woman with an issue of blood comes to him, believing that if she can just touch the hem of his garment, she can be healed. Apparently, these blind men had been following Jesus as he traveled to the ruler’s house, we don’t know how, since they were blind. But they too believe in Jesus, though they cannot see all the wonderful things he has done. Jesus certainly knew the hearts of men, but as I read through the Gospels it doesn’t seem like when he awoke each day he had a master plan as to how the day would go. He responded to invitations, he went where the Holy Spirit led him, and he connected with people in a powerful way. He practiced what I would like to call Kingdom Improv. And he calls us to practice Kingdom Improv as well. But to do so Jesus tells us that we must be born again, we must be born from above, we must be born of the Spirit. As Jesus in John 3: 7-8, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Translation, God knows the plan we don’t. But if we spread our wings in the Spirit the Holy Spirit can take us along in what God is planning. He can take us along for the ride.
If all of us connected with people like Jesus connected with people perhaps our churches would be full. They wouldn’t be full with the type of people we would want them to be full with. They would be full with all those God has called to Himself. And I when I look at the scriptures I see that God calls the most unlikely and unworthy people to Himself. But we have problems connecting with people who are different than us don’t we? If we admit it sometimes we have problems connecting with those who are very similar to us. Sometimes we even have problems connecting with our own flesh and blood. We have all this theology, all these words, all these programs, but sometimes it feels like we are practicing the form of Godliness without its power ( 2 Timothy 3:5).
In his book Connecting, Dr. Larry Crabb, reflects on this feeling of powerlessness, on this feeling of not connecting, by telling of the struggles of his youngest son Kep. Being a Christian psychotherapist you think Crabb would have had all the knowledge he needed to raise his son in the fear and admonition of the Lord. He did all the things that Christian parents are supposed to do. He did devotions with his kids, he always made sure they knew he loved them, he set boundaries and disciplined them when necessary. But by his third year at Taylor University, a well respected Christian School, Kep had lost his way and got expelled from school.
But instead of being angry, something spoke to Crabb’s Spirit saying that this was an opportunity. Instead of trying to rebuke his son, or teach his son, or solve his son’s problems, Crabb just asked, “How can I help?” That stirred something in Kep’s heart and it caused him to trust his father and eventually it caused him to return to the Lord. Crabb tells his readers that a couple of years after that incident his son told him, “ I did come back to the Lord that time but first I came back to you.” (pg, 5).
But why? Why had all of Crabb’s teaching, love, discipline, and admonitions not been enough to keep his son on the right path? Crabb reflects on this question. To quote Crabb,
“ That was a turning point in Kep’s life. Why? What happened? Something came out of Jesus to heal the woman with the issue of blood. Something came out of me that cut through Kep’s hardness and reached the tender part of his soul with healing power.” ( Crabb, 5). To quote Crabb elsewhere in his book, “ People experience the life changing force of healing relationship when something powerful comes out of one and touches something good in another.” When something powerful comes out of us and touches something good in another that causes healing. Wow. Reading that quote brought me to tears. Because it is so true. That’s how Jesus was, that’s how Jesus is, he sees the best in people. And to be honest that is hard to do because we are sinners. We are broken. We are evil. But still Jesus sees the good that no one else sees. He is not in a rush. He makes time to have relationships. He makes time to touch people in a way they have never been touched before. May it be the woman with an issue of blood, a woman who was ritually unclean and would have been shunned by everyone. May it be a girl who by the world’s standards is literally dead as a doornail. Or may it be a pair of blind men who survive on the pity of others but are dying for the love of others. Jesus saw their hearts. He saw past their hurt and their sin to the beautiful image that burned like a flickering candle about to go out. And he set that flame ablaze. He turned that flickering flame into a forest fire that spilled out of their Spirits and healed their bodies.
Jesus tells us at the end of the Gospel of Matthew that Kingdom Improv is for every believer not just for pastors. In the words of Jesus , “ All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” What we tend to focus on in this verse is the promise that Jesus will always be with us. What we neglect is his command to do everything he has commanded us to do. We have been studying the Gospel of Matthew for 18 months now. Everything Jesus has taught us thus far he expects us to do, and he has given us the power to do so, Now you may be thinking, “that sounds great Rev. But how? I know this is improv. I know we can’t map out exactly how effective ministry goes. But can’t you give us some guidelines?” Sure I can. In our passage today I see three Kingdom Improv principles to guide us in ministry through the Holy Spirit.
- We must offer and receive Divine Invitations
- We must have faith in God and in people
- We must not let skepticism quench the Holy Spirit.
One thing we notice about Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels is he usually accepts invitations and he provides invitations to others. These three healing stories come in between some of Jesus’ teachings. And it seems to me that Jesus was in the middle of teaching when he received an invitation from this desperate ruler to bring his daughter back to life. It would be like if I was preaching and someone walked through the door and said they needed my help and I just walked out leaving you guys behind. And he was in the middle of going to the girl’s house, when the woman with a bleeding condition made a request of him. And after raising a girl from the dead, you think that Jesus would be done for the day. But he goes even further and responds to the requests of the blind men. Jesus responds to divine invitations. But that doesn’t mean he responds to every request. In Matthew 14 we are told that after Jesus fed the 5,000 (which would be more like 10,000 with women and children), he made his disciples get in a boat, he dismissed the crowd, and after that he went up on a mountain by himself to pray. Even Jesus got tired. And his response was to pray. For every hour Jesus spent interacting with people my guess is he spent far more time in prayer. Jesus was and is God. But he ministered as a man accepting human limitations. And it was through regular prayer in secret that Jesus was able to be present, both with people, and with the Holy Spirit who guided him in his ministry. Jesus understood the difference between good things and God things. There were times when he would heal entire crowds of people, but elsewhere such as the healing of the lame man at the pool at Bethesda, he walked through an entire crowd of sick people to heal one person. In the story of Lazarus, he received word that his friend Lazarus was sick. But instead of going to see him immediately he stayed where he was for two days and Lazarus died. He could have left immediately and healed Lazarus. But he knew that God had something even more amazing in store for Lazarus. Persistent prayer frees us from the demands of the world and keeps us from business so we may know what the Will of the Lord is.
Business certainly does get in the way of Divine Invitations. We can’t accept an invitation nor can we offer one if we are too busy to do so. What in your busy schedules has God truly convicted you is part of what he has for you and what is business that is not helping you grow deeper in love with Him? That doesn’t mean you need to be involved in more church activities. Certainly, there are churches that spend so much time with each other, two services on Sunday, Wednesday night meal, Bible studies throughout the week, this or that interest group, that they never spend any time with folks outside of their church. The amount we are doing or not doing isn’t an indication of a spiritually vibrant church in the Lord’s eye. A spiritually vibrant church knows why they were called into being as a church body and they stick with and develop that vision.
Recognizing divine invitations in our lives requires that we have faith. While the raising of the dead girl in this passage is the most spectacular miracle I think Matthew ends this section with the blind men because it is they that demonstrate the most spectacular faith. Perhaps the ruler and the woman with the bleeding condition had not only heard about Jesus but had seen with their own eyes some of the miracles he had performed. And maybe if they hadn’t seen it for themselves they had met people who had been healed by Jesus and they saw the effects of his ministry. But all the blind men had to go on were rumors of what Jesus had done. They couldn’t even see what he looked like. And yet, when he asks them, “ Do you believe that I am able to do this?” they said to him without hesitation, “ Yes Lord.” They had faith in Jesus even when their world was in darkness. They sought him out even though they must have tripped and fallen many times to do so. We must have faith. The faith to see the good in people as Jesus does and the faith to see Jesus even when our world is shrouded in darkness. He is either Lord or he isn’t. He either has a plan or he doesn’t . To quote the book of James, “ If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who give generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
Finally, we learn that we must beware of skepticism. Notice how Jesus deals differently with the woman with the bleeding condition than he does with the dead girl. With woman with the bleeding condition he heals her in public. But with the dead girl he kicks out all the professional mourners who were laughing at him. In both ways Jesus deals with the skepticism of the crowds but he does so differently because of the needs of each individual. With the woman with the bleeding condition her real issue was the social shame attached to her condition. Everyone around Jesus probably knew who she was. And if Jesus had healed her privately and not publicly there still might have been a chance that she would be treated like an outcast. So Jesus had to challenge the hard hearts of the crowd by healing her publicly. But with crowd of professional paid mourners they are just not helpful. Jesus speaks the truth. Death is not the end. To Jesus it is only sleep. And one day because Jesus conquered death through his death and resurrection we as Christians believe we too shall rise from the dead. But the mourners don’t get it. They are paid to celebrate death, not life, they are paid to fix their minds on the here and now not on what is possible with God. Whether Jesus raises her in public or in private the effect is the same. So Jesus kicks out the skeptics to give the girl some privacy when she came back to life. In both instances Jesus is challenging hard hearts, just in different ways.
In improv Comedy we call this the yes and rule. You see in a skit improv actors usually start out with the premise of a scene that is given to them and they run with it. And nothing kills an improv skit quicker when one of the actors says something like, “ and now we are about to rob a Chick Fil A” and the other actor replies, “no we are not at a Chick Fil A we are at a KFC.” The correct response would be to say, “ yes that sounds like a great idea but what are going to do about the Chick Fil A cows because they have been on strike.” And I would say, “we could have Bob Osborne (who is a cattle trader) deal with them.A Kingdom Improv response to Jesus saying the girl is not dead but sleeping would have been something like this, “sweet Jesus. Death is not the end. Let’s go to the cemetery and put the funeral home out of business.” When we start saying, “this can’t work we don’t have the people, the money, the energy, we haven’t worked out the details.” When we start coming up with all the reasons why we can’t instead of why we can that quenches the Holy Spirit in our hearts and that limits the vision that people can have in Christ Jesus.
My mentor, the Rev. Dr. Robert Johnson, who some of you saw at my ordination told me a story once. He pastored a small church in rural Appalachia as his second call I do believe. He introduced that congregation to the book Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster, the author who wrote the book on Prayer that I taught on during Sunday School. The book doesn’t try to address the question of what Christians believe, otherwise known as orthodoxy. The church has fought over that for centuries. Instead, the book tries to address the question of how Christians should live, not by hard and fast rules, but through the Holy Spirit. But as Foster would say, just because grace excludes merit doesn’t mean that grace excludes effort. It is by practicing the classical spiritual disciplines of mediation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration, that we as Christians step into the life that Christ has for us. Gradually by his grace the Lord raises up ordinary people to stop just being sheep and to start being shepherds themselves. We may not have a calling to the ordained ministry but that doesn’t mean our very lives cannot be ministry. That book, along with a commitment to studying the scriptures and prayer, sparked a revival in that church. And since Robert left they have functioned only with a lay minister. But they continue to grow. Did they plan it that way? Probably not. But when the Holy Spirit gets a hold of us we begin to find that Kingdom Improv is a lot more powerful and a lot more fun than any of our carefully laid plans.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.