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Thursday, 18 May 2017

Faithful improvisation in a five act play

Here is my sermon from today's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

Mike Leigh is the well-known director of films such Secrets and Lies, Mr Turner, Topsy Turvey and Life Is Sweet. Improvisation is a significant part of his directorial methods. He begins a film with an initiating idea, which conjures up a number of possible actors he can cast. Since he doesn’t work with formal scripts, the auditions take the form of an exercise where the actor delivers a caricature of a person they know. Once the cast is established, a list of potential characters is devised, out of which a base character who lies at the core of the drama is established. After this, the actor researches the character and does solo improvisations with the director. This process of solo improvisation and research goes on for weeks and even months before the actor is introduced to another actor who has been cast, and they begin duo impros. Leigh shoots two thirds of his film without revealing the ending. Then the crew pauses for a week or so while he does improvs of the final scenes. After that, the end scenes are shot.

Improvisation is also what Jesus is talking about in this farewell discourse to his disciples (John 14 - 16, today's Gospel - John 16. 5 - 15). He is going to leave them (as happened at the Ascension) and then he will send the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, the comforter and advocate, to them (as happened on the Day of Pentecost). The Spirit will speak to the disciples whatever he hears from Jesus; both the many things he wanted to say to them but which they could not bear at that time and also the things that are to come. Earlier in his discourse, he also said that the Spirit will teach them everything and remind them of all that Jesus had said to them. The result will be that they will do greater things than him.

Jesus said many amazing things that people still repeat regardless of whether they follow him or not. But his farewell discourse to his disciples must be among the most amazing because in it Jesus says that those who follow him will do greater things than him and will be led into all truth. When you think how amazing Jesus’ own actions were, it is hard to imagine how people like us could do greater things than that, and, when you think how profound his teaching was, how could we be led into deeper or greater truth than that?

But Jesus was articulating something that all good teachers think and feel; the sense that all the time he had spent with them and invested in them was not so they would be clones of him, simply repeating the things he did and said, but instead that he had equipped, empowered and enabled his followers to follow him by using their own gifts and abilities and initiative which would inevitably mean that they would do and say different things from him but still with his Spirit and based on all they had learnt from him. He was saying that each one of us is a unique combination of personality, abilities and potential and, therefore, each of us can make a unique mark on the world. His followers can do greater things than Jesus because they will do different things from him in his name and Spirit – things that only they can do for him because they are that unique package of personality, ability and potential.

Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields has described this in terms of improvisation. He says that we constantly “face new circumstances in each generation that the Bible doesn’t give us a script for.” Instead, the Christian story is like “a five-act play -- creation, Israel, Jesus, church and eschaton. We find ourselves in Act 4, and the most important events have already happened. Our role is to be faithful in Act 4, because God will do the rest in Act 5.” “The most dynamic gift to the church is the Holy Spirit working amongst people who learn to trust one another and see the abundant things that God can do with limited materials. That’s analogous to what happens in theatrical improvisation.”

“Improvisation isn’t about being original, clever, witty or spontaneous. Improvisation is about allowing yourself to be obvious.” People who train in improvisation train in a tradition. The Spirit comes to remind Christians of the Christian tradition by reminding us of all that Jesus did and said, so we embody it in our lives. Faithful improvisation in the present time requires patient and careful puzzling over what has gone before. It’s about being so soaked in a tradition that you learn to take the right things for granted or, as Jesus put it, the Spirit will teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus said so that we intuitively do those things on an improvisational basis. In this way we can do greater things than Jesus because we will do different things from him, but in his name and Spirit.


Will Todd - I Sing Because.

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