Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 22], rcl yr a
Sunday, September 3rd, 2023
EXODUS 3:1-15; PSALM 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; ROM. 12:9-21; MATT. 16:21-28

If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me

I had never heard the podcast Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend until Karen played an episode for me while we were on a road trip to Winnipeg last summer. If you’re not familiar with this particular podcast, Conan O’Brien is a comedian who used to be a late night talk show host, but more recently he’s put his efforts into this new podcast format. My introduction to the show was an interview with comedian and director Adam McKay, where Conan and McKay have an extended conversation about Conan auditioning for McKay’s film The Big Short. I was captivated by the two of them talking about considering O’Brien for the film alongside Brad Pitt. For a good portion of the conversation it was totally believable to me.

And so at a certain point I turned to Karen and said “is this a true story?” At which point Karen looked at me, sighed,  and said “no, Preston, they are improvising, It’s called ‘yes, and … ’” And I felt a bit like an idiot at that point, because I really should’ve known that once they were laughing about Brad Pitt getting eaten by a Mountain Lion while jogging that it was not true—it was just two funny men being funny, one-upping each other into a fantastic world where the goofy comedian Conan O’Brien could challenge A-list movie star Brad Pitt for a role in a multi-million dollar Hollywood movie.

This did introduce me though to a way that improv comedy is done, where the improviser accepts what was said by their partner (this is the “yes” part) and then expands on the line of thinking (this is the “and” part). And I mention improvisation, and particularly “yes, and …” improvisation because it’s a really helpful way to think about the Christian life.

I’d like to put it in the context of some of the things I’ve been saying of late. To sum up some of the things I’ve been preaching about: I’ve been preaching about grace, and how this is the primary way that God lives in relationship with us. Grace is the kindness of God, and the way God gives of himself for our sake. The grace of God is a gift given without any merit on our side, without any need to prove ourselves, without any need to earn God’s love and kindness, without any need to earn the love and kindness of others. We don’t have to do anything to deserve it, God is simply graceful, with a grace that precedes us in creation and in Christ’s own work on the cross, where the sins of the world, including yours, are forgiven. Grace is something we experience now, in the way God pours love into our hearts, in the way God transforms us and changes us through our reconciliation in Christ, making us suitable for his kingdom. And this grace of God, the work that God does for us, and on our behalf, is the best way to understand our growth in faith, and in virtue.

Paul again this week in Romans gives a portrait of what life in Christ, the life of God’s grace, and the life of God’s Spirit freely given, looks like. “Let love be genuine,” says St. Paul, “hate what is evil,  hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.” This is one portrait of the grace-filled life, a transformation made possible not by our own efforts but by grace, by God at work for us and now God at work in us.

To say, though, that all the good we do is by God’s grace can leave us wondering, are we now just puppets of God? Are we God’s marionettes, with God pulling all the strings? Sometimes God does work through us in mysterious ways that are not at all apparent to us. That is grace too. But other times, even in the graced life, it feels like we are indeed exercising our decision-making powers, or exercising godly wisdom. So surely we aren’t puppets, with God pulling the strings for us, his holy marionettes?

John’s Gospel is the one where improvisation really comes to the fore, but we see it in other gospels too. The gospels, each in their own way when they speak of following Jesus now, when they speak of discipleship, don’t tell us stories about Jesus’s followers freezing in place by grace; neither does the grace of God lead us to repeating things exactly like we read in Scripture; the graced life, the life of discipleship, the life of following Jesus is more like the “yes, and …” of improv comedy.

So when we hear in Matthew’s Gospel, as we do today, that we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, this is not a call to be crucified on a hill like a criminal, as Jesus was. There is though a “yes” to the cross; indeed by grace we accept and say “yes” to God, “yes” Lord, “you have done something extraordinary,” “yes,” we say to God, “on the cross you have accomplished something good for the sake of the world”; “yes,” we say to God, “in Christ on the cross  you have accomplished something good for my own sake.” This is the gift of faith, because faith is grace too.

After the “yes” though comes the “and.” The “and” is about living out that affirmation of grace, that affirmation of God’s work for us, the “and” is the life of the Spirit poured into our hearts, transforming our minds according to God’s own wisdom. The “and” is the improvisation of the life of faith, not a simple repetition of the cross in our lives, but the “and” of a cross-shaped life, the “and” of losing our lives in order that we find our lives, lives in the Body of Christ, a life in the Spirit that leads us on to new ways of following Jesus, all by the grace of God.

Karen and I try to do the improv comedy thing, at least in that when one of us makes a joke, instead of just laughing (or not), we try to say “yes” to the silliness, and then contribute to the silliness by saying “and,” and expanding on the joke. And it’s really hard! It takes practice and we are still terrible at it.

Faith is a practice too, and it is difficult sometimes—especially affirming the wonder of God’s work in a world that is so disenchanted. But to say “yes,” to live in a world of wonder, and then to improvise, setting our minds and our imaginations not just on what God has done, but on what’s next—that takes practice too. The practice of intentionally saying “yes” to God and God’s grace, and then to say “and” and to act as such, living into the newness of possibilities we hadn’t yet imagined—this too is by the grace of God, who gives to us the gift of faith; and then the gift of holy imaginations, the gift even of the powers needed to improvise, to live and to act according to this new world given to us by God, in Christ, and according to the power of the Holy Spirit.

We can make mistakes, missteps, trying things that don’t really work; sin is real and we are a willful people, mistaking the work of human pride and vanity for the good works of God. This kind of graced discernment takes practice too.

And it’s a good question for us as we improvise as a community—learning where the “yes” of faith, the “yes” to God’s own self-offering in Christ, the “yes” to life in the Spirit—leads us to the “and” of faith, the “and” of our own self-offering, the “and” of the sort of life in the Spirit that makes us open to others, to the poor and the excluded especially.

This may be your first opportunity to say “yes” to God. If so, you are invited to do so—by grace. Perhaps this is an opportunity to say “yes” to God in a new way, or with more conviction or imagination. If so, you are invited to do so—by grace. Perhaps you are on the edge of saying “and,” saying “and this is where God is leading me,” leaning into God’s enchanted world and living there; to saying “and this is the cross God is asking me to pick up,” to saying “and this is the way that God is asking me to love another, to bless another, to rejoice with another, to weep with another. This is the way God is asking me to be peaceable, kind, and good.”

Because according to God’s grace you are invited not just into saying “yes” to God, but also to saying “and” to God: from his fullness we have received not just grace, but grace upon grace for the sake of the world; for the sake of this community around us; and for the sake of his church; though all ultimately for God’s sake, and in thanksgiving.