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Funny Growth: Parables as Improv

A sermon on Mark 4:26-34

[for an audio recording of this sermon click here. Photo by Juan Gomez on Unsplash]

For the last month I have voluntarily spent my Tuesday evenings on zoom. Even more unexpected than that, I spend a lot of that time laughing.

The explanation of the mysterious behavior is that I am taking an online class called “improv for clergy.”

I have never been interested in doing impro, but I have to say… I am having a blast! I am also finding surprising connections between the exercises of improvisation and my work as a pastor.

For example, who would have thought that there is actually more than one link between the principles of improvisational comedy and Jesus’s parables?

I’m serious!

Think about it: the fundamental premise of improv is the principle of “yes, and.”

This is the commitment by all the players to pick up whatever their scene partners lay down. No matter how bizarre or disconnected it might be, you cannot scoff or reject the offering. You have to say “yes” and then add your own ingenuity, and fun, and see where it leads you.

And this is, actually, the secret to engaging parables as well.

As I have said in prior sermons, parables are the exact opposite of fables. Fables are short, clear stories with one specific point, usually summed up in a moral at the end.

In contrast, parables thrive on springing unexpected twists on the audience that confound our efforts to find “the one main point” of the story.

According to the SALT commentary, “a parable is a kind of gymnasium, a means for us to stretch and strengthen our hearts and minds and imaginations.”[1]

If we really want to get what a parable has to offer us, we have to let it exercise our curiosity, and our willingness to “pick up” and play with ideas we never would have come to on our own.

We have to be willing to respond to Jesus’s story with “yes, and.” To accept his story, however strange or counter-intuitive, and let it take us somewhere new in a creative interaction of discovery that might stretch us a bit beyond our comfort zone.

Another touch point between improv and Jesus’s parables is the crucial role of “the unexpected” in making them work.

In improv, much of the humor and delight comes from the actors’ creative sparks that make unexpected associations.

You might get a chuckle from a predictable joke, but a really big laugh almost always comes from an inspiration that no one saw coming.

And it is this unstudied, spontaneous character that makes improv so much fun. It holds our attention because we are always waiting for the next surprise.

And, in many ways, Jesus does the same thing with his parables.

I’m not saying his goal in his teachings was to get a laugh, (although there is often more humor in his parables than we recognize),

but he uses the power of unexpected twists to hold our attention and to get us to lean in… trying to figure out what he means by using familiar objects and experiences in totally unexpected ways.

Today’s parables are no exception.

Debie Thomas comments that “both of these parables, insofar as they’re meant to show us what the kingdom of God looks like, are counter-cultural to the point of sounding ridiculous. As in: They make no sense. They’re big, cosmic jokes intended to stretch our imaginations far beyond any place we’d take them on our own.”[2]

For those of us who have spent our lives in church this might not be immediately obvious, because we have heard these parables over and over. But if we set aside that familiarity and listen with fresh ears, we can hear how surprising, even shocking, these little stories are.

For one thing, they follow the Parable of the Sower – a compare & contrast story of various kinds of “poor soil” that produces either nothing or only short-term growth, versus the “good soil” with a bountiful yield.

With such a set-up, we expect the next agricultural parable to call us into the WORK of preparing “good soil,” but instead… we get a story about a gardener who naps on the job.

There is no preparation of the soil; no careful digging and spacing of the seeds; no watchful vigilance to ensure the right amount of water and protection against weeds and hungry animals.

The gardener scatters the seeds, and then goes to sleep, doing nothing to encourage the growth beyond wondering at its mystery, and happily harvesting the grain when it is full.

It absurd. It’s certainly not what we expect at all. What does Jesus mean in comparing the kingdom of God to such laziness?

And then the second parable doubles down on the unexpected angle.

It’s not just the hyperbole that surprises us, the exaggerated description of the “smallest of the seeds on earth” growing into “the greatest of all shrubs.”

It’s the very idea of intentionally planting a mustard seed. NO self-respecting farmer or gardener would do that!

Mustard is an invasive weed!

Once it gets established in a garden plot or field, it quickly overwhelms other plants and takes over. Its root system sends out long shoots under the ground that then produce new plants throughout the area. It’s not the kind of plant you want to encourage.

And yet, Jesus uses it as a comparison for God’s work on earth. Why?

And then, just to get weirder, Jesus celebrates that the branches of the mustard bush are large enough to shelter birds… in a field… where they would eat the crops.

We are supposed to laugh in incredulity. It’s all so absurd.

But if we really want to learn from these parables, we won’t just laugh. We’ll join Jesus in story-telling with the spirit of “yes, and!”

We’ll take the unexpected offering of a story about a hands-off gardener, and about an invasive weed that shelter scavengers, and open our imaginations up to see what gospel message we can discover in all this unexpected description of what God is up to.

Maybe we’ll discover an invitation into letting go of the illusion that we are in control of the growth for which we are hoping.

Because the corollary of effort and vigilance is control, isn’t it? That’s what motivates us to become workaholics, sacrificing not only rest but sometimes our mental health to the tasks that we consider “essential” to achieve desired growth.

But what if our “yes, and” to the parable of the sleepy gardener is to lean into trust in the true Source of growth. To say, “It’s true. We don’t know how growth happens and all our effort can’t change that, so we’ll let go of the stress and focus instead on looking for the harvest that God wants us to reap.”

That actually sounds pretty great.

I imagine it will be a little harder to embrace tomorrow night at Council, when we are talking about dropping worship attendance and budget deficits… but maybe the Holy Spirit gave us this parable on purpose this week.

Maybe God want’s us to “yes, and” this parable in life-giving, imagination-stretching ways.

And Maybe that “yes, and” will look like embracing mustard seeds and nesting birds – things we never would have thought to plant or to welcome into the life of our church if we were just following the expected script.

Maybe growing something new, even something that displaces familiar elements of our communal life, is what God is inviting us to do.

And maybe such new growth will welcome in new folks we’ve never tried to reach out to before.

And maybe that’s exactly what the Kingdom of God is like.

Debie Thomas has one more piece of wisdom about these parables, and their meaning for us. She writes:

“Here’s what the kingdom of God looks like: slow, mysterious growth. Periods of fallowness. Plants we can neither control nor contain. Weeds that run wild and still nourish. Hungry, raucous birds. Feasts we might mistake for waste. Gardeners who take naps. All of this is good news, … (even if) it isn’t always easy news.”[3]

Growth isn’t always easy. In fact, it rarely is. Growth stretches us. It pushes us past our comfort zones, and makes the old, familiar patterns too small and restrictive. It calls us into things we never imagined.

But that’s what makes it so good.

I never knew I loved improv until I tried it, and discovered a joy of creativity and interaction that is lighting me up after a year that has broken me down.

Maybe it’s time for our church to try some improv as well, in the form of saying “yes, and” to Jesus's unexpected invitations.

Thanks be to God.


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