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On Liturgy: Improvisatory Hope

Alexandra Jacob

Rev. Alexandra Jacob serves as associate pastor for families, youth, and children in downtown Minneapolis, where she enjoys learning and worshiping alongside a vibrant group of young people and their families.

This past July, I accompanied a group of twenty high school youth and seven other adult leaders on a service trip to Breathitt County, Kentucky, where we spent a week of learning and service alongside the good folks at Appalachia Service Project. We worked together all week to contribute to ASP’s home repair projects, and we learned about the culture and history of a region vastly different from our own urban midwestern context. Just as we had hoped, the week was a transformative opportunity to learn, serve, grow, and play together. By the time the week ended and we were on the road back to Minneapolis, we were bone-tired, but full of joy.

Our drive was long enough to break the journey into two days of driving, and our final night was spent at a host church in Stockton, Illinois. In keeping with youth group tradition, the final night would be an all-nighter, at least for the youth. We would stay up late writing “care cards” for one another (due before breakfast the next morning!), playing sardines in a can, and enjoying one another’s company for one last night. I planned for us to begin the evening with a time of worship, including communion.

I soon realized that this plan wouldn’t work out as I had imagined when I was planning the trip. First, we had forgotten to pack the little communion wafer-and-juice kits—affectionately named by our youth group “Rip-N-Sips”—that we would use for worship. The Rip-N-Sips were back at home, and I had not remembered to purchase enough bread at our last gas station stop to use for communion bread. Aside from the elements themselves, we were exhausted. The days of work in the hot Kentucky sun had worn our bodies out, and my spirit was worn from keeping track of youth and their needs all week. It just didn’t feel like we had what we needed to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together that night.

When we arrived in Stockton, the pastor—a new acquaintance of mine through an online network of young clergywomen—greeted us with a smile and with the company of her adorable pet dog, Milo. Milo’s tail-wagging excitement woke up even the sleepiest high schooler from their road trip naps, and I felt my spirit rise as we entered the church building. Our host pastor assured us that we would have all the space we needed for our late-night activities, and once the students were settled in and eating their pizza dinner, she turned to me. “Would you be willing to let me serve you all communion in the morning before you hit the road?” My eyes filled with tears. Would I be willing? I nodded, grateful to be receiving hospitality both material and sacramental.

The next morning, all twenty-eight of us encircled the church’s communion table. Our host pastor prayed and shared the words of institution, gently inviting us into the feast prepared for us. She shared the bread and wine with each of us individually, calling us by name: “Izzie, this is the body of Christ, given for you; the cup of Christ, shed for you.” She closed with a reminder that God loves each of us deeply and fully, no matter where we go or what we do.

This moment shared around a relative stranger’s table in an unfamiliar community was one of the holiest that we experienced throughout our service trip. It was a deep gift to have been welcomed at the table, and called by name, at the end of our weeklong journey. As we loaded our vans for the final leg of the trip home, I knew I was not the only one fighting back tears of gratitude. To share the sacrament in such an unexpected way felt like pure grace.

At a session I recently attended at the St. Olaf College Conference on Theology, Worship, & the Arts, theologian Willie Jennings shared a striking idea: Christian hope as improvisation. The skilled jazz musician, Jennings explained, does something new at the site of the old. She takes preexisting melodic and harmonic material, infuses it with her own set of skills, knowledge, and imagination, and creates something new. So it is with Christian hope. We participate in the work of hope when we recognize that we live our lives within the life of the resurrected Christ—the preexisting material. Hope is the improvisatory work: what will we do in our own age to improvise upon the completed work of Christ’s death and resurrection?

When I heard Jennings share this image of improvisatory hope, my mind returned to the image of our road-weary youth group gathered around the table of a stranger-turned-friend. We arrived unprepared, without the necessary elements to share in communion. We also arrived tired, one more day of driving alongside the midwestern cornfields standing between us and home. Our generous host helped us to participate in the work of hope, improvising with the materials at her disposal to spread before us a table of hospitality and belonging. The raw material of her improvisation included twenty-eight strangers, a desire to extend hospitality, and the ancient practice of Holy Communion. This improvisatory work brought forth greater hope than our host could have imagined. She sent us on our way with a new melody in our hearts, ready to share it with the world.
The contours of our worshiping communities have shifted as a result of the pandemic—we are asking new questions, imagining new patterns, and engaging new forms of belonging. How will our table practices respond to these new realities? How will that sacred and timeless practice take up new turns of phrase, new rhythms and harmonies? This is the task to which we are continually called, in the words of Jennings, “to do something new at the site of the old.” May we improvise with joy!

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