Scripture Acts 20:7-12
Acts 20:7-12 (First Nations Version)
It was the first day of the week, when we gather to eat our sacred meal together. Small Man (Paul) was doing the talking because he planned to leave the next day. He was long-winded and kept talking until the middle of the night. There were many torches burning in the upper room of the house where we had all gathered.
As Small Man (Paul) spoke on and on, a young man named Greatly Blessed (Eutychus), who was sitting on the window ledge, began to sink into a deep sleep. When the sleep overcame him, he fell from the third-floor window and was found dead. Small Man (Paul) went down, bent over the young man, and put his arms around him. “Do not fear!” he said to all. “His life has returned to him.” Small Man (Paul) went back to the upper room, ate the ceremonial meal with them, and continued speaking until sunrise. He then went on his way, and with glad hearts they took the young man home alive!
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Let this story be a warning to any of you who are tempted to fall asleep during a preacher’s sermon!
I have to admit, I don’t remember reading this story before. I must have at some point in my life. However, it’s not a story you are going to explore in worship if your congregation follows the appointed scriptures for the 3 year lectionary cycle. In fact, the last 7 chapters of the Book of Acts aren’t anywhere to be found in the lectionary. We’ll save that mystery for another day though.
Here we have a short little story where a teenager, whose name Eutychus means “Fortunate” or “Greatly Blessed” falls asleep because Paul couldn’t manage to preach and teach a short message. Imagine the setting - it’s the middle of the night, many torches were blazing in that 3rd story room - presumably the air in the room is a bit hazy and smoky as a result. I can picture Eutychus sitting on the window ledge - no doubt it was a great place for some fresh air, a place to look out and daydream a bit (because that’s what I’d be doing), but it was so late and Paul just kept talking and talking, and there’s a point that no matter what you try to do to stay awake - your body just falls asleep. I can remember that happening to me in a couple college lectures - you know where your head starts drooping before you jerk yourself awake, your eyelids despite being one of the smallest parts of your body just feel like the heaviest part to keep open - and before you know it, you’re asleep.
In Eutychus’s case, however, sleeping on the ledge of a 3rd story window is a bit precarious. He falls out and crashes to the ground, dead.
And so here we have, in the words of Rev. Roger Wosely, “Eutychus – the first young victim of organized religion.” He continues to say, as if speaking to this young man directly,
“No your story wasn’t about the dangers of falling asleep during worship, and it wasn’t about the dangers of preaching sermons that are too long. Your story isn’t about cardiopulmonary or mouth to mouth resuscitation. Your story is about Paul rushing down to you, throwing himself upon you with no concern for dignity, and then lifting you up declaring “He’s alive! His life is in him!”
Your story is about God’s ability to heal and restore whatever the Church might kill!”
Because let’s face it and be honest - the Church - big C church…and many little “c” churches - the Church hasn’t always lived up to the ideal that many of us hold out.
And maybe the person, or people, who are really asleep here - metaphorically sleeping, of course - is not Eutychus, but others in the room, who are so caught up in what’s going on right in front of them that they don’t see what’s happening on the edges? Or….don’t even really see what’s going on with the other people in the space because they are so fixated on something else?
Sarah Are, who created the word art accompanying this piece that’s available for coloring, asks this in her artist statement: “How many people are falling away from church, and when they do, are we kneeling in the street with them when things get hard? Are we carrying them back into the house to feed them and celebrate their life? Are we acknowledging how hard religion can be? Are we changing our traditions so that people with different mental and physical needs can connect to God?”
It doesn’t take much to realize that the Church has a bad rap these days - the victims of abuse, the failure of congregations to be inclusive, political manipulation - it’s no wonder that there are so many people deconstructing their faith out of evangelical circles. However, before we are too quick to point the finger and name this as an issue that theologically conservative churches face, you can find the same issues present with churches that profess to be welcoming and fail to be actually such, congregations that talk a good game about serving their neighbors but are disconnected from the issues facing the most vulnerable in their community, churches that say they want to change and thrive but are unable to do the hard work necessary to connect authentically with those they claim to serve.
So many people are falling…are running…are turning away from…what they might find in “organized religion” - many rightfully so…many also because those inside a sanctuary’s four walls don’t realize the depth of the disconnect.
It’s easy to pinpoint it on the youth - they like different music, they challenge authority, they get bored, there are activities on Sundays - there are any number of excuses.
The truth of the matter is harder to swallow - and challenges us to reflect on how willing we - as a church - are to actually wade into the messiness of people’s lives to form genuine relationships that are transformational -- not primarily for them…but transformational for us - and lead us to change and find new ways to be. Or do we hold on to heritage and the good old days that no one else but us remember?
Rev. Sarah Are goes on to ask,
“When members get divorced, do we ignore it, or do we kneel in the street and cry with them? When our young people come out, do we celebrate them, or do we leave them sitting on the window sill alone, hoping they’ll find God without us? When young adults say they can make a bigger impact in this world working for a non-profit rather than going to church, do we invite them to preach, or do we lull them to sleep, hoping they’ll remain quiet?”
What the story of Eutychus - Greatly Blessed - reminds me is that our job as the church isn’t to sit on the sidelines - thinking that we have to have everything just so before we act, thinking that we have to have it all together, thinking that because we say all the right things, that we are what we say - it’s to see where people are actually hurting, where the church can help bring folks back to life - can help bring meaning, purpose, safety, healing, peace - even for just a moment. There are people who are suffering under the weight of trauma, addiction, and betrayal, who are falling and don’t have any safety net. It is those folks who are falling, who are on the edges, who help us stay awake to the mission of Jesus Christ, who help us run out and either catch them…or help bring them back to life.
Later today at our council meeting some of the questions we’ll be discussing during our time together are: “Where does our community need love right now? What anxieties or worries or fears present in our community?” These are the places where we as a church have the opportunity to encounter those who are falling….maybe, even to be honest about the places where we, who sit within these walls, are falling under the weight of the loads that we carry.
I don’t have many answers here; what I do know is that I have a heart for Eutychus - for those who the church as it is isn’t reaching - not for lack of trying, but for lack of seeing. For lack of understanding. For lack of connection and relationship. For lack of valuing people over structures.
May this story of Eutychus’ valuable life remind us that people do fall, and when they do, we as a church are called to either catch them or fall with them. Amen.
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Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.