“Paul continued speaking until midnight…”
Sermons are mysterious things. Those of us who preach them on a regular basis are always trying to find out how they work and how they can be better than they are and how they might be written and preached without the tears and agony and self-recrimination that so often accompany their preparation and delivery.
It is not all fear and trembling, however. Those who preach also know the support of those who listen. When I’ve tried to tell others about my experience in preaching to you, which, in all sincerity, is both a joyful and exhilarating one, I’ve said, “They listen.” You can tell that they are listening.” Preaching here is humbling and uplifting at the same time. So Marilynne Robinson once said, “The attention of the congregation is a major part of the attention that the pastor gives to his or her utterance. It’s very exceptional.” And she concluded, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy a good sermon.” That one sentence is enough to make most preachers wake on Monday morning eager to make the attempt once more.
On those occasions when my preaching is poor or your listening is less apparent, I take great comfort in the story of Paul and Eutychus from the Acts of the Apostles.
Look at Paul, getting ready to leave, meeting with others in an upper room. The night is getting on, and Paul is going on—so much so that even the cool night air isn’t enough to help young Eutychus, sitting in the open window three floors above the ground. His eyelids get heavy, and Paul talks on. He nods and wakes with a jerk, and Paul talks on. Finally, as Paul talks on still longer, he falls, first into a deep sleep, and then onto the ground below.
What’s the saying? It’s not the fall that hurts, it’s the sudden stop at the end.
You would think that we would have learned millennia ago not to build sanctuaries above street level!
The story has a happy ending, though, as we heard. Paul takes the young man in his arms and assures the people around him, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.”
Then Paul returns upstairs—and continues to talk until dawn.
I don’t know. Ministers can go on much longer than they need to—or at least I’ve heard that’s a problem elsewhere, certainly not here, right? Right?
But the story has a happy ending, so maybe we can find the humor in it. It reminds me of my friend’s comment: “Its all funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s hilarious.” And we might imagine Eutychus some years later laughing as he tells friends about the time he heard Paul—yes, that Paul—and how he didn’t remember a thing Paul said but he did remember how hard it was to keep awake and how hard the ground was when he fell from the window.
We can find the humor in this story. And my general tendency would be to mine that story for all the sermonic humor I could find.
But then I sat with this story a little longer. I listened more and heard something different and unexpected.
What if we listen to this story in another way—in order to hear in it the deep love, the compassion, the concern to say all that must be said because time grows short?
What would you say to those you were leaving, those you cared about, those whom, in all likelihood, you would never see again?
Can we imagine this scene as one filled with gratitude, with tender regard? Can we imagine it filled with not a little trepidation on the part of Paul and everyone else? He prepares to leave, knowing that travel always presents great risks—he has already known shipwrecks—and knowing that arriving at a new destination always seems to bring troubles of its own—stoning and riots and imprisonments.
What would be said, what could be said to a beleaguered group of people who had only recently been persuaded to follow in the way of the risen Christ, with no roadmap, no social standing? Even the Gospels were not yet written.
They had bread, however—or what they called “the breaking of bread,” that simple meal we call “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper.” And it would be just the actions and just the food that they need. The broken bread recalled the body of Jesus, broken for them, for their own broken and insignificant bodies and lives, giving a new strength to their own broken bodies and lives. The wine recalled the life of this Jesus whom they were following, poured out freely for all creation, paradoxically bringing joy, gladdening the heart.
For this meal, for this discussion with Paul, they gathered on a Sunday, the first day of the week. Perhaps this is just a coincidence as Paul was to leave the next day and that just happened to be a Monday. Or perhaps the day was just guessed at and added to a story remembered. But this is the first time in scripture that we hear of the followers of Jesus gathering on Sunday, the day of resurrection.
Such gatherings have been so commonplace for so long that we often give them little thought. We can gather anytime, but we Christians gather especially, consciously, on this first day of the week to mark the resurrection. Each Sunday is for us a little Easter. When we meet together we sing, we pray, we hear scripture read and proclaimed, we offer gifts, we sit in silence or surrounded by music, always surrounded by one another because Christ is risen—a phrase we’re always trying to better understand. In spite of our own worries and fears and trepidation about the days ahead, we will go forward into those days with a kind of confidence that we would not have had on our own, a kind of confidence that we know, really, by the grace of God. We call this faith in the power of the resurrection. It is a sense—sometimes quite strong, often shaky—that love triumphs over hate, that life conquers death, that we need not return evil for evil but that we are able, in all things, to seek the good.
Admittedly such a faith waxes and wanes, and we do those things we should not have done and we leave undone the things that we ought to have done. We need the deep forgiveness that comes from others, that comes from ourselves, and the forgiveness that comes from God.
So it is on Sunday, especially, that we gather because Sunday especially reminds us that Christ is risen indeed and that in the presence of one another we have received from God the power to begin anew.
It might seem obvious, but gatherings such as the one with Paul in Troas, gatherings such as this one are group activities. We come together because it is in a group, as a group that we encounter the risen Christ who promises: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of you.” As a group, as a congregation we begin to understand the power, the ability we have to live out our commitments in the world. And, I don’t know, perhaps if we really started to experience that, we might want to stay up talking until all hours of the night—sharing our hopes and fears and receiving the kind of strength that comes from a community that knows the weaknesses of its members and loves them still, forgives them still, encourages them still, and reminds each and every one of what great value they are.
On a Sunday.
Around bread and wine.
Paul in Troas.
The Congregational Church in Iowa City.
We should not take gatherings such as this for granted or diminish their importance. In places around the world, people of faith are kept from gathering. It might be Muslims in China or Jewish people in our own nation or African American Christians who worship with a sense of fear or uncertainty. Still people keep meeting in spite of the risk because of our basic human need to be together, to support and care for one another even in the face of very real threats.
In his new book Team Human, Douglas Rushkoff, who studies human autonomy in our digital age, points out that “Humans are defined not so much by our superior hunting ability so much as by our capacity to communicate, trust, and share.”[i] We are social beings who also “enjoy exercising free will and independent choice,”[ii] he says—which sounds a lot like a description of Congregationalism and our valuing of both autonomy and connection.
According to Rushkoff, in our time, the biggest threat to our impulse to connect with one another is not the force of governments or the threat of violence but the new digital media landscape in which we live. Older people can remember how television once brought us together even on a global scale. We just marked the 50th anniversary of the moon landing—a event watched by millions.
Half a century later, in the digital age, we are slowly coming to the awareness of how the internet in general and social media in particular work to “atomize and isolate us from one another.” Our smartphones are keeping us in a “constant state of distraction,” and FOMO—fear of missing out—keeps us tethered to our devices.[iii]
You know that computer programs ultimately reduce everything to a series of ones and zeros, on or off. And our society is ever moving toward the same binary choices: Rich or poor? Black or white? American or foreign? With us or against us? The middle ground seems to disappear beneath our feet. Douglas Rushkoff’s disturbing conclusion is becoming more and more obvious: “The internet reinforces its core element. It makes us take sides.[iv]
How radical, even countercultural, then is a gathering such as this: people of different generations, races, economic statuses, and national origins come together for a common purpose, refusing to be simply on one side or the other.
Now, the central action in this story from Acts is the fall of Eutychus and his recovery. Paul is presented as a healer—even as one who restores the dead to life. There are echoes here of stories of the early Jewish prophets Elijah and Elisha. Certainly, we are meant to understand this as a significant event.
But remember what happens next—everyone goes back upstairs; and after eating, they talk together until dawn. Let that soak in.
Healing; raising the dead: dramatic events, to be sure. But our attention is drawn back once more to the gathered community, the meal, the conversation. This is where the congregation finds its purpose and meaning, its strength and encouragement.
Let us take note.
As a congregation, we understand the importance of our efforts to care for creation, to curb gun violence, to root out the racism that grows so deeply, to affirm all people in their sexual orientation. We are committed to welcoming the stranger, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry. We will continue to direct our energy, our resources, and our time toward these and other concrete expressions of the love of God in the world. We will follow the advice of the prophet, seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
But this—our simple and profound gathering on the first day of the week, our coming together on the day of resurrection—this is what equips us for doing everything else. Our face to face human contact, our embrace of all the differences and contradictions in this congregation, our honoring questions as the ways of Jesus Christ continues to be made known to us is our hope in the face of all that is atomizing and splintering humanity in this time. It is the gift the church in general and this congregation in particular has to offer to the larger community, our nation, and the world as well.
“Do not be alarmed,” Paul tells the worried congregation as they gather around the limp body of Eutychus.
Do not be alarmed. Life conquers death. Love conquers hate.
So along with Eutychus and the rest of the congregation in Troas, let us go into the world alive and “not a little comforted.”
[i] Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human, pg. 17.
[ii] Ibid., pg. 20.
[iii] Ibid., pg. 82-83.
[iv] Ibid., pg. 85-86.