Sharp About Your Prayers

the challenges, absurdities, and joys of an urban faith

Sharp About Your Prayers header image 2

Dear Eutychus

March 4th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Sermon Bin

A Confirmation Sunday Homily

February 28, 2010

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church

©Scott Black Johnston

Acts 20 7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.  8 There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting.  9 A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.  10 But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.”  11 Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left.  12 Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.

Dear Eutychus,

I am sorry.  I am so sorry that you fell out of the window at church this past Sunday.  I know you came for youth group.  I know you weren’t expecting a guest preacher—a preacher with such, shall we say, stamina.  When we lit the lamps around midnight, he was still going strong.  Then, of course, the room started getting warm.  Even I’ll admit to yawning a few times.  Who could blame you for dozing off?

Everyone snapped awake, though!  I will never forget that thud—that tremendous thud.  Three stories is a long drop.  Your quick-footed friends were the first to make it downstairs.  I was still looking out the window, when they cried, “He’s dead.  Eutychus is dead.”  Their voices shook in the dark.  I shook too.

We adults take the promises that we made at your baptism seriously.  We try to look out for you—to guide you and not smother you.  We pray that you will navigate through this precarious time in one piece, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  So, you know that our hearts stopped when you hit the ground; don’t you?  We thought you were gone—you and all that you were going to become.  Whoosh.  All the things your parents dreamed about, the potential your teachers saw, the uncorked bottle of possibility that you are, literally flew out the window.  Three stories…

Right on your friends’ heels, the preacher was the next one out the door.  By the time I got to the street, he was holding you his arms.  He looked up at me, and said, “Don’t worry, there is life in him.”  What amazing words!  They were permission to breath again.  I’ll never forget that moment—that good news.  “There is life in him.”

Eutychus, I don’t know how much you remember after that.  We gave you a little bread, some water, and eventually you said that you felt you should go home.  Tom and Samantha took you there, and then reported back.  Your mother was pretty upset.  A couple of our elders are planning on visiting her tomorrow.  They want her to know that we have already installed window guards in the upper room.  Please, tell her that I am sorry for the fright, I am sorry for adding even one small worry to the heaping plate of concerns that sit before the parent of teenagers.  Tell her that I am sorry you fell.

One thing, however, that I am not sorry about is that you were here this past Sunday.  I know what we do in church sometimes embarrasses you, sometimes confuses you, sometimes bores you.  I have seen you roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders, and look away.  I get it.  You are no longer the little lambs who we “Oo” and “Ah” over during the Christmas pageant.  You are becoming adults.

As you enter this new stage, we love you mightily.  Although, I know that we fumble sometimes in our attempts to express it.  You see, we still have those little lamb pictures in our heads.  In a way, you need us to grow up too.  Honestly, that’s hard; and, quite frankly, you don’t always make it easy.  You can be our best friend one moment, and distant the next; sweet and then covered with cactus spikes.  A friend of mine once described his teenage daughter as a Teddy Bear filled with dynamite.

It’s a tricky time; for you, for your parents, and for the church.  Still, we are glad you are here.  Many people say that you don’t need a building to worship God.  You don’t need candles and a baptismal font to sense God’s presence in the world.  They are correct.  You can encounter the holy while hiking in the wilderness.  I love those moments.  I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t trade away the moments that are unique to this community either—the things that happen inside the sanctuary, up in Bonnell Hall, or outside on our steps.  They are holy too; and, I believe, these events shape us in ways that go deep into our bones… in ways that nothing else shapes us.

One of your friends, Tate, recently described to me his experience in a virtual world, Second Life.  You probably know all about this.  In Second Life, everyone creates an avatar—a little electronic representation of a person.  This avatar can look any way you would like: male or female, young or old, whatever hair, whatever skin color, whatever muscle tone, whatever figure.  You make your avatar, and then you go interact with other avatars.  You can go to work.  You can go shopping.  You can go to a disco.  You can even go to church.

One of the most popular churches in Second Life is called “Church of the Fools.”  Actually, I should say, “was” called “Church of the Fools.”  Due to a congregational fight, it has closed.  Although, a break-off group has now founded a new church, St. Pixels.  I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that virtual churches are as fractious as the real ones.  I suppose avatars are just as prone to fighting as the people behind them.

In any case, Tate mentioned to me that he had come upon a communion service at one of these virtual churches.  An electronic clergyperson was passing around wine and bread.  Tate asked what I thought.  “Would it be ok for my avatar to take communion?”  I gulped.  I do not want to be out-of-touch, or un-hip, Eutychus, but I am skeptical when it comes to these virtual worlds.  They are not, to put it bluntly, the most truthful places.

Now, I know, many people say that there is something good, something liberating, about getting an anonymous shot at life.  It gives you a chance to experiment with new patterns of behavior—ones that you may be scared to act out in real life.  It allows individuals to try on different identities like different sets of clothes.  Am I kind or grouchy, aggressive or passive, gay or straight, punk or goth?  These are now things you can experience behind your computer screen.  Is this good or bad?  No doubt, it is some of both.

Among the good and the bad things, I worry that something is getting lost in these virtual worlds; and that crucial something is the imperfect, clunky, wonderful physicality of real life.  Take, for example, communion.  What does it mean that the bread and the wine are pixels?  No crust?  No cube of fluff melting on my tongue?  No splash of juice?  What does it mean that the people are avatars, projections of something, and not physical beings?  These virtual humans are perfect.  In fact, they are more than perfect.  They are extreme.  They are eye candy.  And, that’s fun, up to a point, but it isn’t real.

So, to answer Tate’s question, I don’t think God is going to wig out if your avatar takes communion, just so long as you recognize that pixel bread is no substitute for the real thing.  When we gather together around the table, we gather as God’s people; and it doesn’t take long to figure out that we are not avatars.  We are young and old, we are skinny and fat, we are cleanly pressed and just off the street, we are wealthy and poor, we are savvy and confused, we are not perfect, but we are real.

That’s why I am glad that you are here, Eutychus, even if you are falling out the window during worship; because, in this place, God is molding us.  We are being formed here.  These people are forming you; and, when you are present, you are forming us.  Together, God is turning us all—a motley collection of imperfect, but real people—into disciples.

Now, I know I admit that in recent years the Church has done poorly in attracting you and your peers to worship.  A recent survey of young adults (between 16 and 29 years old) reveals that your generation has one of the most critical impressions of church ever recorded.  In this country, it used to be that most people who were not Christian still had a positive take on the religion and those who practice it.  Now, among those outside of the Christian faith, only 16% report that they have a positive view of us.

Why is that?  What happened?  Well, when asked, the number one term that young people use today, both within and outside the faith, to describe Christianity is “judgmental.”  Elaborating on this, over 91% of Americans between 16 and 29 years of age, describe present-day Christianity as being “anti-homosexual.”  Now Eutychus, I know that a pastor talking about human sexuality makes people more nervous than a dentist with a drill, but I want to be clear.  Your generation is right.  Christians have shown excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gay people.  We don’t look like Jesus on this issue, and we have no hope of welcoming you and your friends back until we stop.

I say all of this, my young friend, because it is true, and because it is an example of how formation happens.  In the church, we hold on to scripture and tradition, we take each other’s hands, and we listen together for what God’s Spirit is calling us to do.  This is how we are formed as Christians.  This is why it is so important that you come here, Eutychus, that you come and sit in the window well and doze through some of my more irrelevant sermons; because we need you.  Without your generation’s perspective, in this church, in this sanctuary, we are poorer, we are weaker, we will dwindle and die.  We need you.

Now, here’s the flip side of the coin, the side that you may find harder to swallow, especially since church almost killed you this past Sunday, but, you need us, Eutychus.  What we offer here, the tradition, the prayers, the hymns, the table, the font, the times of confession, the forgiveness freely offered, the hope that comes from Jesus Christ, and the diversity of people who embody that hope.  This is what the church has to offer the world, and it is what the church has to offer to you.

My son Ollie is six.  He comes to worship now, although he leaves early for Children’s Church.  While he is here, he sits on the floor and doodles on the bulletin.  Some people don’t have patience for little kids in worship.  Many of those people are parents!  My son can be a pain with his fidgeting, his questions, his dropping of hymnals.  It makes you wonder if it is worth it.

Then the other day, I stopped by his kindergarten classroom.  Every Monday he does something called the Weekend News.  It is a single sheet of paper that describes an event from his weekend.  This week, I noticed that Ollie’s paper was covered with people—people of all different shapes and sizes and colors.  It took me a minute to decipher his caption, but then I got it.  It said, “I went to church.  We sang to God.”

Seeing that crayoned covered paper brought tears to my eyes.  Why?  Well, it’s like this.  We bring you to church from the little lamb years on because we want you to know God.  Not some generic God, but the God that you find here, the Christ confessed by these faithful, non-avatar people.  That’s why we pull the covers off you so many Sunday mornings.

So, Eutychus, while I am sorry, really sorry, that you fell out the window, I am not at all sorry that you were here last Sunday.  Learning, contributing, forming and being formed, falling and being rescued; that’s church, my friend.  Every week, our faith is being confirmed here.  More than a heartbeat, more than breathing, surely that’s long-winded preacher meant when he said, “There is life in him!”

See you in worship, Eutychus.  See you soon.

Facebook Comments

Use Facebook to Comment on this Post

Tags: ·····

2 Comments so far ↓

  • PaulNo Gravatar

    Scott – thanks for the creative, relevant, challenging and engaging sermon on our daughter’s confirmation day. Fodder for good lunch time comments and conversation

  • Yolanda NaudeNo Gravatar

    Scott, thank you very much the 28th of Feb’s sermon! I live in Cape Town, South Africa. I was in NY for work and attended your sermon on the day. With regards from Africa. Yolanda Naude