Faith Acts (IV): Grace for Sleepyheads
by Louise Westfall
It’s the Swiss Army knife of preaching. Multiple use. Very convenient and memorable. Every preacher I know–including me—has quoted it on more than one occasion. God’s Word should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. So true. But I have to admit focusing more on the second half than the first. Beware lest we 21st century, educated, affluent Americans drift into spiritual complacency! We need to “get woke” and “stay woke” and discern God’s call to address real problems, take action, and serve others with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.
…a perspective well justified in the Biblical book we’ve been exploring this summer: after all, it’s called the ACTS of the Apostles. The twenty-eight chapters describe in exhaustive detail a marathon of ministry, as the apostles take the good news over land and sea throughout the Mediterranean world, establish churches, train leadership, worship and pray and eat together before moving on and doing it all again.
Today’s text is an outlier. Here, nestled in an unfamiliar section, is an odd and surprising story of a time when the afflicted were comforted. Increasingly I believe it speaks a word as challenging and necessary as its counterpart. In fact, I’m going to say that the success of this sermon depends upon the number of people who fall asleep during it.
The apostle Paul and his associates have spent about a week in the southern Turkish seaport of Troas, teaching and encouraging the young church. This text describes his final day before setting sail for the next destination. A reading from the Acts of the Apostles in the twentieth chapter at the seventh verse. To prepare to hear this good news, I invite you to take a deep breath, relax, settle into those cushions, get comfortable, listen to the meditative choir anthem… you are getting sleepy… [CHOIR SINGS]
[READ Acts 20:7-12]
You tell me what this story is doing in the Bible! The narrator totally throws Paul under the bus by highlighting how long he spoke… on and on, past midnight… you can almost feel the heat and smoke from the many oil lamps … it’s easy to imagine how young Eutychus had taken refuge in the window sill for some fresh air to keep himself awake … and who among us cannot hear the. steady. drone. of. Paul’s. voice … and understand how he could have succumbed to blessed sleep??? Eutychus’ name is a combination of two Greek words meaning “Good luck,” but he wasn’t very lucky that night–his nodding off caused him to pitch out of the third-story window.
What a hub-bub his fall would have caused! — along with the immediate conclusion that he’d died. But Paul is almost nonchalant as he walks downstairs, picks him up and declares him alive. It doesn’t feel like a resurrection, or a miracle moment. Kinda got the wind knocked out of him; he’ll be fine after a good night’s rest in a prone position. It’s instructive to me that there is not a whiff of judgment towards Eutychus. No one scolded him for not paying attention, or not being spiritual enough to appreciate the richness of the theological conversation. There’s a matter-of-factness about the whole incident that avoids moralism. Paul simply heads back upstairs, celebrates Communion and continues to converse with them until dawn when he departs. We’re assured that Eutychus is well and that everyone was comforted.
This story is memorable I think, because it’s authentic. I’ve been Eutychus, struggling to stay alert in church services, lecture halls, and late night cocktail party conversations. And I’ve been Paul, earnest and well-meaning, but tone-deaf to a particular context, and a little carried away by the importance of my message … er, I mean, God’s message.
I’ve come to understand Sabbath not so much as prohibitive but as generative and life-giving. A reminder of our primary identity as beloved people of God.
And without overthinking it, I think the text was included just because it’s so human. It’s easy at times to miss the forest for the trees; to over-estimate the impact of our work and allow it to consume the greater part of our lives. Fact is, humans need rest and sleep. It’s so important that God made Sabbath observance a commandment—or, as the Bible Story curriculum puts it, one of the ten best ways to live. We do enjoy a better—and healthier– life with some kind of balance that includes rest.
So just in case you’re like me and sometimes in a bit of a deficit, please consider worship as an opportunity to enjoy Sabbath rest. Hence the pillows and the wonderfully meditative chant song. Breathe deeply. Comfort, comfort my people says your God. [SUMMER CHOIR SINGS IN GOD ALONE]
Marvin Teal was an elder in the first church I served in rural Iowa; I thought he was about a hundred years old, but in retrospect he might have been 65. Well. I noticed Marvin right away, because he sat on the aisle about half-way back and was very alert during the sermon, nodding thoughtfully, leaning forward, alternatively squinting into what might have been a frown and might have been a smile. But after a couple of months, suddenly it all changed. Oh he was present, but changed locations to a pew in the back of the sanctuary, off to the side. He never made it past the scripture reading before he was stacking Zs; resting on the cushioned seat, his head bowed and eyes closed. I was curious–no I was annoyed–and one night after a committee meeting (because Marvin was on every committee), I had to ask. Marvin! You used to be so attentive and now you might as well be stretched out on a pew with a pillow. What’s up with that??? And Marvin replied: well, when you first got here I wasn’t sure it was going to be all right, what with you being a lady and just out of seminary school and all. So I listened hard, and after I figured out you were okay, then I could relax and just be. You know I have to be up every morning by 4am to milk the cows. Church at 11 is the first moment I have to sit down.
Honestly, friends, if you get nothing more here than a place to sit down and rest, that’s enough. Oh, I don’t mean get busy with your phone, answer messages, do work, make your grocery list. That’s not Sabbath because it’s exactly what you and I do most of the time. But if this hour of worship helps you hit pause on your daily life and tune into your invisible, soulful side, then let it be. Even if you drift off to sleep.
God gives sleep to God’s beloved, the Psalmist wrote, and who’s to say that gift shouldn’t be enjoyed right here?
Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy–for a long time that commandment always felt prohibitive. Don’t do this; don’t go there … on Sundays. It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when stores were closed; shopping was out of the question; school activities were forbidden. No more, and frankly, never again. But I’ve come to understand Sabbath not so much as prohibitive but as generative and life-giving. A reminder of our primary identity as beloved people of God. Best-selling author Wayne Muller draws upon Jewish and Christian tradition to show its profound blessing. Sabbath-keeping reminds us that we are already and always on sacred ground. The time to love and give thanks and rest and delight is now, this moment … feel what heaven is like … rest in the arms of the Divine. We do not have miles to go before we sleep. We are already home. [from Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest by Wayne Muller, p. 79]
Eutychus has something important to teach us in ways he probably didn’t even realize. He fell, asleep. “Good luck” didn’t bring him life. But something else did. Call it grace: God’s gift of love in which we can safely rest … on Sunday and every day.