BORED TO DEATH
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. (Acts 20:7-12, NRSV)
I have fallen asleep at some inopportune times. Back in the day when our church still had an 8 AM Sunday service in the chapel, I used to fall asleep in one of the big chairs when Rev. Chase Peeples preached his sermons. Chase often returned the favor when I was preaching. Also, if you ask me if I’ve seen the Broadway hit, “Wicked,” my answer is sort of. I went with a friend and I slept through most of the first act and he slept through most of the second act. Between the two of us we saw the whole show! Finally, I will confess before God and these witnesses that I once had a close call with tragedy fueled in part by my own stupidity. I had only been in seminary for a month when I pulled an all-nighter to finish a philosophy paper. After class I worked until 7 PM and then got in my car to make the six and a half hour drive from Louisville, Kentucky to Memphis, Tennessee. What was so important that I had to drive all the way to Memphis after an all-nighter? I was going to break up with my girlfriend of 6 years, yes 6 years! Why after 6 years you ask? My seminary was 500 hundred miles from her college and we were drifting apart. And truth be told, I wanted to ask someone else to my college homecoming that fall.
So there I am, driving sleep deprived down I-40 and I felt drowsy not long after crossing the Tennessee line. Around midnight, I stopped for coffee and then hit the road thoroughly caffeinated. Minutes later I opened my eyes seeing nothing but a dust cloud in my headlights. I hit the brakes with my heart racing 90 miles an hour. I sat there for a moment trying to figure out what had happened when I realized that I had fallen asleep at the wheel. When I got out of the car I saw that I had driven completely off the highway onto a nonexistent shoulder that was nothing but loose dirt and sand. My anger at myself turned to relief when I saw that 30 yards back I had crossed a bridge and 30 yards ahead faced a series of concrete pylons supporting an overpass. My eyes opened ever wider as I realized that I had a close call. Too close for comfort! Thankful to still be a breathing member of the human race, I got in my car and discovered that I wasn’t going anywhere. I was stuck as stuck could be in a mixture of loose sand and dirt. This was decades before cell phones and I was miles away from a pay phone. I put on my flashers and sat on the hood figuring someone might stop to help. Eventually a state trooper stopped and radioed for a wrecker. The tow truck easily pulled my car back on to the road. The driver gave my vehicle the once over and, to my surprise, found no damage. I happily gave him $100 and resumed my trip. My heart was beating so fast that I didn’t even blink the rest of the way home.
In today’s scripture lesson, we find the story of a young man who fell asleep during a sermon with dire consequences…let this be a lesson to you! For the record, I’ve never heard a sermon on this story and it is not even in the lectionary. As the story goes, the Apostle Paul was spending his last night in Troas, a region in the northwestern part of Anatolia, Turkey on the Aegean Sea.
Paul was speaking to a group of people in a room on the third floor. Like many preachers, Paul loved the sound of his own voice. He went on and on and on well past midnight. A young man named Eutychus had come to hear the famous Paul in the flesh. It was hot and stuffy in the room. The smoke from the oil lamps didn’t help. Hoping for cool air, Eutychus perched himself on a windowsill in the back of the room. Did I mention that Paul talked and talked and talked? Eventually Eutychus’ eyes began to droop a little and then a little more. Finally, he fell asleep and fell out of the window hitting the ground three stories down. Paul’s listeners ran down the stairs and out the door to find Eutychus crumpled in the dust. According to the text, “They picked him up and he was dead.”
Needless to say, Paul abandoned his sermon and ran outside with the rest to find the boy’s limp body. I like the way various Bibles translate the next verse with nuances of difference. All of the versions agree that upon seeing Eutychus, Paul hugged the young man’s lifeless body and said to the crowd, “Do not be troubled, because he is alive” (AMP). In one version Paul sounds impatient with the crowd saying, “No more crying. There’s life in him yet” (MSG). I especially like the NRSV translation where Paul says, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him” (NRSV). I love that wording, “His life is in him.” With these words New Testament scholars disagree on whether Eutychus was dead or just badly injured. Did Paul bring the young man back to life or did he heal Eutychus and bring him back to consciousness? Either way it’s a great story with a dire warning, falling asleep during a sermon can be bad for your health. By the way, the name Eutychus means “fortunate” or as I prefer, “lucky.”
Minister and seminary professor, Dr. Anna Carter Florence, has some great insights into today’s text. She finds a parallel message in the story of Eutychus and the story of the Prodigal Son. For instance, when Paul quickly embraces Eutychus and when the Prodigal’s father passionately embraces his son, the same Greek word is used. The literal translation is, “‘He threw himself on him;’ the text apparently implies a loss of dignity or station, since dignified people are not apt to hurl themselves at others.”
Also, both passages exemplify grace over judgment. Florence writes, “In neither passage is there any lingering over questions of fault. Luke has given us the details, and we know why things fall apart as they do: the father gave, the son squandered; Paul preached past midnight, Eutychus fell asleep in a third floor window sill. We could parcel out blame to all parties (indulgent fathers, wayward sons, windy preachers, bored teenagers) and make sure each got his share [of blame]; but blame is not the point. Being-found is the point: the grace of being-found. After being-dead, after being-lost, [each young man] is alive and found and the only response is…celebration and feasting, so that grace is shared by all.” Florence concludes, “Like the prodigal’s father, Paul understands that it is more important to find life rather than [find] fault in the youth, because with this recognition comes the restoration of being-found and being-home.”
At the end of the day, it’s a message to all of us, that whether we are a prodigal who has wandered far from home, a sleepy guy careening out of a window, or a foolish seminary student who overestimates his stamina and the power of caffeine, that what could have been the end wasn’t and we have a second, third, or fourth chance to try again and maybe this time get it right. After all, rather than being bored to death, with God’s help, we might just be bored to life. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
July 29, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York
Loving God, you call us to love and serve you with body, mind, and spirit through loving your creation and our sisters and brothers. Open our hearts in compassion and challenge us to meet the needs of your world. Fill us with grace and restore us, that we may walk in your way, seeking justice and doing good.
Through Christ our Brother and Friend. AMEN.
(This prayer was adapted from http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt. edu/ prayers.php?id=272.)