Presented: January 27, 2017
Location: Washington National Cathedral
Event: The 123rd Convention of the Diocese of Washington
Watch: Sermon Video
A charge to keep I have; A God to glorify, A never-dying soul to save, And fit it for the sky. To serve the present age, My calling to fulfill: Oh, may it all my pow’rs engage; To do my Master’swill! Let the church say “Amen.” (acknowledgements. President Bishop Michael Curry. To my sister, bishop Mariann Budde, the bishop of the Washington diocese. And to all of you my sisters and brothers in Christ. Members of Mt. Ennon.)
I’ve been reflecting on my assignment today. I am often asked by church leaders to account for how we have grown from 2 to 10,000 members in 14 years. Oftentimes what is behind their query is an interest in some program or strategy that may account for our growth. And we have those, and I hope to share them with leaders to are able to attend a sit down session with me at our church in the coming months. But when I think about where we are as a church, our growth is a function of a mindset in the people long before I arrived. Mt. Ennon was a successful church you might say before I even got there. The 300 seat sanctuary was filled three times every Sunday, and to accommodate the growing membership the Lord led the people and my predecessor to build a new church. A sanctuary that now seats 2500 people. And the reason we fill it now three times every Sunday is because of a mindset in the people when they were considering the call of a new pastor. One key leader told me that while the church was successful in the old church that was a recognition that the way they did ministry would not work in the new one; that the culture of worship, the approach to ministry, the model of governance as effective and successful as it was in the past, would not be viable in the future; in their new context. And if I could offer anything, it would be that that perceptiveness in the people to embrace change, to welcome innovation, and to understand the change doesn’t have to be a critique of the past, but is an open door to the future. My title today is “Reaching Eutychus: A 21st Century Imperative”
Text – Acts 20: 7-12 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 toconverse with them until dawn; then he left. 12 Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and werenot a little comforted.
Intro. – As we gather here today, I’m reminded of Dr. King’s last Sunday sermon delivered right here at the National Cathedral almost 50 years ago on March 31st. And in that sermon, Dr. King told the story written by Washington Irving, entitled “Rip Van Winkle.”…you know that story don’t you; of how Rip Van Winkle went up into a mountain and slept there for 20 years. The often overlooked point of the story is that when Rip Van Winkle went to sleep, King George III of England ruled the American colonies. (There was sign on the mountain with the King’s picture on it when Rip went to sleep.) But when Rip woke up 20 years later the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip Van Winkle woke up and saw that picture, he was confused and bewildered, he did not know who George Washington was. During the time Rip was asleep, the
American revolution had been fought and won, and the colonies were no longer under British control.And so, the tragedy of this story is not just that Rip Van Winkle slept for so long, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was silently sleeping in the solitude of that mountain, change was taking place and a revolution was being waged, and Rip knew nothing about it because he was asleep.The story, said Dr. King, tells us that one of the great tragedies of life is that all too many people find themselves living amidst a period of great social change, and yet they miss it because they were asleep. In a real sense friends, I want to suggest that’s where we find ourselves today; amidst a period of great spiritual and social change, and yet unfortunately the church is asleep. What a poignant and powerful metaphor for us to reflect upon today, as The Church universal, and local churches in particular, wrestle with relevance and grapple with significance in the midst of shifting and changing times, we must ask ourselves whether we have been sleeping through a revolution. Every other sector of society seems to be able, and willing to adapt to the realities of change, and seems prepared to make the hard decisions that come with it, but the church seems to be the only institution fixated on building altars around the past, and erecting monuments around what God did that it misses what God is doing. That’s what comes to mind to me when I reflect upon what is happening in this 20th chapter of Acts. (Consider it with me if you will.) On the eve of Paul’s return to Jerusalem, Paul convened a mixed group of believers and potential converts to share and discuss his teachings. And in the service was a young man by the name of Eutychus who became overwhelmed by the length of Paul’s discourse. Eutychus, according to the “A” clause of verse 9, “… was sitting in the window, (when)began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul preached still longer.” Apparently, the length of Paul’s sermon, which lasted well past midnight (cf. Acts 20: 7), was too much for Eutychus to handle. I can only imagine that with each hour, his eyelids grew heavier, his head struggled to keep from drooping,and he must have constantly changed his seating position to try and stay awake. But Paul’s unending sermon was too much for Eutychus to handle. Overcome by sleep and fatigue, he “fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.” (Acts 20: 9b; NRSV) Isn’t that interesting and sad at the same time? Someone came to the worship service looking for encouragement and inspiration, but ended up being killed by the preacher and the ministry of the church. Paul does venture to rescue theboy and to seemingly bring him back to life, but the tragedy is that the great apostle seems completely oblivious to what has just happened and why it happened. Eutychus has fallen asleep physically, but Paul seems to have fallen asleep mentally. After helping the boy, Paul goes back upstairs and, you know what he does? Rather than changing his approach, rather than modifying his methods and his techniques, Paul goes back upstairs and preaches according to verse 11 for another 6 hours. The church people at the service seem to be comforted by the fact that Eutychus has returned to life (Acts 20: 12), and Paul seems to be reinvigorated that his reputation has been salvaged by the miracle, and sails off to continue his missionary travels, and to conduct business as usual. This story, while inspiring to some, is a sad reminder of the way in which many churches engage in ministry. They ignore the way in which their methods and approach to ministry impact those whom God has called the Church to reach. And consequently, many of our churches are struggling and others dying because of the inability of some and the unwillingness of others to reach “Eutychus.” “Eutychus” for preaching purposes stands for those who have been disaffected from the church. “Eutychus” stands for those who used to be members of our churches, but now find themselves attending other independent denominations, or not affiliating anywhere all. “Eutychus” is a symbol for those who want what the church offers and need what the church stands for, but because those of us in the church are so focused on ourselves, our preferences, and what worked for us, we are failing to reach Eutychus today.
Our success at Mt. Ennon is because we have tried to avoid the common tendency among church leaders to dismiss what’s happening in the church world today. We have avoided the false assumption that the only way to grow is to embrace a prosperity gospel and give up on social justice.I hear this perspective advanced all the time among my progressive Christian friends. They justify their lack of effectiveness by telling themselves that the only way to grow in ministry is to focus on the self-help preaching and conservative politics that they see in televangelists. They sit around and comfort themselves by rehearsing the false dichotomy between personal piety and the public witness of the Gospel. Then they turn to criticize people in this contemporary generation. This generation,they say, is intellectually. they say this generation is not interested in justice, they say this generation is only interested in that which is shallow, and superficial, and that is why they follow those people on television. Well, that is not my testimony, and it is not the testimony of my church. Our church has grown because we have taken seriously the phenomenology of religion to speak to hearts and spiritual aspirations of men and women, and at the same time have taken seriously the mandate of the gospel to preach good news to the poor, to liberate the oppressed, and to set at liberty them that are bruised. If the church is to reach Eutychus today, we can no longer accept dichotomies that pit social justice against personal piety; emotion against reason; high liturgy against spontaneous spiritual dynamism. Even if it worked in the past it will no longer work today. (illustration) I’m reminded of the great spiritual revival that Judah experienced 700 years before the birth of Christ under King Hezekiah. The bible says in 2 Kings 18: 4 that the community thrived and grew because Hezekiah”broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it…” Now that’s interesting. Tearing down the high places, the pillars, and the sacred poles makes sense because those things were contrary to worship of Yahweh, but why would God lead Hezekiah to destroy that bronze snake. That snake was not one of those idolatrous snakes that the Israelites brought with them out of Egypt. It was a good snake. As a matter of fact, Numbers chapter 21 tells us, it was a Godly snake. It was in the life of the congregation because God told them to make it. “The Lord said to Moses,” in Number 21, “‘Make a snake, and put it on a pole, and anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.'” This was a good snake and it was there in the life of the people because God had instructed them to make it. It was a good snake. God used that bronze snake to deliver the Israelites from the scourge of snakes that were plaguing them. It was a sign of divine deliverance. It was a symbol of a great miracle, and it was there in the life of the people because God had moved in their lives and the Lord told them to put it up there on that pole. But over time that snake was wrapped in bronze and was passed down from generation to generation, and by the time Solomon built the temple 500 years later, someone found that snake and placed it in the temple. And eventually as people were going to the temple, they began lighting incense to that snake, and rather than being a reminder of past victories, gradually it became an object of worship. The people built an altar around the snake and started venerating and worshiping this relic of the past. It used to bea good snake, but then they started worshiping that snake. It was a good snake, but it had turned bad. And revival came in Judah because Hezekiah had the courage enough to destroy the snake. And when he did that there were people who were very upset about it. They started a “Save Our Snake”committee. They passed a petition around the temple. But Hezekiah knew that the snake had to be destroyed. I have found at Mt. Ennon that our ability to stay on the pulse of spiritual relevance and maintain our commitment to social justice is because we don’t worship what God did to the point that is causes is to miss what God is doing. We acknowledge, but we don’t built altars around prior seasons of success that we miss current opportunities to change. Churches, like every institution in society, fail when they become experts of nostalgia, venerators of the past, and curators of what worked that we miss what is working. And I see this all the time. Churches erect altars around styles of worship, types of music, approaches to ministry, etc…. approaches that worked for them, and they assume that it will work and that it should work forever everyone throughout the ages. And when that happens we begin to elevate our preferences over God’s purposes. We begin to want other people to conform to our experience with God, and our preferred style of worship, and in the course we miss the source of the worship which is God. We become religious chauvinists and spiritual Pharisees thinking that other people ought to experience God in the way and in the manner that we experienced God. And when that happens we begin worshiping the deliverance instead of the deliverer. The healing instead of the healer. The miracle instead of the miracle worker. Redemption instead of the redeemer. The salvation instead of the savior. As legitimate as our encounter with God is God is greater than our experience. Scripture is correct, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him.” God is indeed able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we could ever ask think or imagine.
The church has been charged with the task of spreading the gospel in the midst of shifting and changing times. According to a 2008 LifeWay Research survey published in USA Today, seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30, both evangelical and mainline, who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, and 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. Globalization, pluralism, technological innovations provide challenging yet wonderful opportunities for us to reimagine worship, re-envision ministry, and reconsider our reason for being at a time when the world needs our mission, our mandate, and our message more than it has ever needed it before. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Hulu, Netflix are not pretexts for us to fold up shop and go home, but provide wonderful occasions for us innovate structures, and reinvigorate policies so that we can reach the masses. But to do that, we can’t remain stuck; stuck in old paradigms,old methodologies, and old approaches; stuck debating questions no one is asking anymore. To reach Eutychus we must do now what God did then in order to reach those who were isolated from the Jesus movement and disaffected from the church. You do know this is not the first time the church has confronted the threat of irrelevance? When Jesus died and ascended into heaven the band of Jesus followers were all Palestinian Jews who all spoke one language, Aramaic. In order to be a part of the Jesus movement you had to speak the way they spoke, and you had to do it the way they did it.According the Acts 1: 8, this was an unacceptable situation in the eyesight of the Lord. The Lord wanted His Church to have meaning and relevance beyond the geographical and cultural confines of the city of Jerusalem. The ministry and message of Jesus was to connect with those in Judea, Samaria,and the uttermost part of the earth. According to the theology, literary context, and rhetoric of the passage, this could not happen so long as the followers of Jesus only spoke one language. They had to have the ability to speak intelligibly to those who were not a part of the community of faith. So what did God do? Fifty days after the ascension of Jesus, on the day of the Jewish Feast of Pentecost,God empowered this beleaguered group of believers in the upper room with the Holy Spirit, and according to the text they spoke in languages that those outside the faith community could understand(cf. Acts 2: 1-11). God’s method for addressing the growing chasm between the Church and the unchurched was to empower the believers to speak a language (cf. Acts 2: 4) that the world could understand. That’s what Pentecost was all about. It was not about speaking in an unintelligible ecstatic utterance, as many today assume. It was God empowering the church to speak in a language that those outside the church could understand. Likewise today, if the Church is to reach Eutychus,and remain relevant, if it is to revive, restore, and renew fellowship with the dechurched, it must use a ministry language, and use methods of ministry that those outside the church can understand.”Churches cannot stand apart from society and invite people to come to them on their terms,” says Eddie Gibbs in his book Church Next. “Rather, churches must go to people where they are and communicate in terms that will make sense to them, addressing the issues that shape their lives and speaking in their language.” To do that we must remain open-minded about the prospect of using new techniques, new technologies, and new tools to reach those of all ages, and all backgrounds who need to know the love, and the joy, and the peace, and the power that comes through Jesus Christ.
That is our calling, that is our charge. Regardless of how good, how great, and how meaningful our past encounter with God was, I believe, and we must believe that God wants to give us another experience of God’s goodness, God’s glory, and God’s grace. I’m so glad that the God we serve is a God of progress. If God had stopped moving, the world never would have been created in the book of Genesis. If God had stopped moving, Noah’s Ark would never have been built. If God had stopped moving, the Red Sea wouldn’t have been parted, the promised land wouldn’t have been possessed,and the fiery furnace wouldn’t have been cooled. If God had stopped moving, the lion’s den wouldn’t have been opened, Jonah would still be in the belly of that fish, and David would never have defeated Goliath. If God had stopped moving, Jesus wouldn’t have been born, death wouldn’t have been defeated, and we wouldn’t have been saved from our sins. But I thank God church that he’s still moving. God is still feeding multitudes, God is still opening blinded eyes, He’s still making the lame walk, he’s still conquering death, he still healing sickness, he’s still making provision, he’s still opening doors, he’s still moving mountains, he’s still parting seas, cooling furnaces, defeating giants,tearing down walls. He’s still healing hurts, saving sinners, changing hearts. The Episcopal Church is a great church. Amen, but let us not stay too long on yesterday’s victories that we miss tomorrow’s opportunities. God has more for you. God has more for us together. The bible says “morning by morning new mercies I see.” I don’t know about any of you today, but I want a fresh anointing, anew elevation, another promotion, another yes. Let us not take what should be a spirit inspired movement, and turn it into a museum. The world needs us today. In a world of racism, and sexism,and classism, and cynicism, the world needs to know that there’s a bright side somewhere.
View the sermon on video here.