Some of our pastors will be saying good bye to their present congregations as they move to new congregations in the next few weeks. Later this year Westminster John Knox Press will publish a collection of my sermons over the past forty years. Here is my last sermon in Duke Chapel, a sermon about a student delivered with gratitude before a new group of Duke students on Orientation Sunday, students on their way in as I was on my way out.
Lucky to Be Here
Orientation Sunday, Duke Divinity School
August 29, 2004
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. Acts 20:7-12
I asked the class to write an essay, "My Life." Just to introduce themselves. One essay, I shall never forget, began, "Last year I awoke from an eighteen year coma that was my life."
He went on to tell of the influence of an incredibly wonderful art teacher who had, in his words, "awakened me from the mediocrity to which I had become accustomed."
When I read that line, I knew that he had come to the right place. That's what we do well at this university, when we're doing our job. We snap people awake out of their coma. We call it "enlightenment," or "the acquisition of knowledge," but we could as well call it "awakening."
I teach for the privilege of seeing the eyes light up, the lids spring open, the neck crane forward.
I fear the somnambulant, etherized, anesthetized morbidity of a class at three in the afternoon. My brilliant lecture killed by zombie-like night-of-the-living-dead drooping eyelids.
I have found that if I continue to talk in a low monotone, quietly, serenely and then, carefully, ever so carefully, slam a large book down on the desk while screaming, "WAKE UP!" It will do the trick.
Last year we were told that a study of students showed that sleep deprivation was the major health problem on campus. We needed to study to know that? Just visit my afternoon class about three thirty, you could have learned that for free!
Church is a favorite quiescent location for sleeping. I can see some of you bedding down out there! A few years ago, we broadcast our services on the local cable channel. I was excited about this extension of our ministry. I rushed home, flipped on the television to see how we looked on TV. There I was horrified to see one of our sopranos bedded down, head thrown back, soprano mouth gaping open throughout my sermon!
I complained to Dr. Wynkoop. He excused her sleeping with, "Look, she's a student. Sometimes it's hard for me to stay awake too." I said, "She was dead to the world, brought a pillow in with her, a stuffed teddy bear and duvet! It was an outrage!"
She is no longer in our choir.
Last Sunday of last term, April, we had two services, the early service for the alumni who were with us that weekend. I concocted a different sort of sermon on Christian music and its effects. I was helped by the choir. I spoke, then the choir sang a favorite anthem, then I spoke again - the sermon was my commentary with the choir's anthems interspersed throughout.
A couple of days before this sermon I asked Craig if he would like to take some of the speaking parts of the sermon. He was eager to do so.
Well, after the first service and our first time with this dialogical sermon, Robert Parkins, University Organist, who spends the service up there, encased within the Flentrop Organ where he can hear but can't see what we are doing, came up to me and said, "I didn't know that Craig was helping you out with the sermon so, after you spoke, and the choir sang, when I heard Craig speak I assumed that you had collapsed and died and that Craig had to take over the sermon."
"You idiot," I replied, "You mean that you thought I had died and that Craig just stepped over my body and continued the sermon?"
Church has become, for many, a place of slumber, a place of death. Sad. It ought to be place of resurrection, awakening.
Back in the summer when we thought we would do a "young heroes of the Bible" sermon series, it seemed like a good idea to me. Trouble is, there aren't that many young people in the Bible, heroes or otherwise. So I have to go with who we've got, so today we look at a young man named Eutychus. Maybe he's no hero, but he was young. He reminds me of some of you.
Paul arrives with Luke in Troas. On the "first day of the week," that is, Sunday, they join other Christians for worship. "First day of the week," is surely meant as an echo, of that phrase as it appears in Luke's first book, the Gospel of Luke. First day of the week was when Jesus rose from the dead. So there's a good chance that we'll hear something about Easter. The congregation meets to "break bread" and to "hold a discussion" (v. 7). This is the very first, the very oldest description of a Christian Sunday in all the New Testament. Why do Christians meet on Sunday, the "first day of the week," rather than on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday? It's because it's the day when Jesus was raised from the dead. Every Sunday is supposed to be Easter all over again.
Paul was preaching, and he's on a roll. Paul's come a long way to be at First Church Troas and so he gives them everything he's got, the whole ball of wax. The sermon begins about eleven-twenty a.m. and continues "until midnight" (v. 7). (And you have the nerve to criticize the length of my sermons!)
Well, Paul as going on at some length about the Doctrine of the Trinity, or explicating the mystical connections in the Book of Numbers or whatever, "a young man named Eutychus" is mentioned. This is where you come in. If you are a Sophomore. His name "Eutychus" means in the Greek, "Lucky." Young Lucky is precariously seated on a sill at an open window where, as Paul drones on about the awfully interesting last chapters of Leviticus, Lucky falls asleep just before midnight, topples out the open window, falling to his death three stories below where Luke says that a couple of ushers "picked Lucky up dead" (v. 9). (I guess his Mama goofed when she called him "Lucky.")
Well, Paul stops just long enough to go downstairs, resuscitate Lucky and announce to the others, "Do not be alarmed, his life is in him. Now, as I was saying...." (v. 10).
That's it? Paul's not going to let a little thing like the violent death of the President of the Methodist Youth Fellowship and his subsequent resuscitation from the dead stop him. Paul's on a role, it's only one o'clock in the morning, and so he continues with the sermon.
As one commentator says, Paul's resurrection of this dead boy "appears as a mere hiccup" during the middle of his lecture!
Lucky is brushed off, his breathing resumes, and church continues. Next day Paul is off to Melitus and Lucky is back at school with a bad headache but raised from the dead and no worse for wear.
In a mere two verses we are told that Paul has paused just long enough in his sermon to raise a young man from the dead and then church goes on as if nothing happened and young Eutychus, Lucky, was named patron saint of all those of you who have trouble staying alive during church.
Maybe Luke is saying, in this curious story about young Lucky, that this is the way church is supposed to be, not just then, but now. Somebody seated in the third pew from the back left, once was dead, now alive? Somebody near the left transept door awakened from a coma, big deal! Now, can I continue with my sermon? It's another day at the office for the church, just your average, predictable, raising of the dead.
"How was church last night?"
"Fine. Preacher had some good points to make about Leviticus, but he went on too long. Lucky died during the service, but Paul raised him from the dead and we continued."
The resurrection of Jesus means not only that Jesus is loose, on the move among us but it also means that we can get loose. Something about this God that just loves to wake people up, shake people up, raise people up. Something about this God's preachers like Paul just loves to raise the dead without missing a beat in the sermon.
"Do you really think he can get over his addiction to heroine?" she asked, "I'm told that most people don't. I'm told it's terminal."
"I think it's possible," said I. "But what do I know? I'm just a preacher who's accustomed to seeing people raised from the dead all the time on Sunday."
Some of you are quite new here in this church. This church probably impresses you as old, heavy, ponderous, and stable. It's meant to. But don't be deceived by first appearances. I could line up before you a whole gang of people named Lucky who, on some Sunday, some first day of the week, stumbled into this place, sleepy-eyed and somnambulant only to be jolted, rocked, shocked awake. We were just reading scripture, just singing a hymn, just finishing a sermon, and they fell out of line, sat straight up in bed, eyes opened -- like they were raised from the dead.
And I love to tell stories about the dead raised. I preached not long ago at a clergy conference, and after four of my sermons, a fellow clergyman asked, "What would you do without all those great stories of students who scorned their parents and thumbed their noses at the establishment?" God only knows what I'll do, in my new life as a bishop, for sermon material when I don't have clueless Sophomores raised from the dead.
I've seen young people here, fall out the window, land on their heads, die, get born again, be raised from the dead, get a life they wouldn't have had had they not come in here on the first day of the week. One of great joys of preaching here is to get a front row seat on resurrection.
I was lucky to be here.
[Taken with permission from "A Message from Bishop Will Willimon," May 3, 2010, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.]