I was in 9th grade and it was my confirmation Sunday. Pastor Carol, who married Lauren and I by the way, was preaching. And suddenly, I could feel it coming on. You know the feeling. Your eyes start cross a little. Your eyelids, they get little heavier, and after every blink, it takes a little longer to lift them open. Finally, I just gave in, letting myself drift off into another place entirely. Until, of course, I get a sharp elbow in my ribs from my friend next to me, who says, “Wake up! She’s looking at you!” To which I lied, “What I was just listening with my eyes closed.”
When communion came around, I was kneeling at the railing and Pastor Carol came to me and she didn’t say, “The body of Christ given for you.” No, she said, “Did you have a nice nap, Jonathan?”
Tonight we have a story that is every preacher’s worse nightmare – to actually bore someone to death with your sermon. My preaching professor, David Lose, says that the greatest threat to preaching these days isn’t that they might be heretical, meaning saying something that is wrong or against the faith. It isn’t saying something that upsets people or makes them angry. The greatest threat to preaching these days is just plain boredom.
This story comes from the book of Acts – which is all about the Acts of the Apostles. It is written by the author of Luke’s gospel. It is the stories of Jesus’ disciples and other believers starting communities of believers that pray together, study scripture together, eat together, and care for one another. In fact, some have said that this is the first reference to a Christian Sabbath. Which means that this might be the first Christian church service in Scripture– a gathering of people and hear a sermon.
So people are gathered together in a house and Paul is the preacher. It is late; Paul is leaving in the morning so whatever he has to say, this is his chance. Meanwhile, this teenager by the name of Eutychus, which ironically means “lucky”, is sitting in the windowsill when suddenly he starts to get that feeling. Eyes get a little heavy. His head start to nod a little. Suddenly, everyone jumps in their seat when they hear a scream come from the window, as unlucky Eutychus falls to the ground, three stories below. Paul runs down and takes him in his arms and says “Do not be afraid. For there is life in him.” And then what does Paul do? He goes back up stairs, has a quick bite to eat, and starts preaching again.
Now, I could go on and on about what a bunch of nerdy theologians could say about this text and how it sort of mimics Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is probably what Paul as preaching about. But for better or worse, I actually want to use this text to talk about preaching and sermon.
And really all I want to do is ask you, “What do you look for in a sermon?” What do you want to hear? Because here is the thing, just about every preacher is terrified to stand up there every Sunday morning. Because the people are hungry for something. When I go to church, I am hungry for something, and I don’t even know what I am hungry for, but it is something. I think that is true for most church goers. We are all looking for something that will feed our souls, even if we don’t know it. And every preacher is terrified that all they will be able to serve up is broccoli. And nobody really likes broccoli.
So what do you look for in a sermon? What do you want to hear?
It seems like a good sermon is one that somehow connects us deeper to God and the Spirit of God.
But here is the thing about connection. I have been completely fascinated with a TEDtalk video this week and it talks about vulnerability. In the video, a researcher talks about her study of connection and how people feel connected. What she discovered is that in order for there to be connection, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen. And in order to be seen, we have to be vulnerable. And we don’t like to be vulnerable, because do you know what it means to be vulnerable? It means to be at risk for physical or emotional harm. It means to be at risk of death. Watch what people do with their body language when they are feeling vulnerable? They protect their stomachs. The place on our torso that isn’t protected by ribs, which means it is vulnerable. And so when we are feeling vulnerable, we want to protect that spot.
This researcher discovered that at the core of vulnerability is shame and fear and struggle for worthiness. But what she also learned is that it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love.
She discovered that in our culture we numb vulnerability – we numb feelings of grief, shame, disappointment, unworthiness. And there is proof of this, she thinks. We are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history. This is how we numb our vulnerability. The problem is when we numb vulnerability, trying to avoid feelings of shame, grief, and despair, we also numb joy, gratitude, happiness.
So maybe this story about a seemingly boring sermon is the perfect example of a good sermon. If a good sermon is one that connects us to God, and remember in order for us to be connected, we have to be vulnerable… maybe what a good sermon needs to do is knock us out the window. And what I mean by that is maybe it needs to help us to see ourselves for really who we are. It completely wakes us up. It causes us to be vulnerable. And thus puts us at risk of being hurt, or of feelings those feels of hurt – like grief and shame. But then it also opens us to feelings of joy and gratitude. Because a good sermon also runs downstairs and wraps us up in the arms of God and says, “But do not be afraid. For there is still life in you.” Because it is only when we hear God say, “I know you. I know who you are and I know you life,”…it is only then that we can also hear God say, “But do not fear – for there is still life in you.” Amen.