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I Kings 17.17-24

Acts 20.7-12

The Defenestration Blues

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The early American church, which was for the most part Congregational, had a number of practices that probably would not fly today.  For example, at their Congregational meetings, which we hold in both November and May, the only people who were allowed to speak and vote were the church members who tithed, who gave ten percent of their income to the church.  Now, I don’t know who the tithers are at the United Church, but if I had to guess, if we had the same requirements our forbears did, we might well be in for some quiet and brief Congregational meetings.  And you could only become a church member in the first place if you could narrate, before the entire congregation, your personal conversion experience, the moment you decided to dedicate your life to Jesus Christ.  But to my mind, the most unusual facet of the early American church was the congregation’s willingness to listen attentively to sermons of unparalleled length.  The average time for the Sunday sermon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was about three hours in the morning service; and then, after a brief rest, the congregation would return for the Sunday evening service, whose sermon was, mercifully, a mere hour.  I wonder about the fate of the prolix preacher who would dare to preach even for an hour in the contemporary church.  Indeed, pity the pastor who permits the service alone to cross the hour mark.  In my church in Bridgewater, there was a clock in the balcony, much like our own, except it never worked; it was perpetually stuck at 10:55 -  I never knew if this meant I could preach as long as I wanted to, or if I should just skip straight to the benediction.   Today, most of us think we’ve done our ecclesiastical duty by giving God an hour of worship once a week, and I wouldn’t try to argue otherwise, given how many other ways you and I express our ministry through the rest of the week, but our congregational forbears thought that come Sunday, God deserves the entire day.  And if four or five hours of that day were consumed by the sermon, well, so much the better.

It is clear from the story Diane read for us this morning from the book of the Acts that the practice of preaching for hours on end did not originate with the Puritans.  We heard how the apostle Paul also preached a lengthy sermon one evening in Troas, and met with the same result after a few hours that some preachers experience after only a few minutes.  Paul and his fellow-travelers were going to leave the next day for Miletus, and the Christians at Troas wanted to hear the apostle preach one more time before he left.  So they all gathered in an upper room, a low-ceilinged room on the third floor.  Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, tells us that Paul was particularly inspired that evening.   “Since he intended to leave the next day, [Paul] continued speaking until midnight.”  And, since it was evening, lamps were lit to illumine the room, and the windows were open in order to let out the fumes and smoke.

It is here that we meet a young man named Eutychus.  His name is Greek for “fortunate,” or “lucky,” although his story that evening was anything but.  Eutychus chose to sit as close to the window as possible that night, which was his first mistake.  It may have been that the room was so crowded with people who wanted to hear Paul before he left town that the window sill was the only place left for Eutychus to sit.   Then again, it may also be that Eutychus intentionally chose the window seat so that, if the sermon was a dull one, he could look out the window and be entertained by whatever might have been going on outside.  Whatever the reason, his perch turned out to be a very unlucky place to be.  As Paul’s sermon went on – and on – and on – and on – from sunset until about midnight, the upper room began to get stuffy from the crowd and the fumes from the torches, whose smoke drifted lazily toward the open window, and Eutychus, who perhaps had already put in a full day’s work, became drowsy.  His eyelids began to droop, he probably shook himself awake a few times, but sleep finally overcame him, he dozed off, and tipped out the window and fell to the ground three floors below.

Immediately, a great commotion followed poor Eutychus’ fall.  The congregation, Paul and Luke among them, ran down the stairs, saw the young man lying on the ground, presumed him to be dead, and began wailing and moaning after the custom of the day.  But Paul, one of the last down the stairs, had the presence of mind to take a close look at the boy, and, with Luke the physician not far behind, discovered him still to be alive.  They gingerly picked him up, carried him back into the house, and ministered to his wounds.

The temptation is strong to believe Paul actually brought him back to life, but the story doesn’t really say that.  That kind of interpretation likely comes from a similar story from the Old Testament, the story of Elijah in the home of a widow whose son had recently died.  In her grief and anger, she lashed out at the prophet saying, “What have you done against me, O man of God!?”  And, hearing her sorrow and pain, Elijah revived the boy, and by doing so validated his credentials as one of God’s prophets.  But Paul was an apostle, not a prophet, and Eutychus survived his fall.

The temptation is also strong, at least on the part of the contemporary preacher, to lift this story up as a way of discouraging the drowsy congregation against falling asleep during his or her engaging, captivating and life-altering sermon, you know, the kind we hear weekly at the United Church.  I don’t know, though… this seems to have a kind of blame-the-victim vibe to it, don’t you think?  I mean, if you can’t stay awake during one of my sermons, is that on you – or is that on me?  It takes me back to college and grad school days.  I know a lot of my classmates liked to avoid eight o’clock classes because they preferred to sleep late.  But Princeton threw a wrench into that strategy by scheduling first year Greek, a requirement at least among the Presbyterians, at 8 am sharp.  But to my mind, the hour to be avoided was 2:00 in the afternoon, the after-lunch class.  I think I missed half of my early church history by yawning through the hour – for me, post-lunch time was much deadlier than eight in the morning.  But I really can’t blame my professors for that; if I confuse my Irenaeus with my Ignatius – and I did that once, with embarrassing results, a story I’ll have to tell you some time – if I confuse my Irenaeus with my Ignatius because I can’t stay alert after lunch, then it’s  my own ______ fault.

So no, Paul did not actually cause Eutychus to fall out the window – and I won’t throw you out either if you fall asleep.  Probably.  But the church’s history is not quite so kind.  Back in 2016 Debbie and I visited the city of Prague in the Czech Republic.  Debbie was attending a meeting of the European Conference on Information Literacy, and I tagged along for the ride; I decided that I would spend my week in Prague researching the life and ministry of Jan Hus, a fifteenth century reformer who predated Martin Luther by a full century.  Hus was Bohemian, or Czech, and he and his Hussite followers – we might call them the pre-Protestants – objected to the hold the Catholic church held over all parts of society.  In the year 1419, the local town council had taken several of Hus’s followers prisoner, so a Hussite priest led his congregation in a protest through the town square to the Novoměstskǻ radnice, the New Town Hall on Charles Square, pictured on the back of this morning’s bulletin.  Town officials not only refused to release their prisoners, they began stoning the crowd from the safety of the topmost window of town hall.  Incensed, the crowd stormed the building, and promptly threw the judge, the burgomaster and several members of the town council out that same topmost window, to their deaths.  The practice came to be called defenestration, from the French word for “window,” fenestre.  Oddly enough, this was not the only Czech defenestration.  It happened again in 1483 in several different Bohemian villages, and once again in Prague in 1618.  It got to be quite the checkered tradition throughout the republic.  So in this sense, at least among Protestants, going anywhere close to a window could become a dangerous thing.  Shades of poor Eutychus.

But even if you take a safe pew in the center of the sanctuary, I would still caution against falling asleep.  There is a joke among churches about the parishioner who slept all the way through the minister’s hell-fire and brimstone sermon, only to be awakened at the fiery conclusion, “…and I want anyone who doesn’t care if their soul is damned for all eternity to stand up right now and admit it!”  At which point the parishioner is jarred from his somnambulance, stands bolt upright, looks around, and says, “Reverend, I’m not sure what we’re voting on, but by the look of things, you and I are the only ones in favor!”  Which is to say, if you do happen to take a quick catnap during one of my sermons, I guess we both bear some responsibility for it.  So I’ll make a deal:  I’ll do my best to preach sermons that keep you awake, and you promise to sit as far from the window as you can, just in case.

            Let us pray.

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