SCENE 3: Ground Level.
Paul and the Prodigal: A Model For Resurrecting Preaching and Youth
When I bring Acts 20:7-12 into play with young people, I find that it is actually Paul, the preacher, who shows us a way forward, in three moves. What can we learn from the preacher who bored Eutychus to death?
1. The first thing Paul does is he stops preaching; he finally stops! I do not want to get overly dramatic here, and conclude that nothing short of a disaster can interrupt Paul when he gets going, but I do notice that the first thing Paul does is to stop preaching. The sermon is interrupted, at least momentarily, in order to attend to more important things; and when a teenager falls out the church window to his death (or, as is more likely in many of our contexts, quits coming to church), I think this is appropriate. The sermon has to stop. Everything has to stop. We have to take a good, hard look at what’s going on. There are questions to ask, locations to notice, conversations to begin. We have to get very concrete and particular about our context, about where we are, before we can even think about preaching, let alone the resumption of this particular sermon.
The quiet will give us space to ask: where are the adults during the sermon, and where are the youth? Are the youth listening from the margins, and if so, why? How safe is that marginal space? (Third floor window ledges do not qualify as safe space.) Do the youth feel that the sermon is addressed to them, or is it in another language they cannot understand? Are they alert or are they getting sleepy? Are any of them in danger of falling out the window, leaving the church, and if so, can we prevent that from happening by changing their location within our community?
(Had Eutychus been down front as a worship or music leader, for example, he would have been part of the service rather than marginal to it; even if he had fallen asleep–far less likely when one is leading–he would not have been in danger of falling from a window ledge.) Is there any conversation going on about preaching and youth in our church, or does our silence communicate to our young people that they are peripheral to the church’s ministry of proclamation? Can we talk with them about how we experience a sermon, open the door for honest conversation and feedback, think about ways to spiritually mentor them into the art of listening and responding to a sermon? Now is the time to stop, be still, and notice what is going on and where.
2. The second thing the text tells us is that Paul went down to Eutychus, and bending over him took him in his arms. In Greek, the word epipesen means, “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.i Epipesen is a rare word in the New Testament, but one of the few places it does appear–the only place, in fact, in this exact grammatical form and nuance of meaning–is in the parable of the prodigal son, at the moment of the reunion between the father and his younger son: “So he [the younger son] set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).ii And as we know so well, when the son begins to apologize, the father interrupts him: “Quickly, bring out a robe–the best one–and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:22b-24).
This son of mine was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found! Luke’s word choice in Acts 20 evokes the memory of this story in Luke 15: Paul throws himself on Eutychus, just as the father throws himself on the prodigal son. 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), make sure each got his share; but blame is not the point.
Being-found is the point: the grace of being-found. After being-dead, after being-lost, the son is alive and found; the only response is extravagant celebration. When I bring Acts 20 into play with youth, I wonder if Luke is deliberately pointing us to the story of the prodigal son who was dead and is alive again, who was lost and is found. I wonder if Luke thinks that a teenager dozing on the windowsill during the sermon is a sign that something is not right: this son of mine is in danger of being-dead, of being-lost; he must be woken up, pursued, embraced until he comes to himself and knows the grace of being-alive, being-found, being-home.
3. As if to underscore this, the first thing Paul says, after forgetting his dignity and throwing himself on the taken-for-dead boy, is: “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” They are curious words to accompany a resurrection miracle. We might expect Paul to cry, Do not fear, only believe!, or Eutychus, I say to you, arise!, both of which would be clear indications that one is about to raise the dead.iii Yet Paul resists any claims to agency, deflecting attention away from himself to the boy (Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him) and leaving open the question of whether this really is a resurrection story. Perhaps his reticence is due to modesty, or to lack of experience: Paul has not as yet performed this particular miracle. I am inclined to think, however, that Luke’s ambiguous recounting is deliberate, and meant to draw our attention away from resurrection to restoration: the grace of being-found. This, I think, is a prodigal preaching story.
A prodigal preaching story. Can it be accidental that the prodigal’s father and Paul the preacher share a singular, climactic verb?–that each abandons dignity by sprinting to a taken-for-dead boy and throwing his arms around him?–that each wastes no time in casting blame or exercising rights, opting instead for grace and restoration?–that each accentuates not his own power to forgive or raise, but the life that is in the once-lost, taken-for-dead boy?–that each proclaims the surprising and even shocking restoration of being-found to the community as well as to the youth, following it with celebration and table-feasting, so that grace is shared by all?
Luke is too canny a writer to leave things to accident. Take his verb choice in these two stories seriously, and a rich textual interplay begins: like the prodigal’s father, Paul understands that it is more important to find life rather than fault in the youth, because with this recognition comes the restoration of being-found and being-home.
What life does Paul see in Eutychus? It is life that others, perhaps, cannot see in stressful circumstances; they are caught up in the details of the fall, the height, perhaps the horrible sight of the boy’s body. Paul looks deeper, listens deeper. He sees more than blood, speed, the stupidity of teenagers who lounge in windowsills and think themselves immune to casualty: he sees the life that is already in the boy. He sees, but it takes time and concentration and embarrassing postures to do it. And he knows with awful certainty how easily that life could have slipped away, while he lost himself in the sermon and preached still longer. Now, having seen, he doesn’t worry about resurrecting the interrupted sermon; the prodigal preaching moment is over. The next proclamation is one of surprising life that survives within the community, even at the margins. And this proclamation enables restoration rather than resuscitation.
I wonder what we preachers might take from this story. Surely many of us fear that if we are to march boldly into the future of preaching, our sermons must be able to raise the dead among us–or at least the deadly bored and fiercely young. We have placed on the sermon a tremendous weight it can never carry if we have not tended to other things first. Paul’s prodigal preaching story is very much our own.
Perhaps it is time to follow Paul’s example: stop, look, listen. Notice, ask, open for conversation. If it appears that the young are at risk in their marginalization, perhaps on our own window ledges, preachers cannot wait for youth to come to them; they must go to the youth, with all speed and with absolutely no pretensions or preacher-voice. But here is the heart of the matter: go not to raise the dead through a sermon–prodigal preaching that would be, to be sure–but to embrace and announce the life that is already in these young people.
This is the one thing the preacher can do that no one else can do: the preacher can bear the announcement of life to the community, describe that life within the context of the gospel story, and encourage the being-found community to celebrate around the Lord’s Table. Preaching is about noticing the details of life and grace, even when those details get obscured by nose-rings and earphones and rap and rock. And when blurry-eyed listeners recognize their life proclaimed in the context of the gospel, they don’t need any props to stay awake.
Youth are the future of preaching. They hold the future of our preaching in their bodies, but we may never know exactly how the gospel will take root and grow. Recently I learned that Jacob Lawrence, one of the greatest artists of our century, attended Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem as a teenager, when he was first beginning to paint seriously; sitting in the pews of that congregation, week after week, he heard the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.iv A large portion of Lawrence’s work is comprised of narratives he painted of African American history, and of heroines and heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Toussaint L’Ouverture; the paintings are rich in biblical themes and imagery. But they must also be rich in a Word first inscribed on Lawrence’s body by the great preacher Powell. Jacob Lawrence is the future of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.’s preaching, just as Powell is the future of his father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.’s, preaching…v
And so it goes, even with our most prodigal preaching.
Used with permission: Florence, Anna Carter, “A Prodigal Preaching Story: Paul, Eutychus, and Bored-to-Death Youth.” Theology Today 64.2 (2007): 233-243.
iWalter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd ed., revised and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 297.
iiA Concordance to the Greek New Testament, ed. W. F. Moulton and A. S. Geden (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1967), 369.
iiiSee Mark 5:35-43.
ivOver the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence, edited with an Introduction by Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois (Seattle: University of Washington Press, in association with Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle and New York, 2000), p. 25.
vSamuel Proctor, “Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,” in The Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, William H. Willimon and Richard Lischer, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), pp. 375-6.