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The Show Must
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
July 30, 2017
Before we even read scripture this morning I want to start by thanking you all for coming to church today. We are in the dog days of summer and it is too hot to leave your house and yet you all came here this morning to be in worship together and I appreciate you for it, here on an otherwise unremarkable fifth Sunday of the month, the eighth Sunday after Pentecost, John and Krystal gone for the weekend and so many of you all in-between vacations to fabulous places with better afternoon temperatures and still you all got up this morning and decided to come to church and I appreciate you. Some of you come for the choir. Some of you come for the air conditioning. Some of you probably just probably had to come. You signed up for something, or your spouse kind of dragged you along, or maybe you left your sunglasses here last week and came back to find them. I get that. Still, I’m glad you’re here. And you never know. Maybe something totally unexpected will happen during church today. Maybe something totally out of the blue. On that note, maybe we should read our scripture for the morning, the next in our series of stories that happen during church, from Acts 20, verses 7-12.
“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. There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. 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. 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.” Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted. “
The Book of Acts is a dramatic thing. It’s got big moments of theological epiphany, it’s got long dramatic speeches, it’s got heroes and villains and sometimes the heroes do awful things and sometimes the villains see the light. It’s got action set-pieces and prison breaks and ship-wrecks and if HBO were going to option the rights to a book of the Bible for their next serialized drama there’s a strong case to be made that it should be the Book of Acts. But in the HBO version of the Book of Acts, this morning’s reading would not be a multi-million-dollar set piece. This is just comic relief. After all, what we have this morning is the story of a church service where a guy falls asleep and falls out the window. Let’s just sit with that for a moment. It’s late. We’re on the third floor. Paul is leaving the next day so he’s just letting it all out. There are lanterns all around the room, so in some ways we’re glad the kid falls out a window instead of knocking the oil around and setting the whole house on fire. But still. As a preacher. As someone who does not take your attention for granted. This is humbling, and a little hilarious. He falls asleep and he falls out the window. I think it’s okay for this one to be a little funny.
After all, he’s fine. Don’t worry about him. There’s a bit of a frenzy when he first hits the sidewalk, the folks in the pews think he’s dead, but Paul shrugs it off — “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him,” and sure enough, he’s fine. No, what makes this story land — pun somewhat intended — are the reactions of the congregation. Some of them take the boy away to recover, hopefully to sleep it off, and in one of my favorite moments of Biblical dry wit the author reports that “they were not a little comforted.” I mean, hopefully they were a lot comforted. I mean, a guy fell out a window because the sermon went on too long and if I’m an elder in that church I’m neck-deep in our liability coverage before we finish the Offertory. But even that is an understandable reaction. No, the better half of this is that the rest of the congregation goes back upstairs and goes back to worship. It’s midnight, the parishioners are literally dropping like flies, but we are still going, we have a little snack — Paul breaks bread and eats — and then it says he continued to converse with them until dawn. It’s astounding. A kid almost dies and they keep going. Basically either Paul is the greatest preacher of all time — I mean, he’s got them so in the palm of his hand that they just can’t wait to rush back upstairs and never mind the chalk outline on the sidewalk — or, Paul is the worst preacher of all time, more in love with his sermon than he is with the people listening to it.
And of course I freely admit that I take this story personally. The first church that I worked at during seminary was the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, one of the high-rent cobblestone neighborhoods of suburban Philadelphia. The sanctuary itself was a beautiful old structure, probably seating about as many as this one, but whereas the UPC sanctuary goes wide, the Chestnut Hill sanctuary goes deep; it was this long, skinny sanctuary where you could stand in the pulpit and need a pair of binoculars to see the back row. And it’s important to me that you all picture that, because it was the location of my first Sunday sermon and from the pulpit without binoculars I could not possibly have been expected to see what was happening in the back pew. All I could tell, as I got about halfway through my time, all I could tell was that the ushers were up to something in the narthex. Something was getting unsettled. And it was not until I was reaching my rhetoric climax that we in the front also heard the sirens of the ambulance pulling up in the front of the church, and now there are paramedics in the narthex taking away a man who has collapsed during the service.
He was fine. His blood sugar tanked, and he was fine, and he was fine. I, of course, was a wreck. Nowhere on the list of hopes and fears for my first sermon had I accounted for the arrival of paramedics into the narthex. And at no point had we run any kind of emergency drills for what you do if and when an ambulance arrives and you’re still two paragraphs from the end. And I certainly stumbled around my words for a few moments. And then I did the only thing I could think of, the only thing that seemed possible for me to do, and frankly, the only thing that it seemed like the congregation was prepared for me to do, which is, I just kept going. I’m not proud of it, but I kept going. One of the other pastors ducked out the side to survey the situation, and I just kept going. We all just kept going. The room kept going. The congregation kept listening. The service kept happening. The worship kept going. I’m not proud, but we all made that decision together, and we all kept going, and sure, partially it’s because we didn’t know what else to do and sure, partially it’s because none of us were paramedics and I’m not sure how helpful we could have been but also and mostly and really we kept going because we needed to hear the end of the sermon, we kept going because we needed to hear the Gospel, especially with the sirens in the background, we kept going because we needed to worship God. We did it because we had to.
So a guy falls out a window during the sermon but the story’s not really about him. It’s about this congregation that just can’t stop worshiping, they “continue to converse” until dawn, a dialog that just keeps going. So this isn’t just a story that takes place during church; it’s a story about church itself. New Testament Scholar Carl Holladay argues that this passage is probably the most complete description of an early church service that we have in scripture: the gathering in the upper room, the conversation, the meal. We actually have other accounts in Acts of death and resurrection; what we don’t have anywhere else is a story that so richly shows the fabric of what it meant to worship God in this new community following Jesus Christ. What we have here for the first and only time is a sense of just how important this worship life was to everyone who came. It was dangerous, but they had to come, they had to worship God; it was a long night, but they had to come, they had to worship God, it was uncomfortable, but they had to come, they had to worship God, and they couldn’t let something as provisional as the stench of death get in the way of worshipping the God of life. Paul has to preach, because God has called him to preach, and they have to worship, because God has called them to worship, and because God’s call will not let them go.
So it is for us, we who gather here on an unremarkable fifth Sunday in July and the eighth Sunday after Pentecost. We have to be here, because God’s call will not let us go.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. The longest-running show in New York City isn’t Wicked or Chicago or The Lion King. On April 18, 1987, the Courtyard Playhouse in Greenwich Village debuted a little murder mystery called The Perfect Crime, about a wealthy psychiatrist named Margaret Bent who accused of murdering her husband. Thirty years and ten venues later, the show is still going, eight performances a week, now the longest-running play in the history of New York theatre, 12,406 performances, 237 actors, 83,000 on-stage bullets, fifty-seven male leads. And in all that time, since day one, the role of Margaret Bent has been played by one woman, an actress named Catherine Russell. Thirty years, one role. It is not sufficient to note that she now holds the Guinness Record for most performances by a female actor in the same role. I have to tell you that she secured that record in 2008 and is still going. And she does it with something like compulsion. Guinness notes that in her time on the show she has missed four performances. In interviews she doesn’t even admit that much. In interviews she talks about learning of her mother’s death after the matinee and then turning around and doing the evening show. Catherine has to be on that stage.
But I have to tell you that, by general consensus, the Perfect Crime is a terrible show. Then as now, the consensus is of a show that feels dated and irrelevant, that makes a surprisingly little amount of sense, and that exists only by sheer willpower. Indeed, the seats are mostly empty, but Catherine is determined. There are nights when she’s the one taking tickets at the door. There are nights when she’s the one dealing with the angry customers. One gets the impression that if Catherine woke up one morning and decided that she was done, this whole thing would be over before lunchtime, which, of course, pushes the question of why. Why keep going? She’s not doing it for the accolades, because there aren’t any. She’s not doing it for the money, because there isn’t any. At some point she’s doing this show because she has to. Because it is so woven up inside her that she has to. Because at some level God has created her to do this show, eight times a week, God has formed her to do this show, 12,406 times, God has called her to do this show.
Just like God has called us to do this one. So here it is. We all come to church for different reasons. Maybe you come for the choir. Maybe you come for the air conditioning. But here on an otherwise unremarkable fifth Sunday of July and eighth Sunday after Pentecost, with the dog days of summer beating mercilessly at our door, something else must have sparked to bring you here this morning. Something besides habit and something besides inertia and something besides maybe you left your sunglasses. And I think it’s this, I think it’s the same something that calls Paul’s congregation back into worship, even past the chalk outline, even past the stroke of midnight. I think it’s the same something that calls us all into worship, here in this sanctuary on this morning and in how many other sanctuaries down the street and around the world, believers of every shape and size and color and disposition, churches of two and three and churches of two thousand and three thousand and churches of iron and steel and churches of brick and stone and churches of thatch and mud and everywhere and everywhere else and everywhere in-between we are gathered this morning because God has called us do this show, because God has formed us to do this show.
The Gospel is, we all come to church because we have to, even past the chalk outlines, especially against the ambulance sirens. We all come to church because we have to. We all come to church because God won’t let us go, because we need to, because we have to, because God calls us to preach, and because God calls us to hear, and because God calls us to sing, and because God calls us to worship, and because God’s call will not let us go.