A sermon shared at Suttons Bay Congregational Church, August 14, 2022
Scripture: Acts 20:7-12
My friend Scott Hershovitz is a philosopher. I don’t mean that he’s a regular guy who’s philosophically inclined. I mean that he’s an actual professional philosopher. Scott thinks for a living and he’s really good at it.
Scott studied philosophy at Oxford University. He specializes in the philosophy of law but, like any good philosopher, he’s interested in pretty much everything. My mother would have described him as a “smart cookie,” which raises interesting philosophical questions about how cookies can be smart. I’ll leave those in Scott’s capable hands, along with questions about how cookies can be “tough.”
In addition to being a philosopher, Scott is a parent. He and his wife, Julie, who’s a social worker, are raising two fine young men named Rex and Hank. Over the years, Scott has had the kinds of conversations with Hank and Rex that you might expect a philosopher father to have with his kids. They’ve talked about such concepts as rights, punishment, authority, language, knowledge, truth, and infinity. These differ from the conversations I had with my own father, which tended to be about fishing, cars, tools, and Godzilla movies.
Early in his fatherly journey, Scott arrived at a terrific insight: Children are natural philosophers. They ask questions we adults wouldn’t think to ask and propose answers we adults wouldn’t think to offer. Scott believes that we can learn a lot by listening to children, and he explores this idea in his very wise, very smart, and very funny book called Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids. I highly recommend it, subject only to the cautionary note that my friend Scott has a Roy Kentish fondness for a certain word that at the present moment shall go unspoken.
The book begins with a story about Hank when he was around two years old and washing up before bedtime. It goes something like this:
“I need a philosopher!” Hank cried. He was standing in the bathroom, half-naked.
“What?” Julie asked.
“I need a philosopher,” he repeated.
“Did you rinse?”
“I need a philosopher,” Hank said, getting still more agitated.
“You need to rinse. Go back to the sink.”
“I need a philosopher!” Hank demanded.
“Scott!” Julie shouted. “Hank needs a philosopher.”
Scott writes: “I am a philosopher. And no one has ever needed me. I rushed to the bathroom. ‘Hank, Hank! I’m a philosopher! What do you need?’”
Hank looked puzzled. “You are not a philosopher,” he said sharply.
“Hank, I am a philosopher. That’s my job. What’s bothering you?”
Hank opened his mouth but didn’t say anything.
“Hank, what’s bothering you?”
“There’s something stuck in my teeth!”
And then Scott understood: A flosser. Hank needed a flosser—one of those forked pieces of plastic with dental floss strung across it.
Scott ruefully concludes: “In retrospect, that makes sense. A flosser is something you could need … A philosopher is not something that people need. People like to point that out to philosophers.”
I love lots of things about this story. But what I love most is how Scott confesses his excitement over the possibility that someone urgently needed him. Especially someone he loves. And especially that they needed him to philosophize—to do the thing that defines who Scott is.
You would think Scott wouldn’t need the validation. After all, Scott got his doctoral degree at Oxford while he was there on a Rhodes scholarship; he also holds a law degree from Yale; he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and he’s a beloved husband, parent, and member of our academic community. Those credentials are abundant evidence of a highly successful life.
But my friend Scott is also a human being. And, like all human beings, it gives him joy to think that he’s needed. We all hope to count. We all want to be somebody.
In many ways, the book of Acts is about how the Apostles discovered that they were somebody. I mean that in two senses. First, they discovered that they were somebody in the sight of God. They came to understand that God watched over them, knew them, and called them—even by name.
Second, they discovered that they were somebody in the service of God. Often, when things go badly, we flail our arms around and exclaim that somebody needs to do something. The Apostles realized that they were that somebody. They came to understand that God needed to get stuff done and that He had anointed them to do it.
The central tenets of our faith teach us that we’re somebody in these two senses as well. We’re somebody in the sight of God. No matter who we are. No matter what we’ve done.
In prior sermons, I’ve quoted from Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, a Los-Angeles-based organization that is the largest gang member rehabilitation program in the world. Father Boyle reports that when former gang members first arrive at Homeboy they often say something about how they want to bring God to love them. Father Boyle responds that it doesn’t work that way; God already loves them and couldn’t love them more than He already does.
The same holds true for you. You’re already somebody in the sight of God. God already loves you and couldn’t love you more than He already does.
You can’t earn it. If you could, then ours would be the God of excellent report cards, job promotions, big salaries, and high achievers. But ours is the God of forgiveness and compassion and the least in the kingdom. Ours is the God of a love so great that it reaches beyond anything we can express in words and it reaches everyone.
Oh, and this identity of being somebody in the sight of God? You’re stuck with it. You can’t give it away. God sees you and loves you and calls your name. Period, full stop, no exceptions.
That’s just how it is. Not a darn thing you can do about it. I have a friend who likes to remind me that he doesn’t believe in God. I always respond that it’s okay because God believes in him.
The central tenets of our faith also tell us that we have the capacity to be somebody in the service of God. No matter who we are. No matter what we’ve done.
If you think yourself unworthy, well, get over it. Indeed, whatever your imperfections, they almost certainly pale in comparison with those of Paul. Paul, who hunted down the faithful, persecuted them, and stood by indifferently while a mob stoned a saint to death in his presence. Have you done anything like that recently? And yet God could not have loved Paul more than He already did. So, He met Paul where he was—on the road to Damascus—and He took Paul into his arms and He put Paul to work.
Paul formed churches and counseled their leaders. He pursued missions down endless Roman roads. He answered questions, worked out theological problems, and wrote letters foundational to our faith. Indeed, Paul’s influence over our religion is arguably second only to that of Jesus himself. As somebodies go, Paul wasn’t just anybody … and Paul knew it.
Many years ago, I was having a conversation with another philosopher friend of mine. Our discussion worked its way around to the subjects of meekness and humility. I found myself toeing the conventional Christian line that meekness and humility are virtues. My friend wasn’t so sure.
He acknowledged that these qualities often have a lot to recommend them, maybe even most of the time. But he argued that, for some types of jobs, we need people who have a confidence and boldness that borders on arrogance. He said: “I respect meekness and humility. But those aren’t the qualities I want in a fighter pilot, a fireman, or a football quarterback.”
Maybe the same reasoning applies when we’re talking about the individual primarily responsible for building and leading the early church. For that job, we might want someone with a strong sense of self, someone who enjoyed the power and prestige of Roman citizenship, and someone who was not afraid to reach a decision, to press an issue, to establish a rule, and to make his presence known. Or, more to the point, maybe that’s what God wanted and why God chose Paul.
Given his role in the kingdom at that particular time, Paul’s confidence and boldness were virtues. But there’s a funny thing about virtues. Generally, they serve us very well. Sometimes, though, a virtue can be the very thing that gets us into trouble. And that brings us to today’s story from the book of Acts.
Chapter 20 finds Paul on something like a whirlwind celebrity tour of the region. The scene takes place in Troas, on the top floor of a three-story tenement-style building, where Paul is holding forth to those who have gathered to hear him. He talks, then talks some more, and then keeps going. It gets dark. The attendees light lamps. The night grows long.
The text says: “A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer.” Perhaps I’m reading something into this sentence, but I have the sense that we’re being told here that Paul couldn’t take a hint. The story goes on: “Overcome by sleep, Eutychus fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.”
Now, I want you to notice something about this story. Paul was a gifted and powerful preacher. Throughout the book of Acts, Luke usually gives us a clear sense of what Paul said when he preached, sometimes even a detailed word-for-word recapitulation. But, here, Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the substance of Paul’s speech—he just tells us that there was a lot of it.
Instead, Luke focuses on something else—he focuses on the effect that the speech had on Eutychus and on the consequences of that effect. In doing so, Luke shows us that, in this particular instance, Paul’s virtue became a failing. Paul was so busy speaking and preaching and instructing those who had gathered that he didn’t notice that Eutychus needed something different. Eutychus needed peace, quiet, and a bed.
Now, we might read this story as offering a narrow lesson that applies only to preachers who are inclined to fall in love with their own voices. Alas, the text suggests that this problem has been around for a few thousand years. Of course, it never arises when this preacher is in the pulpit, a point that I will explore with you thoroughly over the next two hours.
All joking aside, I think that this story actually conveys a very important lesson that applies to all of us, not just to preachers in need of editors. To get at that lesson, I want to describe an experience that I think many of us have had at one time or another. It’s the experience of talking or visiting with a someone who is mired in terrible despair. If you’re like me, then often in these circumstances you have no idea what to say to them or do for them that might help.
There’s a lovely little poem by Patricia McKernon Runkle that some of you may know and that offers a suggestion. It’s called “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief” and it goes like this:
Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.
this darkened chapel
Hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow
Its gray stone walls
Are here to listen
not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound.
Let the candles
In other words, when we find ourselves in those spaces of life’s greatest mysteries, it may turn out that the best thing we can do is to be nobody. To take our egos, our opinions, our advice, our selves completely out of the picture. And to be other things instead: empty, receptive, available, an open door in between a human being and the God who loves them and can heal them.
Good people can struggle with this sometimes. There’s a sign outside a building in Chicago that says: “In our hearts we are always twelve years old, and we are always the quarterback.” But sometimes what God needs is not the football quarterback or the fireman or the fighter pilot. Sometimes what God needs is a vessel that He can fill with the Holy Spirit and put to use.
In the book of Acts, nobody was more of a somebody than Paul. But, when Eutychus fell out of the window, Paul needed to leave all that behind. As I’ve noted, Paul was a man of numerous gifts and talents, but there was something he could not do. He could not bring the dead back to life.
Don’t get me wrong—Eutychus was indeed brought back from the dead. But Paul didn’t do it and Paul couldn’t do it because if there is anything that is exclusively God’s department it is resurrection. Paul couldn’t work hard enough, weep hard enough, push hard enough, pull hard enough, talk hard enough, or try hard enough to get it done on his own strengths and merits. This left Paul with only two jobs: pray and get out of God’s way. So, Paul got down on the hard floor, took Eutychus in his arms, and did just that.
Sometimes that’s all we can do as well: pray and get out of God’s way. We have to stop being somebody and become nobody. We have to etch ourselves out of the picture and give the Spirit room to step in.
The Zen Buddhist literature tells the story of a young man who came to study with a Master he had long admired. As they sat down to tea, the young man immediately began sharing his ideas and insights. Like Paul in Troas, he went on and on and on.
As he was talking, the Master began to pour tea. He filled the young man’s cup, and then kept pouring until it began to overflow. When the dismayed young man asked what he was doing, the Master observed that he couldn’t teach anything to someone who was already so full of their own opinions.
In that moment in Troas, Paul had nothing in his overflowing vessel of talents that could do Eutychus any good at all. Paul needed to empty himself, to listen and not to sing, to let the Holy Spirit do its stuff, to pray and get out of God’s way. And those who loved Eutychus rejoiced in what followed.
I think this story tells us that sometimes we need to do the same thing: To stop being somebody and become nobody To empty ourselves, and let God do the filling. To talk less and listen more. To stop being the scrambling quarterback and to become the open receiver. To give fewer lectures and to arrange more naps. To become silent in life’s mysterious sanctuaries and let the candles speak.
What’s it like to be Bailey? How does Bailey see the world? Later in his book, Scott says that he talks about those questions a lot with Hank and Rex. Bailey, of course, is their dog. And although Scott, Hank, and Rex understand some things about how a dog’s brain works, they’re skeptical that they can ever really know how Bailey sees the world.
Over the years, Lisa and I have had countless philosophical discussions with our son, Jordan, around the dining room table. I don’t think we ever got into this one. I do, however, have a dim memory of at some point talking through the theological question of whether dogs go to heaven. As I recall, it was a very short conversation, probably because the answer seems to me obvious: Of course, they do; how could it be heaven without dogs?
Now, in fairness, the idea that dogs go to heaven is a well-settled theological principle only within the confines of my own brain. Religious scholars have in fact for centuries argued over whether animals have souls, let alone immortal ones. And I suspect those experts will still be debating the issue when I’m busy with all the dogs I’ve ever known playing fetch in the clouds—assuming I’m worthy of keeping their company, which in my case is always an open question.
One minor sidenote here: I’ve never owned a cat and so do not have an informed opinion as to their destination in the afterlife. But I do have many friends who have cats at home and they tell me the issue is somewhat more complicated. I cannot speak to the question with any authority, so I’ll leave it to Robin to explore it in a nine-part adult education series. Okay, back to dogs.
In the early years of our marriage, Lisa and I had two of them who we loved very much. One was a German Shorthaired Pointer named Maxine, who was beautiful, elegant, and graceful, and so naturally bonded with Lisa. The other was a mongrel named Jackson, who was difficult, disobedient, and a bit of an ill-mannered bruiser, and so naturally bonded with me.
We were blessed to have them for many years, but, unfortunately, lost both of them within a month of each other. Our wonderful veterinarian helped us usher them painlessly from this life to the next. Both times, we laid on the hard floor of a dark and quiet room with them as they slowly drifted off to sleep. It was an experience full of both pain and beauty.
It was also an experience where we didn’t need to be somebody. Indeed, it would have been pointless to try. We couldn’t explain things to them. We didn’t have any advice or counsel to offer. They didn’t need to hear a lecture or a sermon. In that moment of grace, we just had to be present, to make a few soft and comforting noises, and to pray and get out of God’s way.
It may seem paradoxical that sometimes our highest and best calling is to be nobody. But ours is a God who delights in a good puzzle. He is, after all, the God who sent a messiah in the form of an infant, salvation in the form of a cross, and hope in the form of an empty tomb. He told us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first and that the way to gain our life is to lose it.
The lesson here follows the same paradoxical logic. Would you be full of the Spirit? Empty yourself. Would you say something helpful? Be silent, and let the candles speak. Would you give someone everything they need? Then get down, down onto the hard floors of life. Take someone in your arms. Pray. And get out of God’s way.
Praise the Lord that it is so. And the people said: Amen.