You are here

Sleeping in Church

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Feb 14 2016


I love this story. Probably I am not alone in that; I imagine many ministers might feel a certain fondness for this story that is out of all proportion to its theological significance. Because, in it, we see Paul, Rev. Paul, my brother, my man, we see that he is living the dream. Paul is preaching to a packed house. People have come out in droves to hear him hold forth, despite the cold (!) – it is a sardine can of a congregation, with not an empty chair in sight and folk sitting on the floor, on windowsills, leaning against the walls, cramming the doorways. People have come out in droves to hear Paul hold forth, and he does not disappoint. He delivers what is in effect the sermon to end all sermons, a sort of great, brave filibuster for the gospel that stretches on and on and on. Hours pass, but Paul is preaching his heart out and the crowd is going gaga for it. And just when he thinks that he has given them their money’s worth with this message, as he moves to leave the pulpit, these holy-rollers cry, ‘How about another round?!’ so that Sunday morning turns to Sunday afternoon turns to Sunday night, and to the church’s rapt delight, Paul is still talking. He has talked through what was supposed to have been the prayer time and then the offering and then the big choir number. He has talked through the coffee hour. No one has made it to their brunch reservations or picked up their kids from Sunday School or even taken a bathroom break. Enough saints to fill a stadium are eager and attentive; they are enthralled and awaiting each of Paul’s next words with bated breath. That’s what I’m talking about. I love this story.

Paul is now pushing midnight with this marathon-message, but the people have a fever ... and the only prescription is more preaching. They are with him, they are there with him, they are nodding and “Amen!”-ing along this him, they are all of them under the spell of this sermon. All of them ... but one – one rude, disrespectful whippersnapper-ish punk slumped over the windowsill who has the audacity to doze off during a display of such daring, rhetorical genius. (Shocking, I know.) As his eyelids start to flutter drowsily and his head droops, he catches himself and snaps out of it, but before long, his breathing is deep and low and punctuated by little wheezes and he is drooling. His muscles relax and his limbs hang heavier and he is just a dense jelly, teetering unconsciously there on the ledge. When all of a sudden, Paul bellows out passionately – something profound, I’m sure of it – which causes the young man to jerk to, and to lurch backward out of that third-story window, and to splatter down on the street below, dead.

I won’t lie. I love this story. I do. I may be a minister, but I am only human after all, and, as one whose lot in life it is, like Paul, to stand up and go on and on and on as people’s eyes glaze over, I don’t know ... there is a low, devilish part of me that thinks, well, the lousy kid had it coming. I love this story with its stern warning: better watch that you stay awake, because if you fall asleep in church, you will never wake up again. Muhahahaha. And I may, from time to time, have taken this story as license to fantasize about fierce justice being meted out to anyone whose mind wanders during my messages. Not to anyone in this church, of course. No one in this church would dare do anything but listen with earnest, focused diligence to the sermons, you know, the sermons I slave over (no big deal). No one in this church have I ever imagined trying to send a surreptitious text message only to spontaneously combust. No. No one in this church have I thought of as being up in the balcony (where all the troublemakers do tend to sit) and whispering to their neighbor or having a coughing fit and falling with a thump, oh, right about into Dick and Elinor Yeo’s lap ...

All throughout the books of Luke and Acts (books which were, as best we know, written by the same author), there is a running tension between wakefulness and sleep. On the Mount of Transfiguration, as Jesus meets with Moses and with Elijah, as Jesus hobnobs with the Hebrew people’s heaviest hitters, Peter, James, and John have a catnap. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus is to be arrested, as he is praying so desperately that he sweats drops of blood, the disciples are snoozing. This story is of a piece with these others, and perhaps they all mean to scold us into looking alive and being on our best behavior. But as much as in my secret thoughts I might wish for those playing on their cell phones or snoring through the-sermon-to-end-all-sermons that I’m giving up here, as much as I might wish for them to get smited (just kidding, by the way!), it is interesting to me that from the very beginning, part of what it meant to be in the presence of Jesus was to be put so at ease, was to feel oneself to be so unburdened, so safe and sound with him, that it was as if a deep peace had descended upon you, as if your spirit could not help but surrender to the healing, restful calm come over you. It is interesting to me that to follow Jesus was sometimes to fall asleep on the job.

And no wonder. I look at your lives – you, who are following Jesus – and there is an almost flabbergasting fullness to them. If this Eutychus dude, if the disciples were anything like you, probably they did not nod off because they are spiritual slouches, but because they had risen to meet the serious demands that Christian discipleship had made on them, because they are all in for compassion’s and justice’s sake, because they are working double shifts to make ends meet, or because they are single parents who are holding the whole world together for their children and with precious little help, or because they are students struggling to balance studying and internships, or because they are teachers fighting to make the education system more equitable, or because they are stay-at-home-moms, or because they are super-dads, or because they are doctors and nurses devoted to care above and beyond the call of duty, or because they are retirees who do not seem to know the meaning of the word and who are spending their golden years up to their eyeballs in service and volunteering.

I look at your lives – you who are following Jesus, you who are here, who have made it here, even given the umpteen gazillion other things going on with you, you who are here for one hour of quality time with God, and I am in awe. I am. This hour you have set aside to spend with God, this is more time than some of you spend in deep, sustaining conversation with your spouse in any given week. And that is no small offering. Some of you have to herd two, four, six kids out the door and then drive from clear across town just to get here. It’s incredible. It is. And if this is the one hour a week that you slow down and sit still and just stop long enough to feel the honestly-come-by exhaustion flood you, if this is the one place and the one time that you can breath or think or cry, if this is the one place and the one time that you are treated to silence, if this is the one place and the one time that you can shut your weary eyes on all the stress that comes when you do the right, hard thing and walk the narrow road – God bless you. I should wish you sweet dreams before I start my sermon. And I mean that. You deserve that.

I love this story – of someone so at home in God’s house, at home after what may have been a long, depleting week at work for good in the world, of someone so at home in God’s house that it is as their soul, their soul kicks off its shoes and puts up its feet. Is not that one of the things church should be – where your soul kicks off its shoes and stretches out? Where parts of you are replenished that you didn’t even know needed to be? ... The desert fathers told a little tale about monks gathering for evening worship. Every day, during the vespers service, as the sun was setting, the brothers met in their chapel to chant psalms and to pray. And without fail, every day, a certain brother would fall fast asleep – to the chagrin of his pew-mates. Finally, one of the other monks grew so fit to be tied that he approached the abbot to complain. Something must be done! Wake him up with a slap on the wrist! Assign him extra chores! Send him to bed with no supper! Slap some holy fear into him! But the wise, old abbot said only: “If I were to see a brother asleep during the prayers, I would take his head on my knees and let him lie at rest in my lap.”