Today we’re continuing the series “God Through the Ages” by considering the experience of teenagers. It is my belief that a fundamental part of being a teenager is working to sort out exactly what is at stake. What matters and what doesn’t? What really is Life Or Death and what just seems like it…
Now you might have seen teenagers grappling with this concern; and if you haven’t, you might at least know the stereotypes. One features the classic American teenage boy who Just. Doesn’t. Care. He will not make eye contact with you; his whole existence is fighting to project the impenetrable Whatever. What is even the point. Of course, on the other side of the stereotype spectrum is the Drama Queen. Now with her, any little thing could provoke catastrophe. It could Quite. Literally. Ruin. Her. Life. OMG.
So we have to laugh at our teens who are deeply concerned about communicating that they Do. Not. Care. And we laugh at our teens who are over-the-top melodramatic. And we should because teenagers can be silly. (Not like the rest of us who have it all figured out.)
Only thing is, these are stereotypes. And stereotypes aren’t actual people. And teenagers are. Sometimes when teenagers perceive that their situation is Life Or Death, they are being melodramatic. But sometimes, they’re right.
These days in the United States, teenagers manage staggering expectations. In some situations, they enjoy greater and greater opportunities —an unlimited number of AP classes, every sport you can think of, show choirs, jazz ensembles, youth mission trips, internships… Some teens have so many choices which can become so much pressure to do it all and do it brilliantly.
In some situations, teenagers are required to grow up more quickly than they should have to. Teenagers are raising younger siblings and working to earn money for their households. Teenagers are surviving school shootings then going to Congress to demand legislation. There are teens who are becoming parents. There are teens who are joining the military.
In all different contexts, teenagers are falling in love for the first time. Teenagers are coming out as gay, and bi, and trans. Teenagers are joining faith communities and deciding whether or where to go to college. And we look at these young adults who are enduring the most intense period of transition they’ve ever survived since getting born and we decide, “I know, let’s teach them how to drive. They can handle it.” And they do!
When you consider everything we expect from our teens, it’s no wonder the stakes might seem higher to them, that everything feels more Life Or Death. Some of this is the pressure they’re under, no doubt, but it’s also the case that teenagers are operating with a limited perspective on what is possible. This is not their fault.
How can our teens believe that what other people say now won’t matter so much in twenty years? They have no frame of reference for twenty years! How can our kids believe that this audition is not the most important thing in life, if it really is the most important thing in their lives so far… Something that concerns me is that our teenagers have less access to hope than someone who has lived longer and survived more.
Scholar and pastor Russell Rathbun imagines that Psalm Thirteen was written by a thirteen-year-old.1http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary13psalm/ Listen to how our Psalm of the Day begins:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long…
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death. (Psalm 13:1-3)
Today the second scripture we hear is the story of Eutychus. Now the Bible is full of heroic teenagers. There’s David who’s called in from shepherding to get chosen for King. There’s Esther who becomes queen and rescues her people from slaughter. There’s Mary who says “Here I am” and becomes the mother of Jesus. Then there’s Eutychus. He falls asleep during church.
I love this story. For one thing, the narrator is trying so hard to keep the focus on Paul, but there is an elephant in the room. Then the elephant fell asleep. Then the elephant fell out the window.
Our scripture begins in the middle of a travelogue. There had been a terrible rally in Ephesus. Some of Paul’s opponents were outraged that the Jewish Christians opposed the idol-making industry. There was a skirmish between those who worshiped Artemis and those who followed Jesus; it nearly turned into a riot. Paul managed to get out of there in one piece. He stayed in Greece for three months, then he was planning to go Syria but another faction was plotting against him, so back to Macedonia he goes. The narrator reports where Paul is headed and who’s going with him, then suddenly the travel story is interrupted.
Paul has arrived at a house church, and it’s the first day of the week, and the believers have gathered in an upper room to break bread. All the action screeches to a halt; Paul takes a deep breath. Somebody light the candles. It is time for church.
During the breaking of the bread, Paul holds a discussion with the believers, then he keeps talking. And talking. He talks until midnight. Even though all the lamps were burning, the young man, Eutychus happened to be sitting in the window when he fell asleep. Then he fell out the window. Then he fell down to the ground three stories below, and he died. And if this is where you stop reading, this would be a horrific story.
Instead, Paul rushes down and goes outside, presumably followed by half the church or more. Paul took this dead teenager in his arms and looked at him, then he pronounced that he is not dead after all. Eutychus comes back to life; some folks take him home. Meanwhile Paul goes back upstairs and keeps talking. The narrator never mentions what Paul was saying, only that he kept talking until dawn. The next day his travels continue.
Now the original audience would have heard this story as a cautionary tale. Eutychus represented a threat that the writer of Luke and Acts was especially afraid of: “Do not let your faith fall asleep like those disciples who couldn’t stay awake with Jesus in the garden! For the love of God, stay woke!”
So look. I can believe this call for vigilance really was the original intention of this story. But I don’t believe it is fair to blame Eutychus. It’s not his fault. It’s just, can you imagine if he fell out the window and nobody noticed? Can you imagine if he fell to his death and stayed dead because nobody ran downstairs, because Paul kept on talking, and the church was wrapped up in the business of the church?
And what if this happened to us…
Is it possible that I could be so focused on writing a sermon, or making a meeting agenda, or answering email, that I do not notice the teenager in the parking lot who needs help? This is entirely possible. It is terrifying to consider.
You and I know, it is unlikely that a teenager is going to drop by the church some afternoon or wander over some Sunday morning and ask, “Hey. I’m looking for a welcoming church, could I join this one?” I mean, that could happen, but what are the chances.
At the same time, Church of Peace has something teenagers need. We can offer them support and respect without any demand that they get A pluses or win the championship. We know what it is to survive significant transition, because we’ve only been doing that our whole lives. There are people in this room who know how it feels to get dumped by the person you’ve given your heart to. There are people here who have had their dreams get shattered then found other dreams that were even better. There are people here who know what it’s like to go to the funeral of a friend your own age.
Our teenagers need to know it is possible to go through this and live, and what if it is up to us to prove it to them…
“Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death!” And what if we have some of that light. What if we can see the hope our teenagers are trying to believe.
A few years back, there was an article circulating on youth ministry, and I wish I could tell you who wrote it, and I’m sorry I don’t remember. I do remember the author discovered something hopeful. Often in planning youth events, we tend to focus on the ratio of so many kids per adult leader. So if you have a ratio of six-to-one and you’re bring thirty kids someplace, you’re going to need five adults. Basic math.
Well, this author proposed that we’ve got it all backwards. It’s not that churches need one caring adult for every six kids; it’s that we really need six caring adults for each young person. Each teenager needs a whole team cheering them on, and six adults per teenager is something we could do here, no problem.
But how are they going to find us? How would any teenager know to give Church of Peace a chance, unless maybe we invite them… Which means, first we have to notice them.
Eutychus fell asleep, then he fell out the window and died. If Paul had just kept talking and the people just kept eating, this would be a terrible story. Instead, the church noticed when Eutychus fell. They ran downstairs. Then Paul noticed that he still had life in him. (That’s all Paul did!) Then Eutychus got up from the dead, then he helped the church do the same thing. Because that’s the thing about resurrection —it doesn’t just go one way. That’s the thing about the church. We are always helping each other get up from the dead. We just have to see it.
May it be so.