Some years ago I served as a chaplain at the UVA Hospital. It was a regular 9-5 gig, excepting that once a week I covered the overnight shift.
One of the responsibilities of the overnight chaplain was to supervise the transfer of dead bodies from the hospital’s possession to whichever funeral home the dearly departed’s family had selected.
And so, if paged in the middle of night I’d call down to the morgue:
‘This is the chaplain’s office’ I’d say, when the attendant picked up.
And no matter the employee, the response was always the same:
‘Yeah, chaplain, we’ve got a live one. Need you to pick up.’
I’d trudge down into the bowels of the hospital, and, after gathering the necessary paperwork, the attendant and I would push a body bag, down a long tapioca-colored hallway, to a delivery door, where a funeral home employee would be waiting.
We’d push the body through the doors and then, like a UPS man dropping off your latest purchase from EBay, I’d ask the funeral home person to ‘sign here please’ and then the ‘package’ would be his.
The morgue itself with its walk-in fridge, stainless steel tools hanging along the walls, the tiled floor and rubber mats and the music blasting from a boom box- all together it reminded me of the restaurant kitchen where I’d once worked.
A mental association that turned my stomach.
Compared to the holy moments I spent with people during their deaths, the moments I spent with them afterwards, in the morgue, always struck me as disconcertingly casual.
For example, the first time I went to pick up a body- a farmer who’d died when his tractor rolled over on him- when I arrived at the morgue the attendant, a 40-something mustached man, was watching the Adam Sandler movie, Happy Gilmore, and eating pepperoni pizza.
‘Want some?’ he asked with his mouth full.
Or there was the time when the attendant caught me wrinkling my nose at a decidedly postmortem smell and asked: ‘Wanna know what that smell is?’
‘Not really’ I thought.
‘That,’ he said, ‘is the smell of job security.’
Or, for instance, I’d always associated the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song, ‘Under the Bridge,’ with my first kiss. But now I associate it with the middle aged lawyer who aspirated while trying to eat a pastrami sandwich on the toilet.
The morgue attendant sang ‘sometimes I feel like my only friend’ as we pushed the former counsel for the defense through the double doors.
Some of the bodies I came to claim were people I’d been with as they died, people whose hands I’d held and whose eyes I closed to this world with my palm.
And so it always felt odd to me to see these same people again as they were zipped into what looked like garment bags by an attendant who oftentimes was snacking on a Spicy Hawaiin Hot Pocket and laughing to David Letterman’s latest Top Ten List.
Sometimes the attendants would want to chat it up about UVA Football.
At other times they’d offer me bits of professional trivia.
‘Did you know,’ an attendant said one night as he zipped up a body, ‘that an adult kidney can fit inside a 7-11 Big Gulp?’
‘No, I didn’t know that’ I said, as I briefly tried to imagine the scenario in which discovery was made.
It was gallows humor. I suppose anything else would’ve made it an impossible job.
As a pastor I’ve been around a lot of dead bodies. It’s never really bothered me. But in the morgue the bodies existed in a kind of limbo without anyone to give them context.
I could handle being around the bodies; what I couldn’t handle was their anonymity.
And I think for that reason I’d always ask the attendant for whatever they could tell me about the person.
So that’s how one winter night, I learned about George.
As George was zipped into a bag I asked the 20-something attendant: So, how did he die?
‘Heart attack’ he said, ‘in his sleep.’
‘I guess that’s the way to go’ I said.
‘Yep, they didn’t know he’d died until the service was over.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘He died in church, fell asleep and had a heart attack. The ushers didn’t
realize he was dead until the organ stopped playing.’
‘Can you imagine that?’ the attendant said. ‘Someone sleeping so hard
through church that he could die and no one would know?’
‘You must not be a United Methodist,’ I said.
‘The paperwork says he died at Mt Pisgah Church- do you know that church?’ he asked me.
But my mind wandered. I thought about…
Jake, who was a member of my church and who every Sunday would fall stone cold asleep about 3 sentences into my sermon and who, after I’d been preaching a while would start to argue with his ex-wife in his sleep.
And so when the morgue attendant asked me about Mt Pisgah Church, even though I’d never heard of it and did not know where it was, nonetheless I replied:
‘Yes, I know that church.’
‘I preach there all the time.’
Evidently, according to St Luke, preachers like me have been boring people to death since the very founding of the Church.
That might not come as a surprise to you, having to listen to Dennis every other week, but why on earth would St. Luke ever openly admit that?
Luke’s supposed to be an evangelist remember.
These stories are meant to convert people to the faith not confirm all their worst assumptions about the faith.
What kind of advertisement is this for the church? Come check out our church; our pastor’s a killer preacher?
The story’s even worse than it appears at first glance.
This is the very first mention in the entire New Testament of a Christian- not a Jewish- Sabbath Service.
In other words, this is Kick-Off Sunday for the history of Christian worship and does St Luke have to report?
That Paul is full of hot air and drones on all day, because he’s on his way to Jerusalem and has to leave in the morning.
And so on Kick-Off Sunday Christian preaching claims its first victim.
It’s an odd story. Why would Luke tell it?
It gets even worse.
Paul’s victim is one of only two ‘young people’ mentioned in the New Testament. There just aren’t a lot of youth in the New Testament.
The first one mentioned is the rich, young ruler that Jesus sends away in tears because the young man doesn’t want to sell all his stuff and give the money to the poor.
The other young person mentioned in scripture is Eutychus, who’s killed by one of Jesus’ preachers.
Eutychus- his name in Greek means ‘Lucky,’ which is ironic since he’s not.
It’s a strange story.
And it’s a strange story for Luke of all people to tell.
Luke’s Book of Acts is filled with hyperbolic stories that cast the church in a flattering, almost heroic, light.
Peter’s sermon convert thousands.
Paul’s conversion is filled with dazzling light and high drama.
The apostles routinely evade evil by just a hair’s breadth.
This mention of a youth named Lucky whom Paul bores to death- it doesn’t jive with the rest of Luke’s book.
So why would Luke even jot it down?
After all, Luke was there when it happened.
Luke’s not simply recording something told to him. Here in chapter 20, Luke switches from 3rd person narration to 1st person plural. He says ‘we.’
He was there. So Luke knows what bad press this is for the church.
There’s every reason not to, so there must be a reason why he does include this story.
What are we to make of this story?
It’s not just an odd story for Luke to tell.
It’s odd the way Luke tells it too.
Luke goes overboard with details up front in the beginning of the story.
He tells you about the time and the bread and the lamps and the young man’s name and the exact floor on which the sanctuary was located.
Luke gives all these details in just a couple of verses but then he just, ho-hum, matter-of-factly mentions that Paul brings Lucky back to life. That’s it.
It’s an odd way to tell a resurrection story.
And it’s odd that we don’t hear from Eutychus at all.
He just goes home to nurse his sore back and bruises.
And everyone else- they get back to worship as though this kind of thing were an every day occurrence.
The attendant matched the toe tag on George’s foot with the name on the transfer papers.
‘So, have you ever put anyone to sleep?’ he asked absent-mindedly.
‘Me? No, I’ve never put anyone to sleep’ I lied.
‘Really?’ he squinted at me.
‘Look,’ I shot back, ‘it’s harder than it looks. It takes hours every day. They can’t all be home runs. Believe me, if I could stage car chases in the sanctuary or take half-naked women into the pulpit with me I would.’
He just laughed.
We were about to push George down the hallway to wait for the hearse, but the attendant looked at his watch and said: ‘We’ve got a few minutes. I’ve got a couple sandwiches if you want to grab a bite. Liverwurst.’
I realize some people might think it revolting to eat pureed liver in the approximate vicinity of several dozen corpses not to mention the many appendages and organs with no body to call home. You’re entitled to opinion.
But since I was a boy I’ve not been able to resist liverwurst.
He handed me a sandwich and I sat down at his desk. He got a paper towel and, as casually as if he were sitting at a picnic table, laid his liver sandwich on George’s chest.
‘So you don’t go to church?’ I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I did as a kid.’
‘Alright,’ I said, ‘you tell me. What could someone like me do to make worship less boring to someone like you?’
He wiped is mouth. ‘I don’t think there’s anything you could do.’
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘The problem’s not preachers. The problem’s every one else. They make Christianity seem so dull. Most Christians are as cold and stiff as old George here’ and he patted George’s midsection.
‘Even God must be bored by them.’
It’s not really fair to beat up on preachers for being boring.
It’s too obvious. One of the reasons I became a preacher was so I wouldn’t have to sit out there in the pews and suffer like you.
I don’t know how you do it. In an age of iPhones and iPads and Facebook and PowerPoint and Hulu and IMAX to just sit quietly for 20 minutes and listen? That’s a nearly impossible task.
And I know I can be boring, predictable, prosaic. I can see everything from up here-I’m well aware there’s some of you on whom I have an almost narcotic effect.
But, even still, I’m not sure that I’m the problem.
I mean, I’m only up here preaching for one hour a week.
That leaves 167 hours in the week when you’re the preacher.
167 hours in which you proclaim, in which you announce, in which you communicate to anyone around you and everyone in your lives whether or not this God is interesting enough, captivating enough, compelling enough to give not just an hour of your time but to give your lives to.
This past week I studied surveys, done by the Barna Group, of Christians in their teens and twenties. According to the research, a sizeable majority of young people find Christianity to be boring.
Know why? It’s not because of worship or sermons or songs.
No, a majority of young people think Christianity is boring because faith doesn’t appear to be a relevant, real-life, or every day thing for the adults in their lives.
In other words, the way to make young people more excited about the faith isn’t contemporary music or pyrotechnic sermons or flat screens in the sanctuary. The way to make young people more interested in the faith is for there to be more interesting Christians.
When you think about it, to make this God seem boring is quite a feat.
This God, who shed eternity and took on flesh as a poor Jewish carpenter.
This God, whose teaching is always upside down and unexpected and not as we would like it.
This God, who befriended all the wrong people and offended all the right people until it landed him on a cross.
This God, who swallowed up Death and then handed us the keys to his Kingdom and invited us to give our everything to it.
I mean- you can dismiss this God. You can argue with this God.
You can doubt, or disbelieve or run away from this God.
You can even hate this God if you want.
But for God’s sake don’t make this God seem boring.
And maybe that’s Luke’s point
in telling this story the way he does
so ho-hum, matter-of-fact
about this congregation where no one even blinks at a little thing like
someone being raised from death to life.
Because apparently they’re used to that kind of thing.
Maybe this is Luke’s way of saying that this is how Christianity should be.
Maybe Luke’s saying
that God- the Living God- should be such a part of our lives
not just in here
but out there and everywhere
such a part of our lives
that resurrection is an every day expectation,
Maybe Luke’s saying
that God should be such a part of our each and every day life
that we should just expect for this God
to wake people up
to shake people up
to knock people down
and raise them up to a new way of life.
A church with expectations like that
could survive even a boring preacher.
A preacher with that kind of church
would be lucky.