Friday, July 31, 2015


A Sermon by Ralph Birdsall former rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Cooperstown, NY. originally published in his book Sermons in Summer. 

There sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep; and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. — Acts xx, 9.

Here is given a brief but vivid glimpse of a service of the primitive Church. Little of the pomp and ceremony of later ecclesiastical life appears. It is not amid the dim aisles of some imposing cathedral that the Christians of Troas gather to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries and to hear the word of God from the lips of S. Paul, greatest of missionary apostles.

The hoary ruins of the city of Troas show how much its architectural magnificence was built upon other than Christian foundations. Fragments of colossal masonry that belonged to baths and theatres still loom from the site of Troas over the Aegean sea, and the waves of the ocean for a thousand years have sported there amid granite columns torn from the vast arches of ruined temples. These memorials of ancient splendor serve to throw into relief the humble simplicity of the shrines of primitive Christianity.

In the midst of this city of palaces and temples the Christian disciples are huddled together in the upper room, probably of some private dwelling. The ship which is to carry S. Paul to Jerusalem rocks in the harbor. The prospect of his departure has brought every Christian in Troas to the place of meeting, to receive Holy Communion at his hands and to hear his final words. The night is dark, for three weeks have not elapsed since the Pass over feast, when the moon was full. The atmosphere of the upper room is hot and stifling. There is added to the intense heat of the evening not only the sweltering of the crowd that chokes the entrances and windows, but the reeking of many lights that are set about for illumination and ceremonial use.

Every preacher who has attempted to ad dress a congregation on a hot summer day, and every member of a congregation who has attempted to listen under such conditions, can realize that there is no sort of ordinary discomfort which renders more difficult the effort of commanding or giving sustained attention. S. Paul is preaching earnestly, and, in the fervor of his enthusiasm, thinks not of heat, or discomfort, or the lateness of the hour, or of the length of his discourse. Many preachers prolong their sermons beyond what they intend, partly because it is easier to expand one's thoughts than to state them concisely, but chiefly because time passes with such incredible swiftness to one who speaks of what interests himself. As the seven years which Jacob served for Rachel seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her, so the discourse which sometimes wearies the congregation by its prolixity seems to the preacher to occupy but a few moments, because of the love he has for his subject.

It is fair to assume, however, that S. Paul holds the close attention of his congregation, with the single exception of this young man named Eutychus, who sits in a window where the lattice, overlooking the courtyard, is open for air. There is a descriptive exactness in the tense of the Greek verbs in the narrative that brings this young man vividly before us. As S. Paul continues long in preaching, the young man's head begins to droop, the words of the sermon grow indistinct and drowsy, his body relaxes, his head sinks low upon his breast ; — suddenly he lurches and falls head long from the window into the courtyard be low. The congregation is thrown into confusion. Some rush down the outer stairs into the courtyard. Eutychus lies there, apparently killed by the fall. But S. Paul hastens to the spot, flings aside the crowd, throws his arms about the young man, and cries, "Trouble not yourselves. For his life is in him!"

There is perhaps no person mentioned in the New Testament who has so singular a claim for distinction as Eutychus, since the one thing we learn of him is that he went to sleep while S. Paul was preaching. Judas was a traitor, and Ananias was a liar, and Stephen was a hero, and Peter was a prince of apostles. Such claims to fame and infamy are comprehensible. But the name of this man is preserved for nearly two thousand years, who went to hear S. Paul, and in the discourse of one of the most flaming and dominant personalities of all human history was so little interested that he fell asleep. S. Paul was a man who universally stirred either the most intense devotion, or the most implacable hostility. The jailer who imprisoned S. Paul at Philippi heard him speak, and fell at his feet a suppliant ; the people at Lystra heard him speak, and brought oxen and garlands to do sacrifice unto him, believing him to be one of the gods ; Felix the governor heard him speak, and trembled upon his throne; the mob at Jerusalem heard him speak, and cast off their clothes, threw dust in the air, and cried, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for it is not fit that he should live!” Nero heard him speak, and had him put to death by the sword.

But Eutychus heard him speak, and went fast asleep. Eutychus was a man whose purpose and profession were Christian, else he would not have been attracted by that gathering of Christians in Troas. But he was lacking in Christian enthusiasm, else he could not have fallen asleep, despite adverse conditions, while listening to the foremost Christian hero of his time. He stands as a type of conven tional Christian, who if he does little evil, does very little good. He is unenthusiastic, lukewarm. He is a Laodicean. Dante discovers such a type in his Inferno :

This miserable measure the wretched souls maintain, Of those who lived apart from infamy or praise; Mingled are they with that caitiff choir of angels, Who were not rebels, nor holding faith to God, But lived all for themselves. To be not less glorious, the heavens chased them out, Nor doth the depth of Hell receive such shades Because the damned would have some glory from them.

As we look back through the vista of centuries to the conquests of S. Paul and his companions, they appear among the most romantic exploits of Christian heroism. But we can perhaps realize, in recalling the actual scene at Troas, that to a man like Eutychus the whole thing was most unromantic. A hot, upper room crowded with perspiring people, and a converted Pharisee talking for hours about the conquest of the world! Where was the romance in that?

As Eutychus looked at the things of his day, so, perhaps, we are tempted to look at ours. The romance is always of yesterday.

Today lacks the picturesque touch that stirs enthusiasms, and high resolves, and noble sacrifices. When you stand in a gallery of old portraits — knights in armor, ladies bedizened in head-dresses of long ago — the romantic spirit is stirred within you, and you muse fondly of the part in life that these men and women played amid the pleasing quaintness’s of antiquity. How rich was their life in the poetry and adventure that inflame enthusiasms and make it glorious to be alive! Yet, if such portraits could speak, they would say to us: "Our life appears to you antique; to us it was modern: to you it is full of poetry; to us it was practical: to you it is romantic; to us it was commonplace: some of the bitter problems of your day had their origin through our failure to recognize the interest and importance of forces that developed before our very eyes.”

So it may be, perhaps, that a future generation will marvel at us, that we have not recognized the romance of our everyday surroundings, that we have not addressed our selves with more enthusiasm to the problems that loom in the foreground of our daily life. We shall appear, perhaps, as Eutychus, who went to sleep while a spirit was abroad that was about to change the current of history and to alter the face of the world. We need to develop a kind of idealism which refuses to assign different spheres to romance and to modern interests, but recognizes that just so far as modern life is creating a new world, and is tireless and venture some and unconquerable, it is permeated with the spirit of romance.

It was a son of this Church and parish who first revealed the romantic possibilities of American life. James Fenimore Cooper was the first of men to perceive that the pioneer life in America was as full of romance as the exploits of the ancient Greeks of which Homer sang, or the adventures of armored knights, who made the Middle Ages glorious with spears and banners and minstrelsy. To the common view nothing was more sordid than the rude life of our American forefathers, with its dirty log cabins, its squalid tasks, and its contact, hostile and friendly, with filthy savages. But Cooper touched this life with a magic that transfigured it, and revealed its splendor. All the world recognized that in his works of fiction a new truth had been disclosed. His tales were translated into the languages of Europe, and Cooper has won historic fame as the discoverer of American romance.

Romance is always a discovery. It is the mission of the greatest poets to reveal to us the power of romance, not in the dead past, but in the things that be. What Cooper did for the pioneers, Rudyard Kipling has done with even greater artistry, for modern life. He has shown us that steam-engines are romantic, and whirring dynamos, and thundering locomotives. What can compare with the romance of the bridge-building which Kipling describes, and tunneling, and track-laying, and the grappling of engineers with problems so intricate that brawny men break down and sob like children in their solution! It is important to the maintenance of idealism in modern life that the romantic spirit be preserved, with its elements of courage and chivalry, and its demand upon the self-sacrifice of the individual to the triumph of great and sacred causes. War, as Prof. James once said, is the romance of history, and since war is a gradually diminishing force in civilized life, there perish also the heroic qualities which war develops in mankind unless we can somehow discover them anew in the pursuits of peace.

The great heresy of modern life is the belief that success means the success of the individual. The one thing too commonly assumed is that you cannot expect a man actually to risk his promotion or prosperity out of devotion to a mere ideal. Such is not the spirit of romanticism. It is as if there should be a fair maiden chained in yonder castle, and here an armored knight who says, "There is an exceeding fierce dragon in the castle keep, and while I would fain rescue the maiden, it would too greatly endanger my life." Or here is a soldier upon the battle field who says, "Captain, I would have captured the flag, as you commanded, but some of the enemy with loaded guns were there, and I feared that I should risk my skin!” Truly we should re-write all our romances to discover such sentiments as these!

Yet do we not hear exactly the same thing in the life of today? Here is a business man who declares that the whole modern system is rotten, "but," he says, "while I should like to keep my hands clean, if I don't pay graft and resort to sharp methods like the rest, I shall surely fail." The knight and the dragon! Here is a politician who says, "It is all very well to talk about righteousness in politics, and I am for it, but if I don't agree to certain unpleasant things and close my eyes to certain other things, there are influences that will put an end to my political career." The soldier and the flag! Here is a minister of the Gospel who says, or perhaps only whispers to himself, "I ought to be a pastor of the poor, but if I don't please certain people I can't get the money to run the church." Christ and Satan on the mountain top!

This is the tragedy of modern enterprise, with each man assuming that you cannot possibly expect him to fail, if he must, for the sake of some nobler triumph, each assert ing that he, poor, pygmy individual, must win his little personal success in the vast on ward and upward movement of the ages! As battles are won, and truths are vindicated, and nations are glorified, through the blood of the men who risk all upon the issue, so the religious, and civic, and commercial, and industrial life of today waits for men who are willing to go down into the dark of failure for the establishment of principles more important and lasting than their own success. Every man who fails in public life merely because of his honesty makes it a little more difficult for the next man to succeed by means of dishonesty. Every man who fails in business merely because of his incorruptibility hastens the day when none shall dare succeed by corrupt methods. The fame of such failures would ultimately compass the ruin of dishonorable success. The story of such failures would be incomparably more brilliant in splendid recklessness and courage than all the annals of knightly chivalry, or pioneer bravery, or military conquest. To carry such failures to their logical conclusion would be to write the most thrilling chapter in the romance of humankind.

The greatest of all romances is found in the eternal truth of the Christian religion, which shows the God of the Universe Him self entering the lists for the glory of His Kingdom and the salvation of the world. Nothing that the romantic imagination can conceive is so wonderful as the truth of the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the Cross, and the splendor of that shameful death. If we have not been fully alive until now to the claims of Christian privilege, let us pray that some genuine apostolic fervor may awaken us, as S. Paul raised Eutychus to life, to seize the possibilities of romantic adventure in the Church, and in our home, and in our vocation.
Above: James Fenimore Cooper 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Marriage is a Dangerous Business

A homily preached at the wedding of Adam and Carly Wassel.

Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7

Marriage is a dangerous business.

Love—the kind of love that causes a person to make the reckless choice of signing the rest of one’s life away to the service of another person—isn’t all cooing doves and sweet smelling flowers. Oh it starts out that way, but be on guard! Its dangerous stuff. The author of the Song of Songs—from which our Old Testament lesson comes—describes love with language almost sinister:  Its jealousy is unyielding as the grave! It blazes like a mighty fire! 

In a more contemporary example, June Carter described the experience of falling in love with her husband Johnny Cash this way:
I fell into a burning ring of fire,
I went down, down, down as the flames went higher
 And it burns, burns, burns

It is no wonder that the repeated refrain of the Song of Songs is, “O Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you, do not stir up or awaken love before its time!” Love is not easily extinguished, “many waters cannot quench love,” it is a force that can drive a person to leave house and home, to give everything they have to possess the object of their desire and affection. 

Love is like plutonium. It has explosive power and must be handled with respect, and approached with caution.

It is with this blazing fire, what we call falling in love that marriage begins, but marriage is about more than fireworks . It requires that we go deeper beyond the initial excitement. The experience of falling in love can turn many a person into a pyro maniac. They are forever chasing that rush of euphoria and the dazzling flame. If we play with fire, however, we can easily burn our house to the ground and turn our life to ashes.

No, the initial conflagration of love, is not meant to go on indefinitely. It is foolish to expect that it should. Who could bear to be in that intoxicating agony for even five years let alone a lifetime? How could we possibly carry on with the ordinary business of life in such a state? The wildfire of early courtship becomes the kindling flame of the hearth.

Falling in love is a kind of temporary insanity that causes us to let our guard down long enough to get sucked into a commitment we would probably never make sober minded. Why? Because love—the kind of love that emerges after the fireworks have quieted down—is incredibly difficult.

This is not so much the fire of ecstasy as it is the caldron of purification. The state of marriage, in which two people make vows to love one another for the rest of their lives, is an ascetical discipline designed to make us holy.

We have all heard of monastics who take vows of celibacy in the pursuit of holiness. The vows of marriage are no less demanding. The home and family will be your monastery.

In the Christian faith, we believe that marriage is a sacrament. If you can remember your days of Sunday school or CCD, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. So for instance in the sacrament of baptism the water represents the cleansing power of the death and resurrection of Christ to rid us of the stain of sin. In the Eucharist, the bread and wine represent the Body of Christ broken and his blood poured out for our salvation. 

The outward and visible sign of marriage is your spouse. According to Saint Paul, the union of man and woman in the bonds of holy matrimony, is a profound mystery that is meant to represent the love of Christ for his people. 

What this boils down to is that loving your spouse means taking up your cross and following Christ. Marriage is a relationship so intimate and up close that there is no place to hide our deepest sin. Your spouse will be like a mirror in which your own frailty and brokenness will be revealed. You must see these faults as the biggest obstacle to the flourishing of your relationship and never give in to the perpetual temptation to resent your spouse for revealing to you your weakness. Instead you must daily make the choice to put to death this darkness in yourself, and lay down your life for the good of your beloved.
In order to love your spouse you need to constantly practice grace and forgiveness. You must always look beyond your partner’s sin to the person that they can become by God’s grace.  To paraphrase Goethe, if you treat your partner as they are, they will stay the way they are. But if you treat them as they ought to be and could be, they will become a bigger and better person. 

In your desire to be a true and faithful spouse, you can no better than to look to Christ, who being in the very form of God emptied himself and took the form of a servant, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, who loved us while we were yet sinners and died for us to present us to himself as radiant, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

Adam, Carly, love one another as he has loved us.