A sermon offered on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 24, 2016, to the 199th Annual Meeting of the members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw;
The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.
Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.
(Apostle by poet and priest Malcolm Guite)
A lovely sonnet getting at the contradictions and paradoxes of Saul the Pharisee, dedicated persecutor of the church, who became Paul the Apostle, greatest promoter of the church’s gospel. In lyrically detailing those polarities, Malcolm Guite gives us a hint at what is meant by “conversion.”
If we look up “conversion” on the internet, we find (in Wikipedia, for example) that there are definitions pertaining to its use in law, in finance and economics, in linguistic and computing, in sports and entertainment, and (of course) in religion. However, I think the Wikipedia article on religious conversion gets it sadly wrong.
We read there that religious conversion is “the adoption of a set of beliefs identified with one particular religious denomination to the exclusion of others. Thus ‘religious conversion’ would describe the abandoning of adherence to one denomination and affiliating with another.” (Wikipedia) That’s wrong. Conversion has nothing to do with “sets of beliefs;” adopting one of those in place of another is simply changing one’s mind. And it isn’t about abandoning one denomination for another; that’s simply changing clubs.
Conversion has to do with something much, much more. And I would suggest to you that it is something over which the person converting has really very little control. We do not convert; we are converted.
Certainly that is the case with Saul. His conversion as he describes it here to King Agrippa (and as Luke, the author of Acts, describes it earlier in Chapter 9), this is not conversion over which Saul has any control at all! I’m sure, though, that he was open to it. I’m sure that, as a faithful Jew, Saul prayed the daily Amidah (or “Standing Prayer”) which includes this petition: “You graciously bestow knowledge upon man and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from you, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are you Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge.” (chabad.org) I rather doubt, however, that he expected it to be answered in quite so dramatic a fashion.
Religious conversion is a matter of being; it implies a new reference point for the convert’s self-identity, a complete change of direction. Whatever had been the pole star of the convert’s moral compass, another utterly replaces it. While there is a moment of conversion, an experience of being turned toward the new reference point, conversion is not complete unless it is appropriated, adopted, lived into by the convert; it is after the moment of conversion that “the adoption of a set of beliefs” or the affiliating with a new religious community takes place. Thus, conversion is never a one-and-done. Conversion does not end in the moment; it continues for a lifetime.
Saul became Paul, his baptismal name taken as token of that change in his being, that reorientation toward a new pole star, Jesus the Christ. We can see his living into all that that entails as he works out his new theology in his letters to the churches.
His example is for us. Each of us is, like Paul, living into a conversion. We may have come to our Christian faith by our upbringing rather than through a distinct moment of conversion. We may have been baptized as infants never to have known a moment when the direction of our life was changed. We may have come to faith slowly, perhaps we are not even sure we are there yet! Nonetheless, as members of the Christian community, like Paul, we are called to grow into the implications of conversion.
As the great Presbyterian story teller Frederick Buechner has written in his book Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, Scripture is filled with many examples unlike the great conversions such as Paul’s:
There are a number of conversions described in the New Testament. You think of Paul seeing the light on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19), or the Ethiopian eunuch getting Philip to baptize him on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:28-40). There is also the apostle Thomas saying, “My Lord and my God!” when he is finally convinced that Jesus is alive and whole again (John 20:26-29), not to mention the Roman centurion who witnessed the crucifixion saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Luke 23:47). All these scenes took place suddenly, dramatically, when they were least expected. They all involved pretty much of an about-face, which is what the word conversion means. We can only imagine that they all were accompanied by a good deal of emotion.
But in this same general connection there are other scenes that we should also remember. There is the young man who, when Jesus told him he should give everything he had to the poor if he really wanted to be perfect as he said he did, walked sorrowfully away because he was a very rich man. There is Nicodemus, who was sufficiently impressed with Jesus to go talk to him under cover of darkness and later to help prepare his body for burial, but who never seems to have actually joined forces with him. There is King Agrippa, who, after hearing Paul’s impassioned defense of his faith, said, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28, KJV). There is even Pontius Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) under such circumstances as might lead you to suspect that just possibly, half without knowing it, he really hoped Jesus would be able to give him the answer, maybe even become for him the answer.
Like the conversions, there was a certain amount of drama about these other episodes too and perhaps even a certain amount of emotion, though for the most part unexpressed. But of course in the case of none of them was there any about-face. Presumably all these people kept on facing more or less the same way they had been right along. King Agrippa, for instance, kept on being King Agrippa just as he always had. And yet you can’t help wondering if somewhere inside himself, as somewhere also inside the rest of them, the “almost” continued to live on as at least a sidelong glance down a new road, the faintest itching of the feet for a new direction.
We don’t know much about what happened to any of them after their brief appearance in the pages of Scripture, let alone what happened inside them. We can only pray for them, not to mention also for ourselves, that in the absence of a sudden shattering event, there was a slow underground process that got them to the same place in the end.
There is another conversion in the story of Paul’s conversion. It is not in our reading today but in Luke’s version in Chapter 9; he tells us of Ananias, to whom the Lord appeared commissioning him to teach Paul. Ananias objects at first; “No way,” he says. The Lord’s words, however, convince him to do as he is bidden and he becomes Paul’s teacher. Paul, after receiving Ananias’s instruction, preaches in the synagogues that Jesus is Lord. These two men, Paul and Ananias, represent two different communities, the new community of the disciples and the old community of the synagogue, both of which are transformed by gospel of Jesus, the risen Lord. The two conversions are a vision, a sign, of how the name of the risen Lord takes shape and unfolds in the lives of believers and communities of believers.
These stories of Paul, of Ananias, of the rich young man, of Nicodemus, and the others, invite us to consider how we look at our own world, who we respond when God takes our “no way,” and our “we’ve never done that before” and transforms them into “yes.” God gives us new vision, God rearranges our ways of seeing, being, and acting. God changes our world.
We know this to be true in our community, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, a constituent congregation of the Diocese of Ohio, of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and (still, despite the demands of some foreign primates) of the Anglican Communion. We have seen this community, this parish grow, change, change directions, build, renew, and adapt, all in response to God’s “yes” even when many of us might have said “no way” and even when many of us did say “we’ve never done it that way before.”
And look where God’s “yes” has brought us. Fourteen youths and adults were confirmed or received this year; five persons were baptized. They represent a 3% growth in the registered membership of the parish. Our weekly attendance in 2015 increased 5% over 2014’s average attendance. There were twice as many marriages last year compared to the year before, 20% more home communion visits, and nearly 70% more weekly prayer services.
Free Farmers’ Market, our largest outreach ministry, fed over 4,000 people, distributing almost 50,000 pounds of food during the year. We helped sustain the Summit-Medina Battered Women’s Shelter with numerous gifts-in-kind including bathroom and kitchen supplies, personal hygiene and laundry items, and new clothing for women and children. We contributed over $1,200 to the United Thank Offering and made a grant (through the Gentlemen’s Cake Auction) to a local elementary school (Garfield) to create a college vision experience for their Fourth Graders. 2015’s 9th Annual Cake Auction, by the way, increased the total for that program to over $18,000 in monies raised for ministries outside the parish.
Our youth group, the Episcopal Youth Community of St. Paul’s Parish, has grown to over twenty young people who have traveled on mission trips, attended diocesan and national youth events, taken part in Happening and other youth retreats, and hosted the annual Homelessness Awareness Sleep-Out and raising hundreds of dollars for the homeless shelter program in our community. St. Paul’s youth program is recognized as one of the premier ministries to, for, and by teens in this diocese.
Financially, this has been a banner year. We began the year thinking we were going to spend over $18,000 more than we would have available through donations and other income. Well, we did end with a deficit, but not nearly so large as we thought: as the Treasurer’s Report will show, it ended up being only $6,000. We made up two-thirds of the anticipated deficit. For the coming year, based on the outstanding charitable generosity of our members and the good financial stewardship of the vestry and the staff, we have seen an increase in anticipated income, a decrease in anticipated expenses, with a deficit of only $8,000 anticipated. If we do as well in the coming year as we have done in the past year, we will overcome that budgetary deficit and end with the year with an operating surplus. Despite this year’s operating surplus, we nonetheless have seen an increase in the parish’s overall financial health. We are almost $55,000 wealthier at year’s end than we were at the beginning; about half of that is a decrease in our indebtedness, the other half is an increase in our savings.
We have seen where God’s “yes” can bring us. Looking to the future, what can we foresee? What do we imagine what God is going to do with St. Paul’s Parish? Where is God leading us? What will be our response when God says to us, as he said to our Patron Saint, “Get up and Go, because I have chosen you and am commissioning you for the life of my community?” What will be our response when Jesus says to us, as he said to the first apostles, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves?”
I know what our response will be, because we have already given it many times. It will be the same as St. Paul’s, the same as Ananias’s: “Yes, Lord!” And “God, our own God, [will] give us his blessing, [and] all the ends of the earth [shall] stand in awe of him.” Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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