Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (transferred) – January 23, 2011
A little girl, dressed in her Sunday best, was running as fast as she could, to get to Sunday School on time. As she ran she prayed, ‘Dear God, please don’t let me be late! Dear God, please don’t let me be late!’ All of a sudden she tripped on the curb and fell, getting her clothes dirty and tearing her dress. She got up, brushed herself off, and started running again! And once again began to pray, ‘Dear God, please don’t let me be late…But please don’t
shove me either!’
Sometimes we need a good shove—like Paul got. The first reading today is the scriptural story of the transition that changed Saul, the zealous persecutor of Christians, into Paul, the apostolic cornerstone of the church. It is a rare first-person narrative and is his intimate testimony to what God may require of us: conversion.
Eighteen years ago, on this very feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, I stood at the Altar in Christ Church, New Haven, as the celebrant of my first Solemn Mass as an Episcopal Priest. The rector, Father Gerald Minor, of happy memory, preached about Paul’s conversion and about mine. Now the term “conversion” may raise some strong reactions. Both of the former denominations to which I belonged—the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches—required “conversion” from one’s former affiliation in order to be in communion with that church, a full-fledged member. We spoke of those who made that leap as “converts” to the faith. In more colloquial jargon, folks often referred to the switch as “turning Catholic” or “turning Orthodox.”
In retrospect, it evokes for me the image of one, finger on the top of his head, spinning round and round like a top. For those who become converts in these churches—as well as for those who do that in fundamentalist denominations—it implies a turning away from things one believed in a prior religious affiliation to a totally new way of believing and thinking.
But that’s not how I perceive Paul’s conversion nor is it how I perceive my coming to the Episcopal Church. Rather than a movement to an institution of like-minded people who share common perspectives and beliefs, I think that the kind of conversion I experienced was an embracing of the multitude of people’s differences, not changing others to our point of view but just the opposite—weaning every person and every institution from the arrogant exclusivism that so many practice in the name of religion. Conversion is all about conversation for, in Paul’s case, that’s where it began—with God’s having conversation with Saul, newly fallen from his high horse, squinting mightily in order to avoid the brilliance of the light that surrounded him. His conversion would lead him to be the first disciple of radical welcome, inviting Gentiles into the Church.
There is one piece of information in Paul’s narrative that is worth our attention. He talks about being furious and enraged with Christians. Herein lies a key to the process of conversion—not so much an adoption of “isms” and doctrines but rather a change of one’s heart. Where might we need that kind of conversion? That change of heart ?
One thing that comes to mind is in our life as a member of the church. If we have experienced on a regular basis the beauty of worship, the excellence of the sacred music, the attention of the staff that keeps this place going, the opportunities for sharing our gifts in ministry, and if we have, perhaps, taken all that for granted, we may give into our human proclivity to judge things and people by the world’s standards and that will most definitely get in the way of our living as if we were truly building the Kingdom of God. Too, we may let our annoyance over things that really don’t matter, our urge to micro-manage, our tendency to forget about all the good stuff that we enjoy and focus on the things that we think should be different—all which become obstacles to our seeing and living into the big picture—God’s unique mission for us as a faith community and for the Body of Christ in the world.
In the Gospel passage for this feast we find Jesus giving his disciples instructions for going on mission—their mission to preach, to heal and be agents of reconciliation. Jesus tells them that their work can have sobering consequences. It can result in conflict, ridicule, and even separation from those who find it too disturbing—maybe even people they thought were friends. Unlike the first Christians, we don’t have to fear persecution for our beliefs and the practice of our faith. We don’t have to worry about getting in hot water with the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. But let’s not dismiss too quickly the admonition about being sent as sheep into the midst of wolves.
The gospel is good news for many—particularly to those who are oppressed in one way or another. It is good news for those who acknowledge their need to be restored and made whole. But it can be pretty bad news for those whose worldview is shaped by dominant cultural institutions. The gospel can be objectionable and repulsive to those who live according to the letter of the law and not according to the law of love.
When we proclaim the good news about forgiving one another instead of harboring resentment, seeking justice instead of keeping people in line, effecting reconciliation instead of proving who is right, giving up the stuff of this world and giving ourselves to its people, inviting the marginalized and offering them a place at our table, fighting for the weak, we may well find that the world will hate us for it. That message has always gotten Christians into trouble, and still does. But isn’t one of God’s great gifts—perhaps the greatest gift to each of us—being born into an unfinished world and given a share with God in creation?
Maybe another aspect of conversion is to be on our guard not to fall prey to a kind of boredom that overcomes us when we hear the words of scripture that address our life and mission as the church. Can we muster up some hearty excitement about the work our patron Paul was called to do, the work we are called to do? We’ve had more than 2000 years to get it right, but we haven’t always done that, have we? Discord continues over non-essentials. Our unity is threatened by our attention to what is unimportant and we often miss what is fundamental to our mission. Sadly, the church has even at times become the agent of persecution rather than the victim of it.
The Church—that is the Body of Christ—is often as broken as his was, but we are always capable of being restored and likely to be resurrected at any moment. That’s part of the promise God made and it is good to be reminded of it. We may not have reached Damascus yet, but neither are we lost in the darkness. It may seem dim at times, even chaotic and difficult to find our way, but we never know when we may be blinded by the light, when God will come to us, to rescue us—maybe even give us a good but gentle shove—getting us off our high horse long enough to see beyond the things that separate us, the discriminating distinctions that prevent us from living into the big picture. That’s real conversion. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be.