Sunday, January 25, 2015


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 25, 2015

The Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle
Acts 26:9-21
Psalm 67
Galatians 1:11-24
Matthew 10:16-22

            Human endurance is amazing, isn’t it?
            It’s so impressive what the human body can take – how fast some people can run, how high they can jump, how strong the human body can be.
            Human endurance is amazing.
            It’s probably why so many people love to watch sports.
            Recently we’ve had some pretty incredible examples of human endurance.
            I don’t know if you’ve followed this – if you’ve seen any of the incredible pictures of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, two American climbers who spent 19 days climbing the 3,000 foot high Dawn Wall of El Capitan, a mountain in Yellowstone Park.
            Caldwell and Jorgensen free climbed this wall, meaning they didn’t use any climbing aids, just their own legs and arms. This was such a daunting challenge that many people thought it simply couldn’t be done, yet, through an amazing, almost superhuman display of endurance, these two climbers managed to reach the top of the mountain – did I mention after 19 days? - where they were greeted by family and friends.
            In a few weeks we’re all about to start witnessing another amazing feat of human endurance.
            In March an American astronaut named Scott Kelly along with a Russian cosmonaut will be sent to the International Space Station, where they will remain for one year. A few cosmonauts have managed to do endure a year in space but this will be the longest stay for an American.
            NASA will be studying the effects on Scott Kelly’s body during such a long time in near zero gravity and comparing it to what’s going on with his twin brother back here on earth, who also happens to be an astronaut.
            Scott Kelly says he will be performing a lot of experiments and also reading, emailing, journaling, checking social media, but even with modern technology and distractions, a year in space is a real test of human endurance.
            Now, we’re not going to climb El Capitan or spend a year in space but our endurance gets tested all the time doesn’t it?
            Sometimes there are the difficult people we need to endure.
            Sometimes we need to endure medical tests and procedures.
            Sometimes we endure the breaking of relationships and sometimes the death of people we love so much.
            And, if we do it right, it requires endurance to be a Christian.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus paints a pretty scary picture of the Christian life – “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.
            Jesus warns us about the endurance needed to be his follower but promises that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
            Today we remember someone who knew all about Christian endurance. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, our patronal feast.
            After Jesus himself, Paul is probably the most important figure in Christian history. His letters make up a large chunk of the New Testament.
             And, I love St. Paul but, I admit, he’s a complicated character.
            He was a Pharisee, a member of that group that clashed with Jesus and his first followers.  We know from the Acts of the Apostles – and Paul admits - that he took part in the persecution of some early Christians.
            But, then Paul – or Saul as he was then known – had a powerful conversion experience where he encountered the Risen Christ. This mysterious experience transforms Saul, converting him into Paul the Apostle.
            Paul spent the rest of his life traveling around the Mediterranean world, telling as many people as he could about the Good News of Jesus.
            It was very hard work indeed.
            Imagine talking about Jesus with people who had never heard of him. Where would you begin?
            For the rest of his life, Paul endured many hardships.
            Apparently he wasn’t the most attractive or most eloquent person, which made his work even more difficult.
            Often he would no sooner get a Christian community going and move on to the next place when he would hear that things had gone off the rails and his new Christians were doing exactly what he told them not to do.
            Paul faced ridicule, rejection, arrests and beatings, and a shipwreck.
            He clashed with other early Christian leaders, including Peter.
            And, according to tradition, Paul finally gave up his life for Christ when he was beheaded in Rome around the year 67.
            St. Paul endured to the end.
            And, Jesus tells us, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
            So, how about us?
            Are we here at St. Paul’s like St. Paul? Are we “Enduring Christians”?
            Of course, only we can answer that question for ourselves.
            But, in preparation for our parish meeting next week, I’ve been working on our annual report. And, I see a lot of endurance here at St. Paul’s.
            I think of those of you who endured the lean years here when the church was nowhere near filled – and neither was the offering plate – and yet you endured, believing in God, believing in this place, keeping things going, enduring to the end – enduring to another beginning.
            On an average Sunday last year there were 95 people in church, up from 69 the year before and 51 the year before that. This amazing number tells me that people have endured – coming to church week after week, coming when it was cold or hot or rainy or icy or when we couldn’t use the St. Dom’s lot or when we just didn’t feel like it – we endured because we are called to worship God and be here for each other.
            And then there are our weekday services.
            There are never huge crowds but week after week for about a year and a half now we have kept to our weekday worship schedule and no matter what we have never canceled a weekday service.
            We have endured and bathed this room in prayer.
            I think about our Thanksgiving community meal. Trish Szymanski and her band of volunteers spent so many hours chopping and butchering and boiling and roasting – cooking into the wee hours of the night so that people who might not otherwise have had Thanksgiving were fed in body and in spirit.
            Those volunteers endured all the way to the cleanup – endured to the end.
            And, just last Monday a group of us from St. Paul’s and other faith communities stood in the cold over at the Hub on MLK Drive, reading the words of Dr, King, singing hymns and praying for the justice and peace that was Dr. King’s dream – a dream that is still unfulfilled.
            We endured on Martin Luther King Drive.
            So, today is our feast day: the Conversion of St. Paul.
            Today we remember and celebrate St. Paul, this important and complicated character who was converted into someone who gave away his life for Christ, who endured to the end.
            And, now we also are called to endure to the end – which, of course, with God is not really an end but another beginning.
            With God’s help, right here at St. Paul’s, together, we can endure.