Sunday, January 24, 2016


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 24, 2016

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

            Last week I was blessed to get away to San Francisco for a few days, although now after the great blizzard of 2016 it feels like that was about six months ago!
            But, San Francisco is one of my favorite places and I’m always glad to be there to relax, to sip coffee in a cafe and work on the New York Times crossword puzzle, to visit friends, and to walk those beautiful streets – yes, even with those incredibly steep hills.
            To my surprise, while I was there I noticed quite a few Jehovah’s Witnesses hard at work spreading information about their faith.
            Unlike here, where I’m sure we’ve all seen them traveling in groups, walking house to house, ringing doorbells, carrying their pamphlets, out in San Francisco they were set up on street corners, each group standing around a rack containing pamphlets in various languages.
            They were on a corner just a few blocks from my hotel – every day, rain or shine, from quite early in the morning to after dark.
            Although I never once saw anyone stop to talk with them, still I was impressed by their commitment and determination, their willingness to try to convert people to their faith.
            Here in the Episcopal Church, along with most other mainline Protestants and even Roman Catholics, we don’t really talk much anymore about conversion.
            And, we don’t really send missionaries anymore to convert people to Christianity. Instead, most, if not all, of our missionaries go out to the poorest places on earth to teach or to heal, rather than to convert people to Christianity.
            But, seeing those faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses and thinking about today’s sermon has got me thinking about conversion.
            Or, actually, conversions.
            It’s not my place to criticize missionaries, past or present – and, without their courage and faithfulness, quite a few of us wouldn’t be in church today - but I do think that we made a mistake by fixating on conversion as one big moment, instead of thinking of conversion as a process.
            God is all about conversions – working at us, working in us, working with us -converting us into who we were always meant to be.
            Today we celebrate our patronal feast – the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle.
            As we heard in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles and from Paul himself in his letter to the Galatians, as a young man Paul (or Saul as he was then called) persecuted some of the earliest followers of Jesus.
            Elsewhere in Acts we hear the story of the first martyr, Stephen, who was stoned to death while Saul cheered on the rock-throwers and watched everybody’s coats.
            Saul persecuted the first followers of Jesus until he had his powerful conversion experience on the Damascus road, the blinding light and the voice of the Risen Christ saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
            Saul was truly converted, transformed from a persecutor of Christ into an apostle who brought the Good News to the gentiles, who carried the word of Christ to non-Jews, to as many places and people as he could, who, ultimately gave away his life for Christ.
            But, we know from his letters that after his big conversion Paul didn’t have an easy time of it.
            The leaders of the church were understandably suspicious of him, remembering only too well his not so long ago persecution.
            And, they weren’t sure about his mission to the gentiles. They needed to be convinced that these non-Jewish followers of Jesus could skip Jewish dietary and other rules.
            And, we know that Paul wasn’t always so successful as a preacher and teacher. He had some kind of unnamed disability – maybe a speech impediment or something wrong with his eye – that made him less persuasive – that made people wonder if God really did favor him.
            We know that there were other more attractive and eloquent evangelists who taught a gospel different from Paul and may even have had more success, at least in the short-term.
            And we know that sometimes Paul would set up a Christian community and move on only to find out that they had been led astray and were doing exactly what he had told them not to do.
            We know that he endured arrests and beatings and shipwrecks - and ultimately death in Rome.
            And, we know that Paul didn’t always handle all of these setbacks with grace and humor. Instead, in his letters we hear plenty of anger, jealousy, insecurity and boasting, disappointment, and frustration.
            As powerful as Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus was, I don’t think it would have been enough to keep him going.
            Yet, Paul didn’t give up on God.
            Because God didn’t give up on Paul.
            Instead, even in the midst of all those setbacks and disappointments, God kept working at, working in, and working with Paul – continuing to convert him into who he was always meant to be.
            So, despite all his hardships, Paul the converted apostle was able to write to the little Christian community in Philippi, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until.”
            And, in the middle of a pretty tough criticism of the church in Corinth, Paul the converted apostle was able to write his great hymn to love, ”Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
            God kept working at, working in, and working with Paul – continuing to convert him into who he was always meant to be.
            And, the same is true for us.
            Like our brother Paul, we all face setbacks and hardships.
            And plenty of times when things don’t go our way, we get angry and jealous, disappointed and frustrated. We may even puff ourselves up out of our own insecurity.
            But, as long as we remain open to God, God will continue to convert us.
             And, just as God used Paul, God will use us – use St. Paul’s - to convert a world broken by all kinds of sin into the world of love, the world revealed by Christ and proclaimed by Paul.
            Thanks be to God.