Monday, February 23, 2015


Sermon for the Conversion of St. Paul
January 25, 2015
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
The Very Rev. Jeanne Finan


Paul is telling his story to King Agrippa.
Most likely he is standing there in chains
before this august group of Roman leaders,
royally seated upon their ruling seats of power.
Agrippa is the last of King Herod’s descendants.

Paul is telling his conversion story
and all the story that came after that experience on the road
to Damascus.

What does it mean to convert?

We can convert inches to centimeters,
kilograms to pounds,
dollars to euros.
Our bodies convert food to energy.

But Paul’s conversion has nothing to do with learning the metric systerm,
or getting travel money
or learning to count calories.
Or even making a conscious decision to convert from one faith tradition
to another.

Paul’s conversion is a conversion of the heart.
And it was dramatic and unexpected and stunning.
Even as he stands here in front of the King,
twenty-five years or so after he saw the bright light and heard the voice
that would change the entire course of his life,
even now, it is still so vivid it feel like it was yesterday.
Paul tells his story with passion.

On the morning of that day of conversion,
Saul woke up---
that’s right, he went by the name of Saul at that time--
he was a Pharisee and he did not like the “saints”--
his name for Christians.

It wasn’t that Saul was evil or cruel;
he was a faithful man
he believed these Christians were way off base.
He did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah
and he resented those followers of Jesus going around
spreading the “good news”
because it was upsetting his orderly world.
Saul believed he was doing the right thing to persecute Christians,
to get rid of them.
Saul had not a doubt that he was right.

But on that day, traveling to Damascus, everything changes.
There is a light, there is a voice, and in the course of three days,
Saul realizes how wrong he has been.
Saul is so changed that he receives a new name--Paul--
and a new life.

The Hebrew word which translates to “convert”
means to turn back or to return.
The word can also mean restore--
as it does in Psalm 23--
God restores my soul.

God converts my soul.

Convert in a religious context, in a scriptural context
means to return us, to restore us,
 to what we are created to be.
Conversion restores us to the relationship with God
that was always intended.

Somewhere along the way
we may have gotten lost,
or maybe we never even got started,
but something happens
and we find ourselves changed beyond rational explanation.

The direction of our life takes a turn.
It as if a compass is placed in our hand
and now we know how to find the way home.

This is what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus.
He wasn’t seeking conversion.
He thought he knew the direction and purpose of his life.
Paul is just as amazed, just as stunned, as everyone who knew him.

There is another amazing thing about this story in Acts.
King Agrippa is almost converted.
He almost believes Paul.
We have to read ahead a few verses
but if we did, in verse 28 we would hear
King Agrippa speaking to Paul and saying,
Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?

King Agrippa is almost convinced.

Paul will not be freed. He will go to jail. He will be executed.
But King Agrippa hears the passion
of a man who has found his way.

Many of us would love to have a conversion experience
as clear and as dramatic and as convincing as Paul’s.
Probably some of you have had that type of experience.
It might not be something you share very often
but dramatic, mysterious conversion experiences still happen.

Why is it full steam ahead for some of us
but only “almost” for others
and for some, it is never more than “you must be kidding me”?

Frederick Buechner writes:

“If only Paul had been a little more eloquent.
If only Agrippa had been a little more receptive, a little braver,
a little crazier.
If only God weren't such a stickler
for letting people make up their own minds without forcing their hands.”

Buechner is right.
God lets us make up our own minds.
God gives us free will to make the decision.

Conversion is a total overhaul of our hearts.
It can happen in a split second flash of brightness
or it can happen slowly,
following one teeny tiny blinking LED bulb
along a winding path.
Or we can keep the door barred and say, No. No, thank you.

Some of you have spent the last three days here at the Cathedral
watching the simulcast of the Trinity Institute.
Some of us, for a variety of reasons,
followed along on our iPads at home or as we traveled.

This year’s theme “Creating the Common Good”
focused on economic inequality,
the growing gap between the have’s and the have not’s,
and the gospel imperative to fight economic oppression.

This conference has not been about personal conversion
but about collective conversion.
How is God working with us, with our churches,
to speak out against injustice?

St. Paul has some wise counsel for us.
Remember that he was not afraid to speak the truth to power.
He stood in chains before King Agrippa but he stood.
And he spoke.

The Bible--both Old Testament and New Testament--
calls us repeatedly to confront the powers and principalities
and speak up.
Many of us are very fortunate, very blessed,
and God calls us
to use our privilege and power
to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.
Nothing tells us to wait for heaven.

Paul also shows us that we all have need for repentance,
for a change of heart in some ways.
Paul had no agenda when he was persecuting Christians,
just as we have no agenda to oppress the poor.

But God always calls us to listen and to look closely--
especially when we think we are so very right--
and so very not-guilty of any offense.

We are already at work.
JUMP provides direct services.
VIA works to change systems that are broken.
SASH offers our senior citizens, often some of the poorest of our citizens,
    care and comfort.
Cathedral Square Housing has almost 800 people on their waiting list.
800 people who need safe, clean affordable housing.
We recycle. We compost.
We cook meals and serve at the Salvation Army and other shelters.

We pray.
Yes, prayer matters.
Never believe that it doesn’t.

We are blessed to have so many ways to engage,
to engage in creating the common good.

Everyone is needed.
God’s heart is open to all of us.
Conversion is about opening our hearts to God
    but also opening our hearts to one another,
    even the others we don’t know,
    the others we don’t know much about.

In the words of our patron saint St. Paul,
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Conversion is about love.
God loving us so much that the desire is to draw us closer
   and to have us live the life God dreams for us.

Conversion is about love.
Us loving God so much
    that we really believe
that we can change the world.

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