April 14, 2013


Converstion of St. Paul

Sermon for Year C, Third Sunday of Easter
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
April 14, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Something happened to Saul, that Jesus-hater from Tarsus,
  Who was in the middle of persecuting Jesus’ followers when it happened.
Something so monumental happened that he changed his name because of it.
Left Saul behind; became a “Paul.”

By his own reckoning, he had had his act together. His life was in order.
He would later write to the church in Philippi:
  “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:
    Circumcised on the eighth day,
      A member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin,
        A Hebrew born of Hebrews;
      As to the law, a Pharisee;
      As to zeal, a persecutor of the church;
      As to righteousness under the law, blameless.
  Yet whatever gains I had,” he wrote, Whatever gains I had,
  “These I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

That word he uses that we translate so kindly and squishily as “loss”
  Should come across more like trash, or dog dung.
His life before he was converted to Christ, he says, was pointless.
He thought at the time he was doing something worthy of his God;
  Upon reflection, after the fact, he saw that he’d been wasting his time;
    That for him Christ must be at the center of all things,
    Or else his life would have been a useless piece of dime-store fiction.

Paul was a man with an outsize ego who wanted his life to have been worth something.
Understanding that he was not the center of the universe
  And being completely reoriented to Jesus
    Was his big conversion.
For a few days it even cost him his sight; then, suddenly, he could see straight.

John Bunyan wrote that
  “Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think...
    It is wounding work, this breaking of the hearts,
      But without wounding there is no saving...
    Where there is grafting there will always be a cutting,
      The graft must be let in with a wound;
      To stick it onto the outside or to tie it on with a string would be of no use.
Heart must be set to heart and back to back
  Or there will be no sap from root to branch.
And this, I say, must be done by a wound, by a cut.”

Those who are in the business of real conversion
  Will tell you they have to carry a sword or a scalpel of one form or another:
    To cut, to wound, if only to heal.
No lasting change or conversion can take place unless it comes with a price.
Pain is inevitable. Blood, sweat, and tears are inevitable.
Sacrifice and adjustment and discomfort are inevitable.
If you want to give yourself to be fully converted by something, by anything –
  Know from the very beginning that you can’t do it
  Without first giving up something you dearly love
    And have become used to and have come to depend upon.
Yet loss makes a space where transformation is possible.

And bearing the scars and the tattoos and the memories of initiation
  Is how you know you belong to something.
To become a member of a club or get a credit card,
  You fill out an application. That’s easy.
To become a follower of Jesus Christ,
  You’re buried with him in baptism,
    And you’re expected to conform your life to some hard rules.
Like Saul, you’re expected to get knocked off your donkey, lose your sight,
  Stumble around in the darkness,
  Pay the price of your innocence,
    And get set on a new lifelong path that in some cases looks nothing like the old one.

“If anyone is in Christ,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth,
  If anyone is in Christ,
  “There is a new creation: everything old has passed away;
    See, everything has become new!
  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,
  And has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

You can hear in his words that same energy he told us he had before,
  That same zeal and passion and intensity,
    Only it’s been realigned to Jesus. Repurposed away from himself, toward Christ.
Same-old Saul, brand-new Paul.
“We hardly know the guy anymore;
  He’s just like he used to be, only he’s completely different.”

And, this passion and intensity register in the heart as Joy.
Let’s not fail to remember that Paul is excited beyond words:
  That he knows, after the fact of his conversion, that it was completely worth the pain.

That being engaged in the particular ministry he’s been given
  Brings him indescribable happiness.
When we have fully converted to a new way of thinking,
  We eventually look back on our lives,
    No matter what they have brought us,
    And we can laugh at everything that’s gone on,
  No matter how ridiculous the circumstances.

Last night, I attended the Jackson Recovery Centers banquet.
I heard a woman named Magdalena tell the story of her slow conversion
  To the principles of Al-Anon. She spoke for just one quick hour.

She grew up in the some of the absolute worst of circumstances:
  Dirt-poor in Mexico,
  The child of a deeply abusive alcoholic father,
    Who never brought home bread, but only money, for tequila.
She’d been told from the very beginning of her life that she was totally worthless,
  And she had believed it.
She believed she was stupid and ugly;
  Her father called her a prostitute; she believed that, too.
She dodged American authorities trying to find and deport her
  By hiding in the piles of chicken waste
    Under the chicken coops she tended as an undocumented, illegal immigrant.
She wanted to die or kill someone. Someone like her father.

She later married – wouldn’t ya know it? – an alcoholic,
  And all the trouble just rolled on.
It took years and years of tears and sweat
  For her to come around to the idea that she might actually be worth something.
That, I think, was the heart of her conversion:
  To finally understand that she was worth saving as a person.

And I will tell you that throughout her telling of her story last night,
  Magdalena radiated unthinkable joy and peace and deep, deep humor.
Here she was telling us about wanting to kill her father, all these horrible things,
  And she had us laughing about them with her,
  Because in hindsight she saw her life for what it was,
    And she publicly showed us these cavernous scars on her soul,
    And she seemed to be saying that because of them –
    Because of her hard life, not in spite of it –
      There was nothing to do but look back and laugh.
And now she is fully converted.
She has nothing but confidence in this gospel
  And she will spend the rest of her life preaching it
    To anyone who can hear it and benefit from it.

Those who have been truly converted to any new way of thinking just know
  That they have to keep giving it away,
    Keep giving it away, giving it away;
      That that’s how it works;
        That giving it away, mystery of mysteries, is how we hold on to it.

Giving away the mystery.
Christ at the center of all things.
The redeeming, resurrected Word and love of God.
That’s the conversion – the lifetime conversion – at the heart of our faith.
To love and love and show love and talk about love and give love away
  Because we were loved first by God in Christ.

So perhaps we are more like Saul than we know in our waste and abuse of life.
And perhaps we are more like Paul than we know in our love for God.
The question is simply this:
  Will we submit to the same process by which Saul becomes Paul?

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