Monday, 26 January 2015

A Sermon on Conversion

The Conversion of St Paul (2015) Year B RCL Principal

To Be Converted, or continued, or both…

Today is, as you may have guessed, the festival of the Conversion of St Paul.  So I am going to begin by asking - as one should to an Anglican audience - "how many of you have been converted…?!??!"

No, not really.

I could tell you my conversion story, though… imagine a tubby little boy who looks just like me but without a beard, oh and mousey browny-blond hair.  This little lad is in a small chapel tent in a field of tents in a place called Polzeath (or Polzeth as many call it) and he’s chatting to a genial older chap who asks.  Do you want to give your heart to Jesus?  To which I replied yes.
So in that simple setting, having heard over the course of that week the message of faith in a new way, I committed myself to being a Christian.  It wasn’t spectacular, there were no lights or voices from the sky.  I just said a prayer.  And it was a beginning.  I called it my conversion. So did the Christian Community to which I belonged – it was a crucial part in my journey of faith.

It wasn’t a Saint Paul moment – I didn’t have a dark and disturbing past to be set free from.  Unlike the stories I had heard back in my youth of Gangland conversions in the Bronx, or the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, or the miraculous changes of heart of tough guys from the East End of London my story was boring. Which was a bit of shame, I thought. 

In Frank McCourt’s autobiographical work ‘Angela’s Ashes’ he talks of how it was common for the young Catholic schoolboys taking their first confessions to make up things in order to feel that they actually HAD something to confess.  They were worried that if they didn’t have something juicy to say they would be punished for pride or for lying!  In my protestant world, you really wanted a good conversion story.  But it was not to be – I might have embellished stories of what I considered dreadful childhood sins, but they weren’t really substantial.  I was no St Paul. My conversion, such as it was, was significantly less dramatic.

In fact, the idea of Conversion as we have had it passed down to us has picked up some negative connotations, it shares a dodgy reputation with ideas like ‘Mission’, ‘Repent’, ‘Sin’ and even ‘Salvation’ – words whose meanings have baggage, weight, because of the ecclesial or local culture that has used them.  These words have been used to bludgeon the unwary and the unsuspecting, the cowed and the dominated, the colonised and the confused.  Repent or die – physically or spiritually… 

The language of conversion has been used to threaten and coerce, and that is heartbreakingly shown in a poem by J. Neil C. Garcia which talks of the metaphorical death by drowning of a transgender woman forced to choose to be a man by her traditional family. It’s a long poem so I won’t quote it all – the link is here   – but it talks from the perspective of a transgender woman forced to live a life as a heterosexual man by her family, and talks of the perpetuation of masculine violence bound up in this act of “conversion” and its aftermath and ends with the heartbreaking words.:

…Though nobody
Remembers, I sometimes think of the girl
Who drowned somewhere in a dream many dreams ago.
I see her at night with bubbles
Springing like flowers from her nose.
She is dying and before she sinks I try to touch
Her open face. But the water learns
To heal itself and closes around her like a wound.
I should feel sorry but I drown myself in gin before
I can. Better off dead, I say to myself
And my family that loves me for my bitter breath.
We die to rise to a better life.

Conversion does not have a good history.  

And yet today is a festival – a feast of conversion. We have little or no detail of the birth or death of St Paul, Apostle to Gentiles, so we celebrate this exceptional, miraculous event which turned him from being a persecutor of the Church to being a champion of Jesus Christ and an architect of the order of the Church.  His writings, rich in theology and practical advice, deeply rooted in his Jewish ancestry and contemporary culture, desperate to enliven a burgeoning Church with the life of the living Spirit of God in Christ are a substantial part of our Scriptures and his influence is strongly felt in the church today.

We celebrate his turning from one way to another, the radical diversion of his path on that road to Damascus and his realignment to following the way of Christ. This, we are told, is conversion – a fracturing of reality, often the result of a crisis moment, a moment of revelation, a moment which changes everything…

But that is how we have so often been told conversion works, the only way that conversion works! In many traditions within the Christian faith, this is what it means to be saved –  it is such a striking image that we we have the vivid account of it not only in today's reading from Acts 26, but in two other places in Acts, also in Galatians and a reference of Christ appearing to Paul alluded to in his account of the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians chapter 15… Obviously this conversion was a dramatic, life changing – and according to the hyperbole of some commentators, world changing – event. 

That’s how it’s been portrayed in the stories passed down, in countless sermons, in artworks through the ages – two of which I copied for you to see and which, I hope were given out with our bulletin for today…  In the Caravaggio painting, one of at least two of Michelangelo Meris da Caravaggio’s portrayals of the Conversion of St Paul – Paul is so overwhelmed that he has fallen from his horse!
Which brings me to what I really want to say – like the horse in Caravaggio’s painting, or the Donkey in the nativity story, or the idea that there were three kings at the manger – there is so much layered on to what conversion is – and so much of the nuance, the variations, the different aspects of what the whole idea of conversion is and might be that it is hard to drop the baggage and consider again what this concept of Conversion might actually offer to us today!

Though I am glad for the influence of good, Christian folk, who brought me to a very deliberate start of my own pilgrimage of faith, I realise that this moment was just that – the start.  I was consciously making a commitment to my journey. I turned from one way to another, but I know that God was at work long before that moment, making Godself known to me through scripture, through the people who shared my life, through the traditions and worship of the Church community that gave me a sense of belonging.

But that wasn’t my only conversion, it was a part of my ongoing conversion.  Or perhaps a better word would be ‘metanoia’ – the Greek word which appears throughout the New Testament and is often translated repentance, but might best be understood as ‘turning’.  I’ve used this illustration before but the word ‘repent’ is one of those wonderful English words which the Church seems to have hijacked – it crops up much more in the kind of English novel that says something like ‘Mr Smithers repented of his intention to visit Miss Lambert and instead found himself heading in the opposite direction to a nearby hostelry’.  It simply means a change in direction.

Conversion too easily becomes seen as ‘flicking a switch’ – and both the Author of Acts – commonly thought to be Luke the Evangelist – and Paul himself in today’s reading are keen to stress the break between one part of Paul’s life and another.  “once I was very bad now, through God’s grace and the work of Christ, I am good’, ‘once I persecuted the Church, now I am persecuted because I serve Christ’.  This kind of dramatic break in the life narrative of Paul serves to show the wonder and the power of Christ.  It is what the Church needed to hear in its early days, the powerful and rapid transformation which Christ affects.  It’s a very black/white, light/dark, good/bad thing and easily slips into the simplistic, dualistic (as Richard Rohr might say) way of thinking that we are so inclined to veer towards.

But we all know that faith, and indeed life, are much more complex than that.  Take this poem by a Theologian and writer called Scott Cairns which I found on the Theology and Literature website

Adventures in New Testament Greek: Metanoia

Repentance, to be sure,
but of a species far
less likely to oblige
sheepish repetition.

Repentance, you’ll observe,
glibly bears the bent
of thought revisited,
and mind’s familiar stamp

–a quaint, half-hearted
doubleness that couples
all compunction with a pledge
of recurrent screw-up.

The heart’s metanoia,
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.
Scott Cairns

Conversion, metanoia, repentance – whatever we wish to call it, is a lifelong activity. Turning not so much away, as towards – towards Christ, towards Christlikeness.  It is a discipline and a grace – something that comes from our openness to the spirit of God and from a longing to know and feel the life of Christ within us.

It comes partly from spiritual practice, and I have said repeatedly from this pulpit and in many groups and conversations that I believe we are being challenged to be a spiritual community in the broadest sense – a community that in word and deed turns to the way of the spirit and seeks to live by the faith to which we are called, to which we are drawn.

But conversion is, to my mind, summed up well by thinking on what it means to turn towards Christ.  For me every act of compassion is a turning to Christ.  Every prayer, every attempt to still the many voices of the world and open ourselves to the life of faith is a turning to Christ. Everytime we open a newspaper, or the browser or our computer and see news which disturbs us and we pray about it, and seek to act in response to it with justice and love we are turning to Christ. Every time we seek to care for those in need we are turning to Christ. Every time we open ourselves to truly listen to another human being, are willing to change and learn and grow, we are turning to Christ.  Every time we speak out against injustice and challenge systems of oppression and marginalisation we are turning to Christ.  Every time we come to worship, alone or together, in silence, or in liturgy and song we are turning to Christ. 

This is conversion.  Not that we become a Christian, but that we seek through all of our pilgrimage to turn to Christ.  It is summed up well, I think in the part of the Baptismal liturgy that I copied along with the Michelangelo and Caravaggio paintings for you. It’s all good stuff! But I find challenge in those last lines which ask ‘
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God's creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?

May we continue to learn, grown and know that conversion, that metanoia, to which Christ continues to call us.  Amen.