Year C, Easter 3
April 14, 21013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
The road to Damascus. It is one of those arch-typical stories of Christian faith, a core model of how God can reach out and grab us from the midst of our small, muddled, inward facing lives, even our grandly sinful, oppressive lives like Saul’s. It is a story of how God can just grab us and show us beyond the shadow of a doubt that and how we have been called to serve God and neighbor. It is a definitive story. It is a definitive story of conversion.
That is a sticky word, conversion. It conjures in my mind missionary armies forcing the Baptism of conquered nations at the edge of a sword. Of Jews tortured into apostasy by the Inquisitions. I think of Barbara Kingsolver’s beautiful book The Poisonwood Bible about missionaries in the then Belgian Congo. Horrid chapters, volumes even in our religious history, history that must be remembered. But that is only part of the story of conversions.
Saul, not Paul, Saul’s conversion is that other side of the story. Here is this man, a fervent, violent Pharisee bent on cleansing his beloved community of a heterodox element, the followers of “the Way.” (The term Christian does not come up for two more chapters in Acts). But there he is, traveling to Damascus to suppress, to haul in chains back to Jerusalem, these religious dissenters. He was ultra focused on one thing, one pretty bad thing, and bang… something happened. And through this, hearing the voice of Jesus Christ, of God, his being struck blind, his being reached out to by the very people he was sent to persecute, Saul became Paul, his sight was restored and he began to testify, “He is the Son of God.” Saul was converted and Paul came to be.
This story is a model, if not the model of how God can grab us and show us that there are another ways. Other ways to live, better ways to treat those we share the gift of life with, better ways to be in relationship with God and neighbor and everything, better ways to love. It is an iconic story displaying the power of a loving God to convert an evil doer into a founder of the Church. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” And yes, people have a lot of issues with Paul, he was a product of his age, but by any standard he was a remarkable individual, one of the greatest organizers who has ever lived, and a leader whose vision still matters. Paul, St. Paul is the product par excellence of conversion.
But it is complicated, this model of conversion. It is so dramatic, such a spectacle. And if there is one thing I learned in my formation it is to not expect spectacle. That said, many of you have heard a bit about my own epiphany, my own conversion experience in the midst of a bicycle journey in Europe. One Easter morning it became terribly clear that I was being called into ministry. It was not a spectacle, but it was dramatic, as is generally my nature. But that moment, that epiphanal moment in that little English church when things became more clear, it was just that: a moment, a moment of conversion. The movement of conversion, the larger, more important process was affected over the next five years, and certainly it continues today.
For a variety of reasons, primarily an overly liberal religious formation as a youth and some terrible encounters with Christian fundamentalists in the Marine Corps, Christianity did not seem particularly open to me as a place to realize my revealed vocation to ministry. However, I knew Unitarians, and that became a direct and welcoming path of least resistance for which I am deeply grateful. And it was from there, from the posture of being a Unitarian divinity school student that my conversion began in earnest.
I could tell you a long story of how each semester, how each encounter with systematic theology, how each word, words like sin, salvation, resurrection went from being opaque, suspicious or even offensive to “oh, that’s what that means? OK, I get it.” I could tell you how it took years of nimble vocabulary gymnastics, substituting words I could grok for words I could not or would not use, and I still do that sometimes. Parts of the Creed confuse me. That’s OK. Large chunks of the Bible put me off. That’s OK, too. It is supposed to put us off as it is supposed to challenge us, comfort us, confuse us and save us: scripture is all of that and more. I could share all the details of how I did it, my intellectual process, but that is not important. What is important is that enough of the pieces did fall in place, much like a game of Tetris, all interlocking, filling in gaps, completing the picture, where a discernible religious landscape emerged that I could lean into, rest into, seek refuge within and find strength to carry a new found faith into the world. That it happened is important, but that it keeps happening, that I am continuously converted into a follower, a better follower of Jesus Christ, that is much more important. Every Mass, every Morning Prayer, every time is sit down to pray the prayer list on the back of the announcements, or write a sermon, or take a confession, every time I lean into God in prayer there is an opportunity for conversion. That is the conversion that I am talking about. Not a spectacle. Not a grand epiphany, but the day in, day out revelation of the life of God. It is like Jack Kornfield’s great book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.
Now how does that happen? How are we converted? How do we go from being knocked off our horse, blinded by the light of God to living our life in a different way? Or from a confusing morning in southern England to a vocation? How do we go from being back in church for the first time in years, and for reasons you might not understand or appreciate, how do we go from that to being the person of faith that you will become? How do you begin paying attention to what you hear here, or what you sense coming from God in a new, deeper, more fundamental way; or how do you go from living your life how you have always lived it to realizing that there are different ways of living, ways more in line with what you know to be true, what you have faith that is true? The root question in each of these cases is this: how do you affect your own conversion into the person of God that you truly are? Or as Thomas Merton puts it, “But Oh! How far have I to go to find You in Whom I have already arrived!” Well, here’s a hint… you are doing it in this very moment.
As a pretty rapidly disgruntled Unitarian, getting my mind full of all sorts of academic/theological understandings of Christianity, my true conversion did not happen in the lecture hall or the library (as Hogwarty as Harvard’s libraries can be). It happened here. Right here, at this table, in the eternal and actual presence of God. Every Friday morning from that first semester on, I gathered with other students, staff and faculty around an altar presided over by an Anglican priest and we prayed our way through the sacrament of Eucharist week after week, month after month. It was very simple, a half hour Mass each Friday morning. To my mind, it was the best thing going at that school. And after three and a half years of it I realized that I was not supposed to be a Unitarian pastor. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be exactly, but I was certain that I was Christian.
It did not happen on a certain day. I don’t remember a shining moment, but weekly devotion around a table steeped in thousands of years of tradition, with words a thousand years older than the church, with others seeking, seeking, leaning into God in hopes of understanding how and why we are to live and love… that is the conversion that we offer here in this place. It is a conversion with a proximity fuse. If you come close, if you open yourself to it, you don’t even have to say yes, you just have to stop saying no, if you just simply show up… something is going to happen. We don’t promise the road to Damascus, I don’t promise a spectacle, but joining us here, no matter where you are on your journey into God in Christ, it is going to be good. AMEN.