Sermon for the Feast of the Conversation of St. Paul Celebrated on Sunday, January 28, 2018

Acts 26:9-21                             Psalm 67                         Galatians 1:11-24                              Matthew 10:16-22

I was watching a History Channel program on Christianity and heard it said that Christianity exists because of St. Paul.  It is St. Paul who spread the news of Jesus throughout the Middle East and to Rome.  There are four gospels that tell us about Christ, but they were written years after Paul wrote most of his letters to churches that he had formed in places such as Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Galatia.  More books of the New Testament are attributed to Paul, than any other writer.

So, on this Sunday, as we celebrate the feast of the conversion of St. Paul, for whom our church is named, I want us to consider what it means to be converted.  In the book of Acts, Paul tells King Agrippa, his conversion took place on the road to Damascus.  It was is a dramatic life changing event in which he meets the risen Christ – changing him from a religious zealot protecting the Jewish faith, to an evangelist proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah.  Not only does he proclaim this to his people, the Jews, he proclaims it to the Gentiles as well – a radical change from the Jewish belief that the Messiah would come to save only the chosen people of God.

After his conversion, Saul changes his name to Paul and endures the same prosecution he once inflicted on others.  His new faith never falters.  His story is both amazing and common.  Many of us here have had a conversation experience – though not as dramatic as his. I told you about my experiences a couple of weeks ago.  First in the cab of a truck, then in a pew at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville.  My conversion was not dramatic like Paul’s and it did not result in a complete reversal of the direction I was headed in life.  Instead it took place over time, a great deal of time. I suspect many of you can say the same about the way God has can changed your life.

First, I returned to church, where I experienced God’s presence – but was reluctant to admit it.  I used the time in church on Sunday mornings to reflect on my life, and thus opened myself to see God’s presence in my daily life, and to hear God’s call.  Various events over the course of many years transformed me into to who I am today.  I know God is not finished with me, I am not fully who God intends for me to be – but I am much more open to be the man God desires me to be.  God’s call is seldom like Paul’s road to Damascus experience, and it is never a once and done experience.

Instead, God is continually calling upon us to help make this a better world in which to live.  When we read the letters of Paul, it is difficult to see his continued transformation, but it is there.  A conversation changes or alters our direction, sending us on a new path.  But as we continue life along that path, Christ continues to reveal himself to us in new ways.

We are all called to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and as the quote attributed to St. Francis says, “to use words when necessary.”  Our actions, speak louder than words and our actions is what St. Paul’s needs now.

Another part of my conversation came when I attended our annual parish meeting after I had become a Department Director at Washington Regional Medical Center and managed the budget for its Hospice program.  I was stunned to discover that I was responsible a much larger budget than the church’s budget.   Our hospice was new and we were only serving an average of maybe 10-15 patients at a time, and the church had hundreds of members.  Growing up I always thought of the church as a benevolent organization that helped those in need – or at least one that should help those in need.  Seeing how little money it had to work with, I had to reevaluate my understanding of the church.

Yes, churches do provide assistance to a lot of people, but offering assistance is not the churches primary focus in its budget.  The major budget expenses for a church are personnel and facilities – and St. Paul’s is no exception.  So, what does this mean for the mission of the church?  What is its primary focus?  When we talk about money, we say that how we spend it reflects our priorities.

The answer to these questions depends on how you define church.  When you see yourselves as the church and this space we are in as our place of worship, then the mission of our church is to love God, coming here to worship and be feed spiritually, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, sharing or our time and resources not only by supporting St. Paul’s but for the care of people we meet in the community who are in need. Thus, the churches budget is greater than what St. Paul’s receives in pledges and gifts.

Thus, the primary focus of St. Paul’s budget is to equip you to do God’s work in the world.  This building is our church home and those of us who are on the payroll, are here to care for you.  When Paul says, in Galatians, “God . . . set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace . . . that I might proclaim [Christ] among the Gentiles,” Paul is speaking of what all church employees are – we are set apart – not better than, but set apart and called by God to proclaim the good news of Christ in our worship and in our service to you.

You have received copies of the Annual Report and along with that the budget for 2018.  It is not a budget that will sustain our ministries beyond a few years.  We are a part of the Northeast Convocation in this diocese, and we are one of only three churches that still has a full-time priest.  Throughout the country, more and more churches have found it difficult, if not impossible, to have a full-time rector.

In Arkansas, there are now seven churches in the search process for a rector – two of which are looking for a part-time priest.  Many of the churches in our diocese cannot even afford a part-time priest and rely, instead, on supply priests or graduates of the Iona School in our diocese – men and women who have other full-time jobs.  I understand, too, that the diocese is having trouble getting priests from outside of Arkansas to consider moving here.  So, St. Paul’s in not alone, in our need for money to cover the cost of having a full-time priest.  It is not, however, in any immediate danger of having to do without a full-time rector.  I, along with the vestry, remain confident that we are in a position to grow – to grow in our faith and commitment to this church, as well as numbers.  Since I arrived here, families have move away, but others have joined our fellowship and, with your help, people will continue to come here for worship, fellowship, and service.

St. Paul’s is a place where people experience the presence of God in our worship, in our music, and in service to the community – just as I did when I decided to try attending different churches, when I was 20 something years old, agnostic living in Fayetteville.  St. Paul’s is a place where people can come and find the Holy Spirit is present working in the lives of its members and those who are not members but come to help with our community meals.

Our pledges are enough to cover the cost of personnel and worship, but falls short of playing for the building and supplies.  The endowments left by others, offset some, but not all, of these expenses.  It is my prayer that this will a wakeup call for us, like it was for me when I saw for the first time just how much is required to keep the church doors open and the church staffed.  It was part of my conversation, my transformation, that taught me the real ministry of the church is what we, as members do after we leave worship.  Our contributions make it possible for us to continue to come here for worship and support one another so we can proclaim the gospel in our community, using words when necessary.

Let us pray.

Lord Christ, whose love blinded St. Paul on the road to Damascus that he might see the life you were calling him to live.  Transform us, we pray, that our lives may reflect your unselfish love and that we, walking in your ways, may help transform the lives of others.  We pray also for this community of faith, that St. Paul’s may find the resources it needs to support us on our faith journeys.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.