This sermon was given by Micah Fellow Zach Maher at our service of Holy Eucharist on Sunday, May 3, 2015. The readings for the day can be found here.
As someone relatively new to the Episcopal Church, I’ve noticed a whole new set of comfort levels with different topics. One topic that strikes me as taboo is conversion. If mentioned at all, it would be in a sentence like, “We’re not trying to convert people.”
This Episcopalian hesitance makes sense to me. There are many reasons to be concerned about the concept of conversion. Many (if not most) people feel some sense of disrespect, particularly for their own religious experience, when someone “tries to convert them.” And when religion gets tied to power, conversion can become even more problematic, exemplified most disturbingly by historical events like the Spanish Inquisition.
And yet we live in a world in desperate need of conversion – of people opening themselves to be changed by God and by other people. We see this in the barrage of news accounts of black men being wrongfully treated, even killed, by police. We see this in all the systemic abuses where individuals and companies disregard the human dignity of their workers and the fragility of our environment. And particularly at Harvard, we can see this in the pursuit of high-status careers above all else. The list goes on, and I’m sure you can think of countless problems that matter to you and could be fixed – or at least improved – if people changed their hearts, minds, and lives.
Conversion, you see, is about turning to God. In fact, the Greek word that gets translated convert means something like “to turn.” Our first reading is one of the many fantastical conversion stories in the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church and the early spread of the Good News. An Ethiopian eunuch, curious about the Jewish scripture, asks Philip to explain a passage from Isaiah that Christians understand to be about Jesus. Very little of their conversation is presented to us, but we know that by the end of it, the eunuch asks to be baptized, a marker of conversion to this new Way of following Jesus.
It can be tempting to see ourselves in Philip in this story. We’re the ones proclaiming Good News to those who want to listen. But I see even more power in viewing ourselves as the eunuch in this passage. The eunuch invites a total stranger in the middle of the desert to shed light on a confusing passage. He has no reason to expect this person to be responsive to him; indeed he was reading a Jewish text, and the Torah forbids eunuchs from entering the Jewish assembly.
Not only does the eunuch openly invite this potentially judgmental stranger to speak into his life, he responds quite suddenly with his desire to be baptized. If I were in his shoes, I can’t imagine making a life-changing decision so quickly. I myself was baptized three years after a profession of faith. As an instution, the church often puts up some red tape before baptism, usually a class and some meetings with a priest.
In fact, the early church felt some need for pushback, too. If you were to look at this passage in most Bibles, you’d notice that there isn’t a verse 37. Verse 36 is where the eunuch says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” In this missing verse 37, Philip adds a qualifier: "And Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' And [the eunuch] replied, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.'" This missing verse isn’t missing at all. It wasn’t in the original version of Acts, but was added later, assigned a verse number, then later discovered to be inauthentic. Whoever added this qualifier to Acts wanted to apply a little pressure on the brakes in this conversion story.
Now don’t get me wrong. I do think life changing decisions should be preceded by a great deal of thought. And we aren’t privy neither to the process that led the eunuch to search for God in the Jewish scriptures nor to most of the conversation between the eunuch and Philip. Because that’s not what’s important in the telling of this story.
Rather, the lesson here lies in the eunuch’s openness to quickly respond to this new experience and new information – in a word, his openness to convert. That kind of change is really hard. It pushes against our cultural value of “sticking to your guns.” It challenges our pride, our desire to have already had everything figured out. Political science researchers have even discovered a “backfire effect”: when we encounter facts that contradict our opinions, we actually become more convinced of our initial opinion. We want to be people who don’t need conversion, and we’re wired to retreat further and further into a false sense of righteousness just to avoid letting ourselves see otherwise.
And yet this kind of change can happen. We see it in the story of Philip and the Eunuch, as well as the conversion story of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, which immediately follows. And we can see it today. Last week’s episode of This American Life centered on the theme of people changing their mind. They tell a story of a group of canvassers in California trying to change people’s mind to become in favor of same-sex marriage. The canvasser, a gay man named Richard, invites a voter against same-sex marriage to talk about his experiences around the issue, and when invited, shares his own story. By the end of the encounter, the voter changes his mind to be strongly in favor simply through the power of an open conversation. While this episode focused on conversions from conservative to liberal political views, we would entirely miss the point if we don't stay open to conversions in other political directions and other areas of life.
When I think about all the times in my life where, looking back, I was wrong or biased in ways I didn’t even realize, I can’t help but question how I am now. There must be areas of my life where I need to draw more closely to God and God’s vision for the world. And I hope that someone allows me to see those areas and helps me to convert.
As Brother Curtis of SSJE puts it, a conversion experience is “not an experience of a lifetime; it is an experience of how to live life all the time … Conversion is about our life-long turning and returning to Christ Jesus for his cues and for his power as we navigate life.” Today’s Gospel passage points to the pruning that Br. Curtis is talking about. Jesus says: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
Just as moments of conversion often prove difficult for us, the process of pruning would be a hard one for the plant. And yet, this is just what the plant needs. Br. Curtis puts it: “Unless the plant is pruned back, the plant may grow, but it will likely grow wild and it will spend itself prematurely, missing its great potential to flower with form and beauty, season after season.”
God uses this ongoing conversion process to make us who we were created to be, one conversion at a time On an individual level, this can mean many different things – switching from resentment from forgiveness, switching from viewing rivals as competition to companions, owning up to implicit racism and sexism that very few of us avoid internalizing to some degree – and maybe even coming to new understandings of God.
And Jesus isn’t just talking to each individual branch; he’s talking to the whole plant. As a church, we are a community being pruned, being converted as we listen to the experiences of other people and other communities with humility. I see that happening a whole lot in the Episcopal Church, which has been experiencing an identity shift from a community of the rich, white, and powerful, to an advocating voice for including the marginalized in leadership. Just yesterday, for example, I attended a confirmation service with Bishop Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Anglican communion. As people of conversion, we can continue to ask: whose voice haven’t we heard? What pruning have we avoided? It’s the people and communities who we’ve learned to dismiss who are best equipped to convert us through their stories.
And when we come in with the eunuch’s attitude of openness for conversion, then we can be ready to play the role of Philip– or the vinegrower, facilitating moments of conversion for others. After all, this is Easter season, the time we celebrate rebirth as a church. What is to prevent us from being baptized?