Sermon: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16A, The Very Rev. Randall Hehr
I had an uncle named Herb with whom I had a wonderful relationship. On the occasions when we would get together, we would talk about God, the church and the life of the Spirit for hours and hours. Herb was a deeply committed Lutheran and a leader in his congregation in Pennsylvania. He led an adult Christian Formation class that I enjoyed attending. Herb would constantly gather articles from newspapers and journals to take to the group and spark conversation and debate. He loved to spark debate!
There was a day when Herb was visiting friends, talking and laughing, when suddenly he felt faint and needed to sit down. He lost consciousness, and his friends acted quickly to call 911 and get him to the emergency room. When physicians saw him, he went immediately to surgery. An aneurism had burst. Amazingly – and I add miraculously – they saved his life in that operating room. Later, while Herb was recovering, the surgeon told him that most people do not live through an aneurism of that type.
From that day on Herb spoke about that aneurism in spiritual terms. God had spoken to him through this miraculous experience. God was telling him to pay greater attention to his life. Even at the close of his life, my uncle Herb still referenced the importance of this saving event.
As I think about Herb’s reflections, I think of the word conversion. At its heart, the word means “turning.” Conversion is the process by which we turn to God over the course of a lifetime. Conversion is the process whereby more and more we hear God calling to us. And that call may be a quiet nudge or a gentle awakening in the course of a day. Sometimes conversion is more dramatic experience. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus encountering a blinding light and the halting voice of Jesus speaking to him. I think of the many conversions reported in the Acts of the Apostles as the Holy Spirit was moving in the Christian community in a powerful way.
Some Christians speak about conversion as a one-time event. In Anglican theology, it is a process. I remember the hymn in our 1940 Hymnal, written by James Russell Lowell. The text began, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide…” You will not find that text in our 1982 Hymnal because we believe God calls to us over and over again. We are on a lifetime journey of conversion. We are on a journey, and along the way, Jesus comes to each one of us and asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
“Who do you say that I am?” This is the question Jesus posed to his disciples on the road to Jerusalem. He first asked them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Then he asked the more personal question, “Who do you say that I am?” You heard the Gospel passage today, Matthew 16:13-20. It was Peter who stepped out with the answer. It was Peter who said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”
This is Simon, now named Peter. You and I know him for his impetuous “leaps,” his faithfulness and stubbornness, his bold actions, his defiance, his fear and his sinking in the water. This is Peter, the rock, and a foundation for the community called the church. This is Peter, a man like you and me, a man who said YES to our Lord when asked to follow. If we follow the Gospel, follow Peter on his journey of conversion, we see all his vulnerabilities. He was shaped and formed in the midst of the twelve. He was sent out, as they all were, two by two to practice the saving acts of healing and hope among people they did not know. He was formed by prayer and meditation as Jesus taught them day by day along the road of life.
Shaped and formed as a disciple – this is what produces the rock. Called again and again, saying YES to our Lord. You and I hear the all-important question: “Who do you say that I am?” What is your answer?
Emilie Griffith who has written a book about conversion, titled Turning. She writes, “Conversion is the direct experience of the saving power of God. As such, it is not an event, not an action, not an occurrence. Instead it is a continuing revelation and a transforming force. This encounter with the Lord is not one of visions, necessarily, through some converts have experienced God in a mystical way…Conversion is simply a matter of becoming open to God’s overflowing and powerful love.” (p. 17 -18)
Jesus asks each and every one of us, “Who do you say that I am?” How do you and I answer that question? Conversion is “turning,” and that means turning our lives over to the living Lord. Conversion is listening and hearing God’s call to ministry shaped by scripture. Conversion is following our Lord into the unknown. Conversion is opening ourselves to God. I think of the hymn written by Frances Ridley Havergal: “Take my life, and let it be consecrated Lord to thee…”