[Sermon preached on Sunday, April 29, 2018 (Easter 5, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]

[You can listen to the audio of the sermon by checking out the most recent episode of the Word Made FRESH Podcast].

Focus verse (Acts 8:36)
As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

There has always been someone incredibly powerful about the story we heard this morning from the book of Acts of the Apostles. When Philip the Apostle encounters, engages, and ultimately baptizes the eunuch from Ethiopia, his shows that the grace of God can show up anytime and any place and all that is up to us is how we choose to respond to such radical grace – the love of God for us, unearned and unending.

Think about it, the Ethiopian Eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship and as he was traveling down I-35 South reading the prophet Isaiah on his iPhone, he encounters a man from a little known Jewish sect called “the Way.” The Eunuch, unsure what to make of the words of the prophet, asks Philip to help him understand. Philip, having walked with Jesus and been a witness to his resurrection and ascension, begins to share the Good News of Jesus, how, even when the world had shown its worst, God revealed God’s best by restoring life to the Son of God and raising him into Heaven.

This must’ve seemed fanciful news to the Eunuch. To be honest, it seems fanciful now, but something about the story compelled the Eunuch to seek more. Knowledge of Jesus wasn’t enough. Knowledge is never enough on its own. His encounter with Jesus through the witness of Philip called him to more. As he passes by a pool of water, the Eunuch asks a question with such resonance that I want to wrestle with it today. “Look! Here is a pool of water, a means of grace. What is to stop me from giving my life over to Jesus today, right now?”

I remember when I was baptized. As many of you will recall I was born and raised a Baptist – a National Baptist to be exact. We didn’t believe in infant baptism. To Baptists, one must be able to make the profession of faith for themselves before they were able to be a candidate for baptism. When I was eight years old, I found myself at the altar when the pastor gave the altar call. To be clear, I am not sure I was aware of sin at that age, but I was certainly aware of God’s love. More than that, I was aware of the amazing community of grace called the Church, and I knew that baptism was how you entered it.

A few Sundays later, after several classes that covered material I can’t quite remember, I found myself standing at the edge of the baptismal pool in our large, urban church. Our church worshipped in a converted movie theater. It seemed massive to my eight-year-old memory, but recently saw pictures and it isn’t that big. Over the pool which was cut into the wall about 10 feet above the floor below, was a huge stained-glass picture of Jesus, with deep brown skin, long dark hair, wearing a white and blue robe trimmed in dazzling kente cloth. Jesus had soul and what looked a little like a Jheri Curl.

I even remember the song that Church Mothers were singing. In the Baptist Church, the Church Mothers were lay women of the church who had been unofficially ordained by the community to serve as spiritual advisors, confidantes, and prayer warriors for the rest of the community. I’m not sure at what age a woman was granted “church mother” status, but I am clear that these women were not to be trifled with. They might not have been ordained, but they possessed great power and wisdom.

They were also women of deep faith. As the pastor, a man who was a childhood friend of both my mother and my father and a surrogate son to my maternal grandmother, reached for my hand to guide me into the chilly water of the baptismal pool, the Mother’s Board was singing:

Let’s go down by the river.
Let’s go down by the river.
Let’s go down, let’s go down by the river.
Let’s go down, let’s go down by the river.

I remember that I was so short and the pool so deep, that I had to stand on my tiptoes to keep my head above water. The Pastor, Pastor Hilliard, whispered to me to cross my hands over my chest. I told him I thought I might drown, so he told me to cheat by plugging my nose. I told him I didn’t want to go out like that, that I’d seem like a wimp to all my friends. He assured me no one would see me, but the choice was mine. We laughed, but I was terrified.

Pastor Hilliard raised his hand and the singing in the sanctuary reduced to a whisper. “And now, on the profession of his faith, I baptize Marcus Halley in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Just before he dunked me, I plugged my nose and went under for what felt like an eternity. I opened my eyes and saw a sea of bubbles and white robes. Before I knew it, he pulled me up. I wiped my eyes and was lifted out of the pool by one of the deacons. The congregation was clapping and singing:

There is love by the river.
There is love by the river.
Let’s go down, let’s go down by the river.
Let’s go down, let’s go down by the river.

They were still clapping by time I gathered myself from what felt to me at the time like a near-death experience, so I did what one does when people clap. I bowed.

I recall my own story of my baptism fully aware that many of you cannot remember your own. Either you have forgotten it or you simply never knew a time before the grace of God touched your soul. The point is, in that momentary encounter with the troubled waters of new creation, whether we are aware of it or not, we come face-to-face with an all-encompassing relationship with the God of the universe. In baptism we are taken into the loving relationship that exists within God: Father, Son, and Spirit.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating: faith is not an intellectual enterprise alone. Jesus tells his disciples “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[1] There is no part of us that is immune or exempt from this loving relationship. To follow Christ to place our entire selves in his loving service. Like the Eunuch, our work is to find out how to invite Christ into our whole beings by responding to every grace with a joyful “yes.”

Where do you still need to say “yes?”

Where has the Gospel of Jesus Christ yet to penetrate your life?

What darkness in you cries for the Light of Christ?

What dryness in you stands in need of the thirst-quenching waters of baptism?

What relationships stand in need of reconciliation? What yearning of your heart stands in need of inspiration? What sin still stands in need of forgiveness?

The Good News of the Gospel is the answer to the Ethiopian Eunuch’s question. “What is to stop me from giving my life over to Jesus today, right now?” Nothing. Nothing stands in the way of you receiving God’s grace. Jesus has removed all obstacles and invited the entire world into loving relationship with the Living God. His grace and loves reaches to highest mountain and flows to the lowest valley and if we will simply say “yes,” it will change each of our lives even as we set about changing our world.

Jesus makes a difference. That is truth claimed and professed by the faith we hold dear. The continuation of that truth is this: nothing and no one can keep anyone from the grace that God has richly bestowed on all of us.

We are loved, and in that love we are invited down to the river, to say “yes” to living that love out loud for the rest of our lives.

[1] Luke 10:27

Letters from our Wardens and Rector (click to view)

August 29, 2019
Dear Saint Paul’s Parish Family,

We are sorry to share so early in our journey with Father Marcus that he has submitted his resignation and will be leaving us October 6, 2019. He has accepted a position at the Diocese of Connecticut. In his new position, he will be the Dean of Formation and will also be working as a Missional Priest-in-Charge of a faith community. This is a wonderful opportunity for him allowing him to continue to strengthen his gifts. The Diocese of Connecticut will benefit as we have from Father Marcus’s passion. Although it is hard to see him go, we have learned and done wonderful things as a parish with his leadership and guidance over the past 2-1/2 years. It will be exciting to watch his continued growth from afar knowing we were blessed to have been part of his early career. Father Marcus’s letter to the parish is included in this email.

So now we begin to look forward. Beth and I will be in contact with ECMN and Bishop Prior to plan for an interim priest and to look at putting together a search committee. We will gather together and consider what we have learned about ourselves during our time with Father Marcus. This is a chance for us to evaluate where we are and to make plans for moving forward: what we want to be sure to carry forward, what things we might want back that have changed, and yes, what might not have been tackled yet that we want to explore? We ask that each of you give prayerful consideration to these questions. They will be foundational to our Rector search.

We know the amazing strength of this parish and are confident we will become even stronger from the challenge that has been put in front of us. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns.

Meredith Johnson, Senior Warden (meredithvj@gmail.com) Beth Carlson, Junior Warden (pbcarlson@comcast.net)

Dear Saint Paul’s,

It is with a mix of sadness and joy that I inform you that I offered my resignation to the Vestry on Monday, August 19. My last day as your priest will be Sunday, October 6, 2019. I have accepted a call to serve as the Dean of Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, a position that will also include serving as a Missional Priest-in- Charge of a faith community there.

Throughout my time as your Rector, I’ve tried to preach, teach, and exemplify a consistent message: each of us is called to grow in Christian maturity to meet the challenges and opportunities of being the Church in this new missional age. Our patron, Saint Paul the Apostle, calls this the “full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). This means taking seriously our individual and collective calls to be leaders, not only within the walls of our parish but also in the wider community. Leading, especially in times of great change, means taking risks, being open to failure that leads to learning, collaborating with others, and standing firmly in our identity and purpose.

People across Saint Paul’s Church have heard this message, stepped up, and stepped forward. Together, we have faced down a major challenge head-on –tackling our budget deficit– and as a result are experiencing a renewal of energy and spirit. We have new ministries popping up all around, a greater capacity for innovation, and deeper commitment to Christ and the mission of God he invites us into. There are others who are still afraid to step forward or unsure where they fit, and that’s okay. Saint Paul’s moves forward together.

My new role will give me the opportunity to help form other ordained leaders in what we’ve done together: translating an age-old faith to a contemporary context. I am excited and honored to be asked by Bishop Ian Douglas to serve the Church in this role.

None of this takes away the anxiety, sadness, or grief that many will feel at this time. Transitions are always hard, especially when it comes when things are going well. I have not served as your Rector for long, but we’ve done a lot together. I will pray for you as you discern what leadership model God might be inviting you to try and who might best step into that role to walk alongside you as you continue engaging God’s mission. Your wardens are two of the most capable people I’ve ever met and together with your vestry and the entire community, as it has for the last 139 years, your journey continues.

There will be time to say goodbye, and I will continue to serve faithfully until my final day. In the meantime, the mission of God calls us onward. There are individuals and communities in need of the Gospel – and it is our job as followers of Jesus Christ to proclaim it, in word and example.

Faithfully, Marcus+


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