“Looking for the Spark”

  1. IICor4.13/Mk3.20

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

The Book of the Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church permits two forms of baptism.

Children or adults can have a few drops of water sprinkled on their foreheads. Or they can be completely immersed in a tank of water.

The overwhelming majority of our christenings follow the first procedure, which is also the usual custom in Catholic churches and most Protestant churches.

A very few Episcopalians choose the second option of complete immersion for themselves or their children, following the tradition of the Orthodox and Baptist churches—that, of course, is how Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.

I myself have only performed one baptism by immersion. When I was Rector of the Episcopal Church in Rome, Italy, a young student in my parish asked me to baptize her in this way. She had thought a great deal about how she would begin her life as a Christian; although she was eager to join the Episcopal Church, she also wanted to follow the practice of the Baptist tradition of her family.

There was no place for the ceremony in my church in Rome, and the city had no convenient river fronts where one could be baptized (nor was the urban water of the Tiber River very inviting!). So we obtained permission from the American Baptist Church in Rome to use their font; it consists of a large tank near the front of their worship space.

The whole scene is still vivid in my mind many years later. A group of parishioners gathered; the woman and I wore thick white robes provided by the Baptists. I followed the Book of Common Prayer and when the moment of baptism arrived, I gently pushed the woman under the water.

What I remember most about that event was the expression on the woman’s face right after the sacrament, as she emerged from the water. She glowed; she exuded freedom and peace and joy. Whatever psychological burdens she was carrying as she entered the water were gone.

To me, the student showed the renewed life that St. Paul was talking about when he wrote, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”

The word, “renewal” has been adopted by many Christian groups. Their goal is to energize their churches, attract new members, and expand their programs.

But renewal isn’t only for groups. Paul is speaking first and foremost about the individual self.

So Paul contrasts the outer nature of the body, which is mortal and prone to age and deterioration with the inner nature of the soul. The soul is renewable when the body isn’t because our inner selves are able to draw on the divine power of the Holy Spirit. We change when we decide to let God change us.

But that means that renewal of our souls requires action. Renewal isn’t passive; we can’t sit back and expect God to make us happy!

I realize that we tend to put the responsibility on God. After all, we pray to God that he will give us our “daily bread.” We might therefore expect that we will always have money to pay our bills and we’re surprised when the beginning of the month comes, and we find that we have more debts than savings.

But that doesn’t mean that God has let us down. No: it means that we need to look for other ways in which God is acting in our lives. It’s time to realize that even if our “outer natures” aren’t in great shape, our inner natures are “being renewed day by day.”

The wooden and iron scaffolding that surrounded our church tower for two long years was a stark reminder to us at Incarnation of material decay and the need for renewal. The stonework in the tower had to be repaired; no question about it.

But a challenge renews the spirit. We found this to be true as we faced our enormous building problem.

I admit that I was afraid even to begin to repair the steeple. The initial bids we received to do the work were discouraging; they ranged from one to two million dollars, and that didn’t include architects’ fees.

I was aware that raising that kind of money isn’t easy. These days, more and more landmark buildings are competing for grants from the limited number of foundations that pay for such work. And I was conscious of the uncertainty of asking for money from parishioners who already give generously to our annual Stewardship Program and may have little left to spare to support a special appeal.

Nevertheless, with the leadership of the Wardens and Vestry, we launched a capital campaign, and we looked for a contractor who could do the work more efficiently.

Happily, the company that had built our handicap access ramp some years ago made a bid of just over half a million dollars. Our initial fund-raising went so well that we actually widened the scope of work to be performed so that we wouldn’t need to do further restoration in five or ten years.

When the job was completed, it came in slightly under budget. And while we will continue to receive pledges that will be made up in the next two years, and we’ll need to put aside income from restricted parts of our endowment to pay for the final bills—still, we have been able to wind up this project with a pristine landmark tower.

Perhaps even more important, we were reminded that lots of people value our church. Regular members gave very generously; friends we didn’t know we had also pitched in.

Of course, it is entirely predictable that, as the years pass, our 150-year-old sandstone exposed to harsh weather and pollution will continue to “waste away”. Future generations at Incarnation will need their own capital campaigns.

By the same token, every generation of Christians needs to find inner renewal. We should always remind ourselves that our souls must be inspired.

“So,” as St. Paul said, “we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”

All we need to begin our renewal is a spark. The young woman I mentioned took a big leap of faith when she let herself go under the baptismal water. But often a small step of faith is enough.

One little jolt of divine energy can move us from decay to growth. A small step of faith, and we are filled with the spirit of God who each day gives us new strength and new vision.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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