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January 5, 2007
Today's eMo is really two different meditations on texts that will be read in many churches this Sunday. The first is the usual sermon preparation eMo. The second, intended for preachers who wish to focus their congregations' attention on the Church's service to the poor and those who suffer from the effects of war and natural disaster, by exploring the ministry of Episcopal Relief and Development. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.
Baptizing the Lukewarm

The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus)...
Acts 8:15-16

So the newly baptized in this account were lacking something, it seems. Membership in the community that acknowledged Jesus seems not to have been enough, without having received the Holy Spirit.

So which is baptism: is it an initiation rite performed by a group, or is it the action of the Holy Spirit? Although we have always known it was both, baptism in recent decades has been all about the community: we speak of tiny babies as full members by virtue of it, tuck a microscopic piece of the host into their little mouths later in the service, their first Holy Communion. We all but refuse to baptize anyone privately, and sneer mightily at parents who want their children to receive the rite but don't understand themselves to be members of the church in any active sense. What do they know about baptism? we tell each other. To them, it's just Great-Grandma's christening gown. We congratulate pastors who set daunting requirements for families before they will even entertain the thought of baptizing their children: The early Christians risked death for this! we tell each other. This is not a rite for the lukewarm.

Actually, it is a rite for the lukewarm, as well as for those who are on fire with the power of the Spirit. Our readiness for the rite is not the only factor in baptism. The Spirit acts, too, and stands ready to work in the lives of people as they present themselves. We are on thin ice every time we attempt to rate other people's spirituality in comparison with our own and that of our friends, gaining little from the exercise, even if we happen to be correct in our assessment.

Some of the people who come to the waters of baptism will stay and grow in the community. Some will never set foot in a church again, until at long last a priest they have never met commends them to the care of a merciful savior, and off they will go into the mystery of whatever comes next.

Was the rite a failure in their cases? Wrongly administered, and therefore worthless? Or cheapened?

The rite is never a failure. We may fail, often, throughout our lives. We may fall short. But we are not the only actors in the story of our lives. When the Spirit is invoked, the Spirit comes. It comes to those who will plumb its presence to its depths and to those who will not even notice that it is there. Just who is whom is not ours to say, and we often get it wrong when we try to guess.

So we must assume the Spirit's presence. We must welcome the lukewarm and the passionate with joy. We must share the mystery in a way that can be understood. And we must trust in the Spirit's power to instruct -- the Spirit can bear the weight of our trust better than we can bear it ourselves.
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17,21-22
And here is the ERD meditation:

Just How Is God With Us?

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you...
Isaiah 43:2

What does it look like for God to be with us when disaster strikes? Do we just smile through it all as the waters rise, serene and unruffled because we know God is there? I don't think many people who faced the deadly rush of water after Hurricane Katrina stood there smiling serenely -- they waded for their lives through the treacherous current, climbed up to their roofs, clung for dear life to a lamp post or a tree. There was no time for serenity on that terrible day, and I doubt if anyone was praying for serenity. The most one might hope for would be focus.

I may or may not be serene at a given moment of crisis, but then my serenity is not always the evidence of God's presence. We don't always find God in the causes of a tragedy, or even in our own experience of living through one. We may find God, instead, in the response of other human beings.

The American people's response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath was the biggest communal outpouring of love and support the nation has ever seen. We had had some practice: the response to New York's losses on 9/11 and the horror of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 were also immense. Something in us grew permanently as a result of knowing about these terrible things, and as a result of our participation in doing something about them. Helping made us want to help more. Something in us understood our relatedness as human beings in a new way. We derived a new sense of duty, one that kicked in readily when Katrina struck.

Through its work with local dioceses and ecumenical partners, under the guidance of bishops who know their own communities well, Episcopal Relief and Development continues to support community redevelopment in those places where community life was so devastated on those hot summer days in the late summer of 2005.

Perhaps we have changed. Perhaps we have developed institutional ways to be kinder and more aware of each other. Perhaps we feel more related. I pray that it is so. And, if it is, I think we have found just where God is when the waters rise.
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