Sunday, February 21, 2016:
Walking the Way of Jesus

After our daughter Allison was born with Down’s syndrome, Heather and I struggled for several months trying to make sense of what had happened and how we were going to cope with our newborn child. A neighboring pastor, a Presbyterian minister, took me out for lunch one day and shared an experience that he had with a couple in his parish many years ago. This is what he told me.

The pastor was called to the hospital to be with a couple who belonged to his church. The wife was having a difficult time giving birth. Shortly after the baby was born, when the mother, father and pastor were in the hospital room, the doctor walked in and spared few words in telling the news. “Your baby is afflicted with Down’s syndrome, mongolism. I had expected this, but things were too far along before I could say for sure. Anyway, that’s unfortunately how it is.”

“Is the baby healthy?” the mother asked.

“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you,” said the doctor. “The baby is healthy – except for the problem. However, the baby does have a slight, rather common, respiratory ailment. We now have it on a respirator. My advice to you is to let me take it off the respirator. If we do so, that might solve things. I mean, it’s a possibility.”

“It’s not a possibility for us,” said the parents.

“Look, I know how you feel,” responded the doctor, “but you need to know what you’re doing. You already have two beautiful kids. Statistics show that people who keep these babies risk a higher incidence of marital stress, family problems. Is it fair to do this to the children you have? Is it fair to bring this upon yourselves and your children? This is going to result in a lot of suffering.”

“Suffering?” the mother said quietly. “You see, we appreciate your concern, but we’re Christians. We have accepted the Lord. He suffered for us. So we will try to suffer for the baby if we must.”

“Not many kids today get a chance to be part of this kind of thing,” the father added. “Our kids will handle it.”

The doctor turned to the pastor and said, “Pastor, I hope you can do something with them.” Then he left the room to continue his rounds.

Three days later, the doctor and the pastor watched the couple leave the hospital with their new baby. They walked slowly, carrying a small bundle, but it seemed a heavy burden, a weight on their shoulders. They left the hospital and went out into a cold gray March morning in New York State.

“It will be too much for them,” said the doctor to the pastor. “You ought to have talked them out of it. You should have helped them understand.”

But the pastor noticed something as the doctor spoke. There was a curious look on the faces of the couple, a look as if the burden was not too heavy at all, as if it was a light, a privilege, a sign, borne up, as if on another’s shoulders, being led toward some high place the doctor would not be going, following a way he would not understand.

In telling me this story, my minister friend concluded, “Gary, that couple was walking in the way of Jesus. They were willing to do something the doctor simply could not comprehend – to sacrifice their own comfort and security for the sake of their child.”

Lent is a time to focus on the sacrificial life of Jesus who calls us to live sacrificially for him. Throughout the Lenten season, the message is one of sacrifice. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Jesus gave himself for us. Now we are called to give ourselves to him, to God and other people.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus utters one of the most poignant laments in the entire Bible. Reflecting on that great city, Jerusalem, he cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Have you ever seen a chicken hawk go after its prey? The old mother hen is often aware of the presence of the hawk in time to gather her chicks under her wing. With a furious fuss she squawks till the brood is safe by her side. She fluffs out her wings and protects them with her own body. The chicken hawk dives, and the old hen turns her body toward it and cocks a wary eye without moving from her children. The predator comes in again for the kill and the mother spreads her wings even wider. A third time the hawk dives only to be thwarted by the determined self-sacrifice of the mother hen. She is too big to be a target and the chicks are too safe to be seized, so the hawk flies away.

I have to admit I knew nothing about hens until several years ago when Heather, Allison and I were passing through Mission, British Columbia. I got into a conversation with a farmer who told about the day when the hen house caught fire and burned down. When he surveyed the wreckage, there was a hen lying dead near the door of the hen house. As he bent down to pick up the dead hen, out came four chicks from beneath her burnt body. The chicks had survived the fire because they were insulated by the shelter of their mother’s wings.

Jesus used the image of a mother hen gathering her chicks to herself to give us an image of sacrifice. He knew what lay ahead for him. He knew death was only a matter of time. That rejection and betrayal would result in his crucifixion. Jesus knew what was coming, yet just days before his death he gives an image of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. It’s as if he could find no more powerful image of love than a mother protecting her young. For it is one thing to live for your children; it is quite another to die for them. Jesus dies for us, and he does so because he loves us.

The late Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom told a story about a young woman who made the supreme sacrifice. It was during the time of the Civil War in Russia in a small provincial village which had changed hands. A 27-year-old mother was trapped with her two small children. Her husband belonged to the opposite side. Unable to escape she spent day and night in hiding, fearful of capture and execution.

One night a neighbor of about the same age came to the young woman and said, “You have been discovered. They are coming for you tonight to shoot you. You must leave.”

The mother looked at her two small children and said, “Where can I go? How can I get away with these children? They could not walk fast enough or far enough for us not to be caught.”

And this neighbor suddenly became a neighbor in the full sense of the gospel. She said with a smile, “They will not go after you because I will take your place.” The mother said, “But they will shoot you.”

The neighbor replied, “Yes, but I have no children. You must leave.” And the mother went.

The young woman stayed behind – her name was Natalie. Night fell. It was cold and dark and wet. This young woman alone, expecting nothing from anyone except death, faced this death she was about to suffer for no reason – she was young and healthy, and they were not after her.

Natalie must have gone to the door more than once and thought to herself, “I have only to push it open and I’m free.” But she did not go out. She did not try to save her life. She stayed and there she would be shot that night. (1)

The mother and the two children escaped with their lives. But the story does not end there. Remember the words of St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” We might wonder what those words mean. Well, the mother and her children know one thing: theirs are borrowed lives. Their own lives died with Natalie: she goes on living through them. They live because she died. She gave her life to give them life. And now they live with a life that belongs to her.

And that is what Jesus did for us. On the cross he took our place and died to give us life. So the question for us today is: If Jesus gave his life for us, what are we giving back to him? How will I respond to the gift of life with my life? How will I use my life in such a way that makes this world a little more Christ-like by my passing through it? How will I show my gratitude for what God has done in giving himself to me by my giving to others? As I am fond of saying: eternal life comes to us on the way to someone else. If we keep it to ourselves, we die. If we share it with others, we live. Salvation is always received by passing it on to others.

Remember that couple with the Down’s syndrome child? Well, twenty-six years after their son was born, the couple were still members of my minister friend’s church. They along with their son Billy were regular attenders most every Sunday. Billy served as an usher who greeted people and handed them a bulletin. During the week he lived in a group home but he was with his parents every weekend. His parents said they couldn’t imagine life without him – he was a blessing to them and to their other two children. Yes, there were some tough times, but through it all they never doubted they made the right decision in keeping Billy on the respirator and bringing him home from the hospital.

I don’t know what sacrifice means to you. It means different things to different people. We all have our own circumstances, our own struggles. Most of the important decisions in life are rarely clear-cut. There is always a shade of gray, some nuance or ambiguity. It’s easy to rationalize our behavior, to justify our actions. But the key for Christians in making any decision is to walk the way of Jesus – to do as much as we can, however we can, by whatever means we can, to fill this world with God’s love for every human being, especially the weak, the vulnerable and the disabled – keeping in mind that Jesus showed just how much he loved us when he died for us on cross.

So what can we give for the gift of life except to live our lives faithfully and fully for Jesus?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all. (2)

 

Dr. Gary Nicolosi
February 21, 2016
Text – Luke 13:31-35
Lent 2, C

 

1. Anthony Bloom and George Lefebvre, Courage to Pray (New York: Paulist
Press, 1973)
2. Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Stanza 4, Common Praise
(Toronto: Anglican Church of Canada), Hymn 386

Sunday, February 14, 2016:
Wilderness Faith

When I lived in San Diego, I would occasionally go hiking in the desert with a parishioner who happened to be a geologist. We would hike through some of the most unusual rock formations I have ever seen. Some of the landscapes were like Mars or the moon: rugged, difficult to walk, filled with deep crevices and giant boulders. We would hike between narrow corridors of huge stone mountains, and once, I remember, we came across a beautiful oasis of running water surrounded by palm trees.

Over the years I have spent a lot of time in the desert, whether in California or Arizona, and I have come to appreciate how the desert or wilderness impacts our faith. In the wilderness we come to know ourselves in a deeper way and also come to know God. That is what occurs in today’s gospel.

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, when he heard the voice of his Father say, ‘You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased…” we read the words: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over he was famished.”

Time spent in the wilderness seems to be a prerequisite for a deep experience of faith. God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, where they had lived in slavery for 400 years. They headed toward the Promised Land. It was an 11-day journey, but it took forty years to get there. What took so long? Why did God keep them in the wilderness?

Even when Joshua led the people into Canaan, it was many years before they subdued it. And even when they were in the Promised Land and had subdued it, they could not keep it. There came a time when they were carried off into slavery in Babylon where they cried out, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:4).

Biblical faith is a wilderness faith. It is a faith born in struggle and hardship. Why was Jesus driven out into the wilderness before he began his formal ministry? Probably it was so that he could fully experience what it means to be a human being. Authentic faith doesn’t come easily. It is born in the wilderness of testing and temptation.

Some parents are surprised when they make life as easy as possible for their children and then discover that those children do not respond in the way the parents had hoped. Look at that spoiled teen in Texas whose lawyer claimed that “Affluenza” was responsible for his reckless conduct in driving drunk and killing four people. His parents spoiled him rotten but they failed to teach him moral values, self-discipline and personal responsibility. Here is one of life’s most important lessons: There is something about struggle that toughens us, matures us.

Time spent in the wilderness seems to be a prerequisite for a deep faith. If life comes too easily, if there are no challenges to overcome, no mountains to be scaled, then we live on the surface of life with no real understanding of God’s love and sustaining power. This should not surprise us. Wilderness experiences can be moments of personal growth and new insight into our world.

There are some fine films nominated for an Oscar this year, but none better than Brooklyn. Although the settings for the film are Ireland and New York, the story is about one woman’s journey in the wilderness. Eilis (AY-lish) Lacey is a young woman from a small town in County Wexford in Ireland. She lives a difficult and unfulfilling life with her mother and sister, unable to get any meaningful employment, and relegated to working part-time in a bakery for a petty, mean-spirited woman. But thanks to her sister Rose and an Irish priest in Brooklyn, New York, Eilis gets the opportunity to immigrate to the United States and escape the small town mentality that so stifles her spirit.

The journey on the ship to America is harrowing, with Eilis suffering from sea-sickness and food poisoning. She desperately needs to use a shared bathroom connected to her tiny cabin, but she’s locked out of the toilet by her cabin neighbors. The imagery of her sickness and her pleading to use the bathroom is heart-wrenching. Although on the Atlantic Ocean, Eilis is traveling in her own wilderness to a land she knows nothing about and to a city that is larger than the entire population of Ireland. There is hardship, adversity and uncertainty ahead, but a woman in the bunk below her, an experienced traveler, gives her advice and support for Eilis’ entry to the U.S. and life in Brooklyn, the new home of many Irish immigrants.

I won’t tell you the rest of the story if you haven’t yet seen the film, but the movie ends with Eilis returning to Brooklyn on a ship after visiting her mother in Ireland, this time as a strong, confident, assertive woman who now knows who she is and what she wants – and doesn’t want. She turns away from the Irish small town mentality of her past and embraces the new world across the Atlantic in Brooklyn and her Italian husband who has dreams of living on Long Island.

Jesus was driven into the wilderness. There he was tested, as you and I are tested in our daily lives. There seems no other way to do it. No pain, no gain. If you don’t risk and step out in faith, if you don’t move beyond your comfort zone, you stagnate and fail to realize your potential.

Notice that it is the Spirit that drives Jesus into the wilderness. He was not lured into the wilderness by Satan. He was driven there by the Spirit. Evidently the wilderness was exactly where he was supposed to be.

I know…no one wants to be in the wilderness, but the good news is that it need not be permanent. When life takes a sharp turn downward, when we find ourselves in circumstances that challenge our ability to cope, when we experience deep disappointments, or radical change impinges upon our lives, we find through the grace of God the strength to journey through the tough times and rise to a new level of excellence. Like Eilis, we come out of the wilderness a stronger, better person.

Take Peyton Manning, for example. Here he was a 39-year-old quarterback for the Denver Broncos who had been injured the season before and was no longer the great athlete of years past. His performance at the beginning of the football season was so bad that fans started booing him and he was benched to the sidelines. Some sports pundits thought Manning was a has-been who had no business still playing football. Others accused him of using steroids, which he vigorously has denied.

In all the adversity that was thrown at him, Manning took it with grace and humility but also with a fierce resolve to succeed. In the last part of the season and through every playoff game, Manning hung in there and last Sunday led his team to a Super Bowl victory. Here was a man in the wilderness who came through it to the cheers of his fans and the respect of his teammates.

Like Peyton Manning, we all struggle with the inevitable setbacks of life and work. Admittedly, football is only a game but sometimes life can be deadly serious.

Winston Churchill in the 1930s was going through his own wilderness. Entering his late fifties, fattening up, losing his hair, he had been widely blamed for Britain’s financial dislocation in the Depression when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had been tagged as the architect of the World War I disaster at Gallipoli which cost 214,000 British casualties for zero gain. The 1929 stock market crash cost him a considerable fortune.

By 1932, Churchill was an outcast from his own party, a has-been, and a man few took seriously. When Joseph Stalin asked about Churchill to Lady Astor, she replied disdainfully, “Oh, he’s finished.”

Eight years later, on June 4, 1940, Churchill stood in front of the British Parliament as Prime Minister, while Hitler’s panzer divisions swept across Europe. Most world leaders including many in Britain saw no choice but to cede Europe to the Nazis. However, Churchill was defiant. Before the House of Commons he issued his famous words: “We shall never surrender.”

Not only would Churchill redeem himself by leading Britain to victory against the Nazi onslaught, but he would go on to win a Nobel Prize in literature, return again as Prime Minister at age seventy-seven, be knighted by the Queen and become a champion of freedom against the communist menace. (1)

How about you? Everyone goes through a wilderness experience at some point. Some people go through the wilderness and give up on life, become bitter, fall into depression, or even lose faith in God. Others move through the wilderness and find intimacy with God, compassion for other people, strength for the journey, and a willingness to sacrifice for a cause greater than themselves.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness where he was tested by Satan. He passed that test. So can you. Time spent in the wilderness is a prerequisite for a deep experience of trusting God, stepping out of your comfort zone, taking risks, and sacrificing for the things that matter.

Are you in the wilderness this day? By the grace of God, you can make it through and enter your promised land.

Dr. Gary Nicolosi
February 14, 2016
Text – Luke 4: 1-13
Lent I, C

1. Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall (Harper Collins, 2009) 120-123

Sunday, February 10, 2016:
The Human Paradox

If you saw the New Hampshire Town Hall Meeting last week in which Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders answered questions from people in the audience, you might have noticed that one question was from Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett. In my judgment, he asked the best question ever asked a candidate running for political office. The question was this:

“Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person has to have two pockets, and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.”

Rabbi Jonathan then asked Mrs. Clinton: “I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego we all know you must have – a person must have to be the leader of the free world – and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all things that the president has to be responsible for?” (1)

Apply and adapt that question to yourself. How would you answer it? “I am but dust and ashes” and “the universe was created for me.” This is a question about ego and humility, about maintaining our humanity and respecting the humanity of those around us. It is a question that asks us to hold in balance the paradox that we are created in the image of God, but also we are dust and ashes.

Maintaining this balance is difficult, especially for those in positions of leadership, whether as bishop of a diocese, or rector of a parish, or the head of a department, or Mayor of London, or the Prime Minister of Canada. It is the paradox of the human condition – we are dust and ashes but made in God’s image.

One of the most important pastoral tasks for me as a priest is to help people deal with their own inadequacy. I have met people who not only feel inadequate but worthless. They do not feel attractive enough or intelligent enough or as fortunate as others. The success they dreamed of obtaining has not happened. As they grow older, the childhood dreams of being someone important begin to vanish, and they become angry, bitter, and resentful. They may even begin to feel increasingly uptight or junky.

But here is the good news for their lives and ours: God made us, and God doesn’t make junk. We are created in the image of God. We are molded in the likeness of our Maker. Like God we can reason and think, we have a mind, a memory and a will. God even gave us dominion over the earth – not to savage the planet but to care for it. God was pleased when God created human beings and said, “It is good.” God made nothing more special or more beautiful than us. Made in the image of God, we even have the ability to control much of our destiny.

Yes, God made each of us, and God doesn’t make junk. We produce the junk in our lives when we let sin get the best of us, when we try to attain unattainable goals and then labor under feelings of failure, when we get our priorities all mixed-up, and when we walk life’s way apart from God.

That’s why knowing that the “universe was created for me” has to be balanced by the realization that I am but dust and ashes. I know…none of us like to be reminded that we someday will die, that we are not immortal, that we are not infallible with all the answers to all the questions that challenge us in life.
Tony Campolo tells about a church that one day every year celebrates student recognition day. One year, after several students had spoken quite eloquently about their hopes and dreams for the future, the pastor started his sermon in a striking way: “Young people, you may not think you’re going to die, but you are. One of these days, they’ll take you to the cemetery, drop you in a hole, throw some dirt on your face and go back to church and eat potato salad.”

I don’t know of any Anglican priest who would dare say such a thing, but it’s true. We may not like to acknowledge it, but someday every one of us will have to face the “potato salad promise,” that we will die. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Of course, dust and ashes is not the end of the story. The ultimate purpose of our journey through Lent – from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday – is not to drag ourselves down. It is rather to allow God to raise us up. By God’s grace out of the ashes comes hope.

In Egyptian mythology there is the story of the Phoenix, a god in the form of a bird comes back to life after being destroyed by fire. It rose out of the ashes to new life. The Phoenix is a sign of immortality and points to hope when only despair exists.

The Phoenix is a myth, but the resurrection of Jesus is a fact. From the suffering and death he experienced on Good Friday came resurrection and new life on Easter Sunday. Because Jesus lives, so shall we. Yes, our physical bodies will return to dust, but our spiritual bodies – the essence of who we are – will live with God forever. Death does not have the last word in our lives, God does. And so, we can live freely, faithfully and fully in this life knowing that the best is yet to come. We can give more, love more, and care more, because with God our work is not in vain. We can do our duty in whatever capacity we find ourselves, take responsibility for our lives, be good stewards of the planet and do our part to alleviate human misery – to leave this world a better place because we have lived in it.

In the southwest coast of Italy there is the city of Pompeii. It lies a short distance from Mount Vesuvius. In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted and completely destroyed the city. Pompeii was covered with ash and pumice at a rate of six inches per hour. In 17 hours the city was buried beneath nine feet of ash and pumice. For 1,700 years, Pompeii lay beneath tons of cinders, ashes and stone. Archaeologists in uncovering the city found the remains of many bodies preserved in hardened ash. Some of the bodies were in deep vaults, as if trying to escape the volcano’s destruction. Other bodies were in luxurious chambers. What is most interesting, however, is that a Roman soldier who stood at the gate of the city was found at his post. His hands were still clutching his weapon. He had been commanded by his captain to continue his watch and even in the face of death he remained at his post.

I hope that when I die, I am like that Roman soldier – that I am doing exactly what God wants me to do, that I am standing by my post, obeying God’s will, whatever the challenge or however difficult. I hope that when I die, I will never waver from God, never falter in my mission, never stray from the faith.

In the end, we will all turn to dust and ashes, but we will be with the Lord of the universe in heaven. So stand vigilant, be watchful, do your duty, and be a good and faithful servant of Jesus Christ. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, but that you are also made in God’s image, called into God’s family and declared Christ’s own forever.

Dr. Gary Nicolosi
February 10, 2016
Text – 2 Corinthians 5: 20b-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday, C

1. Sonia Saraiya, “Hillary’s Humility Moment: A rabbi walks into a Town Hall and asks a question you’d never hear in the GOP debates,” Salon.com, February 4, 2016

Sunday, January 31, 2016:
A More Excellent Way

Even in the hell of war, there are pinpoints of light and nobility. During World War II, one German soldier, Private Joseph Schultz, was one of those pinpoints.

Schultz was sent to Yugoslavia shortly after the Germans invaded that country. One day his sergeant called out eight names, his among them. They thought they were going on a routine patrol. As they hitched up their rifles, they came over a hill, still not knowing anything about their mission. Once over the hill they encountered eight Yugoslavians, standing on the brow of a hill, five men and three women. It was only when they were in firing range of the group that the soldiers realized what their mission was.

The soldiers were lined up. The sergeant barked out, “Ready!” and they lifted their rifles. “Aim” and the soldiers got their sights set. Then suddenly there was the thud of a rifle butt on the ground. The sergeant, the seven soldiers, and those eight Yugoslavians stopped and looked. Private Joseph Schultz walked toward the Yugoslavians. His sergeant ordered him to come back, but he pretended not to hear him. Instead, Schultz walked to the mound of the hill and he joined hands with the eight Yugoslavians.

There was a moment of silence, and then the sergeant yelled, “Fire!” Private Schultz died that day, his blood mingled with those of the innocent men and women he would not kill. Found on his body was an excerpt from Saint Paul: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Isn’t it interesting that in our lesson today St. Paul should emphasize not faith but love? He tells the Corinthians: “Faith, hope and love, abide these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

St. Paul is quite adamant that at the heart of being a Christian is love. You can know the right doctrine, quote every verse of the Bible, boast of being a cradle Anglican, obey every law of the Church, and still not be an authentic Christian. Paul makes this clear when he says: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Paul’s words are an urgent appeal to focus on what is essential to the Christian life. Love, he tells us, is the foundation of everything we do as Christians. Without love nothing else matters. Without love Christians have no credible witness to the world. Without love we might as well pack it all up and call it quits. Love is at the heart of being a Christian.

God knows, we need more love in our world today. Terrorism, the killing of innocents, the living conditions of our own aboriginal people, the poverty in our cities, the refugees by the millions, and the insensitivity in how we treat one another – I could go on. Yes, we need a great deal more love in our world.

Recently you may have read about the conflict occurring in Alberta between the NDP government and the Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Calgary Fred Hill has equated a set of guidelines for schools intended to protect gay, lesbian and transgendered students with a Nazi-like state ideology that’s on par with eugenics or racial purity. That rhetoric goes too far for some of us, even if we recognize that the underlying issues are quite complex. Whatever happened to teaching children that God loves everybody no matter how they look, or what gender pronouns they prefer, or what washrooms they want to use? Whatever happened to tolerance toward other people, caring for the marginalized and ostracized, and showing humility, grace and mercy? I thought the gospel had to do with loving yourself as God made you, but also loving everyone else as God made them. (1)

About the same time that the news broke on the controversy in Alberta, the Episcopal Church in the United States was suspended from full participation in the Anglican Communion because of that Church’s intention to move forward with marrying same-sex couples. I understand there is a legitimate disagreement about how the Church should respond to same-sex couples. I appreciate that Christians can read the Bible in different ways and come to different conclusions about the same passages. I have friends and colleagues on all sides of the issue, and I respect both them and their positions. And yet, if we believe that love is at the heart of being a Christian, then why can’t we Anglicans still live together in common mission, affirming the same faith and serving the same Lord? Haven’t enough people been hurt already, some driven to suicide and others driven out of the Church? Where’s the love that Christians are supposed to have for one another?

Whether in the church or in the world, we need more love. Hate, prejudice, discrimination, and condemning others because they are different from us have no place in the life of any Christian. The alternative to love is a loveless world too horrid to contemplate. We need love, because love is life-giving and life-affirming. Without love we die – as individuals, as a society and as inhabitants on this planet.

I am showing my age here, but some of us may remember Janice Joplin – the famous rock singer. Night after night she stood before screaming, applauding crowds who adored her rebellious style of singing. She was one of the greatest rock singers in the world, and I still remember her singing, “Do you want somebody to love? Don’t you need somebody to love?” One night she was singing that song to twenty-five thousand people, and she then spontaneously asked herself, “Janice, have you ever been loved?” And she answered her own question, “No, I have never been loved, except by twenty-five thousand people at a concert. Someday, I am going to write a song about making love to twenty-five thousand people and then going home to my room alone.”

Janice Joplin died at age 27, from an overdose of heroin. If we have not love, we die. Love is the hope of the world. Love is the basis for life. Love is what motivates us to sacrifice more, give more and work harder for the causes we believe in. Love is what builds a kinder, gentler civilization, where people live in freedom and dignity as human beings fully alive to God and one another.

And one other thing about love… it has the power to transform us… to help see ourselves as God sees us. In the musical Man of La Mancha, the last scenes in the play are some of the most heartwarming in all of theater. Don Quixote is a man who lives with many illusions, most especially his idea that he is a knight errant who battles dragons in the form of windmills.

At the end of the play, as he lays dying, Don Quixote has at his side a prostitute, Aldonza, whom he has called throughout the play Dulcinea – Sweet One – much to the laughter of the local townspeople. But Don Quixote has loved her in a way unlike she has ever experienced.

When Don Quixote breathes his last, Aldonza begins to sing “The Impossible Dream.” As the echo of the song dies away, someone shouts to her, “Aldonza!” But she pulls away proudly and responds, “My name is Dulcinea.” The crazy knight’s love had transformed her.

That’s the Gospel, isn’t it? God’s love covers a multitude of sins. We sometimes fail miserably, but God loves us anyway. We are loved simply because God loves us, and there is nothing we can do to change that love. God loves you and me – and the whole world and everyone in it – and there are no exceptions and no outcasts. We try to place limits on that love, but God never does.

I know… there are many complex moral issues that defy simple solutions. Good people can and do disagree with one another. However, any time we need to make a moral judgment, it is always safer to err on the side of too much love than too little. There is a role for law in the Christian life, but the greatest law is this: to love God and to love people. St. Paul puts it succinctly: “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

So let’s draw the circle wide in the Anglican Church of Canada, in the Anglican Communion and in every church around the world. Let’s offer a hearty embrace to every human being, because every human being is a child of God, and God loves everyone – no exceptions and no outcasts.

Draw the circle wide. Draw it wider still. Let this be our song, no one stands alone, standing side by side, draw the circle wide. (2)

Dr. Gary Nicolosi
January 31, 2016
I Corinthians 13:1-13
Epiphany 4, C

1. Jen Gerson, “God loves everybody,” National Post, January 22, 2016, A8

2. Common Praise: Anglican Church of Canada, Hymn 418

 

 

Sunday, January 24, 2016:
Together We Can!

I heard a story from an Archdeacon in the Diocese of Caledonia about a young woman who was driving through a lonely area in northern British Columbia on her way to the Yukon. She spent a night in one of the rare motels in the area. The next morning in the breakfast area she was seated near two truckers. They asked where she was going. She said “Whitehorse.”

“In that little car?” they asked. “It’s dangerous this time of year in this kind of weather.” The woman replied, “Well, I’m determined to try.”

“In that case,” one of the truckers said, “we’re just going to have to hug you.” The young woman drew back and said, “You’re not going to touch me.”

The truckers laughed and said, “Not like that. We’ll put one truck in front of you and one in the rear. In that way, we’ll get you through the mountains.” And so they did.

Most of us need to be hugged along life’s pathway. We need people up front who can guide us on the way and others behind, who gently encourage us, so we can pass through life’s challenges.

One thing I have learned as a priest over the years is that no Rector can do the work of ministry alone. The priest and people have to work together if the parish is to thrive. Ministry is always a team effort.

In our lesson today, St. Paul tells us that all the members of a church are important to the work of God. All of us belong. We need one another. And that’s good to know.

A newspaper carried the following help wanted ad: “Need co-author for a book on self- reliance.” (1) Don’t you think that’s a bit odd: a co-author for a book on self-reliance? Doesn’t that contradiction describe so many of us? Self-reliance is a high virtue in our culture, but I think an even greater need of ours is belonging. God made us to be incomplete on our own. That’s part of God’s design for humanity. God made us with a profound need for communion with God and with other people. Remember the song Barbara Streisand made famous: “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” The song should actually say, “People who admit they need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

Nobody can make it in this world by themselves. Why even a brash entrepreneur like Donald Trump admitted he got his start because his father gave him a million dollars to begin a business. No one succeeds in life by himself.

The amazing thing is, when we recognize our need for one another, great things happen. Take the world of music, for example. I love the music of Gilbert and Sullivan. My favorite is The Pirates of Penzance – you probably have yours. Gilbert and Sullivan were incredibly successful together, but they were two very different men with different personalities and talents. Gilbert was a master of lyrics and verse, Sullivan was a composer of music. Put them together and you got some of the most popular musicals of the 19th century, which still resonate with audiences today.

One of the buzz words in business is the word “synergy.” According to the principle of synergy, when two or more people work together, the total effect of their work is greater than if they have been working independently. For example, one horse can pull about 2 tons by itself. That means two horses working separately will be able to pull 4 tons, 2 tons per horse. But when two horses are teamed together, we are told they can pull up to 18 tons. That’s synergy.

Synergy allows us to accomplish with the help of others much more than all of us would have accomplished working on our own. Synergy is what happens in the church when every member does their part. Think of the ministries that make this church possible – from the counters on Tuesday to all the ministries on Sunday: altar guild, acolytes, coffee and fellowship ministers, choir, ushers, greeters, wardens, Sunday school workers, and on and on. Think about the outreach ministries from refugee support and anti-poverty initiatives to the community and school breakfast programs. Think of our environmental ministry to insure our church is a responsible steward of the planet. Think of our youth workers who spend countless hours preparing our teens for the Taize pilgrimage. Think of our staff, our sextons, our music director, our parish life coordinator, our administrative assistant, our clergy and all the dedicated volunteers who make ministry possible. No one person could do everything but when we work together miracles happen. The church witnesses that it:

  • Cares for the whole person
  • Cares for the whole world
  • Cares for the whole of creation
  • Cares passionately, deeply and authentically.

Our need for one another is not weakness but strength. In fact, it is the basis for the church. St. Paul describes the perfect church as a body, something that is only strong and healthy if all the parts are closely connected and moving in the same direction. The strongest muscle or the toughest bone, when separated from the rest of the body, becomes weak and useless. This is one reason God created the church: we draw strength from one another.

If you have been watching the NFL playoffs, you know that winning in football is a team effort. Yes, the quarterback is the star player – think of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, for example. But it’s the whole team – offense and defence – working together that produce a winning season. The quarterback can throw the ball but other players have to catch it. You need runners, linebackers, tight ends, and players able to play solid defense. Winning is a team effort.

And that’s the way it is in the church. Rectors, clergy, music directors, parish life coordinators and wardens can do so much, but they can’t do everything. But when everyone does their part, synergy occurs and the church begins to realize its potential. God gives each of us unique and multifaceted gifts so that together we create a dynamic, interdependent, effective community. We all have something to offer. Each of us has our gifts. Everyone is important.

But there is another reason God created the church. We are called to carry out God’s mission in the world. Do you ever get a sinking feeling when you hear or read the news of the day? Another suicide bombing, another terrorist attack, refugees roaming desperate for countries to accept them, aboriginal women abused, raped and murdered all across the highways of Canada, gun violence that slaughters the innocent, homeless and hungry people here in London, a growing number of people in North America who are not baptized, know little or nothing about the Christian faith, and rarely if ever attend any church. I could go on.

What a vast divide there is between the Eden God created and the world as we know it! We don’t have to look farther than our own neighborhood and city to see the results of sin, self- centeredness and destruction. Where do you start if you want to make a difference? There are so many needs, so much brokenness, and you are just one person. It’s enough to overwhelm even the most gung-ho among us.

But God made the church to answer that need. The body of Christ was created to do the work that Christ did in the world: To go where his feet went, to the lost and poor and hurting of the world. To teach as Christ’s mouth taught, about God’s unconditional love for every human being. To see as Christ’s eyes saw, finding beauty and redemption and grace in the people around us. To touch as Jesus touched, with gentleness and love and healing power. God didn’t call on Superman to come and save the day. God called on you and me – ordinary, humble, average folks to preach and teach and heal and restore a broken world. And the only way we are ever going to accomplish that task is to rely on God’s Spirit and one another’s talents.

I suspect that many of us, when we hear the word “church,” think of a building. That, of course, is understandable, but it would not be the New Testament understanding of church. The church is so much more than bricks and mortar, organ and chancel, classrooms and meeting rooms, pews and parlors. The church is about people becoming alive together in Jesus Christ, finding faith, having fun and being fruitful in the world by reaching out beyond our membership.

A sign over an Italian hotel which once served as a hospital states it this way: “To heal sometimes, to comfort often, to care always.” I can’t think of a better description of the church, one that characterizes St. James.

May I remind you that every Sunday in our worship bulletin are these words: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome.” We take those words very seriously here at St. James. We are an open and inclusive church, a house of prayer for all people, a church with a warm embrace for everyone, an Anglican church committed to serving our community.

Yes, I know…Canadian culture is not as friendly to the church as it once was. But the truth is: whether people are “spiritual but not religious” or “spiritual but secular,” every human being yearns for some kind of spiritual experience or higher power to help them find meaning, significance and purpose to living. As Diana Butler Bass put it in her new book Grounded, the church will be relevant to people’s lives as it helps people encounter God, get to know Jesus, and feel empowered by the Holy Spirit to live as human beings fully alive in the world.

I believe that with God’s help the best days of the church are yet to come. There is no mission project we can’t complete or building project we cannot fund or ministry in which we cannot succeed. How can I say this? Because we are the body of Christ, in which the sum is greater than the individual parts. We are not simply another human institution like the Rotary Club or Kiwanis. They are great organizations but they are different from the church. The church relies not only on the commitment of its members, but on the Spirit of the living God. And because the church relies on the Spirit of the living God, we accomplish far more than human institutions can ever hope for.

Several years ago Bruce Wilkerson wrote a little book titled The Prayer of Jabez, which became enormously popular. In a chapter titled, “Living Beyond our Limits,” he asked: “When was the last time God worked through you in such a way that you knew beyond doubt that God had done it?” (2)

Look at St. James and ask: What is happening in our life together which cannot be explained by our own energy, our own strength, our own efforts, but only by the power of God? Then look to yourself and ask: What small act which I offered to someone else, almost unconsciously, made all the difference to that person? Do we really believe God can do more through us than we have yet imagined? In the words of Jabez, do we believe God can expand our territory, broaden our reach, and enliven our ministry with a vision which can only be fulfilled by God’s power at work in us?

Will we be a church that ventures to do the impossible because we believe in the supernatural? Will we be the people of God who come alive together in Christ and find joy in our church where we live boldly, grow deeply and care passionately, all of which can only be explained by the power of God at work in us?

O Lord, expand our territory, enlarge our imagination, open our hearts with a dream of what you would like to do through us for the sake of Jesus Christ…then do it…not by our strength, but by your power. Amen.

Dr. Gary Nicolosi
January 24, 2016
Text – I Corinthians 12: 12-31a
Epiphany 3, C (Vestry Sunday)

1. Laughter, the Best Medicine,” Reader’s Digest, April 1994, 84
2. Bruce Wilkerson, The Prayer of Jabez (Multnomah Books, 2005) 15

Sunday, January 17, 2016:
Expecting a Miracle

Here I am, ordained for almost 33 years, and in every parish in which I have ministered there have been, what I can only term as miracles. Some miracles are as simple as an answer to prayer for a job or financial solvency or inner peace during a time of crisis. Other miracles are much more dramatic.

In one parish I served, there was a female parishioner who was expected to die in the middle of the night. I was called to the hospital to give her the last rites of the Church. We prayed for a miracle that God would give her many more years to do the good work she felt called to do. I left her side, leaving a person I thought was as good as dead. But she didn’t die. Against every expectation by the doctors and her own priests, the lady grew stronger, the cancer vanished and she lived another 19 years to her mid-nineties.

Or, take the man with Stage 4 cancer whom the doctors thought would be dead in a few weeks, or at most months. When he was diagnosed in July, none of the doctors gave him any chance of living to Christmas. But there was faith and prayer – lots of prayer for this man. When he saw his oncologist in early January, the cancer was not nearly as threatening and his health was actually improving. Death was no longer imminent, but maybe a year or two away, if not more. No one expected such an outcome. His own oncologist said to him, “There is a higher power watching over you. I could feel it the first time I met you. You must have a lot of people praying for you.”

Of course, she was right.

In today’s gospel, at a wedding in Cana, Jesus turns a great deal of water into wine. We would call that a miracle, but in John’s Gospel it is called a sign. John says that this was the first sign Jesus performed. Yet, if such an event is a sign, what are we to make of it?

Webster’s Dictionary defines a miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting a divine intervention in human affairs.” The Scottish philosopher David Hume characterized a miracle as a “transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity.” So miracles may be described as extraordinary experiences of God’s direct intervention in people’s lives.

A materialist rejects the possibility of miracles. After all, if you begin with the assumption that miracles don’t, can’t, won’t happen, they never will. We all know that our senses are fallible. People get hysterical; particularly people in extremis, people in pain, people in fear, and people in crisis. We see things we want to see. You see something that doesn’t fit your expectations of what you ought to see, you can always dismiss it as a mere illusion, wish projection, hysteria, paranoia, or too much food the night before.

Adam Gopnik, for example, writing in The New Yorker in 2013 said flatly, “We know that…in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature.” Of course, Gopnik’s presupposition is that the world is all there is. If you view the world this way, then you automatically dismiss outright the possibility of anything beyond the material world of time and space.

Miracles didn’t really become a problem for Christianity until the advent of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. By the 19th century, a number of prominent Protestant theologians and philosophers no longer believed in miracles. David Strauss’s Life of Jesus first published in 1835, treated miracles as myths. How did Jesus feed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes? Perhaps he had a secret store of food, or people brought their own lunches. How did Jesus walk on water? Maybe there was a platform floating just beneath the surface. How did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? Lazarus might simply have been in a trance. How did Jesus come back from the tomb?

He probably didn’t, but the important thing is that his followers believed he did and that belief filled them with joy and hope. A number of Protestant theologians, even today, agree with Strauss. But when they get rid of miracles, they get rid of Christianity.

Christianity is the only major religion in the world that depends on miracles. Other religions, such as Judaism, may report or allow miracles, but only Christianity relies on them. I am referring specifically to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. St. Paul flatly says in I Corinthians 15:14 that without Christ’s resurrection, “our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

But the resurrection is not the only miracle reported in the New Testament. While the founder of Islam, the prophet Mohammed, never claimed to have performed a single miracle, Jesus performed miracles all the time. He walked on water, quieted the storm, fed the multitudes, healed the blind, turned water into wine, and even brought several dead people back to life. Only if miracles are possible is Christianity believable. Strip Christianity of its miracles and there is nothing left of Christianity to believe in.

Critics have long said that primitive first-century Near Eastern people attributed certain events to miraculous divine intervention because they expected divine intervention. Divine intervention was their way of explaining the world. True but they weren’t dumb. First-century people may have been wrong in attributing so many events and phenomena to the gods, but they certainly knew the difference between the way the world usually works and a miracle.

When Joseph the carpenter was told that his wife Mary was pregnant, he didn’t immediately say that God was to blame. He assumed that she was “with child” in the predictable but illicit way. When people witnessed Jesus healing people, most people were speechless; some said he was an agent of Satan. Only a few said he was from God. When Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana, the man in charge of the bar suspected he had switched labels in the wine cellar. He didn’t say, “God must be mixed up with this.”

I don’t think biblical people were dumb or naïve in these matters. They were like us. They generally saw what they expected to see. They dealt with the world with the intellectual tools that had been given to them. Perhaps that’s why Jesus in the gospels doesn’t appear to get much mileage out of his miracles. Rarely does anyone move from seeing a miracle to believing that Jesus is the Messiah, because seeing is not believing. So what are we to think about miracles?

The strongest case for a miracle dates back to the Big Bang 14 billion years ago. All matter that presently exists in the known universe – more than one hundred billion galaxies, each of which contains hundreds of billions of stars and many more planets – exploded out of something smaller than the period at the end of a sentence. Who was behind that? If you are an atheist, you have no answer to that question. The Big Bang just happened. However, most people would say that God was behind the Big Bang. God who is beyond time and space made time and space possible.

If we believe that God created the universe out of nothing – the greatest miracle of all – how can we possibly quibble over smaller miracles like turning water into wine or giving sight to the blind or healing a person with cancer? Believing that God could create the universe but could not perform infinitely smaller miracles is illogical. In that sense, the Bible gets it right. The very first line of the very first book of the Bible, Genesis 1:1 says: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

Creation is the greatest miracle of all. It is from that miracle, all other miracles have their source. So it is not accurate to talk of “laws of nature” that God arbitrarily violates to alter the natural order of things. Better to speak of “creation” in which God is within and without everything created. God doesn’t intervene in creation as David Hume surmised, because creation is God’s own work in which God is present in everything that exists. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” as the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins aptly put it.

C. S. Lewis says “miracles are aspects of the continuing creativity of God.” Miracles fill us with wonder and point to the one who moves the stars. When Jesus stilled the storm and made the angry waves to be still, nine out of ten who witnessed it wondered, “Who is this?” To a few, the wonder became a sign that in Jesus they were witnessing the very God who created the wind and the waves.
Lewis says “miracles are a retelling in small letters of the same story that is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” Thus, they are best referred to as “signs.”

Jesus turned water into wine at Cana. God does that all the time on the Niagara Peninsula or the Napa Valley as the rain waters the fields and the sun matures the grapes. We don’t call a bottle of wine a miracle (except when we use it at the Lord’s Table in making Eucharist), but perhaps we should learn to do so. As Lewis said, when Jesus turned that water into wine at Cana, a number saw this as a sign that something mighty was present in the world, or as John’s Gospel says, “this was the first of his signs” that “revealed his glory… and his disciples believed in him.”

Every day in our hospitals, the blind see; the lame walk. We have spent a fortune teaching you to call it medicine, or technology, or a well-functioning health care delivery system. Today’s Gospel bids you to call it miracle. Call the whole world miracle – the continuing effects of a loving, active, caring faith to see your life for what it is. Thank God that occasionally, for some people, on some unexpected day at an unexpected place like a wedding party, our eyes are opened, the lid is lifted off the universe, and we see the hand of God moving among us. In such moments, we see a sign, and a breakout of glory. And we, like the disciples, believe.

In her book Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott tells the story of a family being interviewed by a reporter. The family was a religiously devout mother in her thirties, a somewhat older and painfully shy father, and their ten-year-old daughter bound to a wheelchair by spina bifida. Every year, this family made a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France, where healing is reputed to occur.

According to Lamott, the reporter was giving the family a hard time for being so gullible. At one point he turned to the little girl and asked, “When you pray, what do you pray for?” She replied, “I pray that my father won’t be so shy. It makes him terribly lonely.”

That stopped the reporter for a few seconds, but then he pressed ahead, questioning the family’s wisdom, saying to the mother that they spend thousands of dollars every year going to Lourdes and still they have no miracle. Looking at her loving daughter, the mother answered, “Oh, you don’t get it. We have our miracle.”

The reporter had his expectations, and the only miracle that would count, was the one that fit his definition: the little girl would get up out of the chair and walk. But he missed the miracle of a daughter’s growing love, the miracle of a family held together in faith. He missed the miracle of joy growing in soil that should not, by all rights, sustain it. God does not work in the world in the ways we expect, because God’s mercy breaks the bounds of our narrow imaginations.

To tell the truth, that reporter is probably like most of us: he really didn’t expect any miracles. We live in a world that has stopped expecting them – a world that has been constricted, narrowed, policed by little more than “mere facts.”

Miracles, wondrous signs, are God’s invitation to move to a more interesting, surprising, delightful, and gifted world. One day, in ways we least expect, that little girl and all like her will get up healed in the power of God. And those of us who have expected far too little will be genuinely surprised.

Dr. Gary Nicolosi
January 17, 2016
Text – John 2:1-11
Epiphany 2, C

Note: References to C.S. Lewis are from his book Miracles, which can be found in many different editions. See also Eric Metaxas, Miracles (A Plume Book, 2015) and Dinesh D’Souza, So What’s So Great About Christianity (Tyndale, 2007).

Sunday, January 10, 2016:
God’s Chosen

Several years ago there was a famous video campaign for Dove Soap. One of the commercials showed several women describing themselves to a forensic sketch artist, sight unseen. In that campaign, which went viral online, a forensic artist hired by Dove blindly draws women exactly as they describe themselves, and then draws the same women as described by someone whom they just met that day. Inevitably, the sketches drawn from the descriptions of strangers are softer, more flattering, and more accurate. (1)

It’s a powerful message. You are beautiful. Others see it. Why don’t you?

I suspect that more people see our beauty than we see it ourselves. How many times have you spoken with someone who berates themselves – too fat, too skinny, too out of shape, too tall, too short, too wrinkled, too gray, too this or that… And you look at the person and think, “How could they think that about themselves? He or she looks great.”

The problem with many of us is that we suffer from low self-esteem. We think of who we aren’t rather than who we are. We focus on our limitations rather than our potential. We don’t see ourselves as gifted, talented individuals – people created in the image of God. And as the saying goes, “God don’t make junk!”

The truth is: we are all special and should feel special. You are special. You are loved. You are a child of God. You belong to God’s family. You are created in God’s image. That’s the message of today’s Gospel.

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. The moment Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending on him, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This was a pivotal moment in Jesus’ life and, if we understand the meaning of baptism, should be a pivotal moment in ours.

Baptism tells us who we are. So many people have no idea who they are. They wander aimlessly without any purpose or reason for being. The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was walking down a sidewalk with his head bowed in deep thought when he accidentally bumped into a pedestrian. The man indignantly said to Schopenhauer, “Who do you think you are?” To which Schopenhauer replied, “I wish I knew.”

The moment you know who you are, everything changes. Life takes on a whole new meaning. I had a priest friend who was adopted as an infant, and therefore never knew her blood parents. The fact that she was adopted never bothered her until she began psychotherapy to discover who she really was. She knew that if she was ever to be at peace with her life, she had to know about the people who were responsible for her coming into the world. It took her years of legal hassles but she eventually discovered her blood mother and father. Although her father was dead, she managed to meet her mother who was living in a very poor, rundown apartment in another city. At first their meeting was awkward, uncomfortable, but the two gradually warmed up to one another and a strange connection began to be established between the both of them. Although they had lived very different lives with very different backgrounds, my friend saw herself in her mother and her mother saw herself in her daughter. It was that experience that gave my friend the ability to carry on as a priest and to minister with enormous sensitivity to people in similar situations.

Baptism tells us who we are. Whether we are baptized as infants or teenagers or adults, baptism declares that we are sons and daughters of the Most High God. It establishes our identity in Christ. But it also tells us that we have God’s seal of approval for our existence.

Notice what happened at Jesus’ baptism: When he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending on him, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Something like that happens at every baptism. When we are baptized, God puts his seal of approval on us. God declares that our lives matter.

When I was ministering in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I got to know a number of Presbyterian and reformed ministers, most of whom served very conservative congregations. One minister told me that the most popular hymn in his church was one by Isaac Watts: “Alas! and did my Savior bleed? / And did my Sovereign die? / Would he devote that sacred head / For such a worm as I?”

That hymn seemed to be quite popular among my minister friends. I remember one minister confessing that he was nothing but a worm before God, and even less than a worm, citing the Isaac Watts’ hymn. I understood his point. He was trying to show humility and acknowledge his unworthiness before the majesty of God. The problem is: baptism doesn’t declare us to be worms. It declares us God’s children: loved, embraced, and called into the family to be with God forever. Yes, you and I are loved by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and empowered by the Spirit. You and I are sons and daughters of the Most High. Never let anyone tell you that your life doesn’t matter to God. You are not a worm, and I take that on the authority of the Letter of First John which says: “See what love the Father has given us: that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1).

Let me go back to that Dove video campaign in which I began my sermon. It has been my experience as a priest that too many people have very low self-esteem and a painful sense of their own inadequacy. They think of themselves as rejects, mishaps and outcasts, when in fact they are beloved children of the Most High God. No wonder they sometimes do crazy things, engage in self-destructive behavior and hurt other people. You see: if you think of yourself as an outcast, you will act like an outcast. If you think of yourself as a reject, you will act like a reject. If you think God will not accept you, you will be unable to accept yourself. If you think God does not love you, you will find it difficult to love yourself and to love others. If you live in a perpetual state of unworthiness, you will find yourself in a hole of your own making and see yourself as a victim rather than a victor.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest remedy for low self-esteem. On the day of your baptism you were declared unconditionally loved by God. This doesn’t mean we are perfect – none of us are. What it does mean is that God loves us and keeps on loving us despite our imperfections and shortcomings. God doesn’t give up on us even when we are tempted to give up on ourselves. God has put his seal of approval upon us. We are special because we are children of God.

From the earliest days, Christians spoke of their salvation in terms of “adoption.” Baptism was compared to adoption, being made a child, an “heir” of God Almighty.

Once God has called us into the family through baptism, once we are adopted, God never disowns us, or lets us go, or kicks us out. We are God’s own forever.

Mike Barnicle, a former columnist for the Boston Globe tells about a baby born to Mary Teresa Hickey and her husband in 1945. The parents came from Cork, Ireland. The baby was a Down’s syndrome boy. Mary Teresa held the baby tightly, saying, “He’s ours and we love him. He is God’s chosen one.”

The family lived in the Dorchester section of Boston. Their other boy was Jimmy. The dad died young of a heart attack, and Mary was left to raise the two boys, nine-year-old Jimmy and seven-year-old Danny. To pay the rent she scrubbed floors at a chronic care hospital.

Jimmy took good care of Danny. Dan felt at home with all the kids because no one told him he was different. Then one day, as they were boarding a trolley, some strange kids shouted, “No morons on the bus!” That was the day Jimmy Hickey learned to fight. It was also the day Jimmy decided to be a priest. Little Danny attended the Kennedy school in Brighton and eventually obtained a job.

In 1991, Mary Teresa Hickey died at age ninety-one after showering her sons with unyielding love all their lives. Father Jim Hickey had been a priest for thirty years. In every parish to which he was assigned, Danny went along with him. The people were favored with both men.

In October, 1997, Danny was in the hospital. His fifty-two year old body was failing. One night when ordinary people were eating supper, watching a ballgame or going to a movie, a simple story of brotherly love played itself out at the bedside of a man who never felt sorry for himself or thought he was different.

Father Jim held his brother and asked, “Do you trust me, Danny?” “I trust you.”

“You’re going to be OK.” “I be OK.”

Eight hundred people stood in line at his wake. Parishioners packed the church for his funeral. They sang and cried and prayed. Later that day, Daniel Jeremiah Hickey was gently laid beside his parents at New Calvary cemetery. The granite headstone bore his name and the inscription: “God’s Chosen.” (2)

God’s chosen. Would you believe that you and I are God’s chosen? It’s true. Nobody can tell us that our lives don’t matter. Nobody can tell us that we are unloved. Nobody can tell us that we are not lovable. The good news is that no matter who you are, no matter your background or shortcomings or disabilities, God embraces you with open arms. Baptism declares us to be part of God’s family. A child of God you are and a child of God you remain, now and forever.

Dr. Gary Nicolosi
January 10, 2016
Text – Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
Epiphany 1, C (Baptism of Christ)

1. Told by Amy Impellizzeri, Lawyer Interrupted (American Bar
Association, 2015) 157
2. As told by Alfred McBride, The Millennium (Huntington, Indiana: Our
Sunday Visitor, 1998) 109-110.