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.