In July 2019 a Gallup/Populace survey of more than 5000 Americans probed the question: How do Americans define success? The respondents were asked it in two different ways: how do they think other Americans define success, and how do they define success for themselves. The hope was to tease out what might be seen as societal expectations when it comes to success, and if those same qualities held true in a person’s own life.
A sermon based on Matthew 3:13-17.
The perceived societal values were what you might expect. Fame—the number one response—and a significant social media following were joined on the top by more wealth and a higher standard of living that others. Being viewed as better than others held the number 5 position, and achieving an education was also viewed as important. One take away for the perceived societal values of success, there was always a pecking order, winners and losers. And in our culture, we think success comes only when you’re at the top.
Interestingly, when asked about their personal ideas of success, most people gave a different story. 97% of those surveyed believed that “[a] person is successful if they have followed their own interests and talents to become the best they can be at what they care about most.” And 96% said that success is not a zero-sum game, that a person could “be successful regardless of how others do.” Fame and fortune were way down on that list when it came to determining our own success. Education was the only thing that people rated high as a marker for success in both their own understanding and in their perception of society’s.
On this First Sunday after the Epiphany, we read about Jesus’ baptism by John. All the gospels tell the story of the Baptizer emerging from the wilderness proclaiming a message of repentance, of renewal. The call to turn around from their current way of life in order to get ready for the Messiah. And now Jesus has joined the throngs by the River Jordan. But notice that his coming to John in order to be baptized totally throws John for a loop. “I need to be baptized you, and yet do you come to me?” John asks. Jesus simply tells John to let it be, that this is the way. So John relents, and he baptizes his cousin. And as Jesus comes up out of the water, the clouds split, and the Spirit in the form of a dove comes down and alights on him, and a voice comes from above declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
But it’s important to note the timing of when that voice came to Jesus. It’s before his first miracle at the Wedding in Cana. This declaration of Jesus’ belovedness happens prior to his first sermon in Capernaum. It occurs long before Jesus takes bread and blesses it. God’s pronouncement that Jesus is a beloved child comes before he does—or achieves—anything in his ministry. He is beloved simply for who he is.
Most of my growing up years were spent in a church that only offered adult baptism—sometimes called “believer’s baptism.” The doctrine holds that we respond to God’s invitation, promise amendment of life, and then we are born anew through the waters of baptism. As the example in scripture—and understand there are no specific recordings of infant baptism in the New Testament, with only oblique references to “an entire household” being baptized—these proponents suggest that their needs to be a personal stake in salvation; that we need to do something—albeit very small, just the acceptance of the gift—before salvation can be experienced.
What I cherish about infant baptism is that there is nothing that little one can do other than just be present when they are brought to the waters at the font. That when I pour water on their heads, they too are told by God that they are beloved. That there isn’t anything they have to do first. That their belovedness isn’t a result of their own actions at all. That they—and we, this message if for all of us—are beloved by God. Full stop.
Which is not the message that we or those little ones will hear from our culture. We’ll be told that if we want to do well in society we need to achieve success through fame and fortune. That if want to amount to anything in the eyes of the world, we’ll then we better get crackin’.
The last book written by Roman Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen is called Adam: God’s Beloved. Nouwen was a prolific author, and highly sought after professor and speaker. He taught for a decade at Yale Divinity School, and then following a six month sabbatical in Latin America, he joined the faculty at Harvard. He resigned his position there after just a couple of years, feeling an emptiness he couldn’t quite comprehend. He went from Harvard to the L’Arche community in France as a short-term chaplain. L’Arche is an international network of communities where people both with and without intellectual disabilities live and work with each other in companionship. At L’Arche all people are seen as having a contribution to make to society, and those having no apparent disabilities were seen as equal to those who did. Following his short-term assignment, Nouwen choose to spend the last ten years of his life living at the L’Arch Daybreak community near Toronto.
In the eyes of the world, Henri Nouwen—a respected professor at some of the most prestigious institutions in the country—had achieved it all when it came to success. And yet he felt something was missing. And he found what he was missing in the relationships he formed while living in community with people of many different abilities. Especially with Adam.
Nouwen describes Adam’s early childhood in his book. Adam began experiencing epileptic seizures in his first year of life. It took over two years for him to learn to walk on his own, and he never learned to speak. Adam never had a chance to develop outside friendships given his condition, and he didn’t meet the criteria to attend school until he was eight. Even then, Adam could only attend a couple of hours a day given his health needs.
When he became a young man, his mother was diagnosed with significantly high blood pressure and, on the advice of their physician, his parents made the painful choice to place Adam in a care facility nearby. Their lives still centered on Adam, coming in at mealtimes to feed him and visit, and providing care the institution couldn’t due to staff shortages. After five years, the L’Arche community made a spot for Adam in spite of his significant physical challenges, and Adam moved there. And then when Henri Nouwen joined the community, he and Adam became housemates. That relationship changed Henri’s life in significant ways. In Adam, a person that society would classify as a drain on resources and clearly not successful, Nouwen experienced unconditional love. Adam was clearly God’s beloved child.
Nouwen writes, “Adam was sent to bring Good News to the world. It was his mission, as it was the mission of Jesus. Adam was—very simply, quietly, and uniquely—there! He was a person, who by his very life announced the marvelous mystery of our God: I am precious, beloved, whole, and born of God. Adam bore silent witness to this mystery, which has nothing to do with whether or not he could speak, walk, or express himself, whether or not he made money, had a job, was fashionable, famous, married or single. It had to do with his being. He was and is a beloved child of God. It is the same news that Jesus came to announce, and it is the news that all those who are poor keep proclaiming in and through their very weakness. Life is a gift. Each one of us is unique, known by name, and loved by the One who fashioned us. Unfortunately, there is a very loud, consistent, and powerful message coming to us from our world that leads us to believe that we must prove our belovedness by how we look, by what we have, and by what we can accomplish. We become preoccupied with ‘making it’ in this life, and we are very slow to grasp the liberating truth of our origins and our finality. We need to hear the message announced and see the message embodied, over and over again. Only then do we find the courage to claim it and to live from it.”
Before Jesus begins his earthly ministry, he hears that he is beloved by God. And we are reminded of our belovedness too, simply because we exist and bear God’s image. We are beloved not because of what we have accomplished, or whether we believe the right things, or attend one school rather than another, or if we are employed by a prestigious firm or meet the physical standards of our culture. Our belovedness doesn’t depend on what our SAT scores were, or our abilities in the kitchen, or if we can sing, or what our children do. All of the things that our world—or that we—define as success mean absolutely nothing to God. We are beloved. Period. And we are called to share that love with others so that they too may come to know that in God’s eyes they are fully and completely enough just as they are.