This morning, here’s another good news story to guide us forward in this uncertain first
month of 2022.
This one is about a young woman named Nadia Popovici, who was sitting in the stands
at a hockey game between the Seattle Kraken and the Vancouver Canucks. But instead
of watching the action on the ice, she couldn’t take her eyes of Brian Hamilton, the
Canucks’ assistant equipment manager. And specifically, she couldn’t take her eyes off
the back of his neck. What had caught her eye was a strange mole. After the game, she
ran down to the boards and pounded on the plexiglass to get Mr. Hamilton’s attention.
She held her phone up with a message: “The mole on the back of your neck is possibly
cancerous. Please go see a doctor.” Just to make sure: she had highlighted : mole,
doctor, and cancer, in red. As The New York Times story would later detail, Mr.
Hamilton went away rubbing the back of his neck and thinking, “That’s weird.” Ms.
Popovici, for her part, went away thinking, “Was I just being a weirdo?”
But the next day, Mr. Hamilton asked the team doctor about the mole, and the doctor
sent him to have it checked. Indeed, it came back as cancerous, and he had it removed
a few weeks later. Unchecked, the oncologist told him, it would have been lifethreatening.
Is this story weird? It sure is. It may also have saved someone’s life.
Here’s another weird story that saves lives: our baptism. Today, we celebrate the
baptism of Jesus, but it is really meant to be a call back to our baptisms. That day we
don’t remember, when a minister poured water over our heads, and wiped oil on our
faces, and adults lit candles and said prayers over us. Baptisms are one of my favourite rituals to perform as a minister: you never know the baby you are going to get, but they are always cute and entertaining, and wide-eyed about everything that happens. In our baby minds, baptism might be a strange day; in our adult lives, it is meant to save us – not only from the world, but also from ourselves. It is our fresh start, limited only by our ability to receive it. How does the good news story of Nadia Popovici and Brian Hamilton inform the good news of our baptism? Well, first let’s consider Nadia. Little pieces of her come out in the story: she worked as a nurse’s assistant at a hospital, which is how she recognized the suspect mole. When Brian Hamilton finally managed to track her down to say thanks, she was answering calls at a distress centre. She wants to be become a doctor. Nadia had already made choices to learn and to train herself, to build the habit of helping others: when she saw something that needed to be said – even if doing so felt weird – she could not stay silent. There are many ways that we also train ourselves to be other-centred, to be gospel-led, to truly receive the gift of our baptism. We read the Bible, we pray, we practice mindfulness. There are ways that we practice being gospel-led: volunteering, reaching out to strangers, biting our tongues when the words we are about to say won’t be helpful, speaking up when kind words are needed most. And what of Brian Hamilton - who saw Nadia’s strange message and listened to it? There are also many ways we can be open to advice and kindness from unusual corners and unexpected people in our lives. But are we always open? Do we watch for them as closely as we should? And so we have a story of someone offering a gift – one of experience, perspective and even risk – and someone receiving it – openly, without judgement and with gratitude. Brian Hamilton not only tracked down Nadia Popovici, he and the Canucks also arranged to give her the generous gifts of thanks and money toward her medical degree scholarship. A gift offered, and opened, with gratitude. The story of our baptism has the same components. The gift of baptism arrives at our metaphorical doorstep no matter what – it is already earmarked for us, most of us before we were walking. The next part is up to us: do we leave it wrapped up, forgotten at the door? Does it get unwrapped, and then stuffed in a corner, dusted off once in a while? Or do we unwrap it and make it a part of our daily lives, a gift that never loses lustre or breaks down or expires? Our baptism tells us: you are loved, you have value, feel safe taking risks in the name of the gospel, because that never changes. This is your permission to be weird, if being a little weird means doing what is right. And it is your reminder to listen for wisdom in the weirdness of others. It is perhaps hard to think of fresh starts when so much of this year is already dragging the refuse of the past months. This week, in all the stories about January 6th and the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol and attempted to stop democracy, we saw clearly how much the division has not healed, and how fragile that democracy still feels. Our kids started again in remote learning, with all the stress and disappointment that means for families. We are bracing, again, for a tough winter. It is true that the world does not start fresh. But people can. People can open their eyes to a new day and decide to be different in this one than they were in the last. It doesn’t happen easily. It takes training and practice. It takes openness and gratitude. But each day, to help us, we have our baptism, to open anew, to revisit yet again. Think of it this way: God is there, pounding on the plexiglass of whatever box we find ourselves in and holding up a sustaining message for us: You are loved. Have faith. Go and serve. Or just to be sure, the words highlighted in red: Love, Faith, Serve.