Gorillas of grace

sermon audio for “Gorillas of grace” by Martin Malina
Madawaska River at the Stewartville bridge, Ottawa Valley (photo by Martin Malina 2022)

Jesus concludes in the Gospel reading, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[1]

In your hearing. An important part of how successfully the gospel is communicated depends on you, the listener—how you receive it.

From the text he reads in the synagogue, Jesus asks his listeners in Nazareth to broaden their vision, beyond the original situation Isaiah addressed hundreds of years earlier. 

Because it’s a different narrative Jesus tells the Nazarenes, even if it grows out of the biblical tradition. He asks them to consider what the text means to them in their current situation. 

What is startling, especially to his hometown family friends who knew him from youth, is that Jesus refers to himself as the fufillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me …”[2] In other words, Jesus identifies himself with what originally was the voice of one called Isaiah. 

Jesus self-identifies with Isaiah’s words (reading from the NRSV photo by Martin Malina 2022)

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry, according the Luke’s gospel, comes therefore with a challenge. And not an easy one for the listeners in that 1st century Nazarene synagogue. 

To broaden their vision would be quite the challenge. To consider this Jesus as someone so much more than the hometown boy who returned for a visit, the boy whom they scolded, taught, disciplined and with whom they played, hung out, pushed the boundaries of adolescence. To consider this Jesus as someone so much more. How about the Son of God?

But there is so much more to this passage. Jesus reads a text from the prophet Isaiah which serves a kind of mission statement for Jesus. Talk about a purpose-driven life! To bring good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives. To recover the sight of the blind. To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the Lord’s favour. How many churches have this mission statement posted over their doors?

How do we begin to see more to the story, something we may be missing because we are fixated on only the historical perspective, for example? Or, we may be focused only on one way of interpreting this text—what we learned in Sunday School decades ago? How do we notice what is beyond the limits of our own perspective? Maybe something significant?

I invite you to participate in an experiment with me: I call it the Gorillas of Grace experiment. 

“Imagine you are watching a group of people, some wearing white shirts and some with black shirts. They are all weaving in and out of each other in a group and throwing basketballs. You have been instructed to count the number of bounce passes from someone wearing a white shirt to another person wearing a white shirt. Since there are several balls, and several types of passes being thrown within and between the groups, you are so focused on the counting you completely miss a gorilla walking through the middle of the group, pounding on his chest and continuing on! 

“This phenomenon is called ‘selective attention’, and is true for at least 75% of the people who have actually done the experiment. When we are hyper-focused on one thing, we literally miss what is right in front of our faces. We perceive only those objects that receive our focused attention.

“And neuroscience tells us that what we pay attention to wires us to see more of the same. We not only miss seeing the wonderful things right in front of our face, quite often we miss the opportunity to cultivate more of their presence. Paying attention to the gorillas in our midst—the daily graces we tend to overlook, or not see at all, can profoundly change the way we see the world.”[3]

Many of us long to feel the relief of a post-pandemic world – where we can at long last go back to doing things the way we always have done them. We want again to exercise the freedom we have to go anywhere we want any time we want and with whomever we so please. What a life! 

We don’t want anymore to feel the constriction, restriction and paranoia of going into public settings. We don’t want to live our days besieged by the prospect of severe illness. We don’t want to live our daily lives as if it were some huge risk everytime we go out our door. A worthy vision, and hope.

But there is more we can learn from this time and experience of our lives with COVID. Our awareness is being broadened. And Jesus might just be calling us to stretch our horizon, vision, perspective. Just like he did in Nazareth.

Because during this season of restrictions, we taste just a little bit of what so many people in the world feel all of the time, never mind COVID. People who are poor, or disabled, or in some way marginalized – who, in short, are not privileged as we are. We are given a small taste of what it must be like for a disabled person who cannot, physcially, enter our church buildings under their own power, COVID or no COVID. We now know a little bit of what it must feel like to live under constant threat of danger – how racialized people are harrassed and bullied, all of the time, wherever they go.

Jesus’ mission statement calls not just the people in Isaiah’s world to whom these words were first spoken, not just to the Nazarenes in Jesus’ world. But to ours as well.

Today, what the world needs are people of faith who can see beyond their own conditioned perspectives. Especially in families, relationships and any human organization that has felt the distress of division—divided over opinions, entrenched in unyielding positions. What the world needs today are people of faith who can follow where Jesus calls, even if it challenges us, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable for a while. 

Jesus calls us to practice a vision that perceives all sides of a story.[4] Not just the original context in scripture. But its adaptation to the present day. Not just my way of looking at things. But another person’s perspective as well: someone who is different than me, someone who is poor, captive, delusioned, oppressed – and to them proclaim the Lord’s favour. 

When we perceive the world through God’s eyes, we see not with scientific coldness nor mere objectivity as if studying something with scholarly detachment. But we see with love, with compassion, with mercy and forgiveness. With a heart that seeks to understand and connect with another. That is the difference people of faith can make. People who incorporate a multitude of perspectives in loving relationship. And to ‘see’ that Christ is present to all people of every time and every place.

[1] Luke 4:21

[2] Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2

[3] Alane Daugherty, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness (Bloomington IN: Balboa Press, 2014), p.30-31.

[4] Laurence Freeman calls it a ‘panoptic’ vision, see www.wccm.org “Daily Wisdom” (9 December 2021)

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