Shocking grace

first draft audio for “Shocking grace” by Martin Malina
Jed Creek in Caruso Park, Arnprior (Martin Malina 2022)

Crises in our lives change us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

You could ask, what really changed? What really changed on the mountain of the Transfiguration?[1] Jesus’ disciples had already witnessed some miracles before their mountaintop experience. They had already seen Jesus heal the sick, feed the hungry and preach good news to the poor. And since Jesus continued to do these things after the Transfiguration, you might think: What changed? So what if the disciples witnessed a divine display?

And yet something had changed. Just before and just after this story in chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. And on the mountain, when Moses and Elijah miraculously appear beside the transfigured Jesus, they talk about what Jesus will do in Jerusalem—suffer and die, and rise again. This part of the gospel acts like a pivot in the story of Jesus’ life on earth.

It’s like from that point forward what they had always known deep down they could no longer hide from. They could no longer find excuses, deny the truth of Jesus, the truth of his divine and human identity and purpose. And they were “terrified” at this realization.

Hasn’t the pandemic done a similar thing for us? The pandemic exposed truths we have been talking about for years. But for whatever reason we had ignored, denied or just brushed over notions of what we knew we needed to do.

For example, for the longest time we said and sung that the church is not the building it’s the people. We’ve affirmed that Christ is everywhere, in our daily lives, in our homes. ‘Christ in our homes’ was even the name of an educational program of the Synod years ago seeking to affirm the real and true presence of Jesus with us Monday through Saturday and not just on Sunday.

In the Communion liturgy, we have prayed for a long time before COVID that “we should at all times and in all places give thanks to God”. And yet, for the most part it was only on Sunday morning and only at this altar that we gave thanks to God.

For a long time before COVID we knew we had to reach out to young people and create a space and experience in the church for them that would meet their needs. We knew we had to focus outward as much if not more than taking care of “our own”. 

Although we did a little bit in all of these areas of developing church online, using technology more, reaching out to people we don’t know, celebrating Communion at home, and affirming our relationships in Christ beyond the requirement of this building; even though we knew we had to do those things more, we gave it more lip service than anything.

The pandemic shocked us into a new awareness and brought to the surface what we have always known. We now have to embrace this path forward and actually do something about it.

In the last few weeks I’ve had a little more time to reflect on the monumental changes in the world over the past two years, and in Ottawa over the past month. And now in the horrific aftermath of Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. How appropriate that we meet this Gospel text for this festival Sunday—Transfiguration of our Lord—at a time of unprecedented change in our lives.

I was reading from a book published this past year about the post-pandemic church. The authors conclude:

“We have just encountered a historical event like no other. Everything has changed, including the church. We can try to convince ourselves that the church remains unaffected, but we would be in complete denial. The world has changed. The culture has changed … and the church has changed.”[2]

How do we do, when we are shocked into reality? How is it when we come face-to-face with a truth from which we can no longer hide, deny or easily explain away? As I said, the disciples were terrified witnessing the truth of Jesus. Fear is a natural response to something changing so rapidly. How do we deal with that fear? What do we do?

I am wearing a pink t-shirt today over my clergy apparel. My usual appearance has changed! Last Wednesday, February 23 was ‘pink-t-shirt’ day to commemorate an act of love started by youth.

Now a movement celebrated across the globe, Pink Shirt Day has humble beginnings in 2007. It was inspired by an act of kindness in small-town Nova Scotia:

“David Shepherd, Travis Price and their teenage friends organized a high-school protest to wear pink in sympathy with a Grade 9 boy who was being bullied [for wearing a pink shirt]… they protested by distributing pink T-shirts to all the boys in their school. ‘I learned that two people can come up with an idea, run with it, and it can do wonders,’ says Travis, 17, who organized the pink protest. ‘Finally, someone stood up for a weaker kid.’ So David and some others headed off to a discount store and bought 50 pink tank tops. They sent out a message to schoolmates that night, and the next morning they hauled the shirts to school in a plastic bag. As they stood in the foyer handing out the shirts, the bullied boy walked in. His face spoke volumes. ‘It looked like a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders,’ Travis recalled. The bullies were never heard from again.”[3]

A small act of love for someone they didn’t know. And it made all the difference in response to the fear surrounding that situation. A transformative experience of God, I would say. Transformation, by love.

“Finally someone stood up for a weaker kid.”

When Elijah and Moses suddenly appeared with Jesus, the disciples’ vision of Jesus expanded to include more than a mere one-on-one solitary, private encounter with a friend they thought they knew. Jesus was no longer someone they owned just for themselves. Jesus was now in the company of others, belonging to something much bigger then their own, individual perspectives. Jesus was now part of a much broader social and historical story. Their vision of Jesus, and of God, exploded in an instant to include others they did not know personally.

The disciples’ vision of God could no longer be confined to their own, like-minded, circle. If they would hang out with the ‘new’ Jesus, moving forward, they would need to free Jesus from the clutches of their own exclusive needs, release Jesus to be the God of all people—even those who were different from them.

The disciples are terrified. Fear keeps us stuck and shut down. Yet the wisdom of the ages that stems from scripture itself is that “love casts out fear”.[4] The antidote to remaining governed by fear is a commitment to love. Whom do we love?

It is one thing to love those we already know. It is one thing to love those that we have seen in this place, in this church, before. But the message here is to go beyond that circle, to expand our vision of God—

To reach out with love to people we don’t yet know, people who are looking for healing, purpose, meaning for their lives, people who long for a deeper connection with themselves, with others, with creation and with God.

During the season of Lent as we follow Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, we will invite leaders and representatives from mission organizations, locally, whom we at Faith have supported over the years and in various ways. We will have the opportunity to bear witness to examples of the Gospel in Action—people who organize to show love to the vulnerable. And to mirror the love of God for each one of us, in our vulnerability.

[1] Luke 9:28-36

[2] Kay L. Kotan, “The RE Playbook: Relaunching Your Church in the Post-Pandemic World” in Being the Church in a Post-Pandemic World (Knoxville: Market Square Books, 2021

[3] From a Globe & Mail article, cited in

[4] 1 John 4:18

A funeral sermon

audio of funeral sermon for Hertha, by Martin Malina

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit, O Lord? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:6-10)

Hertha’s confirmation verse was from Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” All things are possible. 

Perhaps this confirmation verse, given to Hertha at a young age, would become a calling of sorts, a gift to her especially in the last couple of decades of her life as she faced serious illness, setbacks and several medical crises. Perhaps this confirmation verse would alight over her like some metaphysical banner whenever it was tough going: “I can do all things, even this.”

Like Saint Paul who wrote these words in the 1st century from prison, Hertha would take this words to mean: “I can do all things in Christ—even when I’m at my lowest, even when my needs are their greatest, even when I don’t bring my A-game. I will endure the physical, mental and emotional anguish in my life. I will tough it out.”

Indeed, her mental toughness was exceptional, on many levels. Her faith as well. This was her simple yet solid faith in Christ who emerged from his suffering and death to new life. Indeed here was a vision in her mind that guided her through the difficult times. It was a holy pattern of getting back up after falling down: suffering-death-resurrection; and repeat: suffering-death-resurrection. She could indeed do it all, meet every challenge head on, literally. All things were possible.

Yes, Hertha had such a strong brain, a quick mind. Even into her 90th year she could still recall and tell stories from her childhood in vivid, blow-by-blow detail. Her memory was like a concrete vault.

She could provide comprehensive explanations to all, and I mean all, her medical conditions to such an extent that impressed even her surgeons and specialists. She knew more about her body’s ailments than anyone else. Her brain was firing on all cylinders her whole life long.

Iain McGilchrist argues in his seminal work The Master and His Emissary[1] that contrary to popular myths about the brain, the left side and the right side of the brain actually both function in every decision and activity we engage. And, again contrary to what had been earlier assumed, McGilchrist shows that the left side—prone to focusing on the particular, concentrating and rational explanation—is in truth subservient to the right side—which adopts the big picture view and accepts nuance, metaphor and ambiguity. It’s the right side that is the Master; and the left side the dutiful Emissary not the other way around.

We may presume that Hertha’s capacity for acquiring knowledge, applying analysis and logical explanations to situations in her life was the exceptional thing. But there is more to it, I suspect.

A better place to meet today would be the shores of the Bonnechere River near Kilaloe at the family cottage. Of course for various reasons we can’t. But perhaps each of you present today, whether watching online or here in person can conjure up in your mind an image of that place that is special for you.

And that is why Hertha chose the hymn we will listen to shortly: Shall We Gather At the River. She knew that spot to be a connecting-ground for the generations spanning her family line: From the humble yet intriguing beginning of how Joe acquired the land, to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would decades later also develop a deep connection with that same spot on the river. 

Perhaps as the weather improves moving into Spring and Summer later this year, you can pause to remember and give thanks for Hertha when you next gather together there.

What impressed me was why she chose this hymn, especially because it is a common, beloved hymn often chosen at funeral services. She made a connection within herself—between the strong baptismal imagery in the hymn and the integration of the Christian faith with her personal experience. Left brain connecting to the right brain.

For sure, Hertha could left-brain it with the best of us. But Hertha’s master, so to speak, was her right brain function. Despite her precise and comprehensive capacity for rational thinking and acquiring knowledge, she ultimately could submit to the realm of faith, trust, acceptance and love. That’s why she picked that hymn, because she loved you. She loved you dearly.

She knew and often admitted to me that so much of life cannot, and need not, be merely explained away. She knew that there was no place on earth, indeed no place in her mind, that she could go apart from the loving and steadfast presence of a God she couldn’t fully comprehend.[2] She knew, that often all we need to do when facing the mysteries of life, love, death, suffering, and God, is just to gather at the river. And sing.

[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019)

[2] Psalm 139:6-10