audio for sermon “Hole-in-the-wall” by Martin Malina

One of the most anxious moments I experienced as a parent was when our youngest went on her first school trip to the local winter festival. She was ten years old. And her class rode a school bus half an hour to Pakenham in the Ottawa Valley.

The class was instructed to pair up with a partner at all times and for all the activities. At the end of the day-long outing they were to board the bus at the appointed time, bound for home.

Except Mika wasn’t on the bus. Upon arriving back at the school and noticing her absence, the teacher-in-charge immediately drove her own vehicle back to Pakenham where, thankfully, Mika was still waiting but in another part of the park.

I remember empathizing with Mika how it felt to be cut off, isolated and by herself—apart from her community. Disturbing, to say the least especially for a young child. And for her parents! Perhaps you too can relate a story from your own life about a time when you or a loved one was lost, left behind, or inadvertently separated from family, friends and community …

On the Pacific North West coast there’s a famous beach called Rialto Beach. Part of the reason it is a popular destination is the ‘hole in the wall’—a passageway carved out of one of the seastacks (the rock formations, like little islands out in the water near the shore line). 

The hole-in-the-wall forms a tunnel that can be accessed by hikers navigating the coastal trail. In fact, it first appeared to me the only way for hikers to continue their beach walk. Because besides the small tunnel underneath, a large, mountainous rock wall blocks hikers from making their way up the beach. To access the hole-in-the-wall, you have to turn towards the ocean and walk out on slippery, uneven and sharp rocks to get to the hole, walk through the tunnel, then back to the beach on the other side.

The trick is, you can only do that at low tide. When the tide comes in, the hole-in-the-wall is filled with water swirling through and crashing into the seastack. At high tide, it is impossible to get through. Hikers on both sides of the hole-in-the-wall are cut off from each other and the path.

This is especially significant for those on the north side where you find most of the camp sites and the trail continues for tens of kilometres up the beach. If you are on the north side at high tide, you’d have to wait several hours before getting through and out of the park. You can be stuck on the northside if you need to get out quickly for whatever reason.

When we visited Rialto beach we didn’t check the tide schedule for the day. We were only concerned about getting to the small parking lot on the southside as early in the day as possible to avoid the crowds. Fortunately, when we hiked the first couple kilometres to the hole-in-the-wall, the tide was very low and we had no problems getting through to the other side. We weren’t intending to hike far up the coast, so we made it back through when the tide was just starting to climb up the rocks a bit.

Jesus tells a story about a sheep who was separated from the fold.[1] There are different levels of approaching this story. But one perspective that doesn’t usually get interpreted is the sheep’s perspective. Why did that one sheep miss the call of the shepherd to gather?

The sheep were enjoying their grass. And then when it got cold, one of them shivered and realized that she had been cold for some time. But the grass was so tasty. Looking around, she suddenly discovered that she was alone. All the others had gone. And she began crying aloud. And then the shepherd, who had many sheep, missed her when he got back to the fold. And he left his ninety-nine to try to find this sheep that was lost. 

In this parable Jesus says, “God is like that.” Nothing heavy and theological about that. Very little that is dogmatic, technically, about it. Just that here is a shepherd who loves each of his sheep. And one of the sheep is doing the most natural thing in the world—and that is to eat the grass—did it with such enthusiasm and over a time interval of such duration that she didn’t know when the shepherd called. And she was lost.

And why was she lost? She was lost because she was out of touch, out of touch with the group that sustained her, the group that fed her, that gave her a sense that she counted. That’s all. And as soon as she was out there alone, she said, “I’m just here by myself. Nothing but me in all of this? I want to feel that I count with the others.”

Insulation—isolation—these are matters of the soul, something spiritual. There’s something inside of me that pulls up, that blocks the way. Sometimes we do it because we’re afraid. Sometimes we do it because we are self-centred and selfish. Sometimes we do it because we’re clumsy and awkward, and we don’t quite know how to establish a relationship or relationships with others that can float our spirit to them, and their spirit to us.

Jesus says that God is like the shepherd, seeking always to find those who are apart from community. And when they have found it, when they have found their community, then all the world seems to fit back into place. And life takes on a new meaning.[2]

Standing in front of the hole-in-the-wall at low tide, I marvelled at the power of water to forge a hole through dozens of feet of solid rock over time. As I reflected on the power of God to make a way through the impossible, suddenly a few pebbles came crashing around us. Initially I jumped back alarmed at the prospect that a rock avalanche was about to bury us alive. As it were, we barely missed being pelted by those plunging pebbles of stone.

But then another thought struck me. There’s a path up there, connecting the two beaches! I hadn’t realized this at first—a forest path farther in that circumvents the rock wall altogether.

But it isn’t an easy path to find. You have to clamber over mountains of dangerous driftwood logs forming a formidable barrier at the beach head. You have to search behind shrubbery and beach stone. The pathway to connect both sides at high tide isn’t an easy way. It isn’t the most convenient. It isn’t a way that costs the least amount of energy and time. 

But there is still a way, even at high tide when the hole-in-the-wall was submerged under thundering surf. There is another way to connect beach hikers separated by the rock wall. Just knowing that gave me peace.

With the power of water over time, God made that hole-in-the-wall. God makes a way for us to connect. God finds us in our isolated, insulated selves, cut off from what is most meaningful to us. And if not one way, God makes another way. Because God is relentless in seeking us out. God provides a path for each of us to remain connected, and find our way, in the different circumstances of our lives.

Even when it appears the way is blocked. Even when we are alone, by ourselves and isolated. By illness, by fear, by our awkwardness, our selfishness. God makes a way for us. And on this way, then, God embraces us in love, forgiveness and peace.

[1] Luke 15:4-7

[2] Adapted from Howard Thurman, Sermons on the Parables, ed. David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2018), p.22-24,25

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