The Gospel that hurts

sermon audio “The Gospel that hurts” by Martin Malina

The Epiphany won’t let us go without challenging us. This Gospel text should come with a warning label attached to it: Read at your own risk! It offers little by way of the warm fuzzies. There is confrontation. Baiting dialogue. There is even violence. Jesus is rejected by his hometown.[1]

But there is a nugget, or two, almost hidden from view. It is deep inside this text if we are willing to work for it. Dig it out. And that work is just like any good physical work-out will leave you feeling, with achy muscles. It is the Gospel that hurts.

The story is told about Michelangelo, the famous artist, painter and sculpter. He’d go to these huge quarries where he instructed the masons to cut out a gigantic piece of marble and roll it back to his workshop. There he’d spend a couple of years chipping away at it. He’d cut all kinds of things from those stones: People, horses, kings.

He’d bang away with a huge hammer and chisel, taking off large chunks. Then he’d come back with a smaller hammer, smaller chisel, maybe a file, then some sandpaper, and finally a damp, velvet cloth.

Admirers used to ask him, “How did you create that out of a chunk of rock?” He’d shake his head and say, “I didn’t. It was there all along. I just let it out.”

Inside of us is good just waiting to jump out, to be released. The hammer and chisel will hurt. It does. It’s painful to grow. We wish life didn’t have to work that way. But remember, the velvet cloth isn’t far behind.[2]

Jesus mentions the story of Naaman. [3] Here is the nugget in the text I found. It’s worth re-reading the orginal story in full, from 2 Kings 5. Naaman, like the Nazarenes reacting to Jesus, was incensed at what was asked of him and proposed to him, in terms of his salvation, his healing. 

Naaman was ready to reject the prophet’s instruction for his healing. But thank God for Naaman’s servants. His servants speak truth: “If you were commanded to do something difficult would you not have done it for your healing?”And all that was asked of him was to wash in the Jordan River.[4]Naaman’s expectations had to be pealed away from him to accept the truth, accept the simple truth. Not easy, but simple. And he was healed.

We are nearing the end days of the pandemic. Yet it doesn’t feel like the end is in sight. We may feel very guarded in our hope. Planning ahead, and anticipating how this pandemic will pan-out seems daunting, confounding and overwhelming. It’s hard to look forward to anything. To have hope. The only thing we have, right now and in the end, is the present moment. With ourselves.

And that relationship is harder than we think to navigate. Simple is not easy. And that journey, in truth, hurts sometimes. We would rather avoid that journey and place all our proverbial eggs in the external baskets of life. What’s out there. But only doing that and we miss something precious. And central to the Gospel:

Inside of us is a light. Inside each one of us is something good, of God—yes—something worth releasing to the world. To believe that right now, in the midst of everything, means everything and makes all the difference. 

2022 sunrise over the town of Arnprior (photo by Martin Malina)

Wherever you are, the light inside you—it may be small, it may be barely flickering, it may be gasping for oxygen—that light never burns out. The light inside is just rising, in fact, gaining strength. And the pathway forward is this simple awareness and acceptance. You are loved.

In the end, the Gospel that hurts is an invitation for us to grow into who we are, to embrace who we are from the inside out, and deepen our faith in the communion of all the saints in Christ. May this Epiphany season be for us a time to respond positively to that invitation.

[1] Luke 4:21-30

[2] The story is told by Charles Martin, Chasing Fireflies: A Novel of Discovery (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007) p.234-235

[3] 2 Kings 5:1-19

[4] Ibid. verse 13

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 “Daily Wisdom” (9 December 2021)

The best for the last

sermon audio for “The best for the last” by Martin Malina
Looking Northwest over the frozen Ottawa River at Arnprior, photo by Martin Malina January 2021

“… you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:10) 

Last Spring, I noticed we had bottles of wine stored in the altar care room cabinet. The bottles of wine had sat there unopened since the beginning of the pandemic. I recall mentioning this to the council at the time, wondering with them if the gathered community will ever drink communion wine together again during a service in the building. And would the wine we had stored even still be good whenever that will happen? Questions I thought I’d never ask.

I’m sure I’m not the only one asking these kinds of questions, and not just about sacramental practices. What will the church be when all is said and done with COVID? What will our gatherings look like? Will it even feel anywhere near the same it did before the pandemic struck almost two years ago now? Will people even want to gather again inside a building to worship and pray?

In the first of his signs, Jesus, attends a wedding at Cana.[1] And the good wine runs out near the beginning of the party. Normally the best wine is served at the beginning of the party when guests can still discriminate between the good stuff and the “inferior”, watered-down fare served later on.

In the first miracle that launches Jesus’ earthly ministry—when he turns water into wine—there is no turning back. What he does here sets the tone and direction for what he and God are all about. What Jesus does at Cana of Galilee introduces the way of God that extends through all his earthly ministry right up to the cross of Calvary and the empty tomb. 

In the first of his signs Jesus does the opposite of what is expected: He undermines social convention. The best wine for the party Jesus gives not at the beginning when guests are still in their right minds. He doesn’t give them the really good wine when they can still be impressed. 

It’s precisely when the guests are not at their best, when they are already drunk and their mental faculties are comprised, that the perfect gift is given. Jesus, right at the beginning of his earthly mission to bring the kingdom of God on earth, does exactly the opposite of what everyone would expect. 

Perhaps we expect that we would recognize what God is doing in this pandemic only if we can be at our best. Perhaps we expect that there should be no ambiguity with God, no ambivalence in God’s ways and in God’s truth, from our perspective. Perhaps in times of disruption and uncertainty we expect God to show us the way with conviction and clarity.

“Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

Now, as we set our hearts on hope that we will come to the end of the pandemic this year. Now, some two years into it when many of us our not at our best. Now when we feel near the end of a party that really hasn’t felt like a party in the least. 

Now, when many of us are exhausted and discouraged, fearful and anxious. Now, when so many are ill and frightened for the future. Now, when we live on the threshold between the losses of the past and prospects of an uncertain future.

“But you have kept the good wine until now.”

A beautiful gift lies before us now. Even though in our fatigue we might not at first be able to discern it, Jesus saves the best till last. Even though in our clouded COVID brains, we might not perceive it right before us, Jesus offers us something precious. 

As we slowly but surely near the end of a marathon season, we lean and live into the new normal. We acknowledge the awkwardness and discomforts of doing things a new way, a different way. Perhaps with all of that we feel like the weather outside—frozen, inert, lifeless. 

But perhaps there lies under all of that the seeds of renewal for us. Jesus doesn’t show us a clear answer to the problem so much as he is resetting our perspective on reality, and a new way of living that moves us, in the end, toward a more loving and more generous life than ever it was before.

Because God doesn’t wait until we are at our best to give us the gift of grace. In truth, perhaps it’s when we are not at our best when we are most receptive to receiving, to being open to, God’s forgiveness and love. Perhaps the Spirit of God can best enter in through the cracks of our broken, needy and longing hearts. And that’s when the Epiphany happens for us.

[1] John 2:1-11