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

Behold

Galilee Retreat Centre, Arnprior Ontario (photo by Martin Malina, 2021)
sermon audio for “Behold” by Martin Malina

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”[1]

What are the voices that you have heard and inwardly digested this holiday season? What messages have you taken to heart? 

The song of the angels, the carols, the music? 

The voices of industry, the marketing experts telling you what you need to buy in order to be happy? 

The voices of politicians telling you to be afraid, and not to be afraid? 

The voice of your heart, the whisper of truth, languishing under the heavy weight of delusion and despair like a tiny candle’s flame flickering and grasping for oxygen?

Of all the disruption and renewed vigilance we have been called upon to observe during this Christmas, beleaguered by the Omicron-variant, whose voice have you listened to?

We have good examples from scripture, especially Mary mother of Jesus who had to pivot big-time dealing with the sudden news of the angel telling her what was in store for her. This is Mary who faced incredible change in her life in such short order. 

And she allowed for some reflection on this question in her life and amidst all the turmoil: Not once but twice — first when the shepherds visited the holy child at his birth and then again years later after Jesus was found conversing with the teachers in the temple — “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”.[2]

What words do you hear, do you ponder and treasure in your heart now that the seasons shift again? 

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

In this short verse, we witness an intimacy within the Trinity. We get a sense of the profound love between Father and Son. This dialogue is between two persons. And we are privileged to behold such a holy moment of love expressed in the Triune God who considers Jesus ‘the Beloved’.

Jesus’ baptism is the first time in the Gospels we hear a conversation — or part of one — between God and Jesus. This loving conversation will sustain and hold and animate all that Jesus does in the thirty years of his life on earth. God is about this interface between one and the other, the connecting point between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, between Creator and Redeemer through the Holy Spirit “that descended upon him … like a dove.” A dove.

I have missed the birds. Where have they gone? Just before Christmas we put all kinds of seeds and feed on our bird houses and stands in front of our house. Memories from summer of flocks of them descending upon our property filled us with joy and expectation before Christmas. But we really haven’t seen them besides the stray nibbler. Heck, not even the squirrels have come by! The dove represents the presence of God “in bodily form”. Well, this Christmas, it doesn’t seem like God visited.

Maybe, like me, you’ve wondered about whether God was missing-in-action this Christmas. I asked the cashier at my local grocery store a couple of days ago, “How was your Christmas?” Scanning my groceries, she kept her head down, shrugged, and said, “It was quiet”. And I took that to mean not particularly a good ‘quiet’. Has God missed the boat with us this Christmas, indeed this last year? We began and ended last year in this paralyzed state, and started this new year mired again under the threat of the pandemic.

We may need the Epiphany — the revelation of God. The season of Epiphany begins after the twelfth day of Christmas every year on January 6 according to our calendar. Epiphany means ‘revelation’. God is revealed to us anew, just as God was revealed in Jesus Christ, the beloved Son of God. We may very well need the Epiphany this year like no other before.

When you think about it, most of the Christmas crèches and manger scenes don’t show us much of the baby Jesus himself. At the birth, we may feel the wonder of it all, the spiritual tenderness of the scene. He is swaddled and cradled, his presence illuminated only by light. 

But we cannot really see the face of the Christ child. The Christ child’s face is not normally the dominant image. The Christmas vision of the newborn Jesus is often one of Mary kneeling by the improvised bed. We are like bystanders from a distance who see the baby’s face only through the actors, mother and father, animals and angels.[3]

We may need the Epiphany to behold the face of Jesus for ourselves! Ancient Celtic Christians believed that in gazing at a newborn’s face, we see the very image of God.[4] Perhaps that is why we, young and old, are drawn to babies. And you can hardly hold a baby in your arms without gazing upon their face. Infants give us a felt sense of God’s loving presence. Babies draw us to God’s love and grace. There is no other relationship to speak of that more accurately captures the truth of God’s love than our relationship with a new born. 

Conversely, through the infant’s eyes, in some mysterious way, God beholds you. When a baby’s eyes fix upon your gaze, when the infant looks at you with those small, penetrating, gentle, inquisitive eyes, God sees you. And loves you. Oh, yes, this year especially we need Epiphany.

And maybe, just maybe in the days to come, you shall hear the voice of Jesus say to your heart — “You are mine, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And when we are God’s beloved, we begin to live and ‘see’ through God’s eyes.[5] The voices of the human crowd, even the negative ones, will have little power to hurt us. And we will begin to perceive the world around us through the sight of a holy child who looks with gentleness and love upon everyone we meet.

The ‘You’ is then not just for you. God turns to the whole of creation and says to all: “You are mine, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


[1] Luke 3:21-22

[2] Luke 2:19,51

[3] Diana Butler Bass, “Mary and Jesus” in Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie, cited in Diana Butler Bass “The Cottage – December 22: Advent Calendar” (substack.com, 2021)

[4] Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus, cited in “The Cottage – December 7: Advent Calendar” (substack.com, 2021)

[5] Richard Rohr, “A Mutually Loving Gaze” Week One: Nothing Stands Alone (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 3 January 2022)

Born

Christmas Day Light (photo by Martin Malina, 2021)
sermon audio “Born” by Martin Malina

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”[1]

It had to take me reading the Christmas birth story from Matthew and Luke again this year to recall how it was when my children were born.

I had forgotten, now some 18 years ago, how anxious, fearful and disruptive the whole birthing experience was—more for Jessica than for me: The anticipation, then all the things that didn’t go according to plan while in the hospital, not to mention the physical pain and uncertainty surrounding the whole event. I’d forgotten how it was.

Bodies are messy. Birth is messy. 

Unpredictable, dangerous even. If we imagine Mary as only docile and sweet—a virgin—will we forget over two thousand years later Mary’s own sexuality and the real physical pain of bringing a baby into the world? 

Will we forget that Mary was a real woman, and Jesus a real baby who grew to be a real man? That both were flesh and blood, both had real bodies? Will we forget that a woman’s body was torn open by a baby forcing its way into the world, a hungry, crying, and helpless infant body to feed, wash, and warm?

I hope not. Diana Butler Bass asserts in her recent book, Freeing Jesus, that:

“Eventually, the mystery of God’s glory runs smack into the muck of human bodies; the divine Word became flesh from the same dust and spittle that made us all. Mary’s body brought forth the tiny body of God; Her water breaking and the bloody birth made possible the water and blood of the cross some thirty years later.

“‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ We emphasize ‘Savior,’ ‘Messiah,’ and ‘Lord,’ but forget the most amazing word in the angelic proclamation: ‘born.’”[2]

The divine is hidden quietly inside the human. The holy is hidden in the physical and the material. And if in the human of two thousand years ago, God is not finished with us today. If in the material and physical of two thousand years ago, God is not finished with this physical and material world today. 

All is not lost. There is someone, somewhere. There is God whom you will find not in some otherworldly, cerebral, abstract sense. But born on earth. Here and now. Accessible to you, in the flesh. A people. Someone. Somewhere.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that God is missing in all the disruption and anxiety and fear surrounding this COVID Christmas time. Perhaps the problem is our expectations, and where we will look to find Jesus born anew in our time and place. Because God is Emmanuel. God is with us.

We have every reason to live in hope and trust and confidence.

Merry Christmas.


[1] Luke 2:11

[2] Cited in her blog, The Cottage (www.dianabutlerbass.com, 20 December 2021)

Crooked Christmas Trees

sermon audio for “Crooked Christmas Trees” by Martin Malina
The star on a crooked branch (photo by Martin Malina, 2021)

I have tree problems, I must admit. The Christmas tree inside the house, and the trees outside our house, have certain challenges, you might say.

When I ordered our artificial Christmas tree some years ago, I wanted it to be tall enough to just reach the ceiling of our living room. So I ordered the 10-foot one. However when it arrived and I set it up in place, the tip was about 6 inches too long. So, I had to deal with a crooked tip. How would a star fit on top of my Christmas Tree?

The opposite problem existed outside. The tips, the leads, of two of my six white pine trees, now about 6 feet tall have fallen off because of the white pine blister fungus. These trees will lose their straight-line trunk as they grow and reach for the sky. 

When these tips fell off a couple months ago, I must admit I grieved this change of their life’s trajectory. The trees will have a crooked trunk from about six feet up. Their new branches near the top will eventually bend towards the sky. They will not look the way I had envisioned when I first planted the seedlings in a row at the back of our property.

When I did a book search on Amazon using the title “The Crooked Tree” I was surprised to find not one, but several books with this title. All of them were geared to Christmas time, and most of them offered a spiritual message.[1]

I guess I’m not alone in searching for meaning in a Christmas Tree that is not perfect, crooked in fact. Would we yearn for a celebration of Christ’s birth that was not encumbered by expectations we have, expectations that contribute to the stress of the season?

I love Charlie Brown Christmas trees – a 2-foot tall, low-leaning branch in a pot, really, bearing only one red ball which pulls down the tip. Whenever I see one in someone’s house, I gravitate towards it. 

A living branch (photo by Beth MacGillivray, 2021)

But when we set up our Charlie Brown Christmas trees, is it the only festive tree in the house? Or, is it meant only to serve some comic-relief, meant merely to complement the other more serious decorations in our homes? Do we make sure the real, dressed up, ‘perfect’ tree is centred in front of the picture window in the grand rooms of our homes? I’d be tempted to go there, I must admit.

I like the story about Martin Luther in the sixteenth century going into the bush before Christmas, cutting down and hauling in an evergreen tree to put candles on it. Lighted, these candles attached to the branches of the tree. They reminded Luther of the stars that he saw shining in the sky above. They filtered through branches of the forest around him. Martin Luther, of course, understood these lights to symbolize the light of Christ shining in the dark, the light coming into the world.

I will read later tonight from the first chapter of the Gospel of John describing the light coming into the world.[2] That is the meaning of Christmas—Jesus, Son of God, came to us. 

And what is more to this story of Jesus coming – the Light of the world shining in the night – is that God does not wait until the morning. God does not wait until midday when all is bright in our lives. God comes at night when the monsters creep in the shadows and our minds and hearts can’t see clearly.

Understand, God does not wait until everything is perfect. God does not wait until you find your way. God does not wait until you get it right. God does not wait until you fix all your problems. God does not wait until everything that is wrong is gone. God does not wait until COVID is over before coming into our lives.

Because on a crooked branch, there is still room. The top part of my Christmas tree can still hold a star. There is room aplenty on crooked branches to hold all manner of stars.

And God rejoices this night. God rejoices that the tree with crooked branches can bear the star, hold the light. And that is all we are: Christ-bearers, holders of the light. Our hearts, our lives, crooked and imperfect in every way imaginable, can still reflect and hold the light that has come. That, my friends, is good news.

It just makes me want to sing! “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree …”


[1] A couple of books I have read recently – Damian Chandler, The Crooked Christmas Tree: The Beautiful Meaning of Jesus’ Birth (New York: Hachette Book Group Inc., 2017); and, Michael Tracey, The Crooked Christmas Tree (Michael Tracey, 2012).

[2] John 1:1-5

Building for Christ – Part 4

The Centre-One-Piece’, photo by Martin Malina
audio sermon, “Building for Christ – Part 4” by Martin Malina

The story of Mary visiting Elizabeth vibrates with energy. There is this back-and-forth, cause and effect, initiative and response. If Newton’s Third Law of physics – that every action has a reaction—were applied to people, here would be a good, positive example. 

Mary’s visit causes notable reaction. Her cousin Elizabeth is affected by Mary. And not only Elizabeth. Twice in the description of the visit the Gospel notes that “the child leaped in her womb”.[1] The greeting causes a responsive, palpable joy that we can feel in the text. 

The meeting between the yet unborn Jesus and John the Baptist and their mothers is pregnant with meaning – which prompts Mary, then, to sing her famous Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord!” You can’t help but envision this scene which is about relationships between individuals.

Today, I put the final piece in place in the house we have been building for Christ over these past Sundays of Advent. We started with the foundation of love—fences and a frame that made room for everyone including the animals and all creatures great and small. Last week we added the star shining brightly its joyous guidance to those journeying to meet the Lord. Today, we finally see the centrepiece, the Holy Family.

What stands out for me in this particular manger scene is how Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger are not separate pieces. They are one piece. Of course, they are one family. They form one unit, connected in their relationships with each other. The emphasis here is their connection rather than their individualities. And I think this is important when we reflect on all things Christian.

The story of Christmas, indeed the story of the bible, is not about autonomous individuals living out their private lives. The emphasis is not as much about individuals as it is about relationship in community: Their relationship with God, and with one another.

Christmas is about people, a cast of characters. If you’d miss anyone in the story it would be incomplete. Missing from this particular manger scene are the Magi and the Shepherds. Perhaps your manger scene at home has these important characters. You can’t tell the Christmas story without the angels, the shepherds, the wise visitors from the East, the animals, the guiding star, Herod, Joseph, Mary and Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Zechariah and of course—at the centre—baby Jesus.

Christmas is about people, and so is Christianity. Christian faith would mean nothing without the cast of characters that make up God’s grand story of faithfulness to the people of God of all time and in every place. Everyone in this story is important, critical, to its telling. 

You are a part of God’s story. While faith is personal, faith is not individualistic. When you were baptized, you were not alone baptizing yourself. When you eat the holy meal, you are not doing it all on your own—whether online or onsite here. It’s about the relationships between the individual parts—that’s where the meaning is for faith.

Even our advent wreaths. Whether we have it hanging from the ceiling, or whether it sits on a side table, or shelf, or on a stand in the middle of the floor, the advent wreath is not suspended in a vacuum. Here at Faith, the red ribbons stream upward from the circular frame, four of them, where they are tied securely together at the ceiling. The ribbons hold it all together in place. They are the ‘glue’ keeping the wreath from falling down.

So I have to imagine the shepherds and Magi here as well. They connect prominently to the Christmas story. And what do the shepherds and wise men do when they come to the manger? What comes to my mind is that they kneel, bow, stoop low to get close to see the baby Jesus. Their posture strikes me. 

Do your shepherds stand? Do the three Magi remain on their feet or their camels? Or, as they come near to the manger, do they put down their staffs on the ground, and kneel?

Here we probe some depth in the character of God’s relationship with humanity. It’s the posture that’s important, the nature of the relationship. Mary and Elizabeths’ greeting and meeting was one of joy, celebration and praise. What does the manger scene reveal about the nature of our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us—the glue that holds it all together? What words would you use to describe God’s posture towards us?

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent – the last stop on our journey to Bethlehem.

It may be tempting these last days to make it about us, and about our abilities to accomplish everything before the special day arrives. It may be tempting to make Christ’s arrival dependent or conditional on us getting it right. Christmas will happen—we may be tempted to think—only if it happens a certain way (when all the decorations are put out, when the meal is prepared, when all the family arrives, when all the gifts are bought and wrapped, when we can pack a church with robust singing of the favourite carols, etc., etc.).

Martin Luther cautioned people of faith not to depend on our righteousness, our ability, even our humility to make things right with God. So, we can kneel or sit, yes, in all humility. Or, we can stand, if that’s how it is for us. God sees it, and God knows.

But time and time again, what is really important, is that the God of the bible, the God in Christ Jesus, stoops to our level. God initiates the relationship. The first Christmas didn’t happen because people had it all right and organized. God stoops to wherever we are—in our thoughts, our feelings, our actions our beliefs. It doesn’t matter, at the start and at the end, what we believe or don’t believe, what we do or don’t do, what we feel or don’t feel. 

God still comes to us. God stoops down to where we are. Christ will come into our world and our lives this COVID Christmas.

And as I’ve said just before the start of the Advent journey this year, I’ll say again at the end: 

For, in Jesus Christ, we will meet a God who will not be armed with lightning bolts but will stoop to us with basin and towel. 

We will meet a God who will not spew threats and lies but will stoop to the poor with good news for all. 

We will meet a God who will not ride a warhorse but stoop on a donkey’s back[2].

We will meet a God not part of the Jerusalem religious establishment, but a God who will stoop to live in backwater Nazareth. 

We will meet a God not born in a palace somewhere atop a hill, but a God who will stoop, a helpless, vulnerable baby born to two, poor teenagers in a barn. 

Now that our house is built, we can both contemplate the nature of our connections and relationships and pay attention in our words and our deeds to the witness we make to this God who will always stoop, to come to us.


[1] Luke 1:41,44

[2] See “Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, sermon for the Reign of Christ Sunday, November 21, 2021 at http://www.raspberryman.ca 

Building for Christ – Part 3

Harbour Breton, South coast of Newfoundland 2021, photo by Simon Lieschke
“Building for Christ – Part 3” audio sermon by Martin Malina

They had a vision. But perhaps it wasn’t quite the way they had expected it to turn out. But was it worth the risk? Now that is the question.

They wanted fireworks for the wedding reception. When we arrived a couple days before the wedding at our friends’ home, the father of the groom opened his shirt at the table. And with jaws dropped, we saw a large, purple bruise circling most of his chest area. What happened?

The groom wanted fireworks in the backyard where the wedding was going to take place the next day. In setting it up the night before, the groom, brother-in-law and father were careful to follow the instructions. Except they must have missed something. 

Beause when they tested the fireworks, the riggings exploded and the fireworks shot out in every direction but upwards. The groom and brother-in-law dove for safety to avoid the flaming projectiles. But one hit the father in the chest with force and knocked him over. He was fortunate not to have sustained greater damage to his body!

Was it worth the risk? That is the question.

On some Advent wreaths, the third candle is pink because rose is a liturgical color for joy. This third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday, from the Latin, and is meant to remind us both of the joy that the world experienced at the birth of Jesus, as well as the joy that the faithful have reached the midpoint of the Advent journey.

Today, we place a star over the open frame of the house built on love, for Christ. The star of Bethlehem gives light, a shining beacon in the dark night. And so the candles are lighted, now three of them on the Advent wreath. We begin to notice the light that is given off. After all, an Advent wreath isn’t really doing its job unless the candles are lighted, showing their albeit tiny flames.

It is the Sunday of celebration, not unlike the fourth Sunday in Lent called “Laetare”. In all our preparing, keeping on track, and our work we now anticipate and expect the end of the journey which is near! So, what do we do now that we are almost there? Waiting, after all, is so difficult.

The crowds asked John the Baptist, “What should we do?” now that the Messiah was very near, closer than they thought! With all the upheaval, fear and anxiety about the future, what to do, whom to trust? Is John the Messiah? When the big picture seems uncertain, and society as a whole feels like it’s on the brink, what do we do? “As the people asking John the Baptist were filled with expectation”[1], so are our hearts. What should we do in this short time before Christmas?

Gaudete and Laetare both mean “Rejoice!”. But some suggest a subtle difference.[2]  First, this work happens on the inside of our lives. This is the work of Gaudete. This work is self-reflective. We examine our own expectations. We consider our own desires and acknowedge our own restlessness. What are we waiting for? What are your desires this Advent? How is that you expect Jesus to arrive in your life this Christmas? How are you watching and waiting? These are important Advent questions to ask yourself.

But what is the outside work—Laetare—from which we pause to celebrate? What is it that keeps our noses to the ground, so to speak, and hands in the dirt, to get ready, spiritually?

John the Baptist gives practical advice if not delivered with much fire and brimstone. John tells them: Give what you have to someone who doesn’t have. Share what little we have with others. Be fair and just in your daily transactions. Don’t threaten anyone. And be content with what you have.[3] Small acts of kindness. Paying loving attention to the little things. Sounds like a good prescription for unsettling times, and for good mental health. Just focus, one day at a time, one small act of kindness at a time.

And sometimes doing these small things for God is a bit of a risk. Whenever we move out of our comfort zones, consider another point of view, whenever we refrain from reacting out of anger, fear or anxiety—we know the risk because things are changing. Yes. But we do so primarily responding to something moving in our hearts. Something powerful and good drawing us forward.

The season of waiting expectantly gives permission for us to acknowledge our restlessness and our desires despite the tensions and suffering those desires and expectations can create for us. This is part of our humanity, a humanity not denied by the journey of faith, especially the journey to Bethlehem. 

The Magi and the Shepherds took great risks to pursue their longings—dealing with Herod, for example.[4] Despite this adversity, they nevertheless responded to the movement of their restless and adventurous hearts to follow the light in the sky.

Christian hope is not really the belief that tomorrow is necessarily going to be better, or that the future will turn out the way we expect it to or even desire it to. Christian hope is not the belief that as Christians we won’t ever meet with adversity.

All that Jesus seems to be saying is that even if one mustard seed is sprouting, or one coin found, or one sheep recovered[5] that is reason enough for a big party. “Even a small indicator of God is still an indicator of God—and therefore an indicator of final reason, meaning, and joy. A little bit of God goes a long way.”[6] A tiny flame on a simple candle.

At the outdoor wedding feast when we danced the night away, what joy it was to see those firecrackers going off at midnight, once they got it right. I thanked God for the risks my friends took to have firecrackers at this wedding. Those risks gave us the gifts of light and joy in the night. It was worth the risk.

Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure—and this is what the pandemic has forced upon us to an extent; unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow. 

So much of the bible, and from other writings that stand the test of time, underscore this important theme. From the story of Abraham in Genesis, to the great epic stories of the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Lord of the Rings.[7] They all require leaving everything and going on a journey that will lead to a new life, a new identity, and newfound joy.

They all took risks. And they all experienced joy. Let it be for us as well. Amen.


[1] Luke 3:10,15

[2] https://gezemiah.wordpress.com/2018/12/15/gaudete-v-laetare/

[3] Luke 3:10-14

[4] Matthew 2:1-12

[5] See Luke 15

[6] Richard Rohr, “The Gift of Confidence” Mystical Hope (Daily Meditation, www.cac.org, 6 December 2021)

[7] Br. Geoffrey Tristam, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Risk” in Brother Give Us A Word (www.ssje.org, 10 December 2021)

Building for Christ – Part 2

Lake of Bays, Dwight Beach, Ontario, photo by Martin Malina
“Building for Christ – Part 2” audio sermon by Martin Malina

“… and all flesh shall see the salvation of the Lord” concludes the Gospel for this Second Sunday of Advent.[1]

All flesh.

We continue today to construct the home for the coming of Jesus. Last week we started with the foundation of love, which defines all that we do to build for Christ.

This week, our house takes form by creating space. This space is not just on a one- or two-dimemsional plane, but in three dimensions. The house grows upward from the ground. Our building creates space in height, depth and breadth. Our building leaves a footprint on the earth. It claims a part of the ground upon which we live, breathe and have our being.

As soon as we place candles on the circular, evergreen form, the Advent wreath takes shape. The candles give it height and form. You have to make space for it wherever you place it. Because when those candles burn, there needs to be enough room above the wreath as well.

And the candles are what really give your wreath character. Because there are thin, tapered candles, there are round, bulb-shaped candles, there are stalwart, pillar candles of varying height and thickness. Some wreaths have purple candles, others have red candles, more are now blue candles. And with any of the above options, some will have one pink candle thrown in, and even others, add a white one in the centre. There are no two advent wreaths alike. And every one has an important meaning to convey, an important truth to demonstrate, a part of the story of Advent to share.

As we build for Christ coming, then, who will occupy this space? Only those who are alike? Only those who will express their faith in the same way?

When I look at the frame of this house we are building, I notice that it is not just for people. It is a barn. A stable, where animals feed and find shelter. It is their home. Some of my favourite children’s Christmas books are told from the perspective of the animals in whose barn Jesus was born.[2] Those who witness the holy birth are not just people. But all creatures great and small. 

Who will occupy this space? All flesh shall see the salvation of the Lord.

Which means, different perspectives. Different life experiences from which to receive the good news of Christ coming. Different needs, different takes, a multitude of ways of appreciating the glory of God in simple, ordinary lives.

And not just for one. Not just for the elite, and the privileged. The house we build for Christ includes all flesh, all creation is welcome to witness the glory of God.

Because animals are an important part of the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem—the sheep, the camel, the cows and other barnyard creatures, I’d like to tell you now about a duck who can teach us something about living in stormy times—not unlike the treacherous times under “Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee”[3]

Here’s a poem called “The Little Duck”, written by poet and professor at the University of New Hampshire, Donald C. Babcock:

“Now we are ready to look at something pretty special. 

It is a duck riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf,

And he cuddles in the swells.

There is a big heaving in the Atlantic.

And he is part of it.

He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.

Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is.

And neither do you.

But he realises it.

And what does he do, I ask you.

He sits down in it.

He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity – which it is.

That is religion, and the duck has it.

I like the little duck.

He doesn’t know much.

But he has religion.”[4]

The duck’s way of being way out there beyond the surf reveals to us how to live faithfully in a time of watching and waiting, in a time of disruption and upheaval, amidst the storms and waves that threaten to upturn and drown us.

The little duck must be dwarfed in the face of the vastness rising and falling around it. But not only does the duck seem unconcerned; the duck “cuddles in the swells”. It is as if the duck embraces where it is, tender in the midst of it all, a part of it. The duck belongs and can rest while the Atlantic heaves. Here we witness the “wondrous juxtaposition”[5] of the restlessness of the ocean and the peace that remains possible for the duck.

In the scriptural imagination of Jewish and Christian traditions, the ocean signifies chaos—the forces of disorder that threaten to overwhelm the bounds within which our lives are secured.[6] The ocean can also signify the vastness of God’s being which we cannot know nor see the limits of.

In the face of this oceanic, boundless bigness of both God and chaos, what is our puny existence? Like the duck’s, our lives are towered over by forces we have no capacity to contain, by storms we cannot master. What is our response?

Our inclination, when we realize our situation, is to panic or struggle. Yet, the duck does neither of these things. For there it is, far out from shore, cuddling in the swells, and at rest. The duck is not fighting it, the duck is in communion, at one, with the whole.

Knowing is not the point. Our strength to fight it is not the point. Trusting is, and being in the present moment with all that is, is.

Because all of it belongs. We are all—all creation—held in God. Every perspective. Every experience we and others have. Every place and time. The ocean is vast and all flesh belongs. And the Psalmist reaches time and time again for this truth, to comfort us, to deepen trust as “deep calls to deep”: There is no place on earth, nowhere I can go, no one removed, “no where to flee from your presence”, O God.[7]

“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.”

When I travelled through the Judean wilderness on the road from Jericho up to Jerusalem years ago, we stopped along the way as groups of nomads made their way across the desert. And the interesting thing was the way their tents were constructed. 

These tents had walls like any tent. But every wall was also a doorway—you could roll up the canvas to make it look like an open patio canopy. Among other reasons, I learned that semitic people consider eating together as a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness.

The more you could have in your tent at mealtime, the better it was for the whole community wandering through the desert: A house with no walls, and many ways in.As we build a house for Christ to come this Christmas, we build by creating space for everyone. The space we occupy, therefore, has room—room for all who find their way here. This is also room that beckons us not to circle the wagons but to widen the circle. And we do so trusting that God is in it all, even in the waves, that God is present in love for all.


[1] Luke 3:1-6

[2] Eve Bunting, We Were There: A Nativity Story (New York: Clarion Books, 2001); Jean Little, Listen, Said the Donkey (Toronto: North Winds Press, 2006); Jean Little, Pippin the Christmas Pig (Toronto: North Winds Press, 2003); Martin Waddell, Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale (Toronto: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2004); Karma Wilson, Mortimer’s Christmas Manger (Toronto: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2005)

[3] Luke 3:1

[4] Donald C. Babcock cited in Sarah Bachelard, Poetica Divina: Poems to Redeem a Prose World (Singapore: Meditatio, 2021), p.57

[5] Sarah Bachelard, ibid., p.60-61

[6] Ibid.

[7] Psalm 42:7; 139:7-10

Building for Christ

Building for Christ – audio sermon by Martin Malina

I hold in my hands two pieces of fencing to begin building a home for Christ to come this Christmas. Many of you might know what this project will eventually look like, come the Fourth Sunday of Advent. For those who are not sure, I encourage you to check in every Sunday right here to witness the building emerge before your very eyes, piece by piece.

These fences suggest both something necessary, and something of the downside in human behaviour. It is in our nature to build fences after all—whether in our neighbourhoods between homes, between nations and tribes, between individuals and families.

Boundaries are good and important. They define who we are as individuals and people. They clarify and bring focus to relationships, roles and functions. Boundaries are especially important for young people as they discover who they are and explore the limits of possibility for their lives.

Boundaries are not meant to be divisive. Yet, division is often a consequence of drawing a line in the sand. Fences can divide and keep people apart, at war, in acrimonious conflict. Fences can entrench people in opposition to each other. Building fences can hurt and damage relationships for the long term.

Despite the ambiguous image of a fence, we start anyway. We begin to build something from scratch. And maybe that is a grace. I wonder if that isn’t a recurring theme of the pandemic: rebuilding and restarting from the ground up considering everything we may have taken for granted before the pandemic. Whether in our friendships, our hobbies, our leisure acitivity, our work and even our church. We seem to be pressing the reset button: From our practice of Communion, to the way we do meetings, to our outreach activities, music and mission in the community—everthing requires all the assumptions to be laid out on the table again, to be re-examined and re-purposed.

And that can be unsettling–to start over, to start from scratch.

Not only do we begin Advent today, today is the start of a new church year, a new cycle, a new round: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost with Ordinary Times mixed in throughout the cycle of the church year. And then it all begins again, next year. We symbolize today the start of a new cycle by lighting candles, progressively—four of them for the four weeks leading to Christmas—on an Advent wreath.

As we build for Christ-coming each week with a new part of his home, I’d like to look carefully at different parts of the Advent wreath to describe something important about how we begin again.

And the first thing we notice with most Advent wreaths is the foundational part—the circular form of the Advent wreath. Fences tend to be square, or rectangular, coming together at right angles. But the wreath is round. And around the circular form of the Advent wreath we place boughs of spruce or pine from trees that we will notice outside especially during the cold and grey winter months when nothing else appears to be alive.

In the Psalm today, the refrain is a prayer to God: “Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting.”[1] And, in the Gospel today, Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”[2] [emphasis mine]

The good news–gospel– that threads throughout both of these scriptures appointed for the First Sunday of Advent is the lasting and indestructible nature of God’s compassion and love. Nothing in all of history, all of creation nor anything in the future can shuck the love of God. Nothing. No division, no enmity, no strife, no walls that divide. The loving presence of God is eternal, timeless, unending—just like evergreens wrapped in a circle on a wreath. A circle has no beginning and no end. It goes on, forever.

Perhaps you remember when you were a child and an adult said something like, ‘OK, kids, gather around, it’s circle time’. Circles are natural to us. And sacred.

When we gather in a circle, the praying has already begun. When we gather in a circle, we communicate with each other and with God, even without a word being spoken. That’s what I love most about this building in which some of gather in person this morning: The building here at Faith Lutheran is round, circular.

The circle has no beginning and no end, so one can enter at any place or stage. The circle can explain stages of life, cycles of maturity, values, and different groups of people. The symbolism of the circle is one of the oldest in Canada, having been found in various parts of the country in ancient petroglyphs. It is included in various Indigenous traditions. Many of the ceremonies and dances are fashioned intentionally in a circle. 

Circles are found in nature. Circles can explain the seasons, how they all continue on to create harmony and balance. In observing the outdoors, the circle is a common and natural shape. Trees, rocks, whirlpools, tornadoes, and flowers all bear a common resemblance to circular objects more than triangles, rectangles or squares do.[3]

We may need to establish those fences. We may need to enforce personal boundaries and sometimes even assert where the line must be drawn. Sometimes we do have to close a door. We are human, after all.

But God is beyond any boundary, even one drawn by the circle. God is not bound by any material or mental boundary we may devise for God. What we construct may or may not be helpful. But these boundaries are not ultimate. Thirteenth century Italian theologian, Saint Bonaventure, spoke of God as one “whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”[4]

What is ultimately important is to know that it was out of great love that God chose to take on human form and flesh[5]—take on the boundaries defined by our humanity, good and bad. Here we make a house for Christ to dwell, for this word is true and will not pass away: “The home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them, and they will be God’s people.”[6] Because of compassion, a love that is everlasting.[7]

This is the first and necessary part, the foundation, for building a home for Christ. When we press the re-start button on anything we do, this is where to begin.


[1] Psalm 25:6 NRSV

[2] Luke 21:33 NRSV

[3] The last few paragraphs starting with “Perhaps you remember …” are adapted from Richard Rohr, “Sacred Circles” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 13 October 2021).

[4] Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey to God, 1,14, trans. Ewert Cousins (Paulist Press, 1975) p.5,8,100

[5] Philippians 2:5-8

[6] Revelation 21:3

[7] See also Psalm 103:8-14

Who’s coming to dinner?

photo: Martin Malina
“Who’s coming to dinner” – audio sermon by Martin Malina

When I was a child, a cherished Christmas Eve tradition in our family was setting an extra place at the dinner table — an extra chair, plate and cutlery. We also decorated this place setting with fresh boughs of evergreens to make it special. 

After all, Jesus was being born into the world this special night. We had to make room for him in our house since there was no room for Mary, Joseph and the Christ child in the inn at Bethlehem that first Christmas. And, my parents suggested, you never knew who might actually show up at our door. Would we find it in our hearts to let them in and serve them a Christmas Eve dinner?

There was a part of me that didn’t believe anyone would show up. After all we didn’t advertise. We didn’t put out a sign on the front lawn announcing: “One free dinner, come at 4pm, first come first serve”. No one actually knew we did this. It was merely an in-house ritual, something to stimulate our faith, to make room in our hearts for Jesus and make us think about the true meaning of Christmas, of Christ coming.

Another part of me secretly hoped someone actually would show up — an unexpected visitor, someone we didn’t invite but who came by anyway. Would they be homeless? A traveller journeying through town, looking for a place to eat a hot meal on a cold, winter’s night? Or, would it be a friend, someone in the neighbourhood just stopping by? 

And, then, how would we react? Would they like the food, or have any dietary restrictions? How would we adapt on the fly? Would they stay long? Would they come to worship later in the evening, or go home after eating? Would we become best friends for the rest of our lives? 

All those possibilities. All these thoughts swirled in my mind. This part of me actually wanted to experience the tradition, and mean something concrete beyond the personal reflections. Deep down I wanted someone in the flesh to show up. That would be cool.

Well, today is not Christmas Eve. On this last Sunday in the church year a month before Christmas, we celebrate the Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. 

To celebrate the reign of Christ, nevertheless we first need to be clear about who we are actually celebrating and what kind of reign, or rule, Christ is all about. 

There seems to be some confusion among those who first encountered Jesus in the flesh, back in the day.

In pronouncing verdict over Jesus, Pilate needs clarity. In the Gospel text for the Reign of Christ Sunday this year, Pilate asks Jesus point blank: “You are a king?”[1] You don’t look like it! Your kingdom is not of this world? Well, then, who are you? 

Earlier, the disciples had been in discussion with Jesus about his identity. It is obviously unclear to the general populace. “Some say John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets.”[2] Repeatedly Jesus presents as someone not easily recognized, pigeonholed, defined, nor understood. And people ask over and over again: “Who are you?”[3] From a human perspective, and even as people of faith, we may honestly struggle with this question from time to time. If it was challenging for those who met Jesus in person, then what about us, some two thousand years removed from that primary experience of the early disciples?

We have to deal with our expectations more than anything. And our expectations may not always be in line with the God of the Gospel. 

So, what kind of God is coming to you, and to me? 

If anything was clear to me about our tradition at home on Christmas Eve, it was that I was missing something. My expectations were not in line with what I actually experienced. The empty plate was not filled. The empty chair remained vacant throughout our Christmas Eve dinner. 

Ought I be disappointed? Was Jesus not coming? Was there no stranger around to knock on our door and receive our hospitality? Was the effort in vain, a wasted ritual?

There was something about my expectations that was amiss. Would the disconnect and dis-ease I felt after dinner somehow spill over into the Christmas Eve service later on, I wondered?

Maybe the problem starts with what image of the Messiah we hold in our minds and hearts. Is our image of God in Christ Jesus fuelled more by notions of earthly power and kingship? If so, that image might need some dismantling. 

For, in Jesus Christ, we meet a God “who is not armed with lightning bolts but with basin and towel, who spewed not threats [and lies] but good news for all, who rode not a warhorse but a donkey … In Christ, God is supreme, but not in the old, worldly sense: God is the supreme healer, the supreme friend, the supreme lover, the supreme life-giver who self-empties in gracious love for all. The king of kings and lord of lords is the servant of all and the friend of sinners. The so-called weakness and foolishness of God are greater than the so-called power and wisdom of human regimes.”[4]

As was often the case so many years ago, the little country church where I was confirmed was packed with Christmas Eve worshippers. When the lights went down and the candlelight was passed, the sanctuary became bright with the joyously expectant faces of worshippers reflecting the flickering light. 

As I surveyed the room around me singing “Silent Night”, my eyes stopped on the face of one person. In the far corner of the back pew, I recognized someone I didn’t expect to see there. It was Rick, my public school friend. He went to another church, but not one that normally held mid-week Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services. Just then I remembered that I had invited Rick to come to Christmas Eve service several weeks earlier, even before Advent began that year. 

After the service, my brother and I invited Rick back to our home for a short visit that we enjoyed as he waited for his ride. Later I wondered if my school friend was the surprise visitor for me, the Christ, who came to our home that Christmas Eve. Not someone I expected — not anyone who fit the figments of my imagination, neither celebrity nor unknown poor — just an ordinary friend who surprised me by his gracious presence.

Who is Jesus whom we praise this day, who comes to reign in this world, who comes to you with love, at the end?


[1] John 18:33-37

[2] Mark 8:27-30

[3] John 8:25

[4] Richard Rohr, “God’s Supremacy in Love” Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 22 October 2021).

From stones falling to love rising

audio for “From Stones Falling to Love Rising” by Martin Malina
On the Algonquin Trail in Renfrew County, photo by Martin Malina

“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”[1] the disciples express to Jesus their amazement at the glorious temple in Jerusalem.

In response Jesus asks a rhetorical question: “Do you see these great buildings?” I mean, do you reallysee them? See them for what they are and what they represent—the authority of earthly power wrapped up in heroic, human efforts to appear glorious and right? These are the stones upon which we build our lives. And they are going to crumble, topple and fall. “All will be thrown down,” Jesus says.

The end of the pandemic is not what we expected. A few months ago I assumed it would be more cut-and-dry. One moment we are living under the threat of COVID with all the attending lockdowns and restrictions. And, then, when it’s over, it’s back to normal and we can do things the way we have always done them.

But that’s not the way it’s really going, is it? To a large degree things are better. Most people are vaccinated, and therefore groups can gather in public spaces to do the things we want to do together. But the truth is, being vaccinated doesn’t mean we aren’t susceptible to getting the virus, doesn’t eradicate the virus. It doesn’t mean we can’t still pass it on even with lowered risk. After so many have suffered significant loss of health and well-being, and facing significant health challenges, nothing is cut-and-dry. It’s hard to make long-term plans, make decisions and commitments more than a few days in advance. 

It already feels like the building blocks of our lives—the places of certainty that have guided us our life-long are crumbling. How will we know what to do, and when to do it? We, like the disciples, may be looking for signs to determine the path forward in uncertain, fast-changing times. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign?” This may be your prayer, too, these days.

What will replace the stones that are thrown down? What will be our guide? What will be the measure of our faith if not what we have built?

To help them experience God amid all that competes for their attention and obedience, Jesus first pulls the rug out from under their expectations. 

Put yourself in the disciples’ shoes: How would you feel if Jesus said these words to you sitting outside on the ground level looking up at the impressive 45-storey Claridge Icon building in Little Italy, here in west-end Ottawa? Seems unbelievable, improbable at best.

Jesus’ audacious words in the Gospel text at first create confusion and maybe distress. Jesus’ words upset any pretense of stability we might seek especially during a time of disruption. If anything is thrown down, it is our certainty. Which, it seems, makes it even more difficult, more challenging, maybe more impossible to discern anything let alone make decisions and plan for the holidays and beyond.

But maybe that’s the starting point. Maybe that’s where what Jesus is all about must begin. The birth-pangs. The uncertainty. The disruption of ‘normal’ life. The present moment, however turbulent, is the necessary pivot towards embracing the expansive vision of God.

Because at this pivot we are most vulnerable, honest, and true to ourselves. At this point we have nothing to hide, nothing to prove, nothing to pretend we are. And maybe that’s where we need to be, if for a moment.

Because if we believe that what will happen in the future is largely dependent on our success, on achieving greatness, or solving all the problems on the planet, we will get stuck at best, despair at worst. And perhaps we already have gotten stuck, to some extent, with some issue or problem we face in our lives. Perhaps we are already locked down in despair.

The truth is, something is going to happen whether or not we make a decision. Something is going to happen whether we decide to do ‘x’ or decide to do ‘y’ or decide to do nothing at all. Doing nothing is a decision that has consequences. Something will happen. And that’s the point of life in faith. 

Knowing that the future does not ultimately depend on our getting it right. Knowing that what really matters in life is beyond our compulsion to be perfect and make something glorious of ourselves. Knowing this can free us to move forward in faith, making decisions and taking risks in good faith. And trusting in the love of God who holds us no matter what.

So it’s not like we’ve got this, “Here’s God; here’s us. God’s just waiting till we get our act together and then we’ll all be well.” That’s not God. That’s a religion based on our egos. And those stones are tumbling down.

Rather, God is alive. God is love. Love is the measure. Love will guide us. Whatever is loving, gracious, kind and merciful—this is the way of the Gospel, the way of Christ Jesus.

“Love is pulling us on to do new things and we need to trust the power of God in our lives to do new things.” When we experience an unwiring of ourselves— this is a painful process, yes — we recognize that it is “the God of Jesus Christ [who] is … the power beneath our feet, the depth of the beauty of everything that exists, and the future into which we are moving.”[2]

We can then roll with the stones that are tumbling down and join the rising movement of love that holds us all together and brings us hope for a better future.


[1] Mark 13:1-8

[2] Richard Rohr, “Love Is All There Is” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 16 September 2021)