God’s fiery love

Fire’s Transformation (photo by Martin Malina August 2020, Sandbanks Ontario)
audio for ‘God’s fiery love’ by Martin Malina

In the story Jesus tells about building barns and storing riches in heaven[1] the message he gives goes against the grain of our impulse.

Because it’s in our nature to accumulate, to make good, to build bigger and better, to go further and farther, and to make progress. Why wouldn’t we do all those smart things for our lives, if we can and have the resources to do so? Why would we want to go backward when we can go forward? Why would we want to subtract when we can add?

For sure, embracing the good in life is a huge part of being human and of God. Attaching ourselves to what is wholesome, productive and enriching is an important part of our maturity and growth, even in faith.

But it’s the other part that we’re not so practiced in. The subtraction part. And I believe that’s what Jesus is getting at here. He isn’t denying the good in what we can build and produce. But as people of faith we need also to learn how to let go. How to give up without giving up.[2]

In the parable that Jesus tells, the man who stored up riches did so for himself. That was the problem. He needed to learn how to give what he had stored for himself to others.

In 21st century Canada, we have a lot to learn. When well over half of all food produced and consumed in our economy is wasted and thrown out[3], when the self-storage industry has experienced “meteoric growth” in recent times[4], we are a culture that hoards for ourselves things that can be shared. 

We have a tough time letting go, and embracing our fear of going without.

In his book, Young Men and Fire[5], Norman Maclean begins his story on one summer afternoon in 1949 when fifteen young men—smokejumpers for the U.S. Forest Service—were about to leap out of a C-47 flying over the Rocky Mountains of western Montana. They were between seventeen and twenty-three years old, crack firefighters knowing exactly what they were doing.

“It looked like a regular ground fire from the sky. They’d get to it fast, dig a fire line around it, and be out by ten the next morning. That was their usual pattern in working fires. 

“But something unexpected happened that day after they got on the ground. The wind changed direction and the fire went up into the crown of the trees. A crown fire moves much faster, roaring through timber, beginning to sound like a railroad train, becoming a monster as fires in the mountains sometimes do …

“On that day in August, the firefighters suddenly saw something like that roaring toward them as they raced up the ridge toward safety. It was almost a hundred degrees that day already, the hottest on record. They were running up a seventy-six-degree slope over thick dry grass, very slippery. They got within two hundred yards of the ridge, but the fire was only fifty yards behind them and coming fast.

“That’s when Wagner Dodge, the foreman of the crew, did something unheard of. Running out in front of his men, he took a match and lit a fire in the dry grass in front of him. As this new fire quickly burned up the slope, he yelled at the others to jump into its burning ashes with him.

“They thought he was crazy, maybe trying to commit suicide. So they raced on up toward the ridge as he lay down in the hot ashes, covering his face with a wet handkerchief.

“The fire caught thirteen of the others; they died on that August day. Dodge survived, however, as the main fire swept around his burned-out-circle. He was left breathing what little air there still was close to the ground. Who would have thought of escaping a monster by burning a hole in the fire and lying down in it?

“Our natural inclination—whether in wilderness or in daily life—is to flee from the fire, to avoid the painful experiences that come in our lives. Yet God’s way isn’t around the wilderness, but through it. Not in escaping the fire, but in lying down in it.”[6] Not in hoarding or keeping for ourselves, but first giving it away, taking a risk, and letting go.

It may feel counterintuitive to acknowledge our limits and yield to what might at first sound crazy. Why would I give up such-and-such? Why should I let go of my claim to be right all the time? Why should I sell? Why should I give away something without expectation of anything in return? Why should I leave behind something or someone that is near and dear to my heart? Doing that would cause pain and suffering, wouldn’t it?

I believe Jesus wants better for us. But we must be willing to endure the growing pains. We must be willing to practise letting go. And embracing the truth which isn’t always easy to take.

I am struck by the number of times “under the sun” is mentioned in the reading from Ecclesiastes. I counted five times in ten short verses. Maybe this phrase jumps out at me because we find ourselves today in the middle of the exceptional summertime heat across the northern hemisphere of this planet. 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?7] True. But where is the wisdom in that?

The sun is a gigantic ball of flame. It is fire. The sun represents the Pentecost message of the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciples and people gathered in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost as “tongues of fire”[8]. And it’s not just a feel-good, warm-fuzzy experience. It burns. It heals. It transforms. As every one of those first disciples later discovered.

I want to conclude with a couple of scriptures, first from Isaiah, who wrote these words of promise, protection, and hope: “I have called you by name, you are mine,” God told the prophet. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned; and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God.”[9]

The fire will not consume us, but it will transform us. As the deadwood itself is transformed into the beauty of the flame. And this is the fire of God’s love, God’s passion for us. God loved us in the past. God will love us into an unknown, uncertain future.

In the Epistle reading appointed for this Sunday from Colossians, Paul writes about who we are becoming in Christ. As we face the fires of our lives and are transformed in God’s fire of love our new self … is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all![10]

Despite all our efforts for good or evil, regardless of whether we like it or not, we are being renewed into God’s image. It’s already happening! Even and especially through the difficult times of loss. Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is ‘in all’ working the fiery passion of God’s uniting and eternal love for us.

[1] Luke 12:13-21

[2] Jim Green, Giving Up Without Giving Up: Meditation and Depressions (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019)

[3] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/food-waste-report-second-harvest-1.4981728;

[4] https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/canada-storage-business-booms-1.4579205https://rejournals.com/self-storage-is-on-a-growth-kick-and-its-not-slowing-down/;

[5] Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)

[6] Belden C. Lane, in Chapter 6 “Wildfire”, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

[7] Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

[8] Acts 2:1-13

[9] Isaiah 43:1-3

[10] Colossians 3:10-11

Prayer’s blessing

All is good’ on the Ottawa River at Arnprior (photo by Martin Malina, July 2022)
audio for ‘Prayer’s Blessing’ by Martin Malina

Nina is 100 years old. She lives in the same building where my mother resides. And my Mom told me recently about how two women in their senior years of different backgrounds who never met each other until this year, came to be friends.

The daughter-in-law of Nina had approached my Mom with a request. She said that Nina wanted to talk to someone “about Jesus”. 

So my Mom found Nina one day, sat down beside her, and introduced herself. Nina nodded and affirmed their unity in Christ. “Lutherans and Mennonites, we’re in the same boat.”

“Would you like me to read something from the bible?”

“Oh yes!” exclaimed Nina, “Psalm 23 is my favourite.”

After reading the Shepherd’s Psalm, these two women of faith sang “Now Thank We All Our God” in German, prayed and concluded their time together with the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer. A common prayer that spanned centuries, cultures and the globe, brought them together in faith.

“How then should we pray?” the disciples asked Jesus two thousand years ago.[1] And Jesus taught them these well-known words that have united Christians from diverse backgrounds ever since.

It is true, whenever I provide bed-side, graveside, and wedding services today for people I have never met, there is no other spoken prayer in existence that unites us more than the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father …” Even those who have not been at Sunday worship for years can still recite those words by heart.

Simply saying those words that Jesus’ taught, simply saying them outloud with others, is an act of faith and an act of worship that unites us in Christ.

But the basic form of the Lord’s Prayer is not by itself in this Gospel text about prayer. What immediately follows are examples Jesus gives of particular situations that illustrate the nature of prayer which is not confined exclusively to a formula of set words. Prayer isn’t just the Lord’s Prayer, as important as it is. Prayer isn’t just some automatic ritual we robotically mouth. Nor is prayer just saying the right words.

The examples of the friend asking for bread in the middle of the night, of children asking for a fish or an egg—these reflect the context of prayer: that it is always practised in relationship, friendship, love; that it is a matter of the heart and our interior state; and, it is practised in faith, trust, persistence and action.

“Prayer,” writes Richard Rohr, “is being loved at a deep, sweet level.” [2] People who pray always say, “Someone is for me more than I am for myself.” Prayer is grounded in this deep intimacy with God. And this blessing of prayer is available to all people regardless of our unique backgrounds in faith. How so?

In this text from the Gospel of Luke, we encounter the first time that Luke promises the Holy Spirit to all people.[3] Remember Luke is the author of the Pentecost story from Acts chapter 2 that we read every year on Pentecost Sunday—when the Holy Spirit was given to everyone in dramatic fashion. But here in this text early in Luke, it’s the first time we get this notion that the Holy Spirit is promised to all. To those who ask for it, God will give this good gift. 

Why is the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, such an important gift—the most important for which to ask God?

Because the message of Christianity is that God is with us in Jesus. And we humans are inseparable from God. The Holy Spirit intimately unites us with God, and with each other, in communion. Prayer, then, is the primary way we connect with God, and where we find unity with one another in Christ. 

I began with a story about my Mom making friends with someone who was 100 years old. Well, I asked her recently about something I needed help with—recalling another relationship several years ago now. When another woman of this congregation was a young girl who came to church with her brother and parents.

My Dad was the pastor here at the time. And he made it part of his ministry to be well stocked with Werther’s candy in his office. And every Sunday that this young girl came to church with her brother, the two of them would stand at the door of my Dad’s office waiting for a gift they knew they would get.

And my Dad would faithfully deposit one or two little candies in each of these children’s outstretched hands. 

Almost twenty years later this girl is now grown up. And Julia is in church today with her fiancé. And wouldn’t you know—I don’t have just a couple little candies to give you today. I have a whole bag!

[And there’s more to come!]

[1] Luke 11:1-13

[2] Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003), p.131,134,135.

[3] Matthew L. Skinner, “Luke 11:1-13 Exegetical Perspective” in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Vol 3 (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.291.

A better way

A better way (photo by Martin Malina 2019)
audio for ‘A better way’ by Martin Malina

In my first parish at St Peter’s Lutheran Church near Stratford, Ontario, the building’s steeple has two large bells in it. One bell is named Mary and the second bell is named Martha. Can you guess which is the bigger of the two?

By design, the makers of those bells wanted to reflect Jesus’ saying in today’s gospel reading, that “Mary chose the better way”[1]. Therefore she deserves the more prominent, bigger place in our buildings and our lives.

Countless debates have raged among Christians contrasting Martha and Mary. Which activity or posture in faith is the better way? Unfortunately the action-oriented folks are often offended by this text!

We are divided over this story because we get stuck in the either-or. Either it is being busy with all the good things that Martha does to welcome Jesus into her home. Martha does no wrong! Or, we must be sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, hanging on his every word. Mary does no wrong! So, who is right? And who is wrong? And round and round we go.

The part in this gospel that gets us out of this rut, I find, are the words that precede “Mary has chosen the better part”, when Jesus says: “There is need of only one thing.” Because now it’s not about doing or not doing. It’s not about what it is we do but rather the the how and the why. This gospel story, in the end, is more about examining our approach to the various occupations and activities in which we engage as people of faith. 

First the ‘how’. Let’s get over the false dichotomy. Both Mary and Martha are active in this story. This gospel is about doing the right thing at the right time. This gospel falls in the season after Pentecost when the main theme is how to live in the Spirit of God, how to be in the world and engage our lives with meaning and action. Being active in our faith, somehow.

Francis of Assisi from the twelfth century instructed the friars under his charge that “you only know as much as you do.”[2]

Francis didn’t bother questioning church doctrines and dogmas. He just tried to live the way that Jesus lived. Jesus was someone actually to imitate and not just to worship. Francis wanted to be a gospel practitioner. As the popular paraphrase of a line from Francis’s Rule goes, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”[3]

Notice in the telling of this story Mary doesn’t say a word. Rather, she showed by her actions—she moved her body, sat on the floor and most importantly engaged in the challenging work of listening. Listening to God. Mary is active in her listening.

Not only then ‘how’ we are active, but we must continually assess the ‘why’ of our busy-ness.

During the pandemic I became a big fan of the home office. Not only did I become more efficient and productive using the hours of the day for connecting with people, albeit online, I enjoyed being at home and not having to spend hours in traffic. 

And while, for example, the inperson benefits of meeting others at conventions I missed, the recent national convention of the ELCIC was held over two days online. The work was done, decisions made, prayers offered, and some interactive exercises online made the experience efficient and reasonably satisfying for me. No prolonged hours spent in airport concourses, flying halfway across the country and draining the church budget of thousands of dollars for room and board.

However, there is one drawback of working from home. It’s called the trap of multitasking. From the home office it is a short walk to the kitchen, into the living room with big windows looking onto our bird feeders and flower garden, and then to the laundry room. 

Countless times over the past couple of years I got up from my office chair simply to get a coffee, and ended up emptying and filling the dishwasher, opening a birdbook trying to identify a new feathered friend visiting our feeder, and starting a hot load for the laundry. Before I knew it, I had a dozen things on the go in five short minutes before running back to my office completely distracted. I had to regroup mentally when I sat back down at my desk.

We need to review the ‘why’. Because we have a choice in how we live. The reason Jesus tips his hat toward Mary’s behaviour in this story is found in his words, “Mary has chosen …”. 

Mary made a choice. She made a conscious decision. She didn’t just act compulsively. She didn’t just go-with-the-flow or do whatever felt good. She didn’t let her cultural conditioning take over to do what was expected of her. She didn’t conform to the norms of the day. Mary, in that moment, made a choice. She knew her choice to sit at Jesus’ feet meant that she wouldn’t be doing something else. She took a risk.

These days, I’m spending a lot more time asking myself the ‘why’ questions: Why am I doing such-and-such a task?—actions that I routinely and even mindlessly did before the pandemic. 

But because the rhythm of our lives was so disrupted early in the pandemic, it’s like a reset button was pressed. And now before jumping back in, we are given a healthy opportunity if we take it, to assess why we do certain things. Travelling to conventions might be a great thing and we would conclude it is definitely worth the cost.

And I believe that sort of evaluation is good. Because we may discover a truth about ourselves. Maybe we don’t really want to do some things that we always took for granted as habitual; “It’s the way we’ve always done it” could be our greatest albatross. Mary made a conscious choice to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he had to say. She did so with intention and awareness of the cost and the benefit.

Finally, in order to become more judicious in our activity, we need to slow down.

This power to act, the power to live a better way, the power to practice faith and align our actions with our beliefs is available to us today! We just need to get in sync with God’s rhythm. Just look to nature for a sense of this—sometimes fast like a windstorm, but also often very slow like a flower budding in Spring.

I have found that those who have sustained their passion and activity in faith over the long run are those who have also learned to slow down. They tend to demonstrate a presence of mind and stillness of being in all their activity. For us to tap into the energy of the Spirit, we also must be open-hearted, slow down and be willing to listen.

By the Spirit of God, Jesus Christ does the right things, good things, in us and through us. As the Body of Christ, the church, we are the hands, the feet, the eyes, the ears, the mouth of Jesus in the world. Because of Christ-in-us, we can do the right thing at the right time. We can say things and not say things. We can act when we can also be still. And through all our activity God is making the world better.

By God’s power at work in us God is able to accomplish far more than all we can ask or imagine.[4]God’s power in us can do infinitely more (other English translations: ) /abundantly more /above and beyond more /super-abundantly more /exceedingly more than we can ask or even imagine! This is God’s promise to, and truth in, us. 

Let’s let both Martha and Mary teach us about the nature of our activity. Because Jesus has something very important to tell us. Let’s open our hearts to hear what is being said. Let’s open the eyes of our hearts to see what God is doing. And let’s do something about it, together.

[1] Luke 10:38-42

[2] The Assisi Compilation, [105], in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (New York: New City Press, 2000), 210.

[3] Richard Rohr, “The Joy of Not Counting—Practice of the Better” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 10 July 2022)

[4] Ephesians 3:20 NRSV

God, the good neighbour

A soccer ball from the 2002 World Cup in Japan/Korea (photo by Martin Malina)

Vincenzo Alessandro Verner Giaccone. Well, that’s a soccer name! I can just imagine him as a twenty-year-old running down the soccer pitch wearing a jersey with his name on the back; I can just hear the play-by-play commentator shouting his name when he scores: “Gia-cco-ne!”

Well, to inspire that vision, I want to give Vincenzo a gift today. 2022 is a year we should never forget, especially in your family. 2022 is the year Vincenzo was born and baptized. 2022 is also the year of the World Cup of Soccer! 

I hope this 2022 World Cup soccer ball can inspire Vincenzo to work towards becoming an exceptional footy player someday. Who knows?

What excites us is the dream that Canada can be glorious and victorious on the soccer pitch in Qatar later this year. This feeling fuels our sense of national pride. It really gets the juices flowing. Oh, how we want to win and show the world how good we really are!

There’s a long way to go for Vincenzo to realize whatever it is he is made for. But he begins his life in faith, and the community of faith, today, as a baby, hardly able to do anything for himself. He is totally dependent on his parents and family to survive and thrive at this early stage of life.

And it is at this point in his development as a human being and a person of faith that we baptize him. Not when he is in the prime of his life. Not only if he has accumulated wealth and accolades for all the exceptional things he has accomplished thus far. Not if he can impress us. Not at the pinnacle of life, where expectations of glory abound. And pressure.

But as a baby, when all we can worry about today is making sure his diaper is changed and he is fed and praying he will sleep! His faith is being formed in the crucible of human vulnerability and weakness. 

In the famous story of the Good Samaritan[1], Jesus affirms his Jewish identity when he quotes from the Old Testament. He says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” This is the primary law, the great commandment, of the Jewish religion, called the Shema, found in the Torah—the Book of Law.[2]

Indeed, much of the Hebrew Scriptures provides a framework of the history of the Jewish people. What I find remarkable is that the Jewish people, contrary to what might be expected, chose to present their history by including stories about arrogant and evil kings and their very critical prophets. Their scriptures do not just tell their co-religionists and the world how wonderful they are but, rather, how terrible they are! 

There are no perfectly moral people in ancient Scriptures: Even Abraham rather cruelly drove his second wife into the desert with their child; Then there’s King David, the adulterer, and murderer; and,the scheming and depressed prophets. Etc. No other religion presents their history to the world—their ‘family’ narrative—by including intentionally this capacity for self-criticism.[3]

To tell a history—the story of a family, the history of a community of faith, a history of a nation such as Canada—is not to hide all the negative and only showcase the good. It is also to be honest and real about what hasn’t worked, what isn’t perfect or exceptional. To be patriotic is not to gloss over the evils and sins and shortcomings of our history. But to celebrate the good, be honest about the bad, and commit to a better path moving forward.

It is the birth of self-critical thinking, of being honest and vulnerable, that grows us in faith and makes us more authentic people. And that’s what younger people today seek in a community of faith. Not people who think they are right, do things perfectly and try to show how exceptional they are to the world, but people who are honest and authentic, and real. 

It’s quite something that the Samaritan is the hero of the story. It wasn’t a good Jewish boy. It wasn’t someone in Jesus’ clan, tribe and religion. Neither the priest nor the Levite would offer help to one of their own, lying in the ditch, beaten by robbers on the road down from Jerusalem.

The Samaritan was shunned, hated, and reviled by Judaism. Samaritans were outsiders, people to avoid. And yet, the Samaritan was the one who showed mercy. Jesus tells this story to make a point about who is our neighbour, even for our context today. And what is more, Jesus tells this story to show us something important about who God is.

God is the good neighbour. God is the Good Samaritan. For some of you, God may have been distant, someone you wanted to stay away from. Maybe even someone you disliked, questioned, turned your back on.

And for others, God may be someone who, for a period in our lives, was the outsider, someone we didn’t spend a whole lot of time with. These are times of our lives, perhaps, when we feel we have our lives in hand and are doing just fine thank-you-very-much.

Jesus tells a story about a God who won’t be put off by all our human pride and hubris. God will still show mercy especially when we are most vulnerable, weak and in need of help. God comes to Vincenzo today in his infant vulnerability. God comes to us always, even when we are down and out. God is the stranger who will stop at nothing to reach out to all of us, in love. Saint Augustine, in the fourth century, said, “The measure of love is to love without measure.” God loves without measure.

When we pray to God for mercy, we are not asking for mercy from an angry God, eager to mete out punishment. The word, ‘mercy’ in the Hebrew scriptures comes from the Hebrew word for uterus – rachmim. It’s the motherly love of a woman treasuring the child born of her own body.[4]

God comes to Vincenzo today in his infant vulnerability with this kind of love. God comes to us always, even when we are down and out, lying in the ditch. God is the stranger who will show mercy and stop at nothing to reach out to all of us, in love.

[1] Luke 10:25-37

[2] Deuteronomy 6:4-5

[3] Richard Rohr, “Holy Dissent” Judaism: Hasidic Mystics (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 1 July 2022)

[4] Belden C. Lane, Chapter Four in “Nature Teachers and the Spiritual Life” Kindle edition, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

Practising baptism

audio for ‘Practising Baptism’ by Martin Malina

We cannot possess hope without practicing it – Amanda Gorman

I look downcast at my guitar sitting in the corner of my home office. Over the winter I picked it up daily, plucking on its strings and practising some Christmas carols adapted for classical guitar.

But since February I haven’t picked it up once. Not once. And you know what? It is true: If you don’t use it you lose it. If the strings on my guitar aren’t exercised daily—pulled and stretched by regular use—they will actually deteriorate and snap under the tension of the steel-wound strings. I’ve already lost my D-string.

So in raising up the benefit of practice, I want to give Aidan a gift at his baptism today. I know his father is a big fan of the Buffalo Bills NFL team. So I’m guessing this might be a hit, and encouragement to start early. Here is, I suspect, not Aidan’s first football. But he can add it to his collection.

Aidan will have to start early in his life practising to catch and throw and run with the football. Starting early will give him the best chance to become really good in this sport over time. And Dad can help, at the beginning anyway.

Practising requires discipline. It doesn’t just happen. I read the story of John who was visiting a friend one day. And they were sitting on the porch at the friend’s house one afternoon. John’s friend complained that there were never any birds in her yard. 

During the hour that they talked, John saw and named half a dozen birds. The friend was astonished, declaring how much she wanted to see and hear them too. “No”, John replied with blunt honesty, “you only want to want to see and hear them. You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush.” The friend was charmed by the idea of attending to birds, but didn’t have the will to give herself to its practice.[1]

I can think of two good reasons why we baptize infants, you may be wondering. The first reason is a belief I’ve held on to most of my life: The baptism of infants demonstrates God’s unconditional grace and love. This grace is the foundation of faith. For Lutherans especially, reflecting Martin Luther—the great 16th century reformer—who preached that we are ‘justified’ (i.e. made right) before God ‘by grace alone’.

In other words, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favour—not all the good works we do, not all the services we attend, not all the people we help in God’s name. We don’t do what we do in order to check the boxes to get God’s attention: “Hey God, look how good I am!”

Babies cannot prove their worth. They can’t even speak for themselves at the font. They depend on others’ care, protection and presence to support them in faith at this moment. It’s not to suggest babies don’t have the capacity for faith—I believe they do. They just can’t express it in ways we adults recognize. But it is to say that they encounter God at this time in their lives pretty helpless on their own.

And that’s how we all relate to God—relying on God’s good will and faithfulness to us no matter our age, our intelligence, our competence. Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[2]

But recently another good reason, maybe more simple, has emerged for me as to why we baptize infants:

If living in this world didn’t mean anything significant for our faith, if being a Christian was only valuable in so far as the prize at the end of life, if it were all about the destination and not the journey—then why would we baptize infants? Why wouldn’t we wait until later in life to be baptized?

No, the practice of infant baptism holds immense value for living in faith during our lives on earth. Infant baptism exclaims that the journey does matter, not just the destination. The beginning of faith coincides with the beginning of life-on-earth. Baptism launches us not just with heaven in mind, but more significantly, baptism suggests a way of life for now.

In the Gospel for today Jesus gives practical instructions to the seventy disciples.[3] He gives the disciples a blueprint for ‘how to’ relate to people and presents a lifestyle consistent with following Jesus in the world. I am not suggesting a literal application for every time and every place; we always need context to determine those things. 

But the point is: This life, and how we live it, matters. And how we learn to live the faith of Jesus in our lives is born out of a life time of practising our baptism. Martin Luther suggested that every morning before starting your day when you wash your face: Remember your baptism! 

How we pray. When we pray. How we serve our neighbour. Working together in a community of faith to make a positive difference in the world. Caring for others in need. These are all things that grow us in Christ Jesus. This is our practice. We need to practice! 

“Practice when it is easy and it will be there for you when it is hard,” said a wise teacher.[4] But if you haven’t practiced when it was easy in life for you, then it likely won’t be helpful for you and others when life gets hard. That’s why it is important to start early, and when you are young, to develop your spiritual practice and discipline. Try new things. Grow in your faith.

There will be times in our lives when practising, like with my guitar, will be put on the proverbial back shelf. But the guitar is always there, always reminding me that I can pick it any time again and start over. In faith, we are always starting over with each new day. By the grace of God we are, as people of faith, always beginning again.

We begin again not trying to earn favour with God and secure our place in heaven. That’s not why we practice. We practice our faith to reflect the love of God for all of creation, for all people. Because that’s how God approaches us. With grace, with forgiveness, with compassion. In baptism we are given the Spirit of God. God promises to be with us always, and empower us along the way, to practice.

[1] Cited in Belden C. Lane, Chapter Two in “Beginning to Listen” Kindle edition, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019)

[2] Matthew 18:3

[3] Luke 10:1-11

[4] Russ Hudson, “The Role of Anger in Spiritual Work,” Oneing Vol.6, no.1, Anger (Center for Action and Contemplation, Spring 2018): p.70-71.

A funeral sermon for one who loved music

The music hasn’t ended; the key has changed[1]

I’m going to ask you to do something that may seem a bit odd, a little unusual. I hope you’ll bear with me for a moment because I think as we continue, you’ll understand why I am asking you to do this.

 I want you to take a moment and just sit in the silence. Be present and open to the silence, and just listen. But before you do that, I want to tell you something. 

Many believe that silence is the opposite of sound and that there is nothing to hear. Inge knew otherwise. As a singer and one who loved to participate in the church choir at Faith Lutheran and the Community choir in Nepean, Inge knew that’s just not true. Every good singer knows that silence is the necessary space between the notes. 

That space, what most of us might call or experience as emptiness, absence, or a void, is the birthplace of the music. That space of silence is as much a part of the music as is each note. That space sets a rhythm, holds energy, and gives music its life, power, and beauty. Silence is never just emptiness, an absence, or a void; not in music, not in life, not in death, and not on this day. 

So take a moment now and listen to the silence. (pause) What did you hear? 

My guess is that we hear the music of Inge’s life; we hear her song of love, her song of friendship, her song of serving, her song of presence in your life. 

And I wonder what song she gave you. How did she touch your life and invite you to join your voice to hers in the great song of life? How did she conduct you into the original music of your own life? Hang on to those songs, Inge’s, and yours. Let them fill you and carry you. They are holy hymns.

I’m also guessing that you heard your song of grief and sorrow, your song of loss, and your song of love for or friendship with Inge. It probably had a verse or two about loneliness, sadness, and wondering how you can know the way. That’s the space between the notes. That’s the opening to a new song for Inge, for you, and for all those you love but no longer see. 

I want you to know this. The music of Inge’s life did not end at her death. Today we stand in that space between the notes, a space that makes room for presence in a new way, a space from which God is making all things new. “Sing to the Lord a new song” the Psalmist sings.[2]

The music of Inge’s life now plays in a different key.

Isn’t that what we mean when we say at these times, “Life has changed, not ended?” Isn’t that what Jesus is telling Thomas in today’s gospel[3] when he says, “That where I am, there you may be also?” Death is not the coda, the conclusion, to the song of life. 

Though we might be able to name the day and maybe even the hour of Inge’s death, she never knew that moment. She simply moved from this life to a new life. The music hasn’t ended, the key has changed. And that means we must learn to listen in a new way. We must listen with the ears of our hearts. 

So when we get to the parts of life that call us to slow down, pay attention and listen with the ears of your heart. Listen for the voice of Inge. Listen for the voices of all those you love but no longer see. Feel her and their presence. The music is always playing. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” for we are singing the never-ending song of life. That’s why we’ve gathered here today. And that’s why on this day, even as we soon go to the graveside, we make our song, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” 

[1] Largely borrowed and adapted from Fr Michael Marsh, “The Music Hasn’t Ended, The Key Has Changed—A Funeral Sermon” in Interrupting the Silence (https://www.interruptingthesilence.com). Thank you Fr Michael!

[2] Psalm 96:1-2,12

[3] John 14:1-6

Strawberry story – a funeral sermon

audio for ‘Strawberry story – a funeral sermon’ by Martin Malina

Well here we are, finally, at the end of June. It’s strawberry season in these parts. So I want to start with a strawberry story. But it starts out pretty bad:

A holy man is being chased by a tiger. He runs as fast as he can, but the tiger is hot on his heels. Ahead of him is a cliff, with a vine hanging down over the edge. He grasps the vine and begins to clamber down the face of the mountain, when down below …

He spots another tiger prowling on a ledge beneath him. A tiger above and a tiger below, he hangs there, clinging to the vine. Then, he notices …

Two little mice have scampered up and begun gnawing at the vine that is supporting him. He can’t seem to catch a break! It’s just getting worse! The writing is on the wall.

At that desperate moment, he sees right before him …

A ripe, red, wild strawberry, growing on the side of the mountain. He plucks and sinks his teeth into it—how sweet it tastes! (1)

In times of loss and grief, it often feels like all is lost. It feels like the disappointments only mount, and despair hounds relentlessly at the edges of our existence. It’s not just one tiger chasing you, there’s another one waiting for you ahead. And then the one thing you are hanging on to begins to disintegrate before your very eyes!

Planning for this funeral service has felt a little like this story, too. Shortly after Bill died several months ago now, we planned to have his celebration of life just after Easter, appropriately, when we hoped the pandemic wouldn’t be a factor keeping us from gathering. But it was! So, we postponed it to this day, months later, hoping this time of year would give others the opportunity to join us.

There are nuggets of wisdom and truth embedded in the strawberry story. And in the story of the raising of Lazarus, which you chose to accompany our reflection on this day when we celebrate the gift of life in your beloved Bill.

The story of Lazarus starts out pretty badly. It is a story mired in death and grief and failed expectations. Did you notice the extent to which the Gospel writer includes details about death and grief: Lazarus’ dear friend Jesus being “deeply disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” to the point of weeping. The smell of death, the “stench because [Lazarus] had been dead four days.” And Martha’s disappointment that it took so long for Jesus to get there. And, finally, the dead man coming out of the tomb, “his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth.” (2)

Death, and loss, and its sordid details feature prominently in a story about new life. Will someone notice the sweet, ripe, red, wild strawberry hanging on the side of a cliff? We don’t know what happened to the holy man eating that strawberry. We can guess, very likely he met his end. Just like with Lazarus. Even though Jesus raised him to live a few more years on earth, he still eventually died. Death comes to all of us. 

What is more the question, especially for people of faith, is how we live and how we respond to the gifts of life given to us, however small, however unexpected and contrary to anyone’s expectations. 

Indeed, we go where we are looking. We go in our hearts and minds and souls, where we set our sights. We veer in the direction of where we choose, intentionally, to look. 

We can focus on the death part incessantly and all that’s disappointing and wrong in the world, and live the emotional consequences of that strategy for life. Or, without denying the challenges—the holy man still tried to get away from the tigers chasing him; he didn’t just give up—we can choose to see the life, the good, the gift, amidst all the turmoil. And that strategy will set us free from all that binds us.

One of Bill’s occupations was as a surveyor for the Ministry of Transportation in Ontario. Bill laid out most of the main highways on Manitoulin Island and also major highways in Timmins and Sudbury.

Now, to do this job especially on major highways you have to develop a certain kind of vision so that the turns can be navigated safely by drivers and the bends are not too sharp.

When I drive on major highways I need to keep my eyes far down the road in order to make the turns smoothly and stay in my lane. But I will sometimes get distracted. Something will catch my eye on the side of the road, or in the fields by the highway. And I will catch myself, thankfully, in time to avoid an accident. I will have noticed with alarm how the car started veering perilously in the direction of my gaze. I have to work at keeping my attention on the road.

It takes work, intention and yes discipline to see with the heart what is often right in front of us—a grace and gift from God that is good. And maybe that is what we are all called to practice in these challenging days.(3)

Jesus orders those attending by Lazarus’ grave side to “unbind him, and let him go.” In life as in death, we are called to “unbind, and let go.” This takes work and sometimes we catch ourselves running in every direction. 

I sense, nevertheless, without having known Bill personally before his stroke, that he was one who didn’t give up when obstacles arose. In raising a family, in choosing his career, he saw the sweet, ripe, red, wild strawberry right before him. In choosing you […] to be his wife for over fifty years of marriage, he chose life and love.

And today God has chosen for Bill, life. Life eternal. God is the source of life, and all things good. We call this funeral service a celebration of life!

For us who as yet walk by faith, let us notice the moments of life right here and now: The beautiful weather that greeted us this day, the music and the singing, and the food which we will enjoy together following the service.

Let us acknowledge the joy and gratitude of those who are present with us to support you, dear family. These relationships are precious.

Even though obstacles creep up all the time, and it feels like all may be lost, there is always the surprise of finding a sweet, ripe, red, wild strawberry growing on the edge of the cliff. Would we see it? And enjoy the gift?

(1) Adapted from Ram Dass, “Conscious Living, Conscious Dying” in Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From your Spiritual Heart (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Inc., 2014), p.91

(2) John 11:33-44

(3) Psalm 121

Changes in our lives

Finding God (photo by Martin Malina June 2020)
audio for sermon ‘Changes in our lives’ by Martin Malina

During the early months of the COVID pandemic the confirmation class was meeting weekly online. In our tradition, confirmation is a two-year program for 13 to 14 year-olds—in that age range. By the time I started meeting the confirmands again in person it had been about two years of connecting online.

I remember the time a young confirmand walked through the doors of the church to attend the first in person class in over two years. My eyes were level at a certain height on the door frame, as I expected him to be as tall as I had remembered him two years ago. Was I shocked when he came through the door, I had to elevate my sight a good foot-and-a-half, it seemed. He had grown so much like a weed in the time I hadn’t seen him!

I marvelled once again at how much people change. But not just physically. And not just youth. There are various dimensions of our lives—mental, social, emotional, psychological, spiritual—that also change over time.

Hasidic Jews tell the story of a rabbi’s son who began leaving the synagogue during morning prayers to wander in the woods. The boy loved being alone in the forest. His father was concerned—not simply because the boy neglected his prayers, but because the woods were wild and dangerous in the mountains where they lived. One day he asked his son, “Why do you go out there alone in the forest? I notice you’ve been doing it a lot lately.”

The boy replied, “I go into the woods to find God.”

“Ah, that’s wonderful,” replied his dad. “I’m glad you are searching for God. But you know you don’t have to go anywhere special to find the Holy One, Blessed Be His Name. God is the same everywhere!”

“Yes,” answered the boy, “but I’m not.”

God might be the same everywhere, but the boy knew there was something different about him out in the wilds. Perhaps, stripped of things familiar, he was more vulnerable, more open and receptive?[1]

We receive two texts again this day—again from 1 Kings and from the Gospel of Luke. And we meet various characters, who are challenged in a similar way, I find.[2]

The challenge that Elisha—in the 1 Kings text—and the nameless people on the road with Jesus—in the Gospel text—the challenge they faced was to acknowledge the change happening within them. Indeed, from the Gospel text they were called to follow Jesus in a new direction or to listen to Jesus in a new way. Their hearts were pulling them to grow and mature and try something new.

In this Gospel text, we often first react to Jesus’ saying that “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[3] We often get stuck in the past. The nameless person wants to go back and say goodbye to their family. They offer their obedience, but only on that condition. The question we are left with at the end is, ‘Will they follow?’

At the same time I don’t believe Jesus means that we should ignore our history, deny our attachments, shrug off our relationships, reject the past. There’s enough throughout scripture to suggest otherwise: The fourth commandment to love and honour your parents, the Wisdom writings that admonish the people to care for their elderly, and the Epistles of St Paul who preaches love for parents.[4]

No, this isn’t about the past. But neither is it about the future. “No one who puts their hand to the plow …” Jesus says. He doesn’t talk about looking forward. He doesn’t talk about how to make straight rows. Just put your hand to the plow, what is right before you now. What grounds you in the present moment, right here.

Neither the past nor the future are the central issues in this Gospel. The problem is right now. What Jesus and Elijah both address to the nameless person and Elisha respectively is their unawareness that they are, and have been, changing. That they have changed, themselves.

Sometimes when we take a break from our spiritual disciplines, when we’ve been away from habits and practices that have in the past fed us and enriched us, it’s hard to go back. But the reason it is hard to go back—back to church, back to a prayer discipline, back to any kind of exercise that some part of us says is good—the reason it is difficult is because we resist, refuse or deny that we have changed in the meantime. Who you are when you come back to it is different.[5]

And perhaps it is time for a different direction or more importantly a new way of responding, of being, in relationship with ourselves, with others, in creation and with God:

A different place and a different time of day to pray.

A different way of relating with others in the church and serving others—listening more, accepting more, risking more.

A different way of understanding scripture and a new image to hold of God so we can trust more deeply.

We only have to look around us, in nature, as the boy did going into the forest to find God. We only have to look around us in the wild, and especially at this time of year, to see the life growing all around us. It is a law of nature to change. Nothing remains static; nothing in creation stays the same, if it has life. The same is true for us, living in this reality, this world that God created and God so loved.

God is. God was. And God will be forevermore. And everywhere. Despite where we go to find God, God is already there. Despite how we are changed by the invitation of divine love and life to follow, God is already with us. Jesus goes before us into an uncertain and unknown future. God’s ever-presence can hold us and accompanies us into the changes of our lives. Always has.

[1] Cited in Beldon C. Lane. The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) p.2

[2] 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Luke 9:51-62

[3] Luke 9:62

[4] Deuteronomy 5:16; Exodus 20:12; Proverbs 20:20; 23:22; Ephesians 6:1-24; 1 Timothy 5:8

[5] Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from your Spiritual Heart (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Inc., 2014), p.146

When the dialogue fails, the conversation continues

The sky is alive tonight, in the silence (photo by Martin Malina, May 2022)
audio for ‘When the dialogue fails, the conversation continues’ by Martin Malina

One of the joys I find in reading the bible is noticing the common, connecting points or themes in two or more texts. For today, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel is from Luke 8; and, an alternate option for the Hebrew scripture is from 1 Kings 19.

What is similar in these seemingly disparate readings? In both, the primary character experiences a divine encounter. From 1 Kings, Elijah the prophet experiences God in the sound of sheer silence. In the Gospel, the man from the region of the Gerasenes is healed by Jesus. And, both Elijah and the healed man are called to go back to the place they had earlier—and for different and justifiable reasons—left.[1] 

In the Gospel text the man inflicted with demons had been shunned by his community. Because of his illness, he remained locked in chains, living in the caves on the outskirts of town. He was not only an outsider, he was despised, rejected and feared. 

After his healing, I can understand why he wants to travel on with Jesus. A better option, for sure. I can understand why he wants to get out of dodge and begin life over far away from the place associated with his rejection and hate on him. I can understand his desire to stay away from the source of conflict, uncertainty, risk, even danger for him. 

It would be hard to imagine going back. Going back to a community and family that had disowned him, and treated him like a second class citizen, banishing him to the fringes. Even though after Jesus cures him he is better as an individual, his relationship with others in his home country remains at best uncertain. At worst, poisoned beyond repair. 

But Jesus throws him a knuckle ball: No. “’Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went …”[2]

The healed man was going back to a different situation for him. It wasn’t going to be like it used to be. He was a changed man, for one thing. And his relationships with family and friends were going to be very different.

The same with Elijah. He was called to go back to the “wilderness around Damascus”[3], where he would be exposed, and continue to live under the threat of assassination. This was the place where Elijah would have to continue doing God’s work—in the wilderness, a place of danger, and personal risk. God was calling him to go back to appoint a new leader for the people. He was going back to an entirely different situation than before.

Coming back to church will be different. Not like it used to be. Anyone who has come back will testify to this. Yet, the most important and rewarding thing is renewing our relationships. Somehow, we feel it, that we enter a deeper stage in our relationship. It’s not that we can’t grow in our relationships online. It’s not that Zoom meetings don’t have a purpose. 

But once in a while, and at some point, God may be calling us—not to escape risks, potential danger; not to avoid contact at all costs, retreat into our comfort and safety zones, for all time. God may be calling us to come back to reconnect with and grow current relationships, and make new ones.

What can we do to affirm our bond in Christ and deepen our relationships with one another, even in averse conditions and when things are different?

As part of my continuing education leave over the past week I attended and took leadership in a conference of the World Community for Christian Meditation. I am the Canadian national coordinator of this worldwide community.

The national coordinators of Ukraine and Russia have been for some years meeting online to meditate, during which participants pray in silence together. No words. No speeches. Just a heartfelt recognition of Christ’s living presence among them, unifying them in the silence.

Nevertheless, as with any social group meeting online or in person, when you gather people ask, normally, how everyone is doing – just a little chit-chat – before the prayer time. It’s an important part of any group including meditation groups. 

However, the Ukrainian coordinators expressed disappointment and concern that in the last couple of months when the Eastern European groups met online to meditate, the Russian meditators didn’t even ask how the Ukrainians were doing. Perhaps, they thought, they shouldn’t or couldn’t say anything that might be construed to the authorities as sympathy for Ukraine. So maybe they were afraid.

Something was lost. The dialogue had failed. Those relationships were on the brink. The Ukrainians felt hurt that their meditation cohorts wouldn’t even ask how they were doing.

If their communion was based solely on what was said, or the words that needed to be said, or grandiose ideological speeches about right and wrong, it would very well feel like a great chasm, a great divide separated them, their relationships irreconcilable.

When the dialogue fails, what is left? Where is God? Is it worth it? is there any point to go on? The way the story is told, Elijah expected God to be found in the noise. But God was found in the sound of sheer silence.[4] In the silence, God is found. A holy silence. And that is where the healing begins, the breach can be restored. And unity is reestablished in Christ.

And I wonder how that would be accomplished. Words might need to be part of the conversation at some point, obviously. But the conversation might also need a whole lot of silence in between.

So how would silence accomplish this, practically? Paul Tillich, the great Lutheran theologian of the 20th century wrote that “The first duty of love is to listen.”[5]

What does Elijah’s obedience teach us about how we have conversations? When the dialogue fails, the conversation can still continue. By listening. Even in a momentary pause, we communicate by listening. Listening is not the easy first-option in relating with others. We would rather speak first, make sure we are heard, and our opinions shouted from the roof tops. But this is not the only, and certainly not the most effective, way of maintaining and growing relationships.

In the silence God is. In the silence, God listens to us. But sometimes we have to stop talking. We have to quiet our busy minds. We have to nurture the gifts of stillness and simplicity in our lives. And listen.

The Ukrainian and Russian meditators are on two opposite sides of a huge divide. It appears all hope is lost. The war goes on. More people die. The chasm grows deeper and wider with each passing day. 

And yet, despite the failure of words and actions, to say the least, the Ukrainian and Russian meditators continue to pray together in unity, in the silence. In the meditation room, virtually, they will still gather to pray. In their faithfulness to return regularly to be with one another they acknowledge in the silence the living Christ who continues to pray for them. They practice love by listening to God and each other in the silence. 

And in the silence, God listens to their hearts. In the silence the presence of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit unifies them. And gives them all hope, for the future.

In case you haven’t heard yet, the doors to the church are unlocked. The doors are open. A few of us gather on Sunday mornings in this lovely sanctuary, to pray, to sing, and celebrate Christ’s presence. And you are welcomed to join us in person. Come. Come back, to reconnect. And maybe we can all start over, first by just listening to each other.

[1] 1 Kings 19:1-15; Luke 8:26-39

[2] Luke 8:39

[3] 1 Kings 19:15

[4] 1 Kings 19:12

[5] Paul Tillich. Love, Power, and Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p.84.

Flowing far towards thanksgiving

The Niagara River at the Falls, photo by Martin Malina (May 2022)

When confronted with obstacles, challenges and frustrations, what is our natural impulse? What do you do? I, for one, react by trying to do it all by myself. Go it alone. Problem is, as challenges mount and obstacles grow larger and there doesn’t seem any end in sight to all that is wrong in the world today, that strategy – going it alone – is less and less effective to say the least.

It takes a river, and some massive Falls to suggest another way.

Last week I began what is turning out to be, for me, a season of long-distance trips over the next few weeks and months. It started with a church meeting in Niagara Falls – the farthest distance from home that I have been in over three years.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God …”[1] The vision of God presented to us from John’s revelation in the last book of the bible is not always consistent with our human tendency to react against the obstacles we face. While God’s vision is of wholeness and union, we tend to go the opposite direction. We would rather divide and conquer.

We are motivated by so many conflicting and competing impulses and desires. Left alone to our own devices, we don’t get very far. And, usually, we will make a mess of things. And yet, if we seek and are honest about our desire to be healed from whatever ails us, we must come to terms with our natural impulse to go-it-alone.

The man lying by the pool called Beth-zatha had been ill for thirty-eight years. He had tried everything, it seems, to find healing for himself. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me,” he complains to Jesus. [2] Left to his own devices, relying on his own resources, he had gotten nowhere.

Why Jesus had chosen him, and none other, of the many invalids that populated the pool side, is another question that confounds our fierce independence. Perhaps there was a reason, a mission, a purpose for the man whom Jesus heals in this Gospel text. 

“Let your way be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations.” In the Psalm for today, the phrases “all the nations” and “the peoples” and “all the ends of the earth” appear no less than nine times in seven short verses.[3]

Health and healing are for the nations, for the purpose of the well-being of all people. As I stood at Niagara Falls, in the corner of the pedestrian mall close to the ledge overlooking the thundering waters, I saw down the gorge dividing Canada and the United States. And the text from Revelation popped into my mind: “On either side of the river is the tree of life … for the healing of the nations.”[4]

Rainbow Bridge over the Dividing Line, photo by Martin Malina (May 2022)

The tree of life “on either side of the river”. What do you make of that? The tree of life shows up in the garden of Eden, mentioned very early in the first book of the bible.[5] But by the end of the bible, in the last book and the last chapter for that matter, there are now at least two, it appears.[6]

On either side. Not one side or the other. Not we’re right, they’re wrong. Not someone wins and someone loses. Not just for me and my kin. Not God is on our side, never yours. Not me-first, then you.

The vision of God is: On either side. On both sides of the question. On both sides of the dividing line. It seems that it takes a whole bible and a whole lot of stories about the topsy-turvy relationship between God and God’s people for it to finally get worked out. God is on all sides, by the end of it all. Good news!

So, what did the healed man do? What was his purpose? After Jesus told him to “stand up, take your mat and walk”, where did he go? Did God have a purpose for him, besides inciting a growing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders because he healed on the sabbath?

A few verses later, we read that afterwards “Jesus found him in the temple.”[7] We may wonder why, after thirty-eight years of illness would someone to go to the temple after being made well. There could be many possible reasons. But a good guess is that his heart was bursting with thanksgiving. And he wanted, first and foremost, to praise God for the gift of grace. 

Another clue may be why Jesus himself came up to Jerusalem in the first place, just before going to the pool. There was a “festival of the Jews”.[8]  Some suggest that this festival was Tabernacles, or Booths.[9]

This festival was Israel’s Thanksgiving. The Feast of Tabernacles was a reminder of when God delivered Israel, through Moses, out of slavery in Egypt and their time in the desert. The Israelites lived in tabernacles or booths on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land. To celebrate this festival was to give thanks to God for all the blessings the people have received throughout their history.

The people. All the nations. To the ends of the earth. Thanksgiving opens our hearts. Thanksgiving expands our hearts.

Wherever this Gospel text leads us in our contemplation of new life in Christ during this Easter season, one thing, I think, is clear: The man who was healed couldn’t go it alone. He couldn’t do it by himself. He needed someone else to help him. 

Whatever we would say about this time in our lives—the confusion, the uncertainties, and ambiguity of post-pandemic reset, the longing for healing and wholeness so many of us seek at different levels—individually, socially, mentally, physically, spiritually, financially—one thing is sure: We can’t do it on our own. We can’t pretend that we don’t need any help. 

Wherever Jesus is found in his post-resurrection appearances, it is always with others, healing others, inspiring others, helping others, challenging others, comforting others. Where two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus is there with them.[10]

May the waters of our baptism lead us down the river, embracing both sides of the divide, to the healing of all. And it all starts by reaching out to, and receiving help from, another, who comes to us. 

Thanks be to God!

[1] Revelation 22:1

[2] John 5:1-9

[3] Psalm 67

[4] Revelation 22:2

[5] Genesis 2:9

[6] The Greek has “tree,” which is used in a collective sense of trees on both sides of the river.

[7] John 5:14

[8] John 5:1

[9] 1 Kings 8:2; Nehemiah 8:14. Tabernacles is the only Jewish festival that is commonly called simply “the festival”. Other holidays in the Gospel of John are always referred to by their particular names – “the festival of Dedication” (John 10:22) and “the festival of the Passover” (John 13:1)

[10] Matthew 18:20

audio for “Flowing far towards Thanksgiving” by Martin Malina