Warming hearts

Cape Disappointment, Washington State, 2018, by Martin Malina
audio of “Warming Hearts” sermon, Martin Malina

The ice was coating the sidewalk, and even the packed, dirt path leading to the graveside.

The rare, January rain had turned back to sleet and snow. The temperature was falling to its customary levels for that time of year, freezing again the mounds of earth piled on the side of the deep hole in the ground.

The winds out of the north were picking up, gusting across the open farm fields surrounding the cemetery. It was not a day to be out doing anything, let alone carrying a casket with numbing cold hands and wearing dress shoes.

The conditions couldn’t have been worse. It was the last place on earth I’d go to experience God: a frozen cemetery feeling the sorrow of losing Dad to a horrible disease.

And yet, when we buried my Dad in those conditions almost two years ago, the bad weather is not the only thing I remember. 

As Bishop Michael began leading us over the frozen ground towards the planks of wood lining the grave, we realized we would need some extra help. Because it was dangerous going. A slip and a fall was only a snowflake away. 

I remember the bishop looking over at the little group of mourners gathered with my Mom, my brother and I that frightful January day and finding the eyes of a young man – the son of one of my mother’s friends. Thanks be to God he was there. The bishop didn’t need to say anything. We were all thinking the same thing. With a nod, the young person jumped in with us and added his strength to guide the casket down onto the grave-hoist ropes without incident.

And as we shivered in the wind to hear the familiar, comforting words, the warmth expanded in my heart.

I think back to that time now, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because since then the pandemic has brought the reality of death to the forefront of our collective lives. Maybe because so many have indeed suffered and lost everything. Some have braved and weathered the adversity they faced. Some have barely survived through times of unprecedented change. 

Going into public places – even going into a church building – may be the last place you’d feel like going on a Sunday morning these days.

And maybe because we also realize now that the threat of COVID won’t just disappear anytime soon. Grief is like that. We’re in the business of endurance for the long haul. It is indeed a marathon we are running, emotionally and spiritually.

On top of that and in all the debate and division about vaccines, lockdowns and restrictions, have our hearts hardened?

In the Gospel for today[1], Jesus encounters the keepers of the law – the Pharisees. The keepers of the law wanted to question Jesus about the law and specifically the commandments about marriage from the time of Moses. If they could trip Jesus up on the icy surface of their logic, perhaps they could find reason to condemn him.

Mount Sinai was in the middle of the desert. The desert, the wilderness, was also a dangerous place. Freezing temperatures at night. Sweltering heat under the noonday sun. Deadly animals and lack of food, constant threats. 

Yet, this was the place – the last place on earth – where the law was given to Moses. The law wasn’t delivered in a vacuum, after all, but in the middle of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Inbetween the place where God’s deliverance of the Israelites began, and where it was hoped God’s deliverance would end. They had a long road to travel to get there.

When the Israelites had crossed the sea out of Egypt, escaping the clutches of their pursuers, God was not done freeing them. The God of the bible is not a God who liberates, then leaves. But a God who continues to save, even in the last place on earth.

“This is a God who walks with people through the desert in a cloud of smoke and fire and who literally sets up camp with them in the form of a traveling tabernacle. This is a God who cares about every detail of their new life together …”[2] who gives to the hungry manna, just enough to keep going. 

With God, deliverance is not a one-time deal. Freedom, healing and salvation in Christ is not a one-off, run-and-done. Learning and growth in faith is a process that continues throughout our lives.

“It was because of the hardness of your hearts that Moses gave the law,” Jesus says. But Jesus is not finished speaking. Hardness of heart is not the end of this story. Jesus is not finished showing them. He has much more to show the scrutinizing keepers of the law about life and marriage and loss and divorce. 

Because they forget one thing, one very important thing about God when they only want to keep the law. That God is not done with them and us. And especially in those times and those places that test us.

The Gospel text for today ends with this odd, almost disconnected scene of Jesus welcoming the children, taking them up in his arms and blessing them. “Let the children come to me, do not stop them,” Jesus says. What do the children have to do with laws about divorce and marriage? 

Perhaps, then, the discordant, jarring form of the text itself is suggestive. Perhaps, then, it is precisely how it comes to us—in those jarring, dangerous times of life, where the connections are not easy to make—like when confronting suffering, death, God, or love. These realities confound us. These are testing times. 

Maybe, then, it is precisely in those long-haul, grinding-it-out times when we feel we are walking a slippery plank on the edge of an abyss, where we are one breath away from falling, when we can only see the grey skies stretching into the horizon and brace against the cold winds of fear ….

Those are the times, those are the places, those are the moments we really need to pay attention. Because God is not absent in those suffering times. The problem is not that God isn’t there with us in the desert, at the graveside when the weather is frightful. The hardness of our hearts is the problem.

But that is when God finds us. The last place on earth is where grace happens, where the love of God erupts as a small flame in our hearts. The love of God erupts in a small moment of giving, and of receiving the unconditional help of a friend. 

Our hearts warm. The ice melts. God takes us in arms of love, and blesses us. This is God. Compassion is the way through the desert, through the long-haul sufferings of life. Compassion is the way.

And it’s just beginning.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Mark 10:2-16

[2] Rachel Held Evans. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Tennesee: Nelson Books, 2018. p.53.

God’s freedom

Algonquin Trail underneath Hwy 417 at Arnprior, Ontario – photo by Martin Malina
audio version of sermon, “God’s Freedom”, by Martin Malina

Jesus’ disciples think they are doing a good thing. They try to stop someone who is doing a good thing. But, there’s a problem. For the disciples that problem outweighs the good thing that person is doing. John, the disciple who speaks, says, “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”[1]

The problem is, this person is not a card-carrying member. They’re “not following us”; they weren’t part of the club. And no matter the good they do, it doesn’t count in the religious mind-set of the disciples.

Are we much different? The debates continue today about whether it counts if non-believers do good, whether it counts if those who do not belong in a formal way to the church or to our congregation do good – things that we are called to do. Does that count?

You could say that, at least, they were casting out the demon “in Jesus’ name”. And that may be why Jesus said, “Do not stop him.” 

I’ve found at least a couple very good commentaries on what “In Jesus’ name” means: One approach suggests the name of Jesus itself is powerful. Here, the exorcist seems to be using Jesus’ name explicitly as a powerful tool for casting out demons. 

Therefore, according to this interpretation, the story in the end may be less about the power of demons and more about the power of language itself, to change the speaker and to shape the identity of the community.[2] “No one who does a deed of power in my name,” says Jesus, “will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”[3] Using the name of Jesus is a powerful act that cannot leave the performer unaffected. 

Another good approach suggests that to act in Jesus’ name is simply “to act in a manner consistent with his character”.[4] By this interpretation, some people may behave in a Christlike manner without realizing it, consciously. Such is the case in Matthew 25:31-46, where the action itself is the focus – visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. The action itself determines the Christian way regardless of who is doing it. Some have called this ‘anonymous Christianity.’

Nevertheless, I still wonder: If this person was doing good in Jesus’ name, why weren’t they already following Jesus? Why was this person apart from the community that surrounded and followed Jesus throughout Galilee? The action in the text pivots from excluding someone who does not belong, to Jesus authorizing their inclusion. “Do not stop him.” The action in the text hinges on what Jesus says here.

So, in the end, for me this passage points to the freedom of God. When we begin with God’s freedom, we also affirm that we are not in control nor do we judge who’s in and who’s out when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God, in the world. 

Richard Rohr asserts that it is a very hard task indeed to keep God free for people, “because what religion tends to do is tell God whom God can love and whom God is not allowed to love …”[5]

Gus, the main character in the novel, The River Why,[6] is on a journey to find God. And Gus believes the only way to do that is to find God in a certain place that Gus determines. In the novel, this place is the source of the river on whose banks Gus lives, farther downstream. It’s a long and arduous journey. When he finally arrives at his destination, Gus fails to experience what he intended by all his hard work and labour to find God and truth. 

Slumping at the source of the river he confesses: “It’s a damn tough business sitting around trying to force youself to force God to forcefeed you …”

By the end of the novel, Gus does find God. But it’s in the least expected turn of events and experiences of his life. He concludes, “Thank God I failed. It would have been a hell of a note to have to hike fifty miles up[river]… every time I wanted a word with … [God].” 

Gus discovers that God and God’s truth are not experienced according to his anticipated and sought-after outcomes. Gus discovers that God’s ways are not his ways, that he can’t force God’s hand, or be driven spiritually by his own notions of where it must happen, when it must happen, or with whom it must happen.

The example of Jesus in the Gospel today pushes us to consider God’s prerogative, to consider others as God’s hands and feet in the world. Consequently I believe the Word calls us to examine the barriers we may be tempted to put up in order to exclude those who are not like us, or who differ from us in ways that make us uncomfortable, or those who do not follow us.[7]

Someone we know who prays. But is not Lutheran.

Someone who cares for the earth. But you doubt whether they go to church.

Someone who volunteers in drop-in centres for women, someone else who volunteers at the local food bank, someone else who gives their time writing letters to members of parliament to ensure safe drinking water for northern, indigenous communities. But they aren’t professing Christians.

A family member or friend who is honest about their doubts yet still practices compassion and listens well to people who come to them with their problems offering their gift of healing. But doesn’t use the right, familiar God-language.

While we will not control their behaviour nor their beliefs, we can trust that God has this in hand. We don’t need to put up any roadblocks when the Holy Spirit works in the lives of those who nonetheless are doing good, in Jesus’ name. Because our task is not to be gatekeepers or guardians of God’s truth, but rather faithful followers and trusting servants of God, who is love.


[1] Mark 9:38-41

[2] Martha L. Moore-Keish, “Mark 9:38-50 Theological Perspective” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.118

[3] Mark 9:39

[4] Martha L. Moore-Keish, ibid.

[5] Richard Rohr, “A Journey Towards Greater Love” Living Inside God’s Great Story (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 29 August 2021)

[6] David James Duncan, The River Why (New York: Back Bay Books, 2016), p.340-341

[7] Br. David Vryhof, “Inclusion” Brother, Give Us A Word (www.sje.org, 10 September 2021)

Behind the words

Martin Malina_sermon audio version_behind the words

“We will bury you!” 

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said those words in 1956. He was speaking to American diplomats at a reception in Moscow. In 1956, those words caused quite the stir.

In fact, those words—“We will bury you!”—helped spur the rapid arms build-up which during the Cold War in the last century pushed the world’s two superpowers to the brink of World War Three and nuclear annihilation.

What did Khrushchev actually mean by saying to the Americans, “We will bury you!”? It’s impossible to tell exactly. Because history suggests he was a man prone to brashness and exaggeration. Some say those words were based on a failed Marxist philosophy that the masses (proliterate) would be the undertakers of the monied bourgeois. Khrushchev may very well have been speaking out of a specific worldview and his belief in how history will unfold. 

Yet, these words were widely misinterpreted to suggest burial, literally, under mountains of radioactive rubble. Because Khrushchev was in 1956 one of two men in the world who had the power to launch a nuclear catastrophe.[1]

Words matter. The words we say or write have power, for good or bad.

In the current Canadian federal election campaign, there are lots of words coming at us from the candidates. I don’t believe I’m alone in sometimes noticing a difference between words I read on a page or screen, and those same words I watch and hear spoken.

On paper, the words alone suggest one thing for me—good, bad, indifference. But when I see and hear the person speaking those very same words, I can have a completely different impression altogether and derive a completely different meaning. As is often the case, the way in which those words are spoken—the medium, you might say—is the message.

There’s more to the words alone.

I’d like to do a simple exercise with you. Listen to this short sentence, six words long. I will repeat this sentence six times, the same words in the same order. How does the emphasis on different words change the meaning of the whole sentence? 

I didn’t say you were wrong.

didn’t say you were wrong.

I didn’t say you were wrong.

I didn’t say you were wrong.

I didn’t say you were wrong.

I didn’t say you were wrong.

When I was first introduced to doing this exercise as the listener, I presumed the same six words would convey the same meaning no matter how often repeated or regardless of which word in that sentence was emphasied? Was I wrong![2]

The book of James is popular for Christians for its practical advise. In the text assigned for today, James first lashes out against the tongue and how evil it can be.[3] “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” In truth, Khrushchev’s tongue and words in 1956 almost did set the world aflame.

The opposite is true, too. Even good words, warns James, can be a hypocrisy if spoken without authenticity. It’s hard to believe even good words if not conveyed by a credibility and trust in the person giving them. “From the same mouth can come blessing and cursing.” Words have that duality to them, if treated alone, on the surface.

To know Jesus, then, is to know more than merely the words recorded about him. These are nonetheless beautiful and important words to help us on our journey of faith. Yet, to know Jesus, and to be an authentic follwer of Jesus, is to experience the presence of the living Christ in your own life today.

And that involves more than words on a page.

What we don’t say has just as much to ‘say’ as any words might. The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote, “A person does not speak only with words.” You could call this non-verbal communication—our tone, body language, posture, eye contact, maintaining physical distance, smiles or frowns, inviting facial expressions or with engaging, open, curious energy.[4]

In a word-infested world where we are bombarded and assaulted by so many words—many good, some bad—the Gospel points us to a deeper way, a more authentic starting place behind any words we might say, write or read.

The prophet Isaiah gives us direction on this path of a deepening experience of God. How does Isaiah do good with his words – a prophet who is known for his words, who had a lot of words to say? How does Isaiah “sustain the weary with a word?”

Isaiah listens first. “The Lord God … wakens my ear, every day, to listen as those who are taught.”[5] Listening to another opens the pathway to authentic relationships, as we respond out of a heart that receives the other first.

What is behind the words for a Christian?

Love. In the end, words are not enough. Words—like technology—are very good, capable tools for life. But words are means; words are not ends in themselves. 

Love is the true end and starting point. Without love, our words are lifeless. Truth cannot be communicated apart from a heart of love in relationship. In the service of love, out of a heart of love, our words find place and purpose.[6] As Jesus did for those he met, healed and to whom he spoke. As Jesus does for us, out of God’s heart of love.

Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, The Emotion Thesaurus. WritersHelpingWriters.net 2012, p.106

[1] Giles Whittell, Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War (New York: Random House, 2010), p.44

[2] Adapted from “Creative Listening” in Frontline, Earl A. Grollman (Summer 2021).

[3] James 3:1-13,17

[4] Ibid., Grollman

[5] Isaiah 50:4

[6] adapted from Br. Keith Nelson, “Knowledge”, Brother, Give Us A Word (www.ssje.org, 2 September 2021)

They are love

“They” are love – Martin Malina

I live in Arnprior, whose logo reads — “Where the Rivers meet”, because the town is situated at the confluence of the Madawaska and Ottawa rivers. The flow of rivers around me, around the place I live, communicates to me important spiritual truths.

Under the evening moon at the confluence of the Madawaska and Ottawa rivers in Arnprior

As a Christian, I take spiritual truth to be the way of Jesus. So, everything from my practice of prayer to how I aspire to relate with others flows from the waters of my baptism in Christ.

The flow of water can move one’s heart and mind in directions not anticipated nor expected. Just try running white-water rapids or going down a water slide. When you enter the water, your body will be subject to forces beyond your control and often make your body go in directions not intended.

When I read the bible sometimes familiar stories will come at me sideways and I’ll notice something that I’ve never before noticed. And it will open up new and unbidden horizons that will both challenge and inspire me on my journey of faith.

This is true with the Gospel reading for today[1] — about the healing of the deaf and mute person. And what jumped out at me was the first word in verse 32: “They”. The unidentified and unnamed people who brought the deaf man to Jesus. What is more, “they” begged Jesus—begged him— to “lay his hand” on him. And that’s where I stopped. I know the end of the story: he was cured of his ailments so there was no cliff-hanger for me there. But more about the ending in a moment.

First, who are “they”?[2] Who would take the time, the energy, the strength to bring someone who was probably on the margins of the socio-economic engines of 1st century Palestine? Who are “they” to place such value and worth on someone who couldn’t hear and who had a speech impediment? Who was this deaf and mute man to them? 

A family member? The text doesn’t suggest family relations. There are other healing stories in the Gospel of Mark where daughters and fathers and sons are explicitly mentioned and involved.[3]

What is more in our Gospel text is it’s not a passive, obligation kind of service — a do-gooder “I-have-time-today” kind of action. They begged Jesus to heal. This is passionate language. No time for self-preoccupation. And all for the sake of someone who might normally be dismissed, disregarded and even despised in society.

Such a reading leaves me wondering about the quality of my own Christian service and love. Is healing in Christ only for me? Or, for my own? “They” were more than one person. And each of those individuals that comprised the “they” in our text had their own problems, suffering, pains, losses, griefs that likely needed Jesus’ healing touch. Why weren’t they self-advocating? And yet, “they” as a group were so passionate in finding healing for this one man they brought to Jesus.

This summer I canoed the Barron River in Algonquin Park relatively close to where I live. There is a spectacular red flower found almost exclusively along this river: It’s called the cardinal plant, Lobelia cardinalis. What is special about this plant is that it requires not one, but two visits by a hummingbird in order to procreate. The bird arrives when the flower is in early bloom and uses its long bill to sip the nectar, which lies just deep enough that the brow of the bird brushes against the flower and picks up pollen.

Later, when the stamens of the cardinal flower no longer produce pollen, the pistil—the female part of the plant, protrudes through the spent stamens to a point where, when the flower is visited the second time by a hummingbird whose head has been dusted with pollen from another plant, fertilization takes place.[4]

In other words, healing and new life require at least more than one visit by the grace of God. More than one dose of love. More than a mere self-preoccupation about the healing gifts of God. The more-than-for-me is necessary to complete the picture.

The witness of “they” in the Gospel reading today gives me a wonderful picture of what true love—complete love—in Christ is about. Individual healing is maybe one part, but alone it is not the gospel. If it’s just about ‘my healing’, or ‘what I want’, it is not the gospel. The gospel is going to the second part, which is loving others. We are they. When we consider the needs of those unlike us, and act on them, then we are being true to the gospel. We are driving it home.

“Look not to your own needs first, but to the needs of others,” writes Saint Paul.[5] This doesn’t mean we dismiss and disregard our own needs. It means our healing and salvation is found in striving to meet the needs of others.

When the crowd witnesses the miracle of healing, what do they say about Jesus? They conclude that he has done well. Maybe Jesus passed some test they had for him— he can cure disease. It’s only as an afterthought do they add: He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak. It’s as if the healing of the individual is not the main point. It isn’t for Jesus, who orders everyone “to tell no one” about the healing. So, the individual healing takes a back seat to what is really the miracle, that others cared enough about someone who was of little consequence— the marginalized, the weak, the homeless, the needy — to take the risk of bringing them to Jesus. That is the miracle.

Of course the gospel of Jesus is essentially about love. How do we love, then? That is the question. And how do we be like “they”; that is, how do we do this work of loving others together as a congregation? How do we love others who are different from us, who have different needs than we do? This is not easy. But that’s where the Gospel of Jesus Christ leads us.

In David James Duncan’s best-selling book ‘The River Why’, he describes what love is by using an analogy.

He writes that love is “like a trout stream: try to capture a trout stream with a dam and you get a lake; try to catch it in a bucket and you get a bucket of water; try to stick some under a microscope and you get a close-up look at some writhing amorphous microcooties. A trout stream is only a trout stream when it’s flowing between its own banks, at its own pace, in its own sweet way”.[6]

In the end, this text provides us with a picture of who God is. While we may stumble in our efforts and aspiration to be like “they”, in the end, God is they. Because God is love. We witness here how far God will go, by our side, to bring us to healing and wholeness. No matter how down-and-out we may be, no matter how much we have lost, grieved and suffered, no matter what place we occupy in our social and economic world, even for the most destitute, God is the passionate Friend who will take us there. 

Love opens the floodgates. Love doesn’t confine, constrict, or try too hard to change us into something we are not, out of judgement or fear. Rather, grace, mercy, and forgiveness flow alongside us, following us all the way downriver until we meet the vast, unbounded ocean of God’s eternal love.

Not just once. Not even twice. But many, many more times than that.

[1] Mark 7:31-37

[2] We encounter a similar rendering when Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida in Mark 8:22-26

[3] See Mark 5:21-43 & Mark 9:14-29.

[4] Roy MacGregor, Canoe Country: The Making of Canada, Toronto: Penguin Books, 2015, p.131

[5] Philippians 2:4

[6] David James Duncan, The River Why, Back Ray Books, 2016, p.396