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.

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