Building for Christ

Building for Christ – audio sermon by Martin Malina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Psalm 25:6 NRSV

[2] Luke 21:33 NRSV

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

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

[5] Philippians 2:5-8

[6] Revelation 21:3

[7] See also Psalm 103:8-14

Who’s coming to dinner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] John 18:33-37

[2] Mark 8:27-30

[3] John 8:25

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

From stones falling to love rising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Mark 13:1-8

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

Candle-lighting faith

photo by Martin Malina
audio sermon for “Candle-lighting faith” by Martin Malina

Why do we light candles in the church? When there is enough natural and electrically generated light to help us read and hear the scriptures, the music and each other—why do we need candles? Why act in this rather impractical, ritualistic way? It may seem odd to us who abide so often by the common-sense rule of life. Why do we bother?

One reason is to honour a historically based tradition: From centuries ago and before, when Christians didn’t have electricity and they depended on candlelight to be able to read the scripture during worship.

Moreover, early Christians often met underground. They met in hiding. They burrowed in secret places. Persecuted and outlawed, they gathered in the catacombs, away from the sunlight. They needed light even during the daytime. So, they lighted candles. 

Candle lighting honours the history of Christianity born out of division and beset by war through the centuries — Christian fighting Christian, Christians fighting everyone else, for that matter. Most of the letters in the New Testament—the Epistles—were written to fledgling churches held in the grip of division, in-fighting and conflict.

We light candles every time we worship to recall this turbulent history and honour the memory of our forbearers who needed light in a world full of hostility, war, death and evil.

So not only did they light candles for practical reasons to help them worship. Their act of lighting candles declared their faith, their common faith, in God. Lighting a candle meant that God’s light shines even in the face of death, “where the shadows lengthen and when the evening comes.”[1]

There isn’t a Halloween that goes by that I don’t get asked at least once what Christians should do or not do about Halloween. Many Christians are ambivalent towards this annual, cultural festival of dressing up in costume, playing spooky music, going trick-or-treat-ing, and otherwise celebrate being frightened. Why, where so much of the imagery surrounding Halloween focuses on devils and demons would Christians even go there? There’s enough evil in the world, we say. Why participate in a cultural event that only appears to fuel what’s wrong in the world? And so, many Christians have boycotted dressing up and being spooky and all.

Now, if death does have the last word, then we are indeed all lost and it doesn’t matter whether we participate in Halloween or not. If there is no one we can trust, no words of hope we can believe in, no story of redemption, promise and resurrection, then it is indeed a despairing world we live in. And there is no good news to speak of.

Maybe we forget that Halloween is a “hallowed-eve”, the eve before All Saints Day. Just like Christmas Eve precedes Christmas Day, just like Good Friday precedes Easter. The eve of All Saints—hallowed eve—is not the end of the story. Halloween does not have the last word.

Our Christian ancestors would therefore recognize Hallowe’en as the night when you stared at, and stared down, death. “Just as we know the answer to Good Friday is not despair but Easter, so the answer to Hallowe’en is not fear but All Saints.”[2] The answer to Hallowe’en is the joy and promise and unity of All the Saints in light!

We can face our fear of death and trust in the promise of the next day. Halloween can simply function as an exercise of our faith! We don’t need to succumb to the shadows. We don’t need to give in to despair. But we must face our fears honestly and courageously. This is what we do when we light a small candle of faith.

We light candles today and every Sunday as an act of faith. Because while we don’t need extra lumens to help us follow the music, read the text, and watch the screen, we confess that the word of God is given to a world shrouded in fear, hatred and anxiety. The word, as the assigned scripture for All Saints announces, is given precisely to those who are “thirsty”[3] and who come to the water to drink. 

We are the needy and vulnerable. We live with our own shadow and perceive the evil in the world around us. We are burdened by our own sin and weighed down, even lost, in this divided world. We grieve our losses and feel deeply the pain of death. 

And we are not alone.

We light candles to remember those in the past who have made it to the finish line faithfully, despite the warring factions and struggles in their lives. We light candles to celebrate the gift of life and love given to them in this divided world. We light candles to affirm our faith that the smallest flame can ignite our imaginations and our hope in the vision of God — “the new heaven and the new earth,” where God shall be and where God isat home with us, where all divisions will cease, and no one will be alone. Ever.

Indeed, a small flame we light. And faith is born. This is a vision that is trustworthy and true.

So, we light candles out in the open. Jesus said, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. So let your light shine before others, so they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”[4] We will not hide it under a bushel, oh no. We will shine brightly, share God’s love and light to the world. And we will live into our baptismal call to love others and give of ourselves to the vision of God.

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.”[5]


[1] Prayer at the time of death, “Funeral” Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p.284

[2] Br. James Koester, “Halloween”, www.sje.org, 31 October 2017

[3] Revelation 21:1-6, reading for All Saints Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary.

[4] Matthew 5:15-16

[5] “This Little Light of Mine” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ibid. #677