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. Well, nothing seems to match our expectations. Disappointment and despair always linger at the edges.

Yet there is a nugget 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 assailing 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.

Bill’s main work 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.

For us who as yet walk by faith, let us notice the moments of life right here and now: 

The joy and gratitude of those who are present with us to support you dear family. These relationships, however few in number, are nonetheless 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 recall 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!

I marvelled once again at how much people change, especially if you haven’t seen them in a while. 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]

We say having faith sometimes requires us to look in the rear view mirror when driving forward. We need to understand where we’ve been and embrace our forebears with love, when aiming forward.

But neither the past nor the future are the central issue here, I believe. 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 discpline, 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, 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.