Free Hugs! (Just Kidding, Don’t Touch Me)

audio for sermon, “Free Hugs!” by Martin Malina

For my birthday, my daughter gave this t-shirt to me with the words: “Free Hugs!!! (Just Kidding, Don’t Touch Me)”. I laugh, not only because it appeals to certain personality-types. But also because it’s a paradox that describes our times so well.

On the one hand, the invitation for ‘free hugs’ is in keeping with the message of grace—in the Lutheran tradition we will say especially today on Reformation Sunday. God’s grace is free! God’s love is free! All good things are free! Even hugs. ‘Let’s hug!’

At the same time, and especially in a pandemic , this message of ‘free hugs for all’ has been tempered by public health protections to keep us from physical proximity from and touch with others. And even as legal protections are lifted, so many are choosing freely to keep those protections in place—like masking and physical distancing. So, ‘Let’s not hug!’

We’ve had to live in the tension between the message—which we thought meant one thing—and the reality—which looked like the opposite of the message. And living in this in between place, trying to hold both seemingly irreconcilable truths has been difficult to say the least.

What do we do? ‘Let’s Hug!’ or ‘Don’t Touch Me!’ Whatever we do, we are leaning into a new thing for both.

Yesterday the confirmation class went into downtown Ottawa, right into the Market area of Vanier. We stood outside on a street corner and handed out pieces of pie to anyone who wanted. Freely. Without any cost to them.

Mostly the poor and homeless responded to our invitation. The pies went quickly. Some just wanted one piece. Others wanted many more pieces. And we gave them out, without condition. Without limit. Until they were all gone.

Afterwards we debriefed the experience with the youth and had a conversation about how it felt to give without cost or expectation of anything in return. This is not an easy frame of mind for us to accept, even in the church, and even in a Lutheran church where our main doctrine or belief you would say is the unconditional grace of God. Because we are so used to counting the cost and looking for ‘what’s in it for me’.

The confirmation class practised grace because the grace of God towards us creates the community of faith. Because of the loving way God is with us we practice loving others. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. And this was the basis of the new covenant God made with Israel. The prophet Jeremiah announces the new thing that God is doing to renew God’s relationship with us, and consequently introducing the defining character of human relationships and community in faith.

There’s the old covenant and the new covenant. The old covenant is based on rules and the obligation of the people to follow them, with consequence. The old covenant is based on ‘what’s in it for me’ thinking. Israel failed at that project. The Babylonian exile resulted. The new covenant, born of the exile, still holds the rules, but now with a twist: “I will write my law on their hearts,” says the Lord.[3]

Our faith as Lutherans and as Christians is in a God who embraces the earth and all that is in it, a God who embraces our humanity in Jesus, a God who gets hands dirty in our dirt and who bleeds for us. This is a God who initiates a loving relationship with us, with no conditions attached. And so, God touches our hearts.

An old woodcutter leads a donkey piled high with brushwood along a narrow mountain road. The wood slips and falls to the ground. As the man struggles to raise it, the king—disguised as a commoner—passes that way and stops to help. His hands embrace the thorns, his back bends to the task. The old man mumbles, “Thank you,” as the king rides on ahead to meet his waiting attendants.

The woodcutter continues down the mountain track, eventually catching up with the royal company. To his horror, he discovers who has helped him with his load. “I made a king stack wood for me,” he cries in dismay.

But the king smiles and offers to buy his donkey’s load, letting the woodcutter name a price he thinks fair. A gleam of understanding comes into the old woodcutter’s eye, and he explains that such wood can’t be sold cheaply. Ten bags of gold, he figures to be its worth. The king’s attendants laugh, saying the whole lot isn’t worth two barley grains. But the woodcutter insists that a great hand has touched these thorns … pointing to the bloodstains on the rough kindling.

“The wood itself is worthless, I agree – It is the touch which gives it dignity.”

The woodcutter knows the worth of a king’s touch. And the king, in turn, finds his boldness again in love irresistible.[7]

There is no better time than in the turmoil and disruption of the pandemic, to assert the new covenant. It is important that Jeremiah, most anguished of the prophets, speaks this hope, for only one in anguish could hope so deeply. Here is another paradox: That only when we have exhausted all our resources, confessed our need, do we discover the grace of God.

God’s grace brings forth willingness for glad obedience. We don’t do God’s will because we have to, are forced to, or guilted into doing, or feel obligated, or because we fear punishment. But we follow God because we are free to do it, no longer bound by the legality of it. But doing it because it is the right thing to do. “The truth will make you free,” says Jesus in the Gospel for Reformation Day.[4]

This new initiative on God’s part is grounded in God’s readiness to forgive all of Israel’s sins. The passage from Jeremiah announces God’s readiness to move beyond conditionality to a free embrace of Israel, to a new faithfulness with no strings attached. That divine readiness is matched by an anticipated readiness of Israel now to obey the commandments that are so intimately inscribed inside of every person.[5]

At a time when we feel all our resources have been exhausted, when we feel we can’t do anything more, we hear the promise that God makes the first move of grace, a move which makes all things new on earth.[6] God appeals to that still small voice within us, each one of you, in your hearts, to respond freely, with love. 

God surprises us on the path of our lives by picking the pieces up that we will have spilled along the way. God makes the first move of grace, embraces our reality. God hugs us. God’s hands get dirty and bloody in the process. But God won’t go back and escape into a faraway heaven. No, God is committed to walking with us, and living in us, the rest of the way.

[3] Jeremiah 31:31-34

[4] John 8:31-36

[5] Walter Brueggemann,

[6] Walter Brueggemann,

[7] Belden C. Lane, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), p.60-61.

Your face in the story

Reflections in the Fall
(photo by Martin Malina, 19 October 2022 over the Niagara River, Canada/USA border)

I’m not the only one who has felt the weight of the world with bad news coming from all quarters. It seems it hasn’t gotten any easier for many people in a world where precious little makes any sense at all: How do we catch a break, fall into a bit of luck, experience a miracle?

In other words, how do we find the grace of God?

Indeed, we often yearn and long for grace during tough times when things aren’t going well. Maybe these days you find yourself in a rough patch, for whatever reason.

This parable[1] gives us a clue to how we find and discover that grace. But only if we bring this parable closer to our lives. 

We are tempted, I think, to keep this story at arm’s length. It’s a parable, after all, about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray—and no one in this room is a tax collector nor a Pharisee; and we are not in a temple. So, it’s easy to make it a heady story about people in history with whom we have little or no connection. Therefore the story has little effect on our lives.

And yet Christians throughout the ages have resisted this objectification of the story, and they have sought to bring it closer to their own, personal lives. Today, over two thousand years after Jesus first told this parable, we bring this story close to our hearts, which is what Jesus would have us do I believe, by seeing our face in both the tax collector and the Pharisee. 

When medieval cathedrals and churches across Europe were built, scenes from the Gospels were often depicted in artwork on the ceilings and walls. This art was called a fresco.

When a cathedral or local church was being frescoed, a painter would come to town to a meeting of those who decided what stories from the bible would be painted. 

But the meeting also decided who would be the subjects for the paintings that were being commissioned for the church’s walls and ceilings. Whom would the painter use for their artistic models?

Most often, the painter wandered the local streets, interacted with the villagers, and decided whose faces they might portray. One day you might go to church and find yourself in a fresco listening to Jesus preach. Maybe your face would represent one of the disciples, or one of the women who cared for Jesus. Perhaps one of your children would be listening to Jesus teach. In any case, you would be placed right in the story of the Gospel; your face would actually be central to the story.[2]

Sometimes we are the Pharisee. And we have to confess that we have been conditioned in our upbringing and culture to compare and compete, like the Pharisee does in the Gospel. And so we may use unkind, ungenerous and condescending words about people who are less fortunate than we are, who are very different from us. We are the Pharisee whenever we comfort ourselves by pointing a finger in judgement at the homeless, the working poor, the struggling youth, the refugee, the newcomer to Canada, the racialized and two-spirited, LGTBQIA+. How do we feel when we see our face as the face of the Pharisee judging the tax collector of today?

Maybe like me you, too, have been taught that bit of competitive wisdom as a child when you learned this rhyme: “Good, better, best. Never stop to rest. Until your good is better. And your better, best.” Most of us, I gather, have a Pharisee lurking within us, ready and willing to step over someone else in order to get ahead.

At the start I asked how we find the grace we so long for in our lives. We must recall the purpose of the parables is first to dislodge us from our comfort zones and knee-jerk impressions. That’s why and how Jesus told these stories in the first place. When the proverbial rug is pulled from underneath us, then we arrive at a startling conclusion: 

The only way out—out of your bind, out of your predicament, out of your particular suffering whatever it may be—the only way out is the way through. For example, the only way out of grief is the way through it. We cannot spiritually bypass the rough patches.

Jesus concludes this parable with the words: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[3] How do we arrive at this authentic humility? How do we humble ourselves? And so, find grace?

It is first to confess and weep over what the Pharisee in us does and says. And this is not easy. But the only way out is the way through. The only way out of our pride and our judgement is to honestly own our own part in and contribution to the problem. 

To confess the ills of our competitive and dog-eat-dog mindset is the first step to open the heart and to receive the grace of God. Because when we are in competition, we are not in love. When we compete, we can’t get to love because we are looking for new ways to dominate. 

But God does not deal with us like this.

Then we see our face in the face of the tax collector, too. The tax collector has lost the privilege of his reputation and standing in society. You could say he has nothing left to lose. He has come to the point of recognizing that he didn’t attract God’s favour by the strength of his persona, his ego and hisinflated self-righteousness.

Article Four in the Augsburg Confession, written down in the sixteenth century during the Protestant Reformation, articulates the central, Lutheran doctrine of Justification. We are made right, Martin Luther claimed, we are justified before God not by anything we can do, not by our works and efforts to be right. But we are made right by the grace of God alone.

Martin Luther interpreted the bible, even difficult passages in scripture, by using the measure of God’s love and grace. In other words, how and where is God’s love demonstrated in a passage of scripture? When we acknowledge our face in the face of the tax collector, we know we are on a journey with God that never ends. 

We come regularly into the presence of God knowing that we can only go on because God is a forgiving, loving God who makes something holy out of our mistakes, our suffering, our not knowing all the answers. God doesn’t compare us with others. God doesn’t say to us, “Look over there at that good person who has it all together – be like them!” Rather, we experience an all-embracing God who sees and loves the divine image in each one of us.

The Psalmist sings a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord. Because now the Psalmist knows of the promise of God to forgive always. “Happy are they whose strength is in you,” the Psalmist prays, “whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.”[4]

We are never completely rid of the Pharisee in us, as long as we inhabit this earthly existence. But perhaps on the journey, the pilgrims’ way, each time we are aware of the pain we cause on ourselves and others and come to confess this, we also become more and more strengthened by the reality of God’s grace to carry on, with hope and joy.

[1] Luke 18:9-14

[2] Richard Rohr, “An Ordinary Prayer” Daily Meditations (, 7 October 2022).

[3] Luke 18:14

[4] Psalm 84:1-7

Pumpkins and God – a children’s sermon

This weekend is thanksgiving. And we’re seeing a lot of pumpkins around these days. You also may be collecting pumpkins to carve out jack-o-lanterns for later this month on Hallowed Eve.

I want to show you how you can think about God when you see and work with pumpkins at this time of year. How God relates to us, what God thinks of us, and how God lives in us can all be told by a pumpkin.

First, where do pumpkins grow? In fields. But because they grow in different sizes and shapes, it’s hard to harvest them altogether. Before machines were used pumpkin farmers had to go into the field themselves to hand-pick the pumpkins.

God is like that with us. Because no two human beings are exactly alike—each of us is uniquely created, some large some small some young some old—God comes into our world in Jesus and picks us, for a special purpose.

Now, before we know the purpose God has for each of us, we must grow up a little bit and mature. What do you do with a pumpkin to get it ready for whatever reason you got in the first place? If you want to bake it or cook it, what do you have to do? If you want to carve a jack-o-lantern, what do you first have to do?

Yeah! You must get your hands in there and remove what’s inside. And what is inside a pumpkin? There are seeds. And there is all this stringy, yucky stuff that you want to throw out—it’s not good for much, I would think. But the seeds are good—for eating after you bake them, and for making more pumpkins if you plant them!

There’s good and there’s bad inside—all mixed together. It’s hard to separate the seeds from the stringy stuff perfectly. And it’s almost impossible to clean it out completely. In fact, I usually leave some of the mix of seeds and gunk inside.

As we grow up and older, we learn more about what’s inside of us. Some of it’s not good. Kind of like the yucky, stringy stuff in pumpkins, we just want to get rid of. When we say hurtful things to our friends, for example. What are some other things inside of us we don’t like very much? 

But there’s also a lot of good stuff inside, abilities and values and seeds for our own growth to do good in the world, like loving other people. What are other things inside of us we like, that are good?

Finally, if you are making a jack-o-lantern, what do you put inside after you’ve cleaned it out a bit? A candle, or flashlight. What is the point of the light? Well, it’s usually dark outside already when you want people to see your jack-o-lantern and whatever you’ve carved into the side of it.

God’s puts His Spirit and light inside of us. In fact, it was already there when you were born. It may be a small light. But we call it the light of Christ Jesus that shines in and through us. And the purpose we have is to let the light of God shine so that others will see it in our own lives. Maybe in this season of pumpkins you can think about how you want others to see the good that is in you?

Thank you, Jesus, for shining your light in my heart. Help me to let your light shine in the world today. Amen.

The gifts of God for the people of God: Thanks be to God!

audio sermon “Gifts of God for the People of God: Thanks be to God!” by Martin Malina

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all you lands! Serve the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with a song. Enter the gates of the Lord with thanksgiving and the courts with praise; give thanks …[1]

When things don’t go well, either we are faking it and being disingenuous. Or genuine people of faith are doing something else when they muster up the courage to give thanks amidst hardship. Which is it? And what is it—this quality of faith that I see in some who find themselves in dire circumstances? Yet they are able to draw on a deeper sense of God.

How can we be thankful? The hurricanes in Atlantic Canada and eastern seaboard of the southeastern U.S.; the ongoing war in Ukraine; the uncertainty surrounding a persistent, viral pandemic; political division like never before; a strained and depleted health care and public service industry. An economy pulled thin. As Pastor Doug Reble said last week: Difficult questions don’t offer easy answers.

How can we be thankful? Is it either /or? Either everything is peachy, so therefore we can give thanks? That the condition for thanksgiving is a perfect life, problem-free? No wonder there are so many atheists if that’s the way we think it’s supposed to be.

In the Olympic National Park in Washington State, it rains a lot. Nearly two-thirds of all the days in a year the mountains and valleys are covered by cloud and—in the case of the coast—marine fog. There are very few days when you can see for some distance.

Salish Sea Coast shrouded in marine fog (photo by Martin Malina, August 2022)

So, Jessica and I were thrilled when we were given a clear, sunshiny day to drive up into the mountains and hike into Hurricane Ridge, almost two thousand meters high. The vista from the top offered an expansive and impressive view of Mount Olympus to the south, and even Mount Baker far to the east.

The view from Hurricane Ridge – A clear day for Mount Olympus (photo by Martin Malina on Aug 12, 2022)

Mountains figure prominently in the Gospel of Matthew, which will be the focus Gospel next year. Stories of Jesus told by Matthew—important events in the life of Jesus— are told from the mountain top: The Mount of Jesus’ Temptation, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Mount of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Mount of Transfiguration and the Mount of Olives.[2]

The message of the Gospel, it seems, needs to be told from a five-thousand-foot perspective. We need some height to get the ‘big picture’. And yet, most of life is lived in the valley. Our perspective on life is viewed not from atop mountain ridges and airplanes thousands of feet in the air but from the ground, the bottom. Like in the Olympic National Park on the west coast—or the ‘wet’ coast—very few are the days in the year when the sky is clear and the mountains can be seen.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus tells his disciples: “I am the bread of life … it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven … which gives life to the world.”[3] They respond, “Give us this bread.” And we pray every week but especially on this Thanksgiving Sunday: “Give us today our daily bread.” 

The 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, wrote in the Small Catechism about this petition of the Lord’s Prayer. And in response to the question: What does this mean? Martin Luther writes: “In fact, God gives daily bread without our prayer, even to all evil people, but we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.”[4]

God gives daily bread without our prayer. Without our songs of thanksgiving. Without our joyful noise and gladness. God already gives it, gives us everything we need. 

When we stayed those nights on the coast of the Salish Sea at the north end of Olympic National Park, I would sit on the deck of our cabin overlooking the Strait separating Washington State from Vancouver Island. Every night was the same: The clouds shrouded the North Cascade Mountains far to the East. Sometimes the clouds were particularly white and puffy, reflecting the setting sun’s rays. 

But the last night we were there, the sky was clearer in the west where the sun was setting and shedding its brighter light towards the east. And that’s when I saw it for the first time in four nights: All along, we weren’t looking at puffy, white cumulus clouds to the East. We were looking at Mount Baker! That was a mountain there on the horizon line, not clouds! What we perceive when the fog lifts surprises us with a beauty that has always been there. We just don’t often recognize it as such.

Surprise, behind the fog (photo by Martin Malina, August 15, 2022)

That vision of God seen from below is a gift. Life and reality are so much bigger than us. Hope emerges from this broader vision. That vision from the ground can empower us to new heights in our own lives. “To recognize what our daily bread is,” as Luther wrote. And then, to go beyond satisfying just our own needs and wants. To perceive beyond the confines of our own difficult circumstances. And to strive toward that vision.

“Many people go without their share of daily bread. Throughout the world 690 million people are hungry. In Canada today, one in six children under the age of eighteen is food insecure. What about their daily bread? How can we share the bread of our tables with others?”[5] How can we touch the lives of others, in turn, with the love God would have us give, with thanks?

[1] Psalm 100, appointed for Thanksgiving Day in Canada (Revised Common Lectionary)

[2] Matthew 4, 5, 15:29-39, 17, 24.

[3] John 6:25-35.

[4] Cited in Donald W. Johnson & Susan C. Johnson, Praying the Catechism; Revised and Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2021), p.94-95.

[5] Susan C. Johnson, ibid.