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.


audio version of sermon, “Reformation-Murmuration” by Martin Malina

“…you will know the truth …”[1]

I stopped there. How will we know the truth? Is ‘truth’ even possible? When we don’t believe someone – a family member, a politician, the media, a friend – when we don’t believe what they say is true, how can we believe what was written down thousands of years ago to be true? How can we believe anything?

When Jesus says these promising, affirming words to his disciples two thousand years ago – “…you will know the truth …” – I’m not sure we do.

Maybe because our post-Enlightment mind regards truth exclusively as doctrinal, contractive, individualistic and competitive rather than something more intuitive, collective and freeing in our nature.

In the post-Reformation era, we have become like chickens, scrapping and scraping only for ourselves, ruffling another person’s feathers, or another church’s, so we feel better or superior. That truth is what I have, but you don’t.

And it’s not even what Martin Luther wanted—a separate, autonomous denomination. He wanted to reform the church, not split it into what is today some 30,000 Protestant denominations worldwide.

Maybe we need to look upward. Rather than be like the chickens, maybe the birds can show us the truth. Have you heard what the birds do when they fly together?

It rhymes with Reformation … Murmuration. So, whenever you hear the word ‘reformation’ from now on, I hope you think of ‘murmuration.’. What is ‘murmuration’?

Murmuration happens when the flock of birds—specifically starlings—move like synchronized swimmers or a well-choreographed dance troupe. Like bird ballet, they fly dark flowing against the white clouds. 

And when they fly together and swirl in a repeating, coordinated ever-changing pattern they seem to be connected somehow. They twist and turn and change direction at a moment’s notice.

Wired Magazine described murmuration like this:

“Each starling in a flock is connected to every other. 

When a flock turns in unison, it’s a phase transition.

 When a neighbor moves, so do you.

At the individual level, the rules guiding this are relatively simple.

 Depending on the flock’s size and speed and its members’ flight physiologies, the large-scale pattern changes. 

What’s complicated, or at least unknown, is how criticality it is created and maintained.” 

How does the murmuration begin? Often the starlings gather as night approaches. In the twilight, the dance begins with a few birds, but gradually other starlings arrive, then more and more, until they all join together in one massive flock. Their movements create patterns, streams, circles, and trails. Suddenly they plunge downward then swoop and sail skyward. As they twist and turn in tight formation, amazingly they swirl but never collide.

“What music do they hear? Who leads them? Who taught them such grace? …Maybe God is dancing with them and that is unknown, there, and unseen.”[2]

“I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.”[3]

So, to God, each starling is important to creating the murmuration. The result, however, is a whole that is greater than the sum of individual parts. It’s the story of the bible.

Recall, then:

God was saving Israel, not just Abraham.

God was saving Israel, the nation, not just Joseph, Isaac, or Jacob.

God was always saving people, not just individuals. And, in the last two thousand years,

God was saving the church, not just Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, or Henry the VIII’s marriage.

God was saving the church for all time—the people as a whole—and not just individuals of the 16th century. Nor just individuals today.

Reformation is “historical and social, and not just individual.”[4]

Martin Luther, the individual, was important in God’s story. Martin Luther inaugurated the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517—exactly 504 years ago today—by pinning up a sheet of paper on the large, wooden doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany. That piece of paper contained some 95 arguments against what Martin Luther believed were abuses in the religious practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church at the time.

Fuelled by geo-political forces and social unrest in Europe. Power struggles between Pope and Princes, Emperor and economies — all these helped shape the course of what happened with the church, far beyond what Martin Luther was essentially all about. Because Reformation, in the end, is a movement in history and a movement of Spirit in the hearts of people continually changing and transforming, and going somewhere. Reformation was and is a gift—reforms in the 16th century were needed and good. But Reformation is also given to us as a calling—something we continue to work at and move towards. Never perfect, yet aspiring towards the vision of God.

Not negative. Not stuck, static. Not fixated, nor constricted. Not divided, autonomous nor conflicted out of some sentimental view of the past. But dynamic, transformative, unitive and flowing towards God’s vision, God’s future.

What is truth, then? Christ is the truth.[5] And Reformation, like murmuration, is participation in Christ. Each of us is a character inside of a story that is being written in cooperation with God and the rest of humanity. Christ in, and through us.

God is not ‘out there’. We don’t look at reality, we look from reality. We’re in the middle of it now; we’re a part of it. The murmuration. We are being chosen. We are being led. We are an instance in both the agony and ecstasy of God that is already happening inside you and inside of me.[6]

“You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” This is the language of the bible. It describes what already is happening in us and around us. We already know it. And maybe now, only intuitively. But God is there. God is here.

And all you can do is say yes to it. And join in the never-ending dance.

[1] The Gospel for Reformation Day, from John 8:31-36.

[2] Jean Wise, “Mystical Murmuration” (, 6 February 2014),

[3] Psalm 50:11

[4] Richard Rohr, “Participation is the only way” Life as Participation (Daily Meditations,, 10 Sept 2021

[5] “I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus said. (John 14:6)

[6] Richard Rohr, “Being Instruments of God”, ibid., 5 Sept 2021

Love in the balance

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”

–Jesus (John 8:31)

Are you ‘covid-careless’; or, ‘covid-paranoid’? – two expressions I’ve heard used quite often.

Do you lean towards hyper-vigilance, and self-preservation-ism? Are you overly paranoid? Do these pandemic times stoke your battle cry (which has always been there, just underneath the surface) for hunkering down and keeping that big, bad world out there, out there? It certainly helps if your life circumstances allow you to cocoon.

Or, does that needle lean towards a denial or avoidance of the problem? Do you believe things are normal and criticize the ‘cancel culture’ of limiting economic and social interaction these days? Do you defy the mask-wearing practice, calling this a large-scale hoax?

Before pointing fingers of judgement upon others, we are well first to recognize our own tendency, and locate ourselves on that spectrum between those polar opposites. Confessing our own bias, we are making our bid to change for the better. We recognize our need to grow from our fear to be more faithful and trusting, grow from our self-centredness to love another.

Are we willing to change and grow?

I’d like you to imagine with me a tightrope, a long one, fastened at both ends. At each end, identify for yourself opposite responses to a problem you face. For example, above, I gave the difference between being covid-paranoid and covid-careless. The key, I believe, in our maturity in faith is to recognize where we are on that line, and move towards the opposite pole.

Many scriptures are actually constructed to contain both the problem and its resolution. But not everyone will see it the same way, depending on your perspective. Some will see first the problem; for them, they need to work hard towards a resolution. Others will first see a sunny disposition; for them, they need to work towards acceptance of hard truth. Neither is bad; just a different starting point.

You can see this tensive balance in the famous Reformation Psalm, 46. Here are the words that Martin Luther used to compose the well-known hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God. While the words of Psalm do not literally equate God with a ‘mighty fortress’, Martin Luther made that interpretative leap, and his powerful image has stuck with us for the past five hundred years.

But the “city of God” is not ‘the city is God’. The city belongs to God. God is present in the city. But a bricks-and-mortar fortress of impregnability and impressive show, God is not. At least not according to the Psalm.

God is our refuge and strength and a very present help in trouble. But, it is fair to ask, how is God our refuge? A vengeful warrior on the battlefield? A fortress building? How do we see God? How is God revealed to us? We can’t be too hard on Martin Luther for his loosey-goosy interpretation in the words of his hymn. Because he gets it right almost everywhere else where it comes to our relationship with God.

We can stay with the Psalm in order to find a way of knowing God amidst the trials of life. Because towards the end of the Psalm, another image of God is resolved: Not as military buttress and fighting machine against evil. But someone who makes peace: He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear …

On the one end of the spectrum we see the fulcrum of might and earthly power in all its dazzling display of strength against the opposition. On the other end of the spectrum we begin to tread into unknown spiritual territory for many of us: Be still, and know that God is.

Again, the question is: in which direction, to which end of the spectrum, do you lean? And, having confessed this in all honesty, the spiritual path, the path of growth and maturity in faith, calls you to see the good on the other end of the spectrum. And go in that direction. Rather than merely judge others on the other side, we move towards them!

If we imagine a tightrope, a long one, I wonder about where along this tightrope, this spectrum, you can bounce higher? It’s in the middle isn’t it? But if you stay very close to either extreme end of the tightrope, you’re not going to bounce very high at all. You might never fall off, but you won’t really ever live, either. Because the purpose of walking on that line of tension in the first place, is to follow Christ, and follow that path to growth and the joy of living in God’s love.

The love of God resolves the either/or tensions in our lives. Whether you tend toward being covid-paranoid or covid-careless. Whether you see a glorious, all powerful God waving a victory flag on the battlefield of life, or a bleeding, tortured and dying man on a cross bearing the world’s evil.

If you are more covid-paranoid, maybe for you the challenge is to move your attention away from self-preoccupation toward another, and to practice safe ways to connect nonetheless with others. Thus loosening the grip of fear over your life.

If you are more covid-careless, maybe for you the challenge is to consider your own potential contribution to the problem. Maybe you need to consider others’ health and well-being, especially those who are vulnerable. Communal health is just as important as your own. Thus putting a few more limits on yourself and sacrificing your own pride a bit.

In both cases, the starting point is your own bias. And, the practice of love is at stake. Love hangs in the balance. And love is an expression both of God’s freedom and ours.

The love of God is non-possessive; we don’t own the other and we don’t control the other’s behaviour. This is a difficult practice, because we don’t want to start with ourselves. We’d rather first point at someone else’s problem or fault.

Let’s say as a parent we continue to make choices in place of our children as they grow into adulthood; that is, we understandably want to spare them from suffering the consequences of a choice they might have to regret.

Yet it is a lack of love on our part to do so, since by forbidding them to risk aren’t we essentially trying to shield ourselves from possible suffering? Aren’t we being selfish? Aren’t we really trying to protect ourselves from the anguish we will feel each time our children do something different from what to us seemed best for them?

Alternatively, when we allow our children to make decisions, and therefore to take risks, we will worry, yes. We suffer the freedom we have given them. It’s being a parent.

We are God’s children. And God loves us. And God will free us. “The truth will make you free,” Jesus said.[1] Therefore, God will suffer with us, as we are given the freedom to act. God sheds tears alongside us when we suffer the consequences of our misdeeds. God rejoices alongside us when we make meaningful movement forward in our lives. Yes, this is risky. But that is love.

The Psalmist has good advice: “Be still.” When we are still before God, and we slow down our compulsive, impulsive ways of thinking and behaving, love sinks into and germinates in our open hearts. In our stillness, we learn to pay attention to others. In the love of Christ, we move freely to love others as we are so loved.

[1] John 8:31