The fox and the hen

“A bruised reed he will not break” photo by Martin Malina April 2022
sermon audio for “The fox and the hen” by Martin Malina

This year we hear Luke telling the Passion of Christ. Since Luke is the only Gospel of the four in the New Testament who mentions Herod in the Passion story[1], I want to start here: The confrontation between Herod and Jesus before his crucifixion. Herod and then Pilate will determine Jesus’ fate, after all. This is the climax of the earthly conflict, so to speak.

Recall just as Lent was starting over forty days ago, we heard from Luke also when Jesus called Herod a fox: “Go and tell that fox for me …” Jesus instructs the Pharisees to address Herod.[2]

Herod—Jesus’ ultimate earthly enemy, at the climax of the drama of Jesus’ life—Herod is the fox. Herod is dangerous. Herod holds all the cards. And he comes out on top, so it seems. And Pilate and Herod become friends that day.

It’s incredible that God chooses to submit to this danger, be swept up in it, and die. How can God be like this—vulernable to the wiles of the power brokers of the day, subject to the abuse and torture of human evil? Many have rejected the Christian God on these grounds alone. Because to follow this God is risky if it doesn’t promise some protection from what is dangerous in the world. Protection from the foxes.

We would rather Jesus be the fox, the one with all the cards to play, the one aggressive, defensive and wily.  But, no, Jesus is the hen. In contrast to Herod, from that Lukan text we heard last month, Jesus described himself as a mother hen: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” Jesus laments over Jerusalem.

Being a follower of Christ doesn’t take the danger out of life. Being Christian does not mean becoming magically immune to suffering. Being Christian does not mean being protected and secured against the foxes of this world.

But it does mean something more important: Being gathered under wing, nurtured and held in loving embrace. The fox may still have his way. The fox may still be a predator upon the mother hen and her chicks.

But in acts of violence and aggression the fox will never know love the way the mother hen will give it. In this image it is clear: Being with Jesus in times of danger is not about removing the danger. Being with Jesus in times of danger is about giving and receiving love in relationship.

On Good Friday, the poetry of the ‘servant’ poems from the prophet Isaiah are often read. But one of the first of these poems in the second half of Isaiah offers another vivid and meaningful image about who God is: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed, until he has established justice in the earth …”[3]

God, in the crucified Christ, is accomplishing justice. How so? In Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate[4], Jesus makes it clear that God’s ways are not violent. Let’s be clear: The poetry of Isaiah implies that God does indeed have the power, the capacity, to bruise a broken reed and snuf a dimly burning wick. But God doesn’t do it. A bruised reed he will not break; a dimly burning wick he will not snuff out.

God enacts justice by withholding the incredible power God has to wield. God chooses, in God’s freedom, not to use the full capacity of God’s might. Instead, God chooses mercy, gentleness, forbearance, patience and grace. God shows love by self-limiting himself.

At the brutal end of Jesus’ earthly life, I reflect on his life described in the Gospels and I go back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth. And he said that his mission would be “to let the oppressed go free.”[5] That was his mission: the ultimate freedom of people who were imprisoned, oppressed and stripped of privilege. He went to the public places, the city streets and gates. He healed the sick, brought sight to the blind, raised the dead. Jesus spent time with those who were despised. He loved those who were marginalized in a culture dominated by violence, aggression and retribution.[6]

Many of those around Jesus wanted a Messiah to liberate them from the Romans and restore a Jewish kingdom. Many, indeed, wanted Jesus to be the fox. No, he said to Pilate, that’s not what his kingdom is like, at all![7]

And when God’s justice is restored in the earth and Jesus returns in glory, where will his disciples find him? How will they know him? The disciples did ask these questions of Jesus before he died: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And in Jesus’ usual parable-style story-telling, Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[8]

How do we love Jesus? How do we respond on holy, Good Friday, when we recall Jesus’ horrible death? What would Jesus have us do? 

Even as Jesus’ earthly path got him killed, his true legacy is the practice of enduring love, of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. In God’s ways of love and mercy, we may give up our privilege and power to support those in need. By doing this, in our life on earth, we love Jesus. We respond on the day he died by recommitting ourselves to his mission, and remaining true to his legacy.

That is why the church today doesn’t merely go through ritual and liturgical motions, though helpful they may be. We didn’t just wave palm branches last Sunday to praise him and remember his journey to the cross. But we also collected clothing, basic needs for the poverty-vulnerable, the underprivileged, the less fortunate. Because we are Christians. And we follow Christ, and Christ’s ways, even and especially in difficult times.

And then God will raise us up with all the faithful. God will raise us up as a garden flourishing in the desert.[9] Let the words of Isaiah fill your imagination and your heart as you go this day …

An image from Isaiah, describing that day when justice is restored in the earth, when indeed the fox and hen will not be predator and prey. Rather, God’s vision is one in which “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them …”[10]

Let Christ Jesus be our guide, over these coming days, and beyond to the realization of new life, a new beginning. Amen.


[1] Luke 23:1-49

[2] Luke 13:31-32, 34

[3] Isaiah 42:3-4, NRSV

[4] See John’s rendition of the Passion narrative; John 18:33-36 and 19:8-11

[5] Luke 4:18 NRSV

[6] Luke 6:27-36

[7] John 18:36

[8] Matthew 25:34-40 NRSV

[9] Isaiah 58:10-12 NRSV – “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; and you shall rise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

[10] Isaiah 11:6 NRSV

An open-ended closure

audio for ‘an open-ended closure’ by Martin Malina
Dochart Creek flowing to the Ottawa at Braeside-McNab, photo by Martin Malina April 2022

Maybe there is a part in all of us, if you are little bit like me, happy that we are soon coming to the end of the Lenten season. Enough of the self-examination, self-limiting, fasting, giving things up—I want to be free again to do anything I want to, whenever I want to do it. If you are like me in this way, we are so ready to dive into the Easter season and message of new life, new hope, new beginnings, and get on with living! Amen?! 

Maybe there is a part in all of us, if you are a little bit like me, fed up with the prolonged, never-ending pall shrouding our existence in the pandemic, in the never-ending war in Ukraine. We are so ready to move on and get past this tortured period of history that still hangs heavy over us.

Good news and bad news. Bad news first …

The transition that is Holy Week does not offer a clear-cut change-over. Holy Week has ‘ambiguous’ written all over it.

First, we witness the crowds on Palm Sunday shouting Hosanna and praising God in Jesus.[1] These are the same crowds who a few short days later condemn Jesus to death, shouting “Crucify Him”. What a flip-flop! Human nature is anything but consistent, clear cut, cut or dry, either-or. 

Second, “Good” Friday? Why is it good? Jesus dies. Jesus is defeated. Jesus becomes the laughing stock from the perspective of power, command and control over any mission we might envision. Of course, believers will know why Jesus’ death led to something good, indeed something very good – just stick around till Easter. But the juxtoposition of good and bad so close together makes telling this story a challenge. It’s not a straight line.

And finally, why do we even do this year after year: Lent, Holy Week and Good Friday? Isn’t Jesus alive? Wasn’t Jesus raised from the dead over two thousand years ago? Why bother dragging ourselves through this ambiguous, ambivalent, topsy-turvy exercise year after year? Aren’t we, after all, post-resurrection Christians?

All of these ambiguous notions makes this celebration for Christians not really popular, for Protestants at least, unless we just make it an Easter bunny holiday complete with coloured eggs and chocolate. We would rather tell a story with a straight line, something certain, and certainly not a story rife with ambivalent disciples, fickle crowds and an almost compulsive fixation on death.

Yeah, bad news…

The last two years has been like a bad dream in which we continue to move forward without really feeling like we are gaining any traction at all. In the changes we have had to face, consciously or unconsciously, we have lost so much: The death of loved ones whose burial rituals have been anything but uniform; The loss of jobs, friends moving, relationships changing, health deteriorating, family ties rupturing. We have been dragged through a time whose suffering is anything but over, as much as we might delude ourselves into believing otherwise.

And we may even fall to the temptation of simplistically asserting it is over and we should act as if it is. But denial will only lead to more problems down the road.

Holy Week is an ambiguous observance by the church. But it also reflects the ambigious nature of life today. And therefore this time in the church calendar can be very helpful.

The Passion of Christ, at the foot of the cross, is according to Martin Luther the place where God is revealed to us. The Cross is central to God’s revelation. And this poses serious problems for us. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, this is a hard, counterintuitive, instinct for us – to find God not in the glory of the days, not in getting everything I want, not in success and accomplishment and feel-good circumstances upon which much of religion even our piety is based.

It’s so hard to hold the ambiguity of it all in our hearts: On the one hand, a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing; and, on the other hand, who hangs on the cross of death and human defeat. A God who created all things beautiful, but who also bleeds, who is bruised, who is broken and gasps for breath in the throes of death.

Confronting the suffering of Jesus is like dealing with our grief. We would rather bypass the pain of it. And so we tend to deny our grief, and our losses. And we idealize ‘bringing closure’ even though we know deep down that there is no timeline for grief.

I hear echoes in how we have reacted to the ‘ending of the pandemic’. We have heard those announce it was a hoax, that there was no danger, and therefore no need to wear masks and staying away from large crowds. Even now with COVID protections legally lifted, refusing to abide by such protections suggests, does it not, a strong desire to be done, once and for all, of this pandemic – case closed, no danger, absolute thinking?

But the truth is, it is not emotionally nor spiritually healthier to close the door on our discomfort, our suffering. It is better to face it and learn to live with it. How so?

Here’s a bit of good news: Good Friday comes on the calendar every year. It’s as if the practice of our faith gently and regularly invites us to a healthy rhythm for life, the healthy truth of not denying nor avoiding the grief, the loss, the suffering of life for too long. Not denying the grief we continue to bear even life in Christ Jesus who suffered and died before rising to life. We cannot spiritually bypass the enduring and ambigious truth about grief, especially the longer we live.

Thank God Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday come around every year. Because even though Jesus is alive, Jesus gives us permission and a place to express honestly and with integrity the ongoing grief and losses of our lives. Because there is no such thing as ‘closure’.[2]

To varying degrees we live always with the pain of loss over the course of our lives. In truth, to resist our grief is the cause of suffering. But, to accept and to learn to live with the ambiguity of it all, to hold both our grief and our hope together, this is true faith.

To accept our losses-that-never-end is also to acknowledge grace, love and forgiveness where and when it happens. When we expect perfection, or when we place pre-conceived conditions on how something has to happen, we miss a great opportunity. We, in effect, reject an invitation to experience yet again God’s grace and love. 

For example, if a gathering can happen only if certain conditions that we set are met (if large numbers of people are desired, for instance); if a gathering of loved ones or of worshippers can happen only if our individual ‘wants’ are achieved, we lose big time. I tell people that when an opportunity to meet presents itself, then take it. And take it now. We don’t know what life may bring down the road. And when we take the risk … it won’t be perfect. It will not meet all our expectations. We will not get all that we want.

But those who are there, whom we meet, in that moment—the people, the family, the individuals, the strangers—they are God’s presence for you. God is revealed not in the glory of our imaginations nor in the fantasy of perfection born out of our minds. God is revealed in the imperfect, yes even in the suffering of the less-than-ideal.

The cross, as Martin Luther so profoundly explained, is where God is revealed to us, and offered to us. In the small numbers, in the small gifts of the moment, in the humility of meeting, in our self-limiting-for-the-sake-of-the-other, here we find and can receive the precious gift of Christ present.

God is here in the moment that is imperfect, humble, yet faithful. It is out of the ashes of grief and loss where pinpricks of light emerge and out of which, in the promise of days-to-come, we will bask in the glow of Easter joy. Again.


[1] A variation of the final, triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in the Gospel for today, from Luke 19:28-40. Read the whole Passion story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

[2] Pauline Boss, The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2022.

Reset

audio for ‘Reset’ by Martin Malina
Towards Bank Street from the Canal in Ottawa, Martin Malina March 2022

Philippians 3:8-14

8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own;but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Earlier this year I was sick with COVID. Thankful for being vaccinated, I did not suffer greatly nor did I need to go to the hospital. Yet the symptoms I experienced were potent enough to push me off my game for a few weeks. It was truly something I had never before experienced.

One of the consequences of feeling ill is that all my disciplines went out the window. And I mean all.

Since I still had an appetite, oddly enough, I indulged in unhealthy eating habits and foods. And, because of the body aches and severe muscle cramping, I did not engage in my favourite Canadian winter outdoor activities of cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, skating nor even walking along snow-covered pathways. These were all physical disciplines my wife and I started doing from the beginning of the winter season in Canada around Christmas. So all that stopped.

What bothered me was even my meditation discipline suffered. It was difficult, when I felt ill, to approach and settle into periods of physical and mental stillness.

I yearned and lamented with Saint Paul … “11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” With Saint Paul, my usual knee-jerk reaction when facing adversity is to “press on”. 

Some years ago, I walked part of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain (del Norte). On the way I met a couple of men from Lyons France. They were pretty intense about how to reach the goal still over 700 kilometres away. I resonated with their advice for the long journey ahead: In order to achieve this goal they told me to “Attaquer le chemin!”

But alas, I only achieved 110 kilometres because unbeknownst to me I had ‘walking pneumonia’—literally. Eventually my energy levels were so low I couldn’t go on. After one week on the trail I had only made it to Bilbao before returning home.

When Paul writes that he considers everything a loss, I stop at this universal expression: everything! Even good things. Even things that I had presumed were beneficial for my soul. 

Last month I experienced with COVID what it feels like to lose control over all the healthy routines and disciplines which bring stability and joy to life. It’s like when one thread was pulled, the whole garment unravelled.

The practice of meditation teaches me what it truly means to run the race, as Paul says. Because it’s not “having a righteousness of my own”. It isn’t about untiring effort to achieve and be successful at some project, whatever it is. It isn’t “attaquer le chemin”. In running the race I’m not in competition with anyone, even myself. Winning doesn’t mean someone else or something else—even the chemin beneath my feet—has to lose.

In facing the abyss where nothing was productive and my ego compulsions to control were disrupted, disentangled and deconstructed, perhaps I was given a gift. A gift of loving awareness that in meditation running the race is more about ‘leaning into’. In meditation it is a yielding to a love that is beyond my pain and my joy. It is leaning into the hope of life out of death.

Purging, letting go, resetting. Entering the apophatic way of prayer is not about our capacities to do anything. Is this a death, itself?

There are seasons of our lives, ritually observed in the church year, now in Lent, when we can embrace a letting go, experience a purging, and engage a reset on life. It is, as the word Lent literally means, a springtime.

The Lenten journey soon comes to an end. We are nearing the destination which has always been the promise of new life. The Lenten journey affirms that dying to self and experiencing death—in whatever form it takes—are integral to our growth and the emergence of life that now comes to us as a gift and as grace.

Where have you experienced a purging, a necessary letting-go, an invitation to press ‘reset’ on your way of life? Is there yet a new thing emerging from the ashes?

Engaging in hybrid worship

In the upcoming April-May 2022 issue of the Canada Lutheran: The Magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, the following article will be published. Here follows a pre-edit version ‘answering’ a question from someone who during the pandemic first engaged the church online. Now they consider getting involved onsite and in person …

Q:  During the pandemic, I began to take an interest in faith and started participating regularly in an online church. And they have been helpful. Some sites talk about the need for in-person worship. Why should I consider getting involved that way?

A: The preachers, worship-leaders, lectors, musicans and pastoral counselors you engage on the screen are part of a community. These leaders you listen to and visualize in mediated ministry are key influencers of the culture of a faith community, somewhere.

At some point, I believe, if you have started building relationships with them online you will want to explore at least the possibility of meeting them in person. And if you decide trying this, before you go, articulate for yourself: What is it about their presentation online that first attracted you – their authenticity, or humility, spirituality, courage, intelligence, skill, or vulnerability, etc.? Identifying what you value about the relationship is an important starting point for growing it—online and in person.

Going deeper

Before COVID I married a young couple who first met via a relationship site online. They told me the goal of the site they both used was to create an appropriate in-person activity, tailored to their personalities and interests. For them, it was a games room. And this activity, then, would provide the context for their first in person meeting. 

In a faith community emerging from the pandemic, people will participate because they share something they value with others. An outdated social strategy for the church that is based on the building (i.e. ‘build it and they will come’ or ‘open the doors and they will come’) is as ineffective a way of building relationships as is the passive, social bias with which we lived pre-COVID (socialize simply for the sake of socializing). What is now required more than ever is being intentional and clear about what purpose any gathering serves. 

Back to your reflections about what attracted you, specifically, to the online church? What qualities of this social engagement kept you coming back? Very likely what attracted you to the online experience will present for you an opportunity to enjoy those same qualities in another, possibly deeper, way—in person. 

Behaviour matters

The manner in which we relate to one another will matter, more than ever. The post-pandemic church will need to be intentional about how we behave with one another in the space we share.

Many, in the months and mabye even years to come, will hesitate going into a public building apart from obtaining groceries and attending medical appointments. So, what about going to places where the church gathers in person, indoor or outdoor? 

If whatever setting will serve an important purpose for Christians living out their calling in Jesus Christ, notice what the hosts of the gathering do when you arrive to ensure that you will encounter an emotionally and physically safe environment. Does what they do, in the physical space, communicate an openess to your needs?

The church’s behaviour, especially by those who lead, will intentionally address accessibility issues and different risk tolerances of those who gather in-person. 

Will those welcoming newcomers continue to wear masks even if not required by law? Will they improve air circulation and climate control systems in place you gather? Will they be intentional to make holy space for everyone, especially those they don’t know? Will they reconstruct entry ways to ensure physical accessibility for all? By these actions, and the loving heart behind them, you will know that someone else pays attention to you, respects your boundaries and gives you freedom to be you in the shared space.

Christians do not gather in person to prove a social point from pre-COVID days, but to be mindful and heartful towards those who come in-person for the first time, or re-enter the gathered community after a long hiatus. 

It is not our beliefs that make us better people. It is our behaviour in relationships that makes us better people. It is our commitment to act intentionally with love.

Martin Malina

Wilderness journey

Usborne St/Sandy Hook cemetery in Arnprior, Martin Malina 2021

At the beginning of his work, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days (Luke 4:1-13). There, in the desert, he met the devil, or, his demons—so to speak. There, he had to confront the most formidable challenges to his faith, his vocation, and his relationship with God.

Through that experience, however, Jesus affirmed his true calling. That is why, I suspect, the church has always valued connecting with the wilderness as an important aspect of the faith journey.

We are called into the wilderness—into nature—to listen, to prepare, to be tested and to be encouraged. In the end, as Jesus was, it is in these wilderness experiences where we are strengthened by grace.[1]


[1] Victoria Loorz, Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us into the Sacred (Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books, 2021), p. ix.

Devotion for Ash Wednesday and Lent

Read Psalm 51

Why do we wear ashes on Ash Wednesday?

We wear ashes to affirm the faith that God’s love and grace go with us despite, and especially because of, our broken humanity. God does not love you because you are without sin; God does not love you because you are without blemish or because you can somehow prove your righteousness by your efforts alone. God doesn’t love you because you are good. God loves you because God is good.[1] The ashes in the sign of the cross symbolize that in spite of our mortality God still loves us and gives us new life in Christ Jesus. God still gives us new beginnings, new opportunities to start over, in the grace and strength of God in and with us.

What do the words spoken on Ash Wednesday mean?

They focus our attention to life on earth. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We commend this body to its place, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. On this day more than on any other, we acknowledge that we are earth creatures, coming from earth and returning to its soil. We mark that earthiness on ourselves with a cross, the sign of the earthiness also of our God in Jesus.

A Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Gracious God, out of your love and mercy you breathed into dust the breath of life, creating _______ to serve you and our neighbours. Call forth _____’s prayers and acts of kindness, and strengthen ____ to face their mortality with confidence in the mercy of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Amen.[2]

Gospel Acclamation

Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. (Joel 2:13)

An activity for home during the 40 days of Lent

Plant a packet of seeds in a pot full of soil. Care for the seedlings by watering and providing light. And watch them grow into new life and beauty. Take a photo, if possible, when the flowers are blooming and email to prmartinmalina@gmail.com


[1] Thank you Richard Rohr

[2] Adapted from the Prayer of the Day for Ash Wednesday, 2 March 2022 (Sundays and Seasons online, Augsburg Fortress)

Shocking grace

first draft audio for “Shocking grace” by Martin Malina
Jed Creek in Caruso Park, Arnprior (Martin Malina 2022)

Crises in our lives change us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

You could ask, what really changed? What really changed on the mountain of the Transfiguration?[1] Jesus’ disciples had already witnessed some miracles before their mountaintop experience. They had already seen Jesus heal the sick, feed the hungry and preach good news to the poor. And since Jesus continued to do these things after the Transfiguration, you might think: What changed? So what if the disciples witnessed a divine display?

And yet something had changed. Just before and just after this story in chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. And on the mountain, when Moses and Elijah miraculously appear beside the transfigured Jesus, they talk about what Jesus will do in Jerusalem—suffer and die, and rise again. This part of the gospel acts like a pivot in the story of Jesus’ life on earth.

It’s like from that point forward what they had always known deep down they could no longer hide from. They could no longer find excuses, deny the truth of Jesus, the truth of his divine and human identity and purpose. And they were “terrified” at this realization.

Hasn’t the pandemic done a similar thing for us? The pandemic exposed truths we have been talking about for years. But for whatever reason we had ignored, denied or just brushed over notions of what we knew we needed to do.

For example, for the longest time we said and sung that the church is not the building it’s the people. We’ve affirmed that Christ is everywhere, in our daily lives, in our homes. ‘Christ in our homes’ was even the name of an educational program of the Synod years ago seeking to affirm the real and true presence of Jesus with us Monday through Saturday and not just on Sunday.

In the Communion liturgy, we have prayed for a long time before COVID that “we should at all times and in all places give thanks to God”. And yet, for the most part it was only on Sunday morning and only at this altar that we gave thanks to God.

For a long time before COVID we knew we had to reach out to young people and create a space and experience in the church for them that would meet their needs. We knew we had to focus outward as much if not more than taking care of “our own”. 

Although we did a little bit in all of these areas of developing church online, using technology more, reaching out to people we don’t know, celebrating Communion at home, and affirming our relationships in Christ beyond the requirement of this building; even though we knew we had to do those things more, we gave it more lip service than anything.

The pandemic shocked us into a new awareness and brought to the surface what we have always known. We now have to embrace this path forward and actually do something about it.

In the last few weeks I’ve had a little more time to reflect on the monumental changes in the world over the past two years, and in Ottawa over the past month. And now in the horrific aftermath of Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. How appropriate that we meet this Gospel text for this festival Sunday—Transfiguration of our Lord—at a time of unprecedented change in our lives.

I was reading from a book published this past year about the post-pandemic church. The authors conclude:

“We have just encountered a historical event like no other. Everything has changed, including the church. We can try to convince ourselves that the church remains unaffected, but we would be in complete denial. The world has changed. The culture has changed … and the church has changed.”[2]

How do we do, when we are shocked into reality? How is it when we come face-to-face with a truth from which we can no longer hide, deny or easily explain away? As I said, the disciples were terrified witnessing the truth of Jesus. Fear is a natural response to something changing so rapidly. How do we deal with that fear? What do we do?

I am wearing a pink t-shirt today over my clergy apparel. My usual appearance has changed! Last Wednesday, February 23 was ‘pink-t-shirt’ day to commemorate an act of love started by youth.

Now a movement celebrated across the globe, Pink Shirt Day has humble beginnings in 2007. It was inspired by an act of kindness in small-town Nova Scotia:

“David Shepherd, Travis Price and their teenage friends organized a high-school protest to wear pink in sympathy with a Grade 9 boy who was being bullied [for wearing a pink shirt]… they protested by distributing pink T-shirts to all the boys in their school. ‘I learned that two people can come up with an idea, run with it, and it can do wonders,’ says Travis, 17, who organized the pink protest. ‘Finally, someone stood up for a weaker kid.’ So David and some others headed off to a discount store and bought 50 pink tank tops. They sent out a message to schoolmates that night, and the next morning they hauled the shirts to school in a plastic bag. As they stood in the foyer handing out the shirts, the bullied boy walked in. His face spoke volumes. ‘It looked like a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders,’ Travis recalled. The bullies were never heard from again.”[3]

A small act of love for someone they didn’t know. And it made all the difference in response to the fear surrounding that situation. A transformative experience of God, I would say. Transformation, by love.

“Finally someone stood up for a weaker kid.”

When Elijah and Moses suddenly appeared with Jesus, the disciples’ vision of Jesus expanded to include more than a mere one-on-one solitary, private encounter with a friend they thought they knew. Jesus was no longer someone they owned just for themselves. Jesus was now in the company of others, belonging to something much bigger then their own, individual perspectives. Jesus was now part of a much broader social and historical story. Their vision of Jesus, and of God, exploded in an instant to include others they did not know personally.

The disciples’ vision of God could no longer be confined to their own, like-minded, circle. If they would hang out with the ‘new’ Jesus, moving forward, they would need to free Jesus from the clutches of their own exclusive needs, release Jesus to be the God of all people—even those who were different from them.

The disciples are terrified. Fear keeps us stuck and shut down. Yet the wisdom of the ages that stems from scripture itself is that “love casts out fear”.[4] The antidote to remaining governed by fear is a commitment to love. Whom do we love?

It is one thing to love those we already know. It is one thing to love those that we have seen in this place, in this church, before. But the message here is to go beyond that circle, to expand our vision of God—

To reach out with love to people we don’t yet know, people who are looking for healing, purpose, meaning for their lives, people who long for a deeper connection with themselves, with others, with creation and with God.

During the season of Lent as we follow Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, we will invite leaders and representatives from mission organizations, locally, whom we at Faith have supported over the years and in various ways. We will have the opportunity to bear witness to examples of the Gospel in Action—people who organize to show love to the vulnerable. And to mirror the love of God for each one of us, in our vulnerability.


[1] Luke 9:28-36

[2] Kay L. Kotan, “The RE Playbook: Relaunching Your Church in the Post-Pandemic World” in Being the Church in a Post-Pandemic World (Knoxville: Market Square Books, 2021

[3] From a Globe & Mail article, cited in http://www.pinkshirtday.ca

[4] 1 John 4:18

A funeral sermon

audio of funeral sermon for Hertha, by Martin Malina

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit, O Lord? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (Psalm 139:6-10)

Hertha’s confirmation verse was from Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” All things are possible. 

Perhaps this confirmation verse, given to Hertha at a young age, would become a calling of sorts, a gift to her especially in the last couple of decades of her life as she faced serious illness, setbacks and several medical crises. Perhaps this confirmation verse would alight over her like some metaphysical banner whenever it was tough going: “I can do all things, even this.”

Like Saint Paul who wrote these words in the 1st century from prison, Hertha would take this words to mean: “I can do all things in Christ—even when I’m at my lowest, even when my needs are their greatest, even when I don’t bring my A-game. I will endure the physical, mental and emotional anguish in my life. I will tough it out.”

Indeed, her mental toughness was exceptional, on many levels. Her faith as well. This was her simple yet solid faith in Christ who emerged from his suffering and death to new life. Indeed here was a vision in her mind that guided her through the difficult times. It was a holy pattern of getting back up after falling down: suffering-death-resurrection; and repeat: suffering-death-resurrection. She could indeed do it all, meet every challenge head on, literally. All things were possible.

Yes, Hertha had such a strong brain, a quick mind. Even into her 90th year she could still recall and tell stories from her childhood in vivid, blow-by-blow detail. Her memory was like a concrete vault.

She could provide comprehensive explanations to all, and I mean all, her medical conditions to such an extent that impressed even her surgeons and specialists. She knew more about her body’s ailments than anyone else. Her brain was firing on all cylinders her whole life long.

Iain McGilchrist argues in his seminal work The Master and His Emissary[1] that contrary to popular myths about the brain, the left side and the right side of the brain actually both function in every decision and activity we engage. And, again contrary to what had been earlier assumed, McGilchrist shows that the left side—prone to focusing on the particular, concentrating and rational explanation—is in truth subservient to the right side—which adopts the big picture view and accepts nuance, metaphor and ambiguity. It’s the right side that is the Master; and the left side the dutiful Emissary not the other way around.

We may presume that Hertha’s capacity for acquiring knowledge, applying analysis and logical explanations to situations in her life was the exceptional thing. But there is more to it, I suspect.

A better place to meet today would be the shores of the Bonnechere River near Kilaloe at the family cottage. Of course for various reasons we can’t. But perhaps each of you present today, whether watching online or here in person can conjure up in your mind an image of that place that is special for you.

And that is why Hertha chose the hymn we will listen to shortly: Shall We Gather At the River. She knew that spot to be a connecting-ground for the generations spanning her family line: From the humble yet intriguing beginning of how Joe acquired the land, to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would decades later also develop a deep connection with that same spot on the river. 

Perhaps as the weather improves moving into Spring and Summer later this year, you can pause to remember and give thanks for Hertha when you next gather together there.

What impressed me was why she chose this hymn, especially because it is a common, beloved hymn often chosen at funeral services. She made a connection within herself—between the strong baptismal imagery in the hymn and the integration of the Christian faith with her personal experience. Left brain connecting to the right brain.

For sure, Hertha could left-brain it with the best of us. But Hertha’s master, so to speak, was her right brain function. Despite her precise and comprehensive capacity for rational thinking and acquiring knowledge, she ultimately could submit to the realm of faith, trust, acceptance and love. That’s why she picked that hymn, because she loved you. She loved you dearly.

She knew and often admitted to me that so much of life cannot, and need not, be merely explained away. She knew that there was no place on earth, indeed no place in her mind, that she could go apart from the loving and steadfast presence of a God she couldn’t fully comprehend.[2] She knew, that often all we need to do when facing the mysteries of life, love, death, suffering, and God, is just to gather at the river. And sing.


[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019)

[2] Psalm 139:6-10

The Gospel that hurts

sermon audio “The Gospel that hurts” by Martin Malina

The Epiphany won’t let us go without challenging us. This Gospel text should come with a warning label attached to it: Read at your own risk! It offers little by way of the warm fuzzies. There is confrontation. Baiting dialogue. There is even violence. Jesus is rejected by his hometown.[1]

But there is a nugget, or two, almost hidden from view. It is deep inside this text if we are willing to work for it. Dig it out. And that work is just like any good physical work-out will leave you feeling, with achy muscles. It is the Gospel that hurts.

The story is told about Michelangelo, the famous artist, painter and sculpter. He’d go to these huge quarries where he instructed the masons to cut out a gigantic piece of marble and roll it back to his workshop. There he’d spend a couple of years chipping away at it. He’d cut all kinds of things from those stones: People, horses, kings.

He’d bang away with a huge hammer and chisel, taking off large chunks. Then he’d come back with a smaller hammer, smaller chisel, maybe a file, then some sandpaper, and finally a damp, velvet cloth.

Admirers used to ask him, “How did you create that out of a chunk of rock?” He’d shake his head and say, “I didn’t. It was there all along. I just let it out.”

Inside of us is good just waiting to jump out, to be released. The hammer and chisel will hurt. It does. It’s painful to grow. We wish life didn’t have to work that way. But remember, the velvet cloth isn’t far behind.[2]

Jesus mentions the story of Naaman. [3] Here is the nugget in the text I found. It’s worth re-reading the orginal story in full, from 2 Kings 5. Naaman, like the Nazarenes reacting to Jesus, was incensed at what was asked of him and proposed to him, in terms of his salvation, his healing. 

Naaman was ready to reject the prophet’s instruction for his healing. But thank God for Naaman’s servants. His servants speak truth: “If you were commanded to do something difficult would you not have done it for your healing?”And all that was asked of him was to wash in the Jordan River.[4]Naaman’s expectations had to be pealed away from him to accept the truth, accept the simple truth. Not easy, but simple. And he was healed.

We are nearing the end days of the pandemic. Yet it doesn’t feel like the end is in sight. We may feel very guarded in our hope. Planning ahead, and anticipating how this pandemic will pan-out seems daunting, confounding and overwhelming. It’s hard to look forward to anything. To have hope. The only thing we have, right now and in the end, is the present moment. With ourselves.

And that relationship is harder than we think to navigate. Simple is not easy. And that journey, in truth, hurts sometimes. We would rather avoid that journey and place all our proverbial eggs in the external baskets of life. What’s out there. But only doing that and we miss something precious. And central to the Gospel:

Inside of us is a light. Inside each one of us is something good, of God—yes—something worth releasing to the world. To believe that right now, in the midst of everything, means everything and makes all the difference. 

2022 sunrise over the town of Arnprior (photo by Martin Malina)

Wherever you are, the light inside you—it may be small, it may be barely flickering, it may be gasping for oxygen—that light never burns out. The light inside is just rising, in fact, gaining strength. And the pathway forward is this simple awareness and acceptance. You are loved.

In the end, the Gospel that hurts is an invitation for us to grow into who we are, to embrace who we are from the inside out, and deepen our faith in the communion of all the saints in Christ. May this Epiphany season be for us a time to respond positively to that invitation.


[1] Luke 4:21-30

[2] The story is told by Charles Martin, Chasing Fireflies: A Novel of Discovery (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007) p.234-235

[3] 2 Kings 5:1-19

[4] Ibid. verse 13

Gorillas of grace

sermon audio for “Gorillas of grace” by Martin Malina
Madawaska River at the Stewartville bridge, Ottawa Valley (photo by Martin Malina 2022)

Jesus concludes in the Gospel reading, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[1]

In your hearing. An important part of how successfully the gospel is communicated depends on you, the listener—how you receive it.

From the text he reads in the synagogue, Jesus asks his listeners in Nazareth to broaden their vision, beyond the original situation Isaiah addressed hundreds of years earlier. 

Because it’s a different narrative Jesus tells the Nazarenes, even if it grows out of the biblical tradition. He asks them to consider what the text means to them in their current situation. 

What is startling, especially to his hometown family friends who knew him from youth, is that Jesus refers to himself as the fufillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me …”[2] In other words, Jesus identifies himself with what originally was the voice of one called Isaiah. 

Jesus self-identifies with Isaiah’s words (reading from the NRSV photo by Martin Malina 2022)

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry, according the Luke’s gospel, comes therefore with a challenge. And not an easy one for the listeners in that 1st century Nazarene synagogue. 

To broaden their vision would be quite the challenge. To consider this Jesus as someone so much more than the hometown boy who returned for a visit, the boy whom they scolded, taught, disciplined and with whom they played, hung out, pushed the boundaries of adolescence. To consider this Jesus as someone so much more. How about the Son of God?

But there is so much more to this passage. Jesus reads a text from the prophet Isaiah which serves a kind of mission statement for Jesus. Talk about a purpose-driven life! To bring good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives. To recover the sight of the blind. To let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the Lord’s favour. How many churches have this mission statement posted over their doors?

How do we begin to see more to the story, something we may be missing because we are fixated on only the historical perspective, for example? Or, we may be focused only on one way of interpreting this text—what we learned in Sunday School decades ago? How do we notice what is beyond the limits of our own perspective? Maybe something significant?

I invite you to participate in an experiment with me: I call it the Gorillas of Grace experiment. 

“Imagine you are watching a group of people, some wearing white shirts and some with black shirts. They are all weaving in and out of each other in a group and throwing basketballs. You have been instructed to count the number of bounce passes from someone wearing a white shirt to another person wearing a white shirt. Since there are several balls, and several types of passes being thrown within and between the groups, you are so focused on the counting you completely miss a gorilla walking through the middle of the group, pounding on his chest and continuing on! 

“This phenomenon is called ‘selective attention’, and is true for at least 75% of the people who have actually done the experiment. When we are hyper-focused on one thing, we literally miss what is right in front of our faces. We perceive only those objects that receive our focused attention.

“And neuroscience tells us that what we pay attention to wires us to see more of the same. We not only miss seeing the wonderful things right in front of our face, quite often we miss the opportunity to cultivate more of their presence. Paying attention to the gorillas in our midst—the daily graces we tend to overlook, or not see at all, can profoundly change the way we see the world.”[3]

Many of us long to feel the relief of a post-pandemic world – where we can at long last go back to doing things the way we always have done them. We want again to exercise the freedom we have to go anywhere we want any time we want and with whomever we so please. What a life! 

We don’t want anymore to feel the constriction, restriction and paranoia of going into public settings. We don’t want to live our days besieged by the prospect of severe illness. We don’t want to live our daily lives as if it were some huge risk everytime we go out our door. A worthy vision, and hope.

But there is more we can learn from this time and experience of our lives with COVID. Our awareness is being broadened. And Jesus might just be calling us to stretch our horizon, vision, perspective. Just like he did in Nazareth.

Because during this season of restrictions, we taste just a little bit of what so many people in the world feel all of the time, never mind COVID. People who are poor, or disabled, or in some way marginalized – who, in short, are not privileged as we are. We are given a small taste of what it must be like for a disabled person who cannot, physcially, enter our church buildings under their own power, COVID or no COVID. We now know a little bit of what it must feel like to live under constant threat of danger – how racialized people are harrassed and bullied, all of the time, wherever they go.

Jesus’ mission statement calls not just the people in Isaiah’s world to whom these words were first spoken, not just to the Nazarenes in Jesus’ world. But to ours as well.

Today, what the world needs are people of faith who can see beyond their own conditioned perspectives. Especially in families, relationships and any human organization that has felt the distress of division—divided over opinions, entrenched in unyielding positions. What the world needs today are people of faith who can follow where Jesus calls, even if it challenges us, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable for a while. 

Jesus calls us to practice a vision that perceives all sides of a story.[4] Not just the original context in scripture. But its adaptation to the present day. Not just my way of looking at things. But another person’s perspective as well: someone who is different than me, someone who is poor, captive, delusioned, oppressed – and to them proclaim the Lord’s favour. 

When we perceive the world through God’s eyes, we see not with scientific coldness nor mere objectivity as if studying something with scholarly detachment. But we see with love, with compassion, with mercy and forgiveness. With a heart that seeks to understand and connect with another. That is the difference people of faith can make. People who incorporate a multitude of perspectives in loving relationship. And to ‘see’ that Christ is present to all people of every time and every place.


[1] Luke 4:21

[2] Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2

[3] Alane Daugherty, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness (Bloomington IN: Balboa Press, 2014), p.30-31.

[4] Laurence Freeman calls it a ‘panoptic’ vision, see www.wccm.org “Daily Wisdom” (9 December 2021)