Love action

Irresistible Flow (photo by Martin Malina, December 2022, Ottawa River at Arnprior)
audio for sermon “Love Action” by Martin Malina

Did Mary and Joseph love each other? I mean, we say that they both loved God. But did they love each other? And what was this love? What kind of love?

The Christmas story from Matthew doesn’t explicitly describe the dimension of love in their relationship.[1]

Eileen O’Hea relates an example from her life about what the New Testament describes as—from the Greek— “agape” love. And this love was expressed by her dying mother. O’Hea writes:

“An example of agape love happened to me as I sat beside my mother’s bed a day before she died. An ambulance siren rang through the city streets close to our home. It somehow penetrated the thick coma-like sleep that enveloped my mother. Her eyes opened and dreamily met mine for the first time in many hours. She then looked at me and asked, “Is daddy alright?” “Yes,” I replied, “he’s fine; he’s in the living room.” My mother, assured that the one she loved was safe from harm, slipped back into the sleep she would not awaken from again.”[2]

The kind of love that propels someone into a deeper, more fulfilling life with another is what I think the angel reminds Joseph of in the dream he has.

Notice the angel’s first words to Joseph. The angel says his name. Before anything else is said, saying someone’s name when you address them is already an act of love for the person. Saying their name calls them to pay attention in return, grounding them in the moment of grace and opening their hearts to listen to and receive the other. The angel’s words to Joseph communicate love. 

Joseph had to be called back to his love for Mary. We say it was Joseph’s love of God that made him obedient. Let’s assume Mary told Joseph about the angel Gabriel’s news that she will bear the Son of God. So, when the angel then confirms this news in Joseph’s dream, Joseph is called to obey out of his love of God, the God who Mary now carries in her body. Joseph’s love for Mary, herself, is the way he chooses to love God in that moment of decision. For Joseph, love of God indeed means loving Mary.

This truth is echoed later in the New Testament, specifically the commandment to love one another. “The commandment we have from [God] is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”[3] In other words, you cannot love God without loving someone on earth. 

But there’s so much that blocks us from practising this true, “agape” love in life, isn’t there? What blocks this love?

Joseph’s plan to dismiss Mary was an act of fear. After saying his name, the angel’s very next words to Joseph are, “Do not be afraid” – the most repeated instruction in the whole bible. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” The bible has something to say about being afraid, and how fear relates to love. In scripture, fear and love are at opposite ends of a spectrum:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because [God] first loved us.[4]

When talking about love, that’s where we need to begin. With God’s love for us. And how God loves us. And we are given a gift in the Holy Meal. The sacrament of the table is first and foremost God’s gift of grace, God’s gift of love for us and the world.

Holy Communion is a meal we share with others. This is an important realization. Because while the Communion is “given for you”, personally, it is also given for everyone else. Communion is not just ‘ours’, individually. It connects us to the whole of creation. As national bishop Susan Johnson writes:

“The bread and wine are symbols of all life joining in praise of God … The earth, the sea, and all their creatures join in this praise. The meal is universal … [and] includes all our relations … [The Communion] connects us to angels, and to the saints who have gone before us. The meal makes no distinction between people. God invites all to come and share in this mystery. All receive the same bread and wine. All are equals … before the grace of God.”[5]

Love opens our hearts. In Communion, each of us is called by name to receive the grace of God. In forgiveness we accept love despite our failures and weaknesses. 

We cannot do it alone. We cannot love perfectly. Even though we are called to love others as God would love—infinitely, graciously, extravagantly—it’s not easy to do this especially when we are suffering, grieving, and hurting.

Joseph and Mary had each other. Their love for each other and God helped them take risks of faith together, trusting in God’s love always. We are not alone on this journey. Love is not a solitary act. We don’t love others on our own accord. It’s not our love to keep for ourselves alone or dispense by ourselves alone. 

Rather, we love with God.[6] Loving with God means the love we give is an expression of the heart of God, who is Emmanuel—God with us. The love God gives is not based on the merit of the beloved, nor the correctness of the beloved’s beliefs. But rather the love we share is part of the flow of God’s ongoing love for us and all of creation.

We join God’s love and participate in God’s loving. Like stepping into a river which flows continually. We may start at the river’s edge, gingerly testing the waters. Our first move into the river may be tentative. We may only go in a little way, and quickly jump out. We may even feel at times that we are not making any progress at all going deeper. 

But regardless of how we may feel, and in whatever hurting circumstance we may find ourselves, there is something else going on that is deeper, and bigger, than what we may first perceive—as Joseph and Mary both learned in their experience. The story wasn’t just about them.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said that “you cannot step into the same river twice,” meaning every act, however small, however tentative, bears an essential newness. Divine love is not a river of stagnant water but a fountain fullness of overflowing love, love that is forever awakening to new life.[7] Whether we are aware of it or not each time we dip into the river, the love of God-with-us strengthens a deeper, more lasting flow and truth within us and the world around us.

In the shadows of our lives this Christmas, may our loving shine forth brightly, in Jesus’ name.

[1] Matthew 1:18-25

[2] Eileen O’Hea, “Contemplation and Love” Rain for the Sea (London: The World Community for Christian Meditation, Meditatio Talk Series A, 2009)

[3] 1 John 4:20-21; Matthew 7:12

[4] 1 John 4:18-19 

[5] Donald W. Johnson & Susan C. Johnson, Praying the Catechism: Revised and Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2021), p.174.

[6] Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to do About It (New York: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2021), 116–117.

[7] Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013), 74, 76–77, 83-84.

Gateways of doubt

A Path Through It (photo by Martin Malina October 2022)
sermon audio for “Gateways of Doubt” (by Martin Malina

You could tell it was his first time on the diving board. Even though the edge of the spring board was only about ten feet above the surface of the water, he was not sure.

The little boy paces back and forth along the full length of the board, his index finger lifting his chin, his eyes squinting in concentration. Then he crosses his arms across his chest. Back and forth. Back and forth. Will he jump?

All the while his instructor calls for him from the water below. Her arms are outstretched, ready to catch him. The boy’s friends encourage him with: “Come on!” “You can do it!” “It’s fun!” The splashing, the playing, the shouts of joy are all evidence of the promise of what is to come.

But for the longest time, the little boy is not sure. Then on one of his return paces back to the edge, and for inexplicable reason, he unexpectedly jumps. He holds his legs tucked underneath him so tightly.

After he emerges out of the water, his face is beaming with joy. He clambers out onto the pool deck and runs happily into the waiting arms of his parents.

Today is called Gaudete Sunday, meaning Rejoice! The liturgy wants to capture the joy of anticipating the birth of Jesus. Soon and very soon! We’re over halfway in the season of Advent. 

We light the candle of joy today on this Third Sunday of Advent, although we may not feel particularly joyful these days. For so many reasons.

This Advent theme has its roots in the pregnancy narrative from the Gospels. It is the joy experienced by Mary after she receives the news that her life will birth the Savior. Mary then sings her famous Magnificat which we just read together.[1]

But the joy of the Gospel can be misunderstood. 

When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her what’s in store for her, I notice Mary’s initial confusion: “But she was much perplexed”[2] by the angel’s words. Initially she wasn’t sure about what was asked of her.

I suspect we think that a holy encounter would initially inspire certitude and confidence in our faith. And therefore, this certainty would lead us to joyful praise and discipleship. I suspect we presume that faith is borne from understanding it fully and knowing everything and being sure about it, first. Then, be joyful. 

But the joy of the Gospel does not come from being certain. The joy of the Gospel does not come from eliminating all doubt and ambiguity in life. 

In this case with Mary, the words of the angel Gabriel don’t lead her out of doubt and into faith. It’s the other way around: Her encounter with the angel leads her out of whatever preconceived notions gave her a sense of security, and into a “holy bewilderment.”[3] God’s message disrupts her certainty and turned her world upside down. “She was much perplexed.” Or, as she says to Gabriel: “How can this be?” In faithful response, Mary moves out of familiar spiritual territory and into a lifetime of pondering, wondering, questioning, and wrestling.

Doubt is the gateway to joy.

The journey to expressing true, authentic joy cannot exclude the experiences of our lives that disrupt our certitudes. Being faithful moves us into realms of unhinging, unknowing, unlearning even what has kept us secure and comfortable in our beliefs our whole life long. And moving forward anyway. And doing it. Jumping off the diving board.

In the Gospel reading for today, John the Baptist is in prison, and he knows he is near the end of his life.[5] In the uncertainty and fear, it is natural for him to seek assurances from Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” You could say, when he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the One, the Messiah, John is expressing doubt. 

Jesus’ response suggests at least a couple of cues for our own journeys of faith:

First, doubt is not the opposite of faith. In truth, doubt is very much an important, a vital, aspect of faith in God and Jesus. Jesus does not scold John for questioning Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Jesus does not say, “Shame on you John, you should know better!” Rather, just the opposite.

Jesus lifts John up. Jesus praises John for being like no other in the reign of God. John may be at a difficult part of his journey. But it’s not over. There’s more, and better to come!

It’s important in the church, even among those who have been faithful for years, decades, that we give each other permission, even admiration, for expressing honesty in doubting our beliefs. It is part of, and belongs to, a life and journey of faith whose end is life in the “kingdom of heaven’’. 

Even when we feel our own lives are nearing their end, it’s ok to question God. In truth, doing so is a mark of great faith. This authenticity provides a safe, truly loving place for having real conversations about suffering, death, life, and God. 

One of the great proponents of doubt as a way to find deeper truth was René Descartes, seventeenth century philosopher, mathematician, scientist, and Christian. He expressed the value of doubt this way: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”[6]

In Jesus’ response to John’s question, Jesus doesn’t come out and say: “I am the Messiah, the one for whom you have been waiting.” Jesus doesn’t give John a simple, clear-cut, plain-truth answer to John’s question. Jesus does not satisfy John’s clinging to certainty and long-held beliefs. Even nearing the end of his life, John is faced with bewilderment, in the sense that he still needs to be on that journey of wrestling, questioning and working through it himself.

In her faithful response, Mary consents to evolve. To wonder. To expand her vision. And continue jumping. Her gateway of doubt through which she moves turns into a path she must continue to follow and discern as she makes her way forward. She has to learn that faith and doubt are not opposites—that beyond all the easy platitudes and pieties of religion, we serve a God who dwells in mystery.

In Holy Communion, bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. We speak of a mystery here. Shall we say the mystery of incarnation. As we will celebrate in the coming Christmas season, God is not hostile to creation, the stuff of earth. God becomes human, part of the stuff of earth. God enters our frail, human reality. And we celebrate this mystery every week at Communion when simple gifts of bread and wine are transformed.[7]

Along with wine and bread, we offer ourselves at the table, that we might be transformed. Martin Luther claimed that “Even as bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, so the people are transformed into the body of Christ.”[8]  For we are a community, a people, sent to care for others and the world, to encourage, support and serve them.

On one level, we perceive only bread and the wine. But from the heart we perceive what God does at the table and are reminded again that God’s work of transformation continues in us and in the world around us.

If we agree to embark on a journey with this God, if we jump as Mary did, we will face periods of bewilderment and true joy. Through gateways of doubt. If we agree to embark — jump! — on a journey with God, and receive the nourishment God provides on the journey, we will be transformed. And the world around us.

Because Christ has died. Christ has risen. And Christ will come again.

[1] Luke 1:46-55

[2] Luke 1:29

[3] Debie Thomas, Into the Mess and Other Jesus Stories: Reflections on the Life of Christ (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022), p. 5-6. 

[5] Matthew 11:2-11

[6] Descartes, Principles of Philosophy.

[7] Donald W. Johnson and Susan C. Johnson, “Holy Communion” in Praying the Catechism: Revised and Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2021), p.170.

[8] Martin Luther, tr. Jeremiah J. Schindel, rev. E. Theodore Bachman, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ and the Brotherhoods, 1519,” Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 35:59-60.

Wreath on fire

“…may the righteous flourish;
  and let there be an abundance of peace” (Psalm 72:7)

audio for sermon ‘Wreath on fire” by Martin Malina

The season of Advent was always a big deal at our home when I was a child. I remember looking forward every year to Advent—the season of candles, wreaths, waiting and anticipating Christmas coming.

Fire transparent, Fire contained, Fire reflected (photo by Martin Malina, 2022)

On our wooden coffee table in the middle of the living room we would place a large wreath with real pine boughs intertwining four, tall candles. Of course, these candles were a lot shorter by the time the fourth week of Advent rolled around having lighted them every day. And the pine boughs had gotten quite dry. The needles were falling off.

It was during the last week of Advent one year when, after lighting all four candles, my mother, brother and I had to go into another room for a short time. When the fire alarm went off, at first I couldn’t think of what it could be. But then the awareness struck all of us and we dashed back into the living room.

The whole wreath was consumed in a gigantic plume of fire and smoke reaching up to the ceiling. Thank God for the water nearby that saved us.

John the Baptist warns the religious leaders of the day, in today’s Gospel reading, that the one who is coming will burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire”.[1] The advent wreath on fire appeared unquenchable, believe you me! 

Today we light the candle of Peace on the wreath. The biblical word for peace is ‘shalom’. What does ‘shalom’—the peace of God—mean?

The advent wreath on fire wasn’t a calming vision of peace, one that we normally seek at this time of year. We may not expect and may not want to read a passage from the bible these days that paints disturbing images about the coming Christ. 

I am drawn, rather, to focus on the “… intimate comforts of mangers, fireplaces and hot chocolates.”[2] I would rather my advent wreath not explode in a plume of unquenchable fire. I want to see the soft, flickering light, snuggled up with a blanket and a good book on the couch. I don’t think I’m alone in seeking a reality closer to Hallmark images of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. 

Yet, a world already awash in the soft glow of Christmas, this Sunday’s gospel jarringly redirects our focus. The Gospel presents a dirty and smelly John the Baptist wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, and screaming threats at the religious leaders visiting him in the wilderness. Where is the good news in this?

Before we skip over John the Baptist in our rush to get all cushy with Christmas, let’s pause for a moment. And consider this: While only two of the four gospels talk about Jesus’ birth, all four tell about John the Baptist. So, there’s something here we need to pay attention to. We need to ponder why his story is vital to our Advent journey.

Ancient wisdom for people of faith warned against what was called a “pernicious peace.” One of self-indulgence, self-absorption and self-preoccupation with being comfortable. A peace that ultimately does not satisfy. In fact, too much of this spelled a dangerous escape from reality—a pernicious peace.

What do you notice first about John the Baptist? What detail about his persona first draws you in? I’m drawn to the wild honey image. I love honey. But I must confess I associate the pleasure and benefit of honey with an early childhood image that has stayed with me—Winnie the Pooh. But this childhood warm-fuzzy image must be revised. Because it doesn’t square with the reality of the honeybee and its grittier, larger truth.

In her Advent devotional, Gayle Boss describes how bees survive winter. They cluster together and shiver their wing muscles in a carefully arranged dance to keep the queen and the honey at the center of the hive warm. 

Some bees are even born to know only this long, cold season of life: “They will know only the dark hive,” Gayle Boss writes, “the press of their sisters’ bodies …They give their lives to shivering together in the dark, the tiny repetitive gestures of each, added together, a music beyond our hearing, sustaining a future for the community.”[3]

There’s a constant movement, not easily perceptible to us humans in the formation of honey and the beehive. There’s movement, a community that endures difficulty and toil during the dark winter. Yet in the toil, there is hope for the future. And this is the ongoing work we give during Advent.

The pastor says: “The Peace of the Lord be with you all.” And the people respond: “And also with you.” Where is this said in the liturgy every week? Those words mark the beginning of the Communion part of the service. Those words and gestures launch us into Holy Communion.

We share the Peace. Sharing the Peace is an action towards and with one another. Then, in our tradition, we come forward. We move our bodies on the way to the altar to receive the gift.

Peace is not a state of being, but a movement. Like the bees shivering their wings to keep the queen and honey warm. Peace is a movement, ongoing. A path. A way of peace. This is the shalom of the bible. 

The Hebrew concept of peace was described as peace between God, the people, and the environment. When we share the peace of Christ at the beginning of the Holy Communion, “we are calling for this shalom to be present in our lives, in the lives of others, and in the world. Shalom [therefore] means hospitality and welcoming the stranger in our midst.” And after the Eucharist—the Holy Communion— “we go forth as agents of reconciliation, carrying the peace of Christ with us.”[4] Even and especially when we find ourselves in the wilderness of our lives.

So, what is your “wilderness”? Is it a physical suffering? Is it dealing with mental illness, an emotional pain, an addiction, sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, shame? Is your wilderness the loneliness of the season, the feeling of abandonment, isolation? What is your wilderness?

We all likely have a few advent wreaths on fire, figuratively speaking, somewhere in our lives. And we may feel like all we are doing is trying to put out all those out-of-control fires. But John the Baptist warns the religious leaders, even suggesting that the “wrath to come” is not something from which to “flee”. Repentance is not escaping into a Hallmark world of denial and avoidance. True repentance happens when we face the wrath, the wilderness, the suffering in faith and hope. 

God takes the lead. God comes to be with us in our wilderness wandering. Jesus is the Living Water[5]that saves us. Jesus chose to go to where John the Baptist was—into the wilderness of his life, to be baptized. God chooses to go there—into the wilderness of our lives—to bring healing and wholeness.

This is wonderful news! God doesn’t flee from the wilderness. It is the place where God’s presence is experienced. This is the path of peace. It’s a journey. May we find our nourishment and strength moving toward the goal on this winding path.

[1] Matthew 3:1-12

[2] Donna Lynn Gartshore, “Where did you go?” Eternity for Today (Winnipeg: ELCIC, 29 November 2022)

[3] Gayle Boss, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginning (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2016), p.15–16.

[4] Donald W. Johnson and Susan C. Johnson, Praying the Catechism: Revised and Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2021), p.160.

[5] John 4:13

Why? Why not?

Blue as the sky is blue” (Kioshkokwi Lake, 5 September 2022, photo by Martin Malina)
audio for sermon “Why? Why not?” by Martin Malina

Why Why Why? More questions come out of the reading of the Gospel than anything. When the lectionary group met online earlier this week to reflect on the Gospel text for the First Sunday of Advent[1], most of the initial responses were questions: “What does this mean?” “What are we to do?” “How am I awake?” “When are we asleep?” Lots of questions.

When my children were young, they drove me crazy whenever they would drill down any line of reasoning with ‘why’. 

“Why do I have to go to the dentist?” “Because your teeth need to be cleaned.” “Why do they have to be cleaned by a dentist?” “Because they have machines that can clean in a way you can’t” “Why don’t we just get those machines for ourselves?” “Because they are expensive and only dentists can get them.” And on and on and on. “Why?” It can be an annoying question.

But my sense these days is that we have to go there especially if we want to communicate our faith effectively. We have to address those more fundamental questions—but not first with established doctrines or beliefs. Rather, it is best to begin addressing questions of faith with our personal experience of faith, in an honest, genuine, heart-felt way.

Advent inaugurates a season of hope. As blue as the sky is blue, blue is the colour of hope. In the Gospel, we are called to keep watch, pay attention, and be vigilant. But in this era of pandemic economic and social depression, perhaps a more fundamental question is “Why?” Why should folks bother keeping awake when hope is scarce, when everything—as they say—is broken? What is the point of paying attention and keeping watch for the coming Messiah? Why bother, in the first place?

Hope in gospel faith is not just a vague feeling that things will work out, for it is evident that things will not just work out. Hope in gospel faith is also not some romantic or ideological notion of private preference detached from reality. Rather, hope is the conviction, against a great deal of data, that God is persistent in overcoming the deathliness of the world, that God intends joy and peace.[2]

Yet, this ‘perfect fullness’ is always to come, over the horizon. And we do not need to demand it now. Why? The virtue of hope keeps the field of life wide open. Hope in gospel faith is especially open to grace, and to a future created by God rather than us. God is always up to something. 

And we’re always on the lookout for where and what is going on with God. This is exactly what it means to be “awake,” as the Gospel urges us! We can also use other words for Advent: aware, alive, attentive, alert are all appropriate.[3]

It’s not all warm fuzzies. To pay attention to the grace of God and to a future created by God rather than us, costs us something. We have to work at it. Faith is a practice that needs exercise. So, what at the beginning of this new church year and at the advent of God’s future, what can we practice that will curate hope in our hearts? 

To begin with, we can learn to be grateful for what we have. We can foster an attitude of gratitude. This may be a tall order, especially in a context of doom-and-gloom. These apocalyptic themes we touch on in our bible reading during Advent can easily generate in us fear, anxiety and catastrophic thinking. But we need to hold such a response in check. A person cannot exist in a place of fear and true gratitude at the same time.[4]

As they rebuild Jerusalem following their exile, as they return to a land and city once devastated by war and dislocation, why do the returning Israelites feel they can go up to Jerusalem with joy? Why are they glad to go to the house of the Lord? 

Because they go, first and foremost, to give thanks. “Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together, to it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord … to give thanks to the name of the Lord.”[5]

Gratitude moves stagnant energy when we’re feeling stuck in life. Gratitude debunks and moves us out of the mistaken belief that everything is broken. The simple act of practicing gratitude disrupts negative thoughts and changes our mindset to see the world in a positive way. Not only are we more attractive to others when we live in gratitude, but the most ordinary things can become extraordinary, creating a fuller, more beautiful expression of our life.

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “Things don’t happen to us, they happen for us.” Gratitude is the foundation of that adage. It means that our mindset has to be that God is conspiring and working in everyone’s favour. Do we perceive how?

Frequently, when something that we perceive as “bad” happens to us, we let it affect us in a highly negative way. But if we interact with the world from a place of gratitude, when something happens that others may perceive as “bad,” we can be curious about why something happens the way it does. And in expressing that curiosity we’re actively seeking the part of the experience that we’re grateful for.  

Holy Communion is also called ‘The Great Thanksgiving’ based on the Greek word “Eucharist”, which means ‘thanksgiving. Embracing the holy mystery surrounding Holy Communion doesn’t mean we fully understand what’s going on here. By being curious and asking why we celebrate the Eucharist, we don’t pretend we can always figure it out completely. We can’t. We’re not God.

Being thankful means, we trust that God will complete the sentence. And God will one day place the period at the end of the sentence when the last word on our lives and the world is said and done. So, what do we do in the Eucharist? In the meantime? In the Holy Communion we practice the presence of Christ. We practice presence. We practice being awake, paying attention, to what good God is doing now, however small, in this place and at this time, in our lives.

And when we perceive it, we give thanks. We practice being grateful.

As a child I probably was one of those kids who annoyingly asked “Why” a lot. I could remember when I was a little bit older my dad had the best response to my “Why”. When the questions got a little bit more complex and abstract, he responded to me with: “Why not?”

This may very well be the best question about faith, hope, God—in anxious and fearful times. Not to shut down conversation. But exactly the opposite—to widen the field of possibility. Why not? To faith, to hope, to a good God who loves us all – Why not?

[1] Matthew 24:36-44

[2] Walter Brueggemann cited in Richard Rohr, “The Theological Virtue of Hope” Mystical Hope (, Daily Meditations, 5 Dec 2021) .

[3] Richard Rohr, ibid.

[4] Doug Good Feather, Think Indigenous: Native American Spirituality for a Modern World, transcribed by Doug Red Hail Pineda (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2021), 27, 30, 31.

[5] Psalm 122:4 (NRSV)