“Teach us to Pray” – a reflection on prayers of supplication

using Psalm 143 as a guide

Even before he really began to form words, we began trying to teach our son, who is now almost three, to say “please.” He was still not forming many consonants correctly, which was normal for his age, but he tried to imitate us the best he could. It first came out as “beef.” He’d motion for something, or grunt for it, and we’d ask, “What do you say?” and he’d say, “Beef.” That was well over a year ago. Now he’s pretty conversant and able to express himself very well, but he still reverts to saying “Beef” when he wants something. We’ll say something like, “Do you want more chicken?” and he’ll say, “Beef.” But we know what he means. It’s an ongoing process.

Whether it comes out “beef” or “please,” what he’s learning is supplication. Supplication isn’t one of those words people use very often, but in a way they do,  because it comes from the same Latin root word as “please.” Both words relate to asking for something from someone and being pleased or soothed by the receipt of it. So if last week’s Lenten worship emphasis was on saying “Thank you” for what God has done for us, then this week we take a closer look at saying “please” for whatever we might want God to do for us.

I would say that if we’re honest, we all arrive at supplication at some point when we’re talking about our relationship with God. In fact, “please” is probably our most instinctual prayer, a place where a great many of us go when we pray, especially when things aren’t going our way. You may have heard the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I’m sure that’s not entirely true, but it is a way of acknowledging that even those who may not normally express any kind of belief in a Creator or a Higher Being often find themselves on their knees asking for help or guidance when things get really tense.

man praying on ground

Jesus, in his final hour, offered prayers of supplication. In the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross he prays for forgiveness for those who kill him, for a drink of wine, for the cup of suffering to pass from his lips. We, too, come before our God in our times of need. And just as a parent teaches a child to say “please” or “May I?” even though that parent would still give her child whatever he needs without it, it stands to reason that God might give us ways to offer our supplications that could deepen our relationship with him and may help us grow.

Psalm 143 is one of many psalms that gives us language for how to say please to God. In it we hear the psalmist asking for protection from some kind of enemy, although that enemy is never named or described fully. Perhaps it’s a military enemy or a personal enemy who is threatening recrimination of some sort. This foe has chased him and crushed his life to the ground, his heart within him is desolate. That may be all we need to know in order to envision any enemy we face in the words of this prayer, whether it be a diagnosis we’re fighting, that sciatic nerve pain, a tough life situation that won’t leave us alone, or even lingering consequences from a decision we’ve made. Regret and shame can feel like enemies, can’t they? They can leave our hearts desolate within us. Naming those emotions within us and the threats from outside is a good first step to coming before God in supplication.

The psalmist then continues by acknowledging how broken he is standing in God’s righteousness. He asks for God not to judge him and instead to listen to his prayer with God’s own faithfulness in mind. We may not always come to God feeling broken or torn down, but it is good to remember that God is faithful and abounding in steadfast love, and that God acts justly but with compassion. We make our appeals to God not only on the basis of how we are feeling or what our condition is, but on how wonderful and gracious God is.

It is helpful to remember that God has a track record with us of being gracious, which is where the psalm takes us next. “I remember the days of old,” he sings, “I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands.” Saying “please,” then, could start with naming our need, re-stating God’s goodness and the things God has done in the past. This is good for us, too, a way of calling to mind even the seemingly little things we might have forgotten that have been like manna in the wilderness for us. I know that when I am broken down nowadays, I still recall the random phone call from a camp counselor co-worker that lifted me out of a dark time in my young adult years, or the email that a high school teacher didn’t have to send me but did that cleared up a lot of questions I was struggling with right after high school. God provides in ways that are often only clear to us in hindsight because the cloudiness of the current moment is too overwhelming.


But there is still the issue of what we need and how to ask God for it, and, of course, we can form our prayers however they come to our lips and God hears even things we don’t say, but it is interesting to notice the particular way the psalmist words his requests for help and deliverance. “Show me the road I must walk,” he says, and later: “lead me on level ground.” Those requests are both precise and open-ended. They paint the picture of a God who is committed to walking with us, who is not just a wish-granter, but someone who comes alongside of us for the long haul.

At another point the psalmist says, “Teach me to do what pleases you,” which suddenly lifts him into a new kind of relationship. It is not just God who is expected to please me, but there is this suggestion that I have a part to play, too, that this dialogue is not one-sided. Theologian and writer C.S. Lewis says at one point, “What we do when we weed a field is not quite different from what we do when we pray for a good harvest.”[1] That is to say, asking God for something—either for ourselves or someone else—invites us further into action,      and that action leads to growth, which is really what God is about to begin with—growth in faith, growth in love towards our neighbor, growth in wisdom and understanding.

I see that a new version of Disney’s Aladdin is coming out in the theaters again this spring, and I can’t wait to see it, but based on what we hear in Psalm 143, and what we see in the life of Jesus as he prays, too, I doubt God wants to be turned into our genie, a being that we call on just to grant us favors whenever we find ourselves in a pinch. The message is that our overall relationship with God is more important than our specific request in any given moment—it’s about the whole road, not the momentary vista—as hard as that may be to stomach sometimes. That is, God’s overarching goodness to us and fatherly care of us and God’s desire that we grow until our final moment is the reality that shapes our supplications.

It is no accident that when Jesus’ disciples ask him about how to pray, Jesus gives them a prayer that focuses on the things they will ever truly need: daily bread, forgiveness and relationships of reconciliation with others, help in times of trial and temptation, and deliverance in that final hour of ours. So, when we pray for what we need, when we find ourselves chased down by enemies and crushed to the ground, all is framed by God’s graciousness to us in Jesus’ cross. We can trust we have a God who is walking the road with us, who is just, and we can use language like, “teach me,” “lead me,” and “remind me of how good you are” and then prepare ourselves to weed the field.

For me, one of the most helpful teachers of prayer is a woman I’ve never met who has been a guest at our HHOPE pantry over the past several years. Since its beginning almost 10 years ago, HHOPE has placed a small box for prayer requests on the table with the food, so that clients who come for distribution can also leave their prayer requests anonymously, if they’d like. They write them on little yellow Post-It notes and the HHOPE volunteers read them aloud as they circle up for prayers at the end of the distribution. Afterwards they place those Post-It notes in my box so I can pray them, too.

post it note (2)

This one client is a single mother of a teenage son who has special needs due to an autism diagnosis. She shows up just about every distribution, often with some new challenge or obstacle they’re dealing with, whether it’s finding good living arrangements or proper care for her son. She spreads out her hands, soul gasping like a thirsty land, and for ten years this woman’s request has been the same, scribbled in pencil:

“God, please make a way out of no way for me and my family.”
“God, please make a way out of no way for me and my family.”

What a witness to see her faith that God will walk and teach and make that way—and to see that God’s good Spirit has led her on level ground, time after time!

Lord, “beef,” oh, “beef,” teach me to trust you like that. After all, it’s an ongoing process.

prayer hands 2



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


[1] God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis

Time to bear fruit

a sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent [Year C]

Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9

There is a door frame in our kitchen where we keep measurements of our kids’ growth. You might have one, too, or had one when you were growing up. At each kid’s birthday we get out a pencil and have the kids stand with their backs against the molding (no cheating!) and we strike off how tall they are. Today is our son’s third birthday and he’ll finally be old enough to stand still and have his growth measured. On earlier birthdays he was either too squirmy or he couldn’t stand yet, so it’s going to be a big day. Our girls have been partaking in this little tradition for a while, of course, and I think it might have become the favorite part of their birthday’s events, outranking even cake and presents. I think it’s become so beloved because they can see visual proof that they’re growing. It’s hard to feel that you’re making any progress in that department day by day, but when you do something that makes it clear it becomes exciting.


And, of course, a bit competitive. They like to take note on things like who grew the most in the past year, or who was taller at a certain age. It’s such a big deal that a few years ago when we had the kitchen redone we knew we would be painting over all the hashmarks, which had become kind of smudged over time, so Melinda and I painstakingly measured off each of the hashmarks—four for every year since 2009, because we also measure on half-birthdays too—so we could transcribe them onto the new paint.

Growth is exciting, isn’t it? We want our children to grow, we want our gardens to grow we want our bank accounts to grow, we want our congregations to grow, we want our chances of winning a March Madness bracket pool to grow. And when they do, we get a sense that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. We get a sense that whatever effort we’ve put in (which, admittedly, sometimes is minimal) and the time we’ve waited (which, admittedly, sometimes feels like eternity) has been worth it.

God wants us to grow, and it’s exciting to him when we do. God wants us to grow because God intends his kingdom to grow and flourish in our lives and on the earth. God has created and redeemed his people for growth, for abundant life, and this growth is not the kind that is really measurable by pencil on a door frame. It is growth in righteousness, love, mercifulness, compassion, and wisdom—all things that his Son, Jesus, embodies. And we all have the opportunity throughout our life to keep growing in these ways when we turn to the Lord and receive his mercy, when we, as the prophet Isaiah says, “seek the Lord where he may be found and call upon him while he is near.”

That’s what’s at the heart of Jesus’ conversation with some of his listeners this morning. They come to him with some questions about a recent tragedy in the news wanting to know if those people had died as some kind of punishment for some sins they had committed. We aren’t given the whole backstory, but it involves Pontius Pilate and his decision to murder some Galilean Jews and then mingle their blood with some of the pagan sacrifices. To an observant Jewish person of the day, it was an awful, exceptionally offensive way to die, and people probably would have been talking about it. One of the common assumptions back then would have been that those people must have done something to deserve it.

Some of the destruction from Cyclone Idai in southern Africa, March 2019

Jesus brings up another sad event they probably would have heard about—the collapse of a nearby tower that killed eighteen people—because no doubt people would have wondered if they had had it coming to them too. There’s this sense among these people that the universe and even God works on some system of you get what you give, that you are eventually repaid for whatever you put in—like divine Social Security—that there’s this cosmic accounting system of right and wrong and if you wind up empty-handed with tragic suffering or untimely death, then somewhere along the way you must have gotten your columns of good and bad out of balance. Jesus makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he does not believe in karma, and he doesn’t want us to either. Life in God’s kingdom is not about making sure you make all the right decisions, or ticking all the right boxes, and doing enough good works so that people will label you a certain way or, even more, that God will give you a gold star and save you from hardship.

This way of thinking to tough get out of our systems because we are pattern-seeking organisms. We are good at finding meaning and connections in a lot of things. It’s one of our gifts as human beings. It was just posted on March 14, a week and a half ago, that Emma Iwao, a woman who works at Google in Seattle, set a new world record for calculating pi to a trillion digits.  So it stands we naturally want to find a deeper meaning or underlying pattern behind life’s tragedies and triumphs, especially when they seem so unfair and random. This week at one of our men’s lunch groups one gentleman expressed thanksgiving but also sheer bewilderment at how wonderful his life had been how he had always been in such good health, while others younger than he were struggling with life-threatening illnesses.

Emma Iwao

Jesus doesn’t offer a hidden pattern for life’s ups and downs He doesn’t calculate life’s intricacies and beauties out to a trillion digits for us or give us a particularly satisfying answer to these questions, and that can be frustrating. As we deal with that frustration and bewilderment, we must also remember that God’s Son himself is going to live a life that seems unbelievably unfair and tragic, a life shortened by false friendships even though he is always kind, a life shortened by violence even though he always peaceful, a life that ends on a cross even though every time he touches someone he heals them. God learns up close what it’s like to deal with these tragedies and feel things aren’t right. His followers are going to figure that out later when Jesus has his own blood-mingling incident with Pilate.

For now Jesus tells his listeners who question him about these events that God is not really like a big accountant or computer (and no offense to any accountants or computer programmers. Jesus also never says God is like a pastor). Jesus says God is more like a landowner who just wants his fig tree to produce one little fig. God is more like a gracious gardener who is willing to give a dormant fig tree one more year to do its thing. Because that’s what fig trees are for, whether it’s one year old or three years old or eighty years old. The fruit will all be the same, and it will all be good. So, just a little more digging around the roots here, and a little more fertilizer there. And wait for another year with the yardstick and see what happens.

fig tree
artwork: Nancy Nye

As harsh as it may seem to our ears, Jesus says reflecting on these tragedies that are brought up is a chance to think about our own limited lifespans—regardless of their specific length—and how none of us has forever for growing and enjoying the bounty of God’s kingdom. That particular thinking, that personal reflection, is one way to think of repentance, which is a concept central to Jesus’ preaching from day one.

A lot of us struggle with that word “repentance” because it sounds like making a correct decision. It sounds like choosing, about not doing bad things, and in some sense that’s part of it, but the parable helps us see that it is more about realizing our potential for growth and how God is always graciously providing us good soil. Repentance, unpacked, is understanding how God, as the prophet Isaiah says, “is always providing wine and milk without price.” God is always working to renew us with his constant forgiveness and unconditional love and therefore we always have the potential to grow and be renewed. Interestingly enough, when the landowner wants to cut down the fig tree the gardener convinces the landowner to “let it alone” for another year. The Greek word for “let it alone” comes from the same root word for “forgive.” God forgives us and renews us each and every day. His favor toward us is rooted in his mercy. The wine and milk of his grace is there for the taking. “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come and get it!”—again, the words of Isaiah. Like Martin Luther says in the first of 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”


A year or so ago a gentleman, a member of our congregation, made an appointment to update me on some medical news. After he was finished explaining what the latest tests had shown and what the next round of treatments would entail, we got to chatting. That’s when he shared with me that every night before he goes to bed he clears his desk in his office at home to make a fresh start the next day. However, he always leaves one thing on it so it greets him first thing in the morning. I asked him what it was and he said it was a little piece of one of our worship bulletins he had torn out one day. As it turns out it was from one Sunday we’d had a baptism. The three questions that we ask parents before a child is baptized about renouncing the devil and all his empty promises just hit him as direct and intriguing. The one that apparently really caught his attention was the one where the couple is asked, “Do you renounce the powers of his world that rebel against God?” He says it made him stop and think: “What do I really do each day to stand up to the powers of this world that rebel against God? That sounds like a big task, but clearly it’s being asked of us at our baptism.” And so he took it home and thought about it, ripped it out and threw the rest of the bulletin away because he still was thinking about that call, and realized he wanted to start each day with that task on his mind.

Now, that’s what I call a recipe for growth in the grace of Jesus. Take that approach and, well, I suspect you’ll need to hunt for a door frame that’s pretty tall.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Jesus: Mother hen, mobile nest

a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent [Year C]

Luke 13:31-35

Today is the feast day of Patrick of Ireland, but we’re still in Lenten purple. This has never been a major commemoration on the Lutheran calendar—or even in Ireland, I’m told—and yet I feel like he and his holiday have become somewhat larger than life in recent years. Our kids are expecting leprechauns to show up today and leave evidence of their antics by leaving behind something green, and for one school project a few years ago our girls had to construct a leprechaun trap using their knowledge of simple machines. There are parties and parades in many U.S. cities this weekend. Rivers are died green. Krispy Kreme doughnuts are frosted green. Milkshakes are colored green (while supplies last!) and someone even bought me a green wig and dared me to wear it today knowing St. Patrick’s Day would fall on a Sunday.


The thing is, there is an awful lot of legend surrounding Patrick, most of which is probably not true. The part about his use of a shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity is just a legend. Turns out the story about how he drove all the snakes out of Ireland is not true, either. There have never been any snakes in Ireland. What we do know for sure about Patrick, though, is very interesting. He was raised in England in the 5th century and was kidnapped by Irish pirates when we was about 16. The pirates took him to Ireland where they kept him as a slave for about six years. During that time he became a man of prayer and deep faith in God. He managed to escape and make it back home, but then he entered studies to become a priest and then heard a call to go back to Ireland as a missionary and bring the gospel of Jesus’ love to the very people who had enslaved him. He felt compelled to head right into a land and a people who did not know his God, who had a proven track record of hostility toward people like him. He believes that if the gospel of Jesus is true, then God has reconciled him to his former captives. In one of his letters Patrick writes, “If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples, even though some of them still look down on me.”[1]


That does not sound like a person who is concerned with pots of gold or trapping leprechauns, or making sure things are green enough. That sounds like a person bound to the mission of a loving God. That sounds like a prophet bold in faith to share God’s word of promise, even in the midst of hostility.

In fact, Patrick sounds a whole lot like Jesus as Jesus heads to Jerusalem. We hear him this morning leaving Galilee, the territory of Herod Antipas, who the Pharisees say is out to get Jesus. This is the Galilee of Jesus’ hometown and early days of ministry, the places where his family resides and where his disciples come from. Even with Herod on his tail it could have been easy for Jesus to stay there, but he heads on to Jerusalem, a city, yes, that has a track record of hostility towards prophets like him.

Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was a relatively cosmopolitan town, full of people from all over, but it was still the central city for the Hebrew people. It basically served as a capital of sorts, kind of like New York City is for artists and Nashville is for country musicians. They used to say in eastern North Carolina you learned three “R’s” in school: reading, writing, and the road to Richmond, because that’s where the jobs were. If Jesus is to bring the message of God’s kingdom to God’s people, he knows he is going to have to make it in Jerusalem. If Jesus is going to complete his mission to bring peace on earth and goodwill to humankind, he is going to have to get on the road to the city where the temple is. And yet Jesus all but knows they will not receive him well. He expects to be treated in the way they’ve treated others who go there because he’s got a message they don’t want to hear, a message of dying to self and loving the neighbor.

a depiction of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus

That’s where get this wonderful image of Jesus as a mother hen. He thinks about Jerusalem, the place he is compelled to go even though he knows it won’t go well, and he sees himself like an everyday barnyard animal that wants to shelter its young. So many times prophets can come across as firebrands and judgmental preacher-types who go around telling everyone what they’re doing wrong, but Jesus sees his actions among God’s people as a mother, as a soft, feathery, delicate bird who can open up her wings and shelter her babies, always finding room for one more.

Not every bird is like the chicken in this respect. Most birds spend a good part of their reproductive energy constructing nests, some of them very elaborately. Their young hatch from their eggs without feathers and with eyes still closed. They need to have a place that is secluded and safe and out of harm’s way where those babies can grow and develop. Maybe it’s a tree, maybe it’s the edge of a cliff, maybe it’s your mailbox. But some species of birds, like chickens, have chicks that are born fully feathered and basically ready to go from the start. They can peck on the ground and eat, they can run around, they can get into trouble, and get easily eaten up by predators. In those birds’ situation, the hen is the nest. She is the mother and the place of refuge at the same time. So wherever she goes, there is safety. It’s like a mobile home-base, accessible anywhere, always nearby. And, as most people would have known in Jesus’ time, hens will often mother their babies so much they will offer their own life keep them safe.


Wherever Jesus is going to go, then, he will be a place of rest and refuge—even when it means he will be heading into danger, into a threat. Wherever Jesus takes himself, people will be able to run to him, will be able to find God’s sheltering presence. And there will be nowhere that is off-limits for him. He’s not going to stay outside the city that kills its prophets and hope they come to him. He’s not going to build another temple somewhere else and declare God’s presence and safety there. He’s going to be instinctively accessible and raise his armspan for all of God’s people to find refuge, even when it means he will give his life.

The question he has is: will they come to him? Will the people of God recognize their inherent vulnerability in the world, their need for that guardianship, that care? Will God’s children understand it’s so easy to be gobbled up, soul and all, by all kinds of tricky, fox-like false ideologies before you know it?

One of the focal points of Lent is taking stock of ourselves and the overall human condition and our place it and realizing we’ve always got God with his wings open, waiting. We can return there, no matter how old we are or how far we’ve wandered. But part of that taking stock means recognizing our inherent vulnerability. It involves appreciating our own fragility, our own susceptibility to forces in the world and inside ourselves that will do us harm. It means realizing in some sense we’re all a part of Jerusalem, a headstrong city that thinks it has it all figured out.

I recently watched that movie Free Solo, about Alex Honnold, the first and only person ever to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California, without any ropes or climbing gear. El Capitan is a 3000 foot sheer rock face that is widely considered among serious rock-climbers as scary, daunting, perhaps the most dangerous rock-face in the whole world. Somehow Alex Honnold pulls it off, climbing from the bottom to the top in just under 4 hours one day back in October, and they caught it all on camera. It’s been called the greatest human athletic achievement of all of history. And yet what makes the achievement so remarkable, the film so gripping (pun intended) is that Honnold is so vulnerable as he does it. One little slip of a toe and he’s a goner.


I highly recommend the film, and I personally think that what Honnold did is amazing, but I do find it interesting as a way to reflect on the human fascination with pushing the boundaries of our vulnerability, of living on the edge, not just in a physical or athletic sense, but in any sense: socially, emotionally, spiritually. There is always going to be this innate captivation with our supposed invincibility, with this tendency toward individualism and self-sufficiency.

We get enamored with our ability to go it alone and we feel as though we’ve “made it” only when we’ve severed all the ropes and ties to the supporting things around us.

What’s worse is that relative privilege, whether it comes from race or social class or wealth or education, really adds to that tendency of masking our vulnerability. The people of Jerusalem were certainly susceptible to the false security that privilege affords. They were the temple city, the center of trade and commerce, the place where big things happened and important people gathered. But at their core they are just as vulnerable, too. I know when I’m forced to look closely at myself, I think of the ways that I, at 45 years old, am still so vulnerable to other people’s opinions, to the power of my own privilege, to letting the media in all its forms influence my views, words, and actions when I could just let Jesus rest his wings above me.

Because he is the mobile nest. He’s everywhere, wings up, ready to receive me, all around me. Like Patrick’s own words, which we will sing this morning: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me…” He doesn’t want to trap anyone like they’re a leprechaun. He wants us lift up those arms so we know how safe we really are there. How much refuge we will find, even in death.

This past week I visited Ms. Betsy in the hospital after her fall. Ms. Betsy is 91 and has been teaching the 2-year-old Sunday School class for something like 65 years. Even though her fall left her with one broken hip and another dislocated one, she was characteristically upbeat. Every Easter she holds an Easter Egg hunt for her class at her house over on Sleepy Hollow Road. It’s been called the social event of the spring, all these little kids running around on her yard looking for eggs and then gathering for ice cream and cake in her basement. I’m here to tell you Ms. Betsy’s goal in therapy is to have that Easter egg hunt.And on Monday when we were visiting, her daughter-in-law, Traci, was trying to brainstorm other options. Maybe they could find a way to host the egg hunt at her house, or maybe here at church. And Betsy interrupted her and said, “Oh, no, doll, they come to me.”

So, there you have it, from St. Patrick to Jesus outside of Jerusalem to the gospel according to Ms, Betsy. Jesus has gone everywhere, everywhere, so that we can come to him. Quite simply, like an egg hunt at Betsy’s house, he’s where we belong.

christ within me patrick

[1] Letters to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Patrick c. 450

Getting Elemental

a sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and Matthew 5:1-6, 16-21

Today is Ash Wednesday but, as it happens, March 6, 2019, is also the 150th birthday of the Periodic Table. I know that’s probably not on everyone’s radar, but it’s on mine! And, plus, I think it’s good to talk about the gift of science in the church. In any case, it was on this day in 1869, that a Russian chemist named Dmitri Mendeleev presented one interesting invention he had come upon almost by accident to the Russian Chemical Society. He had realized that all of the chemical elements they knew about, ones like Oxygen and Hydrogen and Sodium and Silver, could be arranged very neatly according to their atomic weight because he saw a pattern in them that no one else had seen.

An Element of Order_0
Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907) and his Periodic Table of elements

It immediately revolutionized science, and the Periodic Table has been called one of the crowning achievements of the human mind. In fact, Mendeleev’s discovery was so accurate that his Periodic Table could be used to predict the existence of elements that hadn’t even been located yet as well as what their properties would be, too. The Periodic Table on its 150th birthday contains 118 elements, 94 of which occur naturally on earth.

I realize that for some of us, the Periodic Table might cause painful flashbacks to high school chemistry classes and memorizing equations and different things about the elements. For others, the Periodic Table may be a glimpse of God’s beauty and design, an example of how there is actually a lot of order in the midst of what we perceive as chaos in creation. Tomorrow, for a science project, my fifth grade daughter will essentially dress up as the element Lanthanum, atomic number 57—a rare earth metal that is used in some medicines, telescope lenses, Hybrid car technology, and swimming pools, and is soft enough to be cut with a knife. Tonight she and the rest of us will walk around wearing mixture of calcium carbonate, potassium chloride and a smattering of phosphates on our foreheads in the shape of a cross, because today is Ash Wednesday.


It’s so fitting, this neat little birthday and liturgical event happening together, because, after all, the Periodic Table is a list of all the elements, and today is about getting elemental. The Periodic Table map of dust of the smallest kind, atoms, and today we come to terms with the fact we’re just on that map somewhere—that each of us is just atoms which have come together for the time being and will one day unbind themselves from one another and dissolve back into the stuff of the universe.

Mendeleev did not come up with that idea 150 years ago, of course. God’s Word had revealed that to the ancient Hebrews millennia ago. “You are dust, and to dust you will return” is what the Creator says to man at the beginning of existence after the disobedient nature of humankind rears its head. Humans had tried to put themselves in the Creator’s place, to reach for a position that wasn’t theirs, and God had to remind them of their true element, that they depend on God for all things. Tonight we bear a symbol of that reminder. It the period to remember our life has a period.

But that’s not the end of it tonight, really. If we’re going to contemplate the elements of creation, and our own complicated place within it, we also must call to mind the elements of our Creator. This is not just a chance to reflect on our mortality, on how death will eventually put an end to all our creativity and love, but an opportunity to understand more deeply who this God is. What are this God’s elements? What constitutes his nature?


For that we look to his story, and we hear he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God creates in us clean hearts and renews a right spirit within us. God’s nature is to give himself to creation, in all its brokenness not stand distant from it and watch it crumble. The apostle Paul writes “for our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God.” God’s basic elemental desire is to love us, to breathe life into us, over and over, to form us into beautiful, extraordinary people.

Yesterday, as Pastor Joseph and I prepared to make the ashes for tonight, we made a snap decision to issue an online invitation if anyone else wanted to join us. In past years we’ve undertaken this smoky task alone in the kitchen, but this year we thought it would be fun to include others. I had wondered where outside we could burn last year’s palms if more people came. Joseph suggested the columbarium, which was a brilliant idea. Four people—all women, as it happened—turned up and took charge of igniting these dried palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. The wind was whipping around like crazy and it was a bit chilly. Huge tongues of fire leapt out of the little metal pot Beth Barger had specially purchased for us to use. Dark smoke swirled into the air.


I felt like it was a little out of control for a minute or two there, but I suppose that’s to be expected when working with the Spirit, the breath of God that brings life to dust. It was almost like we were re-enacting Easter and Pentecost at the same time: women at the tomb, in a holy place surrounded by the remains of our brothers and sisters, standing around and sharing their faith in the presence of a mighty fire and roaring wind. It was a picture of this mighty God who can take the ashes of our lives and raise them up to something new. Today those ashes the women made form crosses on all of you.

And if today’s gathering is about remembering or celebrating a Table, it is the Lord’s Table, the Table where all things really start to make sense, where order in our universe is finally achieved. That is where we meet the One who is Behind it All. And there he offers himself again. There we see that basic desire to be with us once again—to have his own body broken  and his own blood shed. And at that Table we find ourselves forgiven, restored, reconciled to him, sent back out into the world with another chance. We will return to dust at some point, yes, but we can also return to the Lord our God who is gracious and holds out mercy to us.

As we return to God, know that Jesus gives his disciples the elements of strengthening that relationship: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus outlines the basic structure of how we can grow in the life of faith. We learn to give of ourselves like God does through the sacrifice of money and possessions, freeing us up from materialism and allowing us to realize our responsibility to care for those who have less.

The elements of Lent

We grow in our dependence on God by abstaining from something we do on a regular basis that may be unnecessary, or by changing a habit in a way that we reoriented away from infatuation with our own powers.

And we grow in our ability to communicate with God by focusing on our prayer and using the language of Scripture to form our language to God.

We hope that this Lent can be a time of growth, of realizing that God takes our finite lives, our numbered days, and fills them with the life of his Son Jesus—that though we are nothing but atoms, we are God’s atoms and that the God we meet on the cross has a love for us that makes all things new.

That is, in the cross of Jesus we meet God is in his element.

God element


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.



Down from the mountain

a sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord [Year C]

Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

As some of you already know, I was summoned for jury duty this past week, and out of the 50-60 potential jurors that were summoned with me, I ended up being one of seven chosen for a civil case that lasted three days. It was a very new experience for me as I had not only never received a summons before, but neither had I ever been inside a courtroom or seen a judge in his or her robe. They actually wear robes!!

Each day we had to report to a certain floor on the parking deck of the county office buildings and be escorted by a bailiff down several long halls, through some doors that had security key entry into our jury room and then, finally, into the courtroom to hear the case. It was altogether kind of a sacred experience, there in the inner sanctum of the American justice system. They gave us a lot of instructions, but I found I was more prepared for what was going on because I had seen so many “Matlock” and “Law and Order” episodes growing up. Even though we were treated almost like royalty, we were very sequestered. We had to leave our smartphones and computers in the parking deck. That made me feel like I was living in a bubble.

it didn’t look quite like this, but close

For three days we listened quietly as the detailed testimonies poured forth from the witnesses. There was a lot to take in and digest, but—here’s the kicker—we weren’t allowed to discuss it with anyone. We weren’t allowed to go home and share things with our spouse or friends, and we weren’t even allowed to discuss it with each other. We just had to take it in, experience it ourselves. We were left to create our own narrative and meaning in our mind based on what we were hearing and keep it to ourselves. Now that it’s done, I’m allowed to speak about it, but I’m not sure I can explain what I saw and heard.

In many ways, that is kind of like Jesus’ transfiguration. Lots of disciples are called, but only three are selected for this honored journey where they’re allowed to witness a very special event involving Jesus. They have this unique experience with the truth of Jesus where they’ve never seen him in such a white robe. They are moved, even terrified at one point. When it’s all over, they don’t talk about it. They keep it to themselves, and so what they really encounter there on the mountain and what it all means is still somewhat of a mystery to anyone who wasn’t there. We never get to hear what Peter, James, and John think about their experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, how exactly it changed them, or what they do with it.

The Transfiguration (Rubens)

To some degree, isn’t that true of all of our experiences with God’s holiness, whether we glimpse it in worship or in some meaningful and moving service event or perhaps during a week at summer camp or even in private prayer? Some of you have a 5th or 6th grader who will come back from their experience at 7th Day this weekend and you will sense have felt and seen something about glory of God or the community of Jesus that they won’t quite be able to communicate to you. They will talk about how many stink bugs and ladybugs are in the cabins, for sure. But the bigger thing they saw up there will be more vague.

When Moses comes down Mount Sinai after his conference with God his face is shining and he puts this veil over it. That veil kind of obscures him from everyone around him who didn’t go up on the mountain. It makes him a bit mysterious, I bet—a bit removed from them.


That’s the thing, right, about experiences with God’s glory, or, as some people might call them, “God moments”? When I have them I find it is wonderful and exhilarating for me, but it almost puts a veil over me face to everyone else, and if those people weren’t there, or if they haven’t experienced something comparable, it can become alienating.

The danger is this, of course, especially after having several of them, is that we start thinking that these powerful experiences of God’s glory is all that faith is supposed to entail. We can fall into the trap that Peter apparently does when he asks to build the dwellings—that sustaining that mystery and mystique is the point of Christian faith. It’s like we want to figure out a way to wear this veil all the time, only wanting to lift it when we’re in those places that we connect with God.

One of the earliest controversies that arose in the church was this belief called Gnosticism. Gnosticism essentially taught that God could only be met in the mountaintop experiences, that you had to be one of the select few who could encounter God’s glory. That veil was really important, in other words. It helped you maintain that mystique and that special knowledge about God. I’m afraid we can even start to think of worship this way, if we’re not careful. We can believe that if we’re not feeling something each Sunday, or if we’re not learning something powerful and new, then worship has become pointless. This is a form of modern-day Gnosticism and we still have to fight against it. We still need to fight against that understanding of faith because any message of Jesus that says God is for select people is not the gospel. Any form of Christianity that calls us to leave the world is opposite to what Jesus is about.


When Jesus is transfigured and his glory is revealed, he is talking about his departure in Jerusalem. The actual word for “departure” here is exodus. Jesus is meeting with the two greatest figures of his people’s faith and history, the two people who got closest to God in their time—Moses and Elijah—and what Jesus is talking about is the cross. That is, he is speaking about how his departure through death will be the point at which God’s people are led to freedom—freedom from their slavery to sin, freedom from selfishness, freedom from the idea that God has to be climbed to. Jesus’ exodus is going to show that everyone in any circumstance is already present with God. Jesus’ death is going to reveal that God climbs down into every possible place we might find ourselves in. That’s not secret knowledge. There is no special prayer you need to say, there is no privileged background you have to have, there is no degree or experience you need to testify to to receive that. God has given himself to you as you are, no matter how uninformed and excluded you feel.

And as if to prove what he means, the first thing that happens when Jesus and the special three come down the mountain is that he encounters a hurting person. It’s a really unpleasant circumstance. There’s this boy overcome with some sort of evil spirit. His father is distraught and terrified. Now, I have to believe that if Jesus had been transfigured to show that God is only going to reveal himself to the select few, I think Jesus probably would have walked on by. If Jesus had been transfigured in the blazing white robe and the voice in the cloud had said “This is my Son, my Chosen” to communicate that faith is only about super transcendent moments on the mountains, then Jesus probably would have said “Dude. Sorry. I’ve got other important mountains to climb.” It’s difficult to say exactly what Jesus might have done in this situation if God were only concerned about keeping himself veiled. But that’s not who God is. Jesus stops right in the middle of this messy situation and responds compassionately to what he finds. He rebukes the boy’s unclean spirit and heals him and gives him back to his father.

7th day
Youth having a mountaintop experience at a retreat

I recently ran across a great article by a Mennonite pastor out in Alberta, Canada. He lives just several miles away from some of the most breathtakingly beautiful mountain ranges in the world. His name is Ryan Dueck and he admits that those mountains are often his sanctuary, that the closeness to God he feels there is profound and healing. He admits that he has often in his life skipped church in order to be there. But he also has come to realize that Jesus calls him back down from the mountains to be with people. He says in his article, “The God of creation can inspire me, but creation cannot demand that I die to myself and become ever more alive and attentive to all the things that are ugly and easily ignored in the world.”[1]

Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Said another way, mountaintop experiences, wherever they are and however they come, often end up giving us a veil, and Jesus came to remove that veil. Jesus removes the veil so we can see ourselves in each other’s suffering. Jesus removes the veil so we can understand that we are created to be in community with one another and Jesus came to die on the cross to show us how to do that and make that possible, as messy as it can be sometimes.

One day, though, it will be clear that Jesus’ love and power to heal has embraced the whole world. One day it will be fully unveiled that all who are seeking freedom from their brokenness have found it in Jesus the Christ. One great day on the other side of this hurting valley it will be clear as a bright new day that God has claimed us and healed us all. I think that’s why Jesus selects Peter and James and John. What happens on the mount of transfiguration is not a trial or a hearing or a piece of evidence but a view, if you will, of God’s final verdict. It’s a brief, hopeful view of that day when all is said and done…and everything will give way except for Jesus, everything will fade like mist except for the One who offers his life for us. We will have a robe, too, and his light will be reflected in us, from glory into glory.

And on that day we will talk about it All. Day. Long.

Mt Tabor, Israel, the traditional site of Jesus’ transfiguration


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Ryan Dueck, “Nature is My Sanctuary, but Jesus Keeps Dragging Me Back to Church,” in The Christian Century, October 26, 2018. https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/ccblogs-network/nature-my-sanctuary-jesus-keeps-dragging-me-back-church