A turner and the cross

a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [proper 19B/Lectionary 24]

Mark 8:27-38

sanctuary Epiphany

Just a couple of years ago one of our youth, Turner Barger, was serving as crucifer in worship one Sunday. He carried the processional cross, like the crucifer is supposed to do, right down the aisle, leading the choir and the worship leaders. He stopped and turned around in the chancel, just like crucifer’s supposed to do, while the choir members filed into their seats.

And that’s when something kind of funny happened. He approached the altar to place the processional cross in its brass stand, but the stand wasn’t there. Someone had, for whatever reason, moved it from the week before. And so there was Turner, bearing the cross in front of God and everyone else, with no logical place to put it down. Turner knew that the stand probably just got shuffled around and was somewhere else up here in the general vicinity, but he couldn’t exactly lay the cross down to look for it or, worse yet, prop it upside the altar, he had to look for it with the cross in his hands.

So while we were still singing the last few lines of the first hymn, Turner proceeded to march around with that cross all over the place up here. He took the cross behind the altar to see if it was there. He marched over to the piano to see if the stand was lurking over there somewhere. Then went over to the other side where the choir sits to see if it was there. All in all, he crisscrossed the chancel several times (see what I did there?) looking for where that stand might be, and when it wasn’t found, and the hymn was almost done he just…walked right out of the side door into the hall and disappeared, cross and all.

Those of you who know Turner know it couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate person. He literally knows where everything in this church is. I still have visions of Turner faithfully wandering the halls of the church, still lifting that cross high, looking for a place to let it properly rest.

Easter procession with the cross in Croatia

Following Jesus means walking the halls of life with a cross we won’t be able to put down. To be one of Jesus’ followers, that is, and to continue on the road he is taking, we will need to be prepared to take on a new way of life, one where we’ll steadily learn to let loose of certain things so that we can grab hold of the divine things—divine things like serving our neighbor—that will give us life. There is no stand for this cross, no convenient little place where we can drop it off and resume whatever else we were doing with ourselves. Like the cross that is placed on our forehead at our baptism, it is really with us for good.

In Mark’s gospel we hit the halfway mark and discover Jesus needs to level with his disciples. It’s as if he says, “This has all been interesting up to this point, maybe even fun. The healings, the miraculous feedings, the debates with the stuffy Pharisees, the crowds that adore me everywhere I go, the anticipation about a kingdom coming. But I need to make sure we’re on the same page. It’s time to talk about this road we’re on.”

And to have this little come-to-Jesus talk Jesus has chosen a very appropriate venue. They are near the villages around Caesarea Philippi, a gleaming new city that was built by Herod’s son Philip as a testament to Caesar’s power and glory. Philip had chosen a location that had been the site of ancient worship to the god Pan. Multiple carvings of that god had been made in the rock face and together with the fancy city on top and all the monuments to empire it would have been hard to stand there and not think about the identity of these figures. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to stand there as Jesus’ disciple and not think about things like worship and allegiance and kingdom. And right there, with these things surely swirling in their heads, Jesus asks for the first time “Who do people say that I am?” That’s Caesar, up there. That’s the worship of ancient gods. Where do I fit in?

The cliffs at the base of Caesarea Philippi where the altars to the god Pan were carved into the rock face.


After they share with Jesus some of the ideas they’ve overheard people in those crowds murmuring, Jesus turns the question to them. And Peter, the disciple who tends to blurt things out, the disciple who often serves as the group spokesman, gets the question about identity correct, but it’s clear he doesn’t know what he’s in for. In Peter’s mind the Messiah, or the Christ, would march into Jerusalem, bust some heads, and take names. But that is not how Jesus is going to be the Messiah, the one anointed by God to bring in his kingdom of justice and righteousness. Jesus is going to march into Jerusalem and let them bust his head. They will pull out his beard. He will not hide his face from insult and spitting (Isaiah 50). He’s going to hand himself over to human ways of power and control and self-assertion in such a way that we can finally, clearly see where those ways eventually lead. He will be a suffering Messiah, a humble and loving king who trusts not in himself and his own abilities, but in God’s power to set things right. Jesus will let himself be lifted up on a cross and never be set back down—they’ll carry him out of the halls of power, out of the temples of glory and beauty to a most inconvenient hill somewhere outside the city where he will suffer and die.

This is who Jesus is and this is how he comes to be God’s Son for us. He comes to empty himself for us. He comes to bear God’s love into all the dark hallways and pathways of our lives. He comes to set aside his own needs in order to give us the grace we need.

And therefore following this kind of Messiah, means lifting up this kind of leadership and this kind of self-giving life into the world, even though it will be unpopular. That is bearing the cross. That is denying the self. That is saying “I’m not going to lay down the chance to bring Christ into the world.”

simon bisley
the crucifixion by Simon Bisley

And in a day and age when so much emphasis is placed on personal identity and crafting that identity, and putting it our self out there for people to see just how we want it, this is super challenging. Like builders of little Caesareas of Philippi all over the place, we construct all kinds of facades and monuments that we want people to think about when they think about us when really they should look at us and see someone carrying a cross. Because we don’t really find our true selves until we’ve lost ourselves in Christ, until everything we think we are has been offered up for who Jesus is. And not because we’ve been so wise or brave to do it, but because God has been so gracious to claim us.

Today our 9th and 10th graders sign up for another year of confirmation ministry. In the Lutheran Church, since we typically baptize infants, we provide young people the chance to be a Peter and publicly profess their faith and affirm the promises God made to them in their baptism. These young people will spend the next year looking more closely at certain foundational aspects of the faith of the church with the hope they’ll start to articulate that faith as their own. Now, I don’t know how this specific group of confirmands is approaching this task, mentally or intellectually. They’re bright and curious, though. At their age I just wanted it to be over.

One helpful way to think about it is to think that they will be learning to answer this question that stands at the center of Mark’s gospel: “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Or, as one of my theology professors from seminary put it, “Who is Jesus and why does he matter?” There are a lot of good and interesting questions that are taken up by Christian faith, but that’s that really is the question that stands at the center. That’s really the question that keeps us coming back to the basics: who is Jesus and why does he matter?

youth performing service with their church at a shelter

And we’ll be surrounding these young people just as we always do, with our responses to that question, whether we realize it or not. When they see us give up our time to serve at LAMB’s Basket or the HHOPE pantry or CARITAS, up goes that cross we carry and we say Jesus is hope for those in need and he matters because God’s kingdom includes all people, especially those who often get overlooked. When they see us take the time to join a small group or attend a Sunday School class up goes that cross again, and we are saying Jesus is a teacher and he matters because we need more than bread to live. When they see us donate supplies to McShin Foundation or ACTS to prevent homelessness, we are saying Jesus is a healer and he matters because he shows us all people are given God’s mercy and forgiveness. When they see us come as often as we can to this place to worship him and give him praise we will be saying Jesus is the risen Son of God and he matters because he has brought us eternal life.

Whether we realize it or not, we are all given the chance to answer Jesus’ question about his identity through the everyday decisions of discipleship we make. God is gracious, and no matter how many times we set our minds on human things, Jesus gives us another chance to figure out who he is. God is so gracious—the formation of our faith doesn’t end at 10th grade! Daily we are given the chance to go through all kinds of confirmations, again and again—as if we are given the chance, over and over, to take that life-saving cross down the aisle, to be a Turner—that is, one who turns aside from the paths of selfishness the human things that point us inward and march instead across the chancel with the cross in front of all God’s people and out, out, out into the world.

Thanks be to God!

a crucifer (but not Turner)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.



Faith Formation: a role model and a goal

a sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18B/Lectionary 23]

James 2:1-10, 14-17 and Mark 7:24-37


It’s probably not the common answer, but a strong case could be made that no one in the entire New Testament displays greater faith than this Gentile Syrophoenician woman that meets Jesus in the region of Tyre. Most people would probably go for the apostle Paul, maybe, or one of the disciples, like Peter or John. They express faith deeply on many occasions.

It could be James, come to think of it, the guy who wrote the letter we read from this morning who, despite what Martin Luther thought, really nails it when it comes to describing faith. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” James asks. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Martin Luther didn’t like those lines. It made it sound too much like you have to earn salvation, but James understands that true faith in God always leads to loving action for the neighbor.

I think you could put up any one of these fine people as an example of faith, but this unnamed, foreign woman still would beat them, and I think Mark wants us to know that. First of all, she comes to Jesus on behalf of someone else, not herself. Granted, the neighbor she seeks to serve is her own daughter, but she wastes no time in finding Jesus when he wanders into her town. Like every mother I’ve ever known, when it comes to caring for her child she will stop at nothing. She has faith in Jesus and she comes and bows down at his feet like he can do something about it.


Second, she is the only person in all of the gospels who gets into an argument with Jesus and actually bests him. In that, she does what no Pharisee, scribe, no disciple is able to do. She asks Jesus for help, and when Jesus gives her a response about the mercies of God coming first to the children of Israel she says, “Yeah, well, even the dogs get crumbs.” Jesus immediately announces that her daughter is healed. You can see him sitting up a little straighter at the table, can’t you, astounded that such faith is coming from someone considered such a political, racial, and social outsider. Or maybe he already knows that about her, and this is a little conversation to emphasize to the others around him just how silly it is to try to put up barriers around God’s grace.

Third, and as if to underscore just how mighty her faith in that grace is, her daughter is healed before she gets home. In every other exorcism in the gospels Jesus comes face to face with the unclean spirit in order to drive it out. In this instance alone is Jesus able to heal the girl without confronting her. It’s as if the woman’s faith is so strong it can leap time and space.

To be sure, faith is not a competition, and we shouldn’t really compare and contrast something so personal, something we don’t really have control over, Nevertheless, this woman displays a profound trust that God can hear and help her, and so she becomes the perfect person to lift up as we celebrate Rally Day and begin a year in the life of this congregation focused on faith formation. Thank you, determined Syrophoenician woman, for inspiring us to build a community of Christ-followers who grow in our faith and equip us to be disciples in our homes, in our church, and in our world.

a teacher with students in Vacation Bible School

What is faith formation? That’s a good question. Faith formation is a term the church has begun using in place of Christian Education, which is the term that was used throughout most of my childhood and the lives of generations before me. Christian education can sound too “school-y,” and so Faith Formation is a more expansive term, and really gets us to think of ways the church can intentionally build people’s relationship with God outside of the Sunday School classroom, although that is certainly part of it. This congregation has a rich culture of children’s Sunday School, for sure. I think of how Ms. Betsy has helped form the faith of countless children, as this year, at the age of 90, she begins a 66th year teaching Sunday School!

But faith formation is not just for children, and congregations can’t forget that. In fact, surveys of adults in the U.S. still reveal that the number one reason why people attend religious services at least once or twice a month is not because they find the sermons valuable or because they think it will make them a better person, or because they want to give children a moral foundation, but so that they can become closer to God.[1] And that is exactly what this Syrophoenician woman does. You can’t get any closer to Jesus than bowing at his feet.

How do you approach Jesus? What healing to you seek in your life or in the lives of those around you? How do you hope to be involved in God’s healing of the world as Jesus walks from the far reaches of Tyre and Sidon and the Decapolis—way outside his Jewish people’s comfort zone—back to Jerusalem and then to the cross, re-drawing the whole map of humanity into the embrace of God’s love? Is it something that you think “just happens,” or are their intentional practices and commitments you can undertake to nurture that kind of faith?

Holy Land at the Time of Christ
Tyre and Sidon (at the top) and the Decapolis (right) are outside of normal Jewish stomping grounds.

“To build a community of Christ-followers” is how our objective of faith formation begins, which means we at Epiphany recognize that faith is not ever meant to be a private, one-on-one affair with God, like it can be strengthened solely on one’s own. It is a community enterprise, where people gather and let their stories of sorrow and joy interweave and build one another up. I remember hearing one time that many American adults have about the faith level and biblical knowledge of a fourth grader because that’s about when they stopped attending church regularly as a child. God has created us as people who grow and learn and give at all stages of our lives, and faith formation in a congregation should reflect that.

People I see for home communion visits often remark on the little leather-bound communion set that I bring. I explain that is was a gift to me upon my ordination from my grandparents’ Sunday School class at Augsburg Lutheran Church in Winston-Salem. On the lid of the Communion set is a little metal plaque that reads, “The Sid Sowers Class,” named after one of the men who helped lead the group over 50 years ago. If you think about it, the body and blood of Jesus is literally brought to the coffee tables and hospital bedsides of people in this congregation by the faith of a group of 80- and 90-year-olds that have been meeting together for Bible study and life-sharing since the 1950s. We can all be so thankful for their faith formation.

communion kit
my home communion kit

If the Syrophoenician woman in the first half of today’s gospel reading is an example of faith, then the man in the second half becomes the perfect example of what faith formation looks like, of what it’s goal should be. Faith formation looks like being opened. Just as I open that little communion set to share the sacrament, just as Ms. Betsy opens her heart to 2-year-olds every week, just as Pastor Joseph opens his guitar case to lead the youth group in song, the hope in faith formation is that we are opened to the wonderful ways God loves us and cares for us. It is that we are opened to see new possibilities of service to our neighbors in need, opened to new relationships with others that are life-giving, opened to the renewing power of forgiveness.

The reason why Jesus’ healing of this man causes such a stir in that community is because the people of ancient Israel understood that one of the principal signs that God’s kingdom had arrived was when the mute were made to speak and the deaf were able to hear. To a God who creates the universe merely by speaking and who sends his Word to be flesh among us, the gift of communication—both receiving and giving—is what truly de-isolates people and brings people together, and when that communication opens people up, and opens up their world, instead of shutting them down, then God in Christ is truly present.


When a congregation uses “opening up” as a model for faith formation it will do all kinds of exciting things. They will, for example, develop curricula for confirmation and Vacation Bible School that will allow children who are on the autism spectrum to participate more fully in the life of the congregation. This summer our faith formation director led a weekly evening VBS based on Legos which ended up being ideal for children with sensory and processing challenges, and over the past two years one of our confirmation mentors created lessons on the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer that can be used for students who are non-verbal.

Congregations who use opening up as an inspiration for faith formation also provide their youth groups with summer experiences in places like inner city Atlanta and the migrant worker communities of Eastern Shore (people who pick the food that goes on our tables) to learn about what life is like in places very different from where they are growing up in suburban Henrico and Hanover counties.

Congregations who worship a God who opens people up support and then also utilize things like Stephen Ministry. The also might even open themselves up to sending people to seminary. This congregation has sent four individuals to seminary for ordination in the past six years. And just two weeks ago I wrote a letter of recommendation for one of our members who serves in the Marine Corps who has requested to lead Bible studies for his battalion.

It is our hope also that Seedling Groups will be used by people of this congregation as a way to open up. Seedling Groups, which are open to any adult—don’t need to be a member!—will begin meeting in members’ homes this fall for a time of reflecting on the pastor’s sermons and the Scriptures those sermons use as a foundation to provide fellowship and spiritual growth. Leaders for these groups have already been trained and sign-up sheets for those Seedling Groups are now in the Commons for this Sunday and next Sunday.

small group seedling logo

The way Seedling groups will work is that they will meet twice a month. Some groups will be for couples, and others are for individuals, whether they be single or married but attending without their spouse. Other groups will be mixed. All of the discussion questions will be based on the pastors’ sermons (and the texts that go with them) and will be downloadable from our website each week.

Our Thursday morning Mom’s Bible study group will be one Seedling Group this fall. They piloted the Seedling group model last spring and really enjoyed it. We were hoping to create a Seedling Small group on Sunday mornings for people who don’t have a more convenient time to meet. However, all available spaces for meeting on Sunday mornings are taken. There is no place for additional adult faith formation to happen, which makes Brighten Our Light building campaign even more necessary. That will add some much-needed space for us to grow and do ministry. We need room like crazy.

We are hoping to have 20% of our worship attendance sign up for a Seedling Small Group, which is about 80 people. Once you sign up, the leader will contact you and bring you on board, and we ask that you stay committed for two meetings before you decide to drop out. In a widespread congregation like ours, small group ministry not only can open people up but also help bring us together, shrink our boundaries down from Tyre and Sidon to the cross, and build a community of Christ-followers who grow in their faith—faith just as strong, perhaps, as that of the Syrophoenician woman who is willing to live on crumbs from the table of Jesus.


Thanks be to God!

Rally Day at Epiphany Lutheran Church (Ms. Betsy is on the front pew, left)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Christian Century, August 29, 2018. P 9