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

syrophoenicianwoman

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.

crumby-dog-2

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.

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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.

Ephphatha-be-opened-message-smaller

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!

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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

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