Sunday, October 22, 2006

“It Takes a Community

James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50[1]

The 2001 film “The Shipping News” is another of my favorite films. I empathize with the main character, a man only known as Quoyle. He’s been drowning all his life—ever since his callous father threw him in the water to teach him to swim. When we meet Quoyle, he’s drowning in a dead-end job and he’s drowning in a sham marriage. If ever there was someone who needed a community, it was Quoyle.

But things change dramatically for Quoyle one day, and he gets a second chance a life. His “wife” sells their daughter and runs off with one of her many boyfriends, only to die in a car crash. His father calls to tell him that he and Quoyle’s mother decided to “put an end to it”—life, that is. When his Aunt Agnis comes to pay her “respects,” she invites him to move to the ancestral home in rugged Newfoundland, where the stark contrast between the beauty and the deadliness of the sea makes everyone at least a little eccentric!

At first Quoyle continues to drift. But soon he embarks on a journey of self-discovery that challenges him to determine not only his own identity, but also that he very much wants to embrace life. At the end of the film, Quoyle has found himself; it closes with his words: “If a piece of knotted string can unleash the wind, and if a drowned man can awaken, then I believe a broken man can heal.” For me that is the crux of the film.

But Quoyle couldn’t have healed without the community that embraced him. He needed his Aunt, hard but strong. He needed Wavey, a single mother who loves him and his daughter. He needed Jack, the eccentric owner of the local paper who makes him a reporter. And he needed his reclusive cousin Nolan to help him reclaim his past in order to become whole again. It takes a community

I think that’s why James closed his letter with some unusual instructions about confession, forgiveness, anointing and healing. I think James knew a very important truth that too often gets swept aside in our transient world of mobility [which means dislocation]. There is a “gospel” out there that promises if you say the right words and go through a few motions of a spiritual encounter, then you will be made whole—sort of a spiritual hocus-pocus! But James knew that forgiveness and healing come only through a community. He knew that it takes a community.

Not in the theoretical sense, of course. It’s theologically true that our forgiveness and healing are completely and finally established through Jesus Christ. But theoretical theology needs human flesh in order to translate into real transformation. The only way any of us finds wholeness in this world is through our community. Something about the way we’re put together as human beings makes it so that we just cannot grasp such high and holy truths as atonement unless someone is there to show us the grace and mercy and love of God in action. It’s the only way we can truly become whole.[2]

That’s where our Gospel lesson comes in. Mark reminds us that it is our commitment to care for even the “little ones” who believe in Jesus (not necessarily a reference to children) that defines us as a community. It is our commitment to show the grace and mercy and love of God to others so that they too may experience wholeness that makes us like “salt” in this world. Our adult study actually coincides with this week’s Gospel lesson. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus does not say that we have to become salt, or that we should strive to have salt, but rather that we are salt—and light.[3] Our calling is not primarily to impact our world! Our calling is first and foremost to follow Jesus the Christ in discipleship. As we follow him, as we demonstrate the grace and love and mercy of God to others, we will be like salt in a world that is decaying and light in a world trapped in darkness.

But Mark’s Gospel has a rather harsh comment about salt—if it looses its saltiness it becomes useless. Bonhoeffer takes that quite literally and says that if “the disciple community … ceases to live up to [its] mission, [it] is itself irretrievably lost.”[4] I don’t agree with that. That doesn’t seem to be consistent with Jesus’ teachings elsewhere. The reality is that, Jesus’ challenge about salt is there to remind us that, unlike the salt, we do have a chance to recommit ourselves to following Christ and to being intentional again about living our lives as “salt” and “light” in this world.

Our observance of World Communion Sunday reminds us of our community. Our community is here at First Presbyterian Church. But it is not just here; it is not just our denomination; it is not just our fellow Americans. Our community is the whole world! They need us to be a source of forgiveness and healing, and we need them to enrich us with diversity and vitality.

[1] A sermon preached 10/01/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] See Jean Vanier, Becoming Human; see the excerpt at

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 115-119.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 117.

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