To Be a Village
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven’” (Matthew 9:2).
Chicago comedian, Sebastian Maniscalco, gives a skit about our angst when the doorbell rings. Twenty years ago, he says, when your door bell rang, it was a happy moment. “It’s called company.” The whole family shot off the couch. Everybody ran to the door — kids sliding in their socks, mom fetching the cake she saved for just such an occassion — a visitor had arrived! Today, the door bell rings and everyone panics. “Oh my gosh. What in the world is going on? Duck. Get in the closet. Don’t let them see you.” If you visit someone you have to call them from the driveway, and warn them that you are intruding. Comedians make the best social commentators. Life has changed. Society has lost an old sense of community, and community is the heart of Christianity. As a church in our times, we have this work cut out for us. We must create an authentic culture of community.
“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Living in community has never been easy. It is especially challenging for modern Americans. I suspect our comprehension of true, genuine community is far weaker than we ever imagine. Have you ever heard of Wendell Erdman Berry? He’s described as a “novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer” (wikipedia). He looks at culture, American culture, and warns us to step back and re-examine our culture.
In his book, Hannah Coulter, Wendell Berry looks at the changes in 20th century America through the eyes of a fictional woman. She was born in the 1930’s, and tells her tale, growing up in rural Kentucky, and watching the world change. When she was a girl, most everyone lived together in the same little community, repairing each other’s fences when needed, or sharing the evenings listening to crickets or discussing town news. When someone grew up, he assumed his parents’ job. They kept their roots in the land. They shared that land. It was called membership. This was not the case for her children. They went off to college. Then moved to the big cities, and all the hubbub of modern life.
She was talking about it with her friend Andy. He smiled, “You’re worried because they’ve left the membership…” She reflects out loud, “The attraction of moving way into the life of employment, I think, is being disconnected and free, unbothered by membership.” There is something nice about not living in community. You do not have people holding you accountable. You can pick and choose who you associate with. You can can run away when problems come up. But there are shortcomings. Hannah continues: “The life of membership with all its cumbers is traded away for the life of employment that makes itself free by forgetting you clean as a whistle when you are not of any more use. When they get to retirement age, Margaret and Mattie and Caleb will be cast out of place and out of mind like worn-out replaceable parts, to be alone at the last maybe and soon forgotten.” Andy returns, “But the membership keeps the memories even of horses and mules and milk cows and dogs.”
There never was an ideal time. The 1940’s had their own problems, just like ours. But modernity has brought with it a very real and new challenge in the disappearance of community life — a challenge of which we Christians need to be acutely aware. Technology and cultural shifts have played a big role in isolating people. For the last year and a half, efforts to ward off Covid-19 have further deepened our isolation. People talk about the economic impact of the pandemic, but I believe the social impact has been far worse. Face masks and quarantining (regardless of their benefits), as well as hostility and anger have given rise to unprecedented cases of suicide and depression. More and more people have stopped going to church altogether. I do not mention this to spark disagreements on politics or medicine. This is a simple observation of an undeniable fact, and it is our task to tackle it. Faith is never private. Christianity is never individualistic. Our relationship with God is always shared.
We do not discover God as individuals. We discover him as family.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:12).
The joy of God comes from living within community.
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
St. Paul talks more about living in harmony with Christian community than any other virtue:
“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:13–14).
Forgiveness and healing, as St. James so earnestly puts it, comes from within community.
“And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven’” (Matthew 9:2).
Why was this paralytic healed? Our Gospel today sheds beautiful light on the power of living in Christian community. The paralytic was healed because of the faith of his friends. There are a lot of miracles in the Gospels, but this one stands out. We never hear a word about the paralyzed man himself. We do not know if he loved God or had a lick of faith. All we know is that Jesus Christ was moved by the faith of his community.
St. Ambrose often preached about the importance of community. Here’s an excerpt from his homily on our Sunday passage:
“Anyone who is sick,” he says, “should seek the help in prayer of others, that they may be restored to health; that through their intercession, the enfeebled frame of our body, the wavering footsteps of our deeds, may be restored to health by the remedy of the heavenly word” (St. Ambrose).
This is like St. James’ words in his epistle, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed (James 5:16). The old adage, “Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps,” simply has no place in Christianity. When we sin or are struggling with worry, the first thing we do is go to our confessor. It does not matter how old you are. There are no thoughts or temptations that are personal. Everything, in the Christian journey, is shared.
St. Ambrose goes on to say:
“Let there therefore be certain helpers of the soul [monitores], to raise the soul of man, even lying indifferent in the weakness of the outer body, so that by their assistance it may be easy for a man to raise himself and lower himself again, to be placed in the sight of Jesus” (St. Ambrose).
We do not stand alone in Christ. We are saved in community.
The twenty-first century has its challenges. Among these, first and foremost, is the challenge to be authentic community. This is our job, here, in our little parish. We have to foster this — real people, face to face, bearing one another’s burdens, forgiving, helping, and praying for one another. In every sense that Hannah Coulter’s little farming town was a community, we, the Church, must be and excel that community.