Communities of Grace

Easter Vigil at Sacred HeartIt must be some 30 years ago I saw a film entitled “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” It was a clever comedy about a tribe that lived in the Kalahari Desert of southwest Africa. The Kalahari is a tough place in which only a community survives through its cooperation, assistance, and support of each other. The web of individual and communal relationships are a key element by which life is sustained. The people work at maintaining the relationships through the cycle of seasons and the ensuing years. Yet the tribe also understands that the essential element for life is favor from the gods; favor that is undeserved, unearned, and all gift. These key and essential elements are what our western and Christian perspective would call a community of Grace. And everything is about to change.

One day, an airplane passing over the Kalahari casually tosses out a glass Coca-Cola® bottle. The bottle makes a soft landing in the sands of the desert and is found unbroken by a member of the tribe. The tribe declares it to be a gift from the gods whose meaning is unclear and mysterious – yet is declared that in some way this gift is meant to favor them in the lives. So, the bottle is used in cooking, working, and even play. But it is a large tribe and there is only one bottle. Eventually there is competition for use of the bottle. The competition begets moments of envy, jealousy, resentment, rancor, and even violence. In time the community begins to see the bottle as a thing of evil, as the source of turmoil that is breaking down the web of relationships between tribal members and thus threatening the life of this community of grace.

It is decided that someone must take this bottle, this evil thing and throw it off the edge of the earth. One of the members, Xi, volunteers and sets off on the quest to the find the edge of the earth. And of course he wanders into civilization, western culture, and modern life. There he finds lots of bottles, different bottles, and stranger more powerful magic. There is a lot of comedic content as you see our world through Xi eyes. In the end Xi, tosses the bottle over the edge of the earth and returns home to his community of grace.

What is common about life in the Kalahari, first century Palestine, and our life in Tampa, Florida, is that there are plenty of bottles – different, powerful, and strange. Bottles real and imagined. Bottles whose effect is to introduce things that breakdown the relationships that are important to life and life together. Bottles which misguide us, misdirect us, and make us miss the mark.

All of that is the Biblical meaning of sin: breaking and damaging relationship, missing the mark.

Each of operate in our own tribes, in our own network of supporting and sustaining relationships. Relationships that are essential to our health and well-being. They are our families, the people with whom we work and play, the people with whom we worship. They are our communities of grace. Our communities into which someone drops the bottle called sin. Sometimes as random and as thoughtless as the bottle that dropped into the Kalahari. What are we to do when we see sin’s effect in our communities of grace? As Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.”

I think Jesus just described one possible thing that we are least inclined to do. We might brood, stew, chatter, but taking that walk to the edge of the world where we go to a brother or sister who has sinned against us – or even if not against us – taking that walk is low on the list. And yet what is at stake is your community of grace.

Twentieth-century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled Life Together, describing a community of grace, in which he wrote: “Nothing could be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to sin. Nothing could be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a sister/brother from the path of sin.”

The bottle has been dropped and I suspect is it human nature that we will brood, stew, and chatter. But our silence is a cruelty. In compassion we are called to go to our brothers and sisters with words that will “win” them; words that will help them hear, understand, and be reconciled to the community. We are called to take the long journey to the edge of earth of get rid of that bottle.

So, you should prepare, pack well, and plot out the journey. Here are some suggested items: take it into prayer and ask the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Consider your role and that you might be part owner of the bottle. And remember St. Paul’s word about indebtedness: Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” Think about your first ten words, remember the debt Jesus paid for us, and let your words be rooted in love. You might need other things, but those are some essentials. As you set out, remember what is at stake.

Each of operate in our own tribes, in our own network of supporting and sustaining relationships. Relationships that are essential to our health and well-being – physical and spiritual. They are our families, the people with whom we work and play, the people with whom we worship. They are our communities of grace.

When you arrive, the two of you gathered, remember: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name..” Jesus is there in your midst.

So, if you have sinned against a brother or sister, take the long walk home. If you see the sin in another, take the long walk to bring them home. Jesus took the long walk to gather us into the community of grace – to bring us home. Can we do any less?

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