Faith needs community to find grace, forgiveness, healing, says Barnes

The Rev. M. Craig Barnes, president emeritus of Princeton Theological Seminary and Week Four’s chaplain-in-residence, delivers his sermon Sunday in the Amphitheater. Dave Munch/Photo Editor

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

“According to the late Mircea Eliade, historian of religion at the University of Chicago, all faith traditions offer an ‘axis mundi,’ an axle that keeps the heavens and earth spinning together. Religion keeps this axis healthy and connected,” said the Rev. M. Craig Barnes.

He preached at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Healing Our Sins,” and the scripture reading was Mark 2:1-12. 

“Every home is an axis muni, as well,” Barnes said. In homes with a center pole, the pole, symbolically, goes down to the center of earth and up to the stars. When there is a disaster, when the stars are falling, people want to go home to where the axis mundi is. 

The poet T. S. Eliot wrote that the definition of home “is the still point of the turning world where the past and future are gathered together,” Barnes said. “That may not describe your home; you may still be searching for a place where faith and a sense of mission can be found.”

In the scripture reading, Mark says Jesus was at home in Capernaum. Barnes noted that Jesus is usually thought of as being itinerant. But in Mark, Jesus has a home that is open to the world and people flocked to it for healing, identity, faith and mission: the axis mundi. 

In the story, four friends brought a friend who was paralyzed to see Jesus; they were so determined to get him healed that they dug a hole in the roof of Jesus’ house and lowered their friend down in front of Jesus. 

“It was probably a good thing that Jesus grew up in the home of a carpenter. It was probably also a good thing he was not married; talk about bringing your work home,” Barnes said.

Jesus was impressed by the faith of the four friends. “This story is not about the paralyzed man,” Barnes said. “It is about the four men whose faith healed their friend. Their faith unleashed the gracious compassion of Jesus.”

He continued, “This is one of the first, most profound descriptions of Christian community, to have friends who will carry you to the only one who can heal a sin-sick soul.”

Returning to the theme of home, Barnes said that for millenia home gave people their faith and their identity. It is only recently that people leave home to find their true self. 

“Identity is no longer an inheritance or a gift of the community, but a self-construction,” he said. “All the rest of society is a resource for you to construct an identity you like and we have peddled that for two generations.”

The speaker at his daughter’s graduation “peddled the same drivel that the speaker did when I went to college,” he said. “ ‘You are the best and the brightest, dream your dreams, you can be whatever you want to be.’ If you want honesty, the speaker would say, ‘We have nothing for you, you are on your own.’ ”

Barnes said being on your own — making a life by your choices — is an assumption. Raising a child has become helping kids make good choices. When a child is young and breaks a window, instead of yelling at them, the parent brings them inside and asks, “Was that a good choice?” The child says, “I’m thinking no,” and the parent says, “Good choice.”

“When they get older there is more at stake in the choices they make,” Barnes said. “They think they are choosing a life when they are making choices. Looking at college, they have reach schools and safety schools — and God help your child if her best friend’s safety school is her reach school.”

Guidance counselors tell parents that it is the child’s choice to attend whichever college they want, but the parents get to pay for it. 

“When a student chooses a major, they think they are choosing a life, at age 18. They have seen doctors on television and think that looks like a good life, so they choose pre-med and think they are on their way to being a doctor,” Barnes said. “Then they take Biology 101 and they are not going to be a doctor.”

He continued, “So they go back and think about what else they can do and they remember that lawyers on television have a pretty good life, so they decide they will be a lawyer and they think they have changed the trajectory of their life. They can do this several times.”

After graduation, Barnes said, this notion of being able to choose a life stays. “Parents say pick a job, any job, please. If you don’t like the job, choose again. If you don’t like your town, your friends, your church, choose again. I have watched people think they are changing their lives, but what they are doing is rearranging the furniture of the same life.”

Barnes returned to the sermon from Wednesday about the Gerasene demoniac to offer a clarification. Jesus told the man who had a legion of demons cast out of him to stay with the community where he was from.

“I am not saying that Jesus expects you to stay in an abusive community. If it is abusive, leave. But community is an essential part of faith. We can never leave the notion of community,” Barnes said. “Like the four friends of the paralyzed man, we need to have our friends because we can’t do faith on our own.”

As a pastor, Barnes was always amused when people would come into his office and demand the church do something or they would leave. “Why did they think that was a threat? It is OK if you need to leave a particular church,” he said.

Theologian Martin Buber said when two people come together to form a sacred place, God is present. But when one of the people leaves, the creative, sacred space is gone. Jesus said wherever two or three are gathered, he would be there.

“Any community will disappoint the dreams that people have for it,” Barnes said. “German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that nothing is more dangerous to a community than the dreams people have for it because people will always love the dream more than the community. But the community is God’s reality.”

When Jesus healed the paralyzed man, he told him that his sins were forgiven and the scribes who witnessed the healing asked Jesus why he said that. 

“Jesus did not believe that the man was paralyzed because of sin. He was just cutting to the chase. That was easier to say than ‘Rise and walk,’ ” Barnes said. 

The axis mundi is the grace of God and that is what Jesus’ ministry was all about. “When Jesus fed the hungry or healed the sick, they got hungry again and sick again. Those were signs of what the soul needs, the restored relationship with God where sins are forgiven,” Barnes said.

He continued, “We are at home with God in a community with people who will hold us and carry us to Jesus. We can engage in personal acts of worship and charity, but no one can give themselves absolution. We all need a priest to proclaim the axis mundi, to say ‘in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.’ That’s what the community does and why we have to have it.”

The Rev. Mary Lee Talbot, who lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun Sammi, presided. The Rev. Barbara Wells, facilitator of Unity of Chautauqua, read the scripture. The Motet Consort — Barbara Hois, flute, Debbi Grohman, clarinet, and Will La Favor, piano — played “Largo e sostenuto and Allegro assai,” from Trio No. 2 in A Minor, by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The Motet Choir sang “Healer of our every ill,” music and text by Ken Medema. Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, directed the choir and Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, provided accompaniment on the Steinway piano. The postlude was “Ciacona in C minor,” BuxWV 159 by Dietrich Buxtehude, played by Stigall on the Massey Memorial Organ. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.