You should really consider coming to our new—which is to say, less than one-year-old—book group. Last month’s book was so fantastic, when I got to the end, I actually went back to the beginning and read it again. (OK: Full disclosure. I listened to it. Which is even better.)
The book was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society[i], and it is a novel written entirely as letters between the characters of the book. The year is 1946, the place, at the outset, is London, and the experience of World War II is not only fresh in everyone’s minds; it still determines things like where people live (are their apartment buildings still standing?); where their loved ones are (if someone has been taken to a prison camp, will they ever come home?); and how they are going to live their lives from now on (is the war ever, really, over?). When the novel begins, we are reading letters between Juliet, a writer, and Sidney, her editor, who also happens to be the brother of her lifelong best friend, Sophie. Soon, though, Juliet starts corresponding with people from the Isle of Guernsey. Guernsey’s experience of the war was very different from that of the rest of England. England was bombed. Guernsey was occupied. Thousands of Nazi troops occupied Guernsey for five years. Through the mysteries of second-hand books and a shared love of literature, Juliet, who wrote a regular column about life in wartime London, has her eyes opened to an experience of the war she had never imagined.
Scripture can be found here...
This morning’s New Testament reading is taken from a letter, but one that was written close to two thousand years ago. And like the letters of the novel, it describes a conflict… but in this case, it’s not a war. It falls more into the category of a misunderstanding, or, maybe, a falling out. Paul, the writer, is also corresponding with a community, one that he himself gathered together, the church of Corinth. Now, after years of ups and downs—and other letters from him calling the Corinthians out on questionable behavior—he writes this letter, the vast majority of which consists of Paul defending himself to people who are not longer sure whether they trust him.
But as agitated and vulnerable as Paul is throughout this letter, he continues to weave in his experience of God… His experience of the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion made possible in and through the Holy Spirit. On this Trinity Sunday, the only day on the church calendar that is dedicated to a doctrine, I'm not going to defend the notion of a Trinitarian God. Instead [ii] I would like to talk about the ways in which we experience God. I’ll be drawing upon the experiences of my fictional friends from the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to do so, and upon my own experience, too.
Here’s how Juliet Ashton, writer, comes to know the people of Guernsey: She gives a book away. I have been purging my house of possessions these last weeks, in preparation for my sabbatical: I’m creating a study for myself. I can attest to the fact that the most difficult things to get rid of are books. If I’ve read them and loved them, then I want to keep them. If I haven’t read them, then I hang on to them, in hopes I will read them some day. If I’ve read them and didn’t love them, or, worse, didn’t finish them, then the books and I are strangely bonded by sadness and guilt. It is hard to give a book away. Juliet gives away The Selected Essays of Elia by early nineteenth century by British essayist Charles Lamb, because she already has another copy of it (this is the easiest situation for giving a book away). Somehow that book finds its way from London to the Isle of Guernsey, where it is picked up by a farmer named Dawsey Adams. He loves the book so much that he writes to Juliet to find the name of a London bookstore from which to buy a biography of the author, and maybe more of his works. Juliet is thrilled to know that this perfect stranger loves Charles Lamb. In her reply to him, she writes, “I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”
Juliet’s book finding its way to Dawsey seems to me a kind of “grace.” Grace is the experience of being given what you need without working for it or earning it yourself or even asking for it. That’s why Christians in general, and Paul in particular, talk of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus is God’s gift of God’s self to us. He’s the one who reminds us that God is for us, not against us; that God is with us, not far away from us; and that when mercy and justice bump up against each other, God’s move is mercy, forgiveness, every time.
I was not always so crazy about Jesus. After a childhood in which Jesus made sense to me, in my 20’s Jesus no longer did. It probably had something to do with the fact that Jesus’ maleness was used as the reason the church of my childhood didn’t consider me an appropriate candidate for ministry. I’m not sure what the turning point was for me. Maybe it was immersion in scripture study, which helped me to see Jesus as the bible’s greatest advocate for treating women as human beings. Maybe it was finding a home in a church that didn’t use Jesus against me. Or maybe it was the moment when, at my absolute lowest and most despairing, a song came into my head: On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand. That wasn't even a song I had particularly loved, before. But whether we know it or not, the hymns and songs we sing in church teach us our theology. Whatever it was, at some point I had a deep, real, lived experience of the grace of Jesus—of the pure gift he is to me, personally. At some point it became mine, and, I suppose, I became his. Again. Grace.
I was trying to describe a sunset to someone the other day. “You know, that moment when there is a ball of what looks like golden, molten flame in the sky, and as it sinks, around it you see, first, a spreading out of orange, and then, pinkish-red, and finally, when the yellow-orange-red is almost gone, the purple glow that lasts until, at last, the sky is full of stars…” And then, on Friday night… what do you know, that exact imaginary sunset materialized. I was driving west on Main Street in Binghamton. In theory, I was going home. But I ended up driving towards the sunset, staying on Main Street at least a mile longer than I normally would have, because I just didn’t want to miss a thing.
In the novel, when Juliet finally gets to Guernsey, she immerses herself in, not only the new friends she’s made there, but also the natural life of the island. She is staying in a cottage from which she can run through wildflowers to a cleft of rock. There she can see the ocean, the English Channel. In the cottage she is delighted by stones and shells that have been lovingly collected from the beach; the beauty of nature is everywhere.
And I have just one question: What kind of God does that? I mean, God with all God’s godliness is creating a universe, and somewhere on a little rock in the insane, immeasurable vastness, God decides to plant something that will eventually evolve into us, and God’s got lots of things to worry about… the lifespans of stars, which rocks will get water, the exact distance of rocks-with-water from stars to ensure friendliness to life… and into the mix, God decides that sunsets will be just spectacular. Also oceans. Also shells and rocks, moons and stars, and the toes and laughter of babies. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” the Psalmist asks. Who are we that you, who made all that is, give even the tiniest thought to us?
And of course, one possible answer is: It’s not at all about who we are. It’s all about who God is: a God who makes everything, including us, out of an unimaginable abundance of love. Psalm 8 describes the majesty of it all, the beauty. Eventually, another writer of scripture will conclude: God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). If a sunset doesn’t convince us of it, maybe the flowing beauty of a river will, or the scent of newly blossoming peonies, or the sight of a mountain rising into the clouds. Or those baby toes. The earth and everything that is in the natural world is one long, loud canticle of praise that sings: God is love.
It is touching that Paul ends his letter with these very familiar words of blessing. To a community that has maybe lost touch with the free gift of life in Jesus, Paul sends grace. To a group of folks who have been fighting, Paul commends love. To a fractured, fragmented association of individuals, Paul writes: Communion.
We celebrated the Lord’s Supper, which we also call “communion,” just last week. And in that sacrament, we are reminded of both the love of God and the grace of Jesus. But the purpose of it is to bind us all together as one: and that’s what the word means, literally. Communion = together as one. For Christians, we do this by our celebration of that meal, so central to both our faith and our history.
But it’s not only through meals that we are bound together. I have experienced communion through my life in our congregation on many occasions that had nothing to do with meals. In the summer of 2013, when a group of us worked together on houses all but destroyed by hurricane/ Superstorm Sandy. Last summer when Amy, Kurt, Ryan, and I joined with Presbyterian youth from all over the United States for a week of worship, study, and joy. Doing the hard work at a session or deacons’ meeting, while still praying and laughing and appreciating one another. All experiences of communion.
For the novel’s cast of characters who lived on the Isle of Guernsey during the Nazi occupation, their experience during the war bonds them together. At first, they come together for an illicit meal of roast pork (the Nazis were supposed to have control of all the food; one little piglet eluded their oversight.) Then, their Literary society is born of the necessity of covering up that illicit roast pork dinner. Ultimately, what binds these friends together is their care for one little girl whose mother has been taken from her by the death-dealing ugliness that is always war. They come together as one to do the most important job of their lives: to be mother and father to a child who is, at least for a time, an orphan.
The communion of the Holy Spirit is meant to empower us for the most important job of our lives: sharing the good news of God’s love for us and Jesus’ grace toward us. So many of God’s people walk through their days and nights hurting, feeling for all the world like orphans, and the love of God sounds like a lovely but remote and unlikely fairy tale. And for those running from their self-loathing through self-destructing behaviors and additions, the grace of Jesus probably feels just as unlikely. But, as the commander of any battalion, the coach of any team, and the director of any choir knows: give people a common goal which is important to them, and you can watch as they move from being isolated, atomized individuals, into being one: one unit, one team, one voice. Communion. Our job—again, the most important job any of us will ever have—is to convey to God’s isolated, sad, angry, lonely, fragmented people that God is love, and Jesus is grace. And in doing that, in having that common goal, we are one. We are joined in sweet communion, a gift to us from God’s Spirit, weaving us all together for this holy task. Sweet communion.
Paul says “farewell” to the Corinthians, at the end of his letter, by reminding them: Jesus is grace. God is love. And the Spirit will bring you together as one. But Paul will see his people again soon. This is not a “Goodbye” forever; it is, “God be with you ‘till we meet again.”
So I will say it to you, too. ‘Till we meet again: May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the sweet communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (New York: Dial Press, 2008).
[ii] With thanks to Professor Matt Skinner, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.