The Island: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 13, 2022 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mishawaka, IN. The lectionary text cited is 1 Corinthians 15:12-20.

I spent most of the summers of my childhood in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my dad’s side of the family lived for generations. Now here in Mishawaka, you all live relatively close to Lake Michigan, so you have a good sense of the beauty of the Great Lakes, and if you have ever gone way up north, you know how rugged and beautiful it is on the shoreline of Lake Superior—rock formations and dense forests colliding with the open expanse of the water in its many shades and moods. 

And although there are any number of places along the shore of Lake Superior where one might be struck by its wild beauty, there is one particular spot we would visit as a kid that always stayed with me—the type of place that impresses itself upon your psyche, such that you might recall it out of nowhere while absentmindedly washing the dishes or just before drifting off to sleep at night—a pleasurably haunting memory, a dream, a landscape pregnant with unspoken meaning. 

It is a rocky, forested point of land, stretching out into the lake, with a small sandy beach at its tip and then, across a churning channel of  water, an island—so close that you can see it clearly, and, when the waters are calm, even dare to wade across to its shore. I have a distinct memory of doing so, by myself, as a child—scrambling through the water and ending up on the other side, giddy with freedom—just a couple hundred feet from the mainland but a world apart.

The point of land, the channel of water, the island—the image of that place stayed with me through many long and parched seasons of my life—chronic illness, the uncertainties of young adulthood, the sudden death of my father and, then, later, my grandparents. And although I had not been back to visit Michigan for nearly a decade and hadn’t been back to the lake for even longer than that, when I moved to Indiana nearly three years ago to serve at Trinity Fort Wayne, one of the first things I did was make the long drive north through the landscape of my past, through the mining towns and the forests. Eventually I ended up at Lake Superior, and I found the point of land again, and I walked out to the edge of it.

What struck me, though, was how deep the waters were this time—choppy waves and wind blowing in off the lake, no rocks visible to scramble on, no chance of crossing over. All I could do was stand and stare at the island, that childhood dreamscape, so close, but just beyond my reach. 

As we grow up and grow older, we tend to experience life as a sort of expanding distance from the solidities of the past. Sometimes we are grateful for that increased distance, and other times we mourn it, but either way, I think that there comes a time in each of our lives when we stand at the edge of what we know and glimpse the islands of youth and memory as beloved, yet inaccessible kingdoms. And we might despair how death consumes what was once so present to us—the places, the faces and the voices of another time.  And perhaps we start to believe that this is simply our portion in a fragile and fleeting world.

But there is another choice. There is another way to see this. 

“How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” Paul asks the church at Corinth. “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”

Apparently there were some among the Corinthians who accepted that Christ indeed had risen from the dead, and that this was a miraculous act of God, but they could not accept the idea that all of the rest of us were destined for the same undying life. In a world where it is self-evident that everything and everyone dies and decays, perhaps it felt foolish to them, naive, even, to claim such a possibility.  They were content, it seems, for Jesus to be the inaccessible island, beautiful to behold but not part of their actual lived reality—not a place they themselves could ever dare to venture. 

But Paul will have none of this. For he understands that we are not just people who have beheld the resurrection of someone else, of Jesus, but we are, ourselves, resurrection people. Where Jesus goes, we go too. And if the chasm between where we stand and where he has risen seems impassable, that is because we have still bought into the lie that death wins. It does not. Not any more. With Jesus, death is not the last word of any story. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” because then we have missed the actual endpoint, the actual telos of following Jesus. Follow me, he says, not just through this world but onward, onward, “further up and further in” as C.S. Lewis wrote, to the undying life of God that makes everything possible.

I think sometimes as good, reasonable Episcopalians, we are hesitant to really lean into this paradigm of resurrection, of life eternal. We don’t want to think so much about heaven that we discount the beauty and the urgent need of this world. But the danger is that we go too far the other way—that we become so focused on our present reality that we forget that we are inheritors of the resurrection—that another world is not only possible, it is promised, and it is already making itself known in our midst. 

And when we see that, it changes EVERYTHING, because death is no longer the precipice over which our love inevitably vanishes. Death is no longer an impassable, stormy channel separating us from God’s life. For God’s Son has calmed the waters, he has made it passable. And so the island beckons once more; its golden shores are a place we were meant to stand; the kingdom beyond death where Jesus stands, welcoming us back into life.

What does this mean for us, here and now, to be Resurrection people? It means that we can be people of joyful courage. We don’t have to stand wistfully on the shore, mourning what once was. Because to believe in Resurrection is to believe that nothing is truly lost; that every good thing is still possible. Even when we are poor, hungry, grieving, or lonely, even when the world is changing, even when the church is changing—every good thing is possible. This is our proclamation and our practice.

And here at St. Paul’s, and down at Trinity Fort Wayne, and in every parish and faith community that comes together in the name of Jesus, we have an opportunity to practice at this together—to practice being Resurrection people. Everything we do in our faith communities—serving, donating, tending to one another, worshipping, studying, feeding, mending, advocating—all of it is a way of saying yes to God’s aliveness, it is a step out into the water, confident that we can reach the other side, that that Divine life awaits us, as long as we hold onto each other and keep our eyes on Jesus.

I know it has been a long hard couple of years, but don’t turn back. Don’t give up. We can get there.

I haven’t been back up to to Lake Superior since that day, and I don’t know if or when I will make it there again. But I think that the island will remain in my mind’s eye forever—a reminder that I have a choice—that life can be viewed either as a wistfully inaccessible, passing dream or it can be viewed as a promise that lies on the other side of death. Every day, with God’s help, I mean to choose the latter. I mean to choose the promise. 

And perhaps, one distant day, when the waters have been stilled forever, I will cross that channel and stand on the other side once more, and life will feel new, and nothing will be lost, ever again. Perhaps that’s where we’re all headed in time. I pray that we are.

And on that day, Resurrection will be not just a promise glimpsed far off, but the ground upon which we stand. 

Porches: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, January 30, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

Since moving to Fort Wayne a few years ago, I have discovered one of the simple, perfect pleasures of life in the Midwest (during the warmer months, at least): strolling through the neighborhood at dusk, fireflies blinking in the humid air, as people sit out on their front porches watching the encroaching twilight.

Growing up largely out west where the houses look very different, I have to say that there is nothing like a good front porch. They are a thing of beauty, especially in the older neighborhoods where they sit broad and benevolent, ensconced amidst leafy green trees, the warm glow of a lamp spilling out into the gathering night. And always a rocking chair or a swing, inhabited in the cool of the evening by some friendly neighbors.

I walk past and we wave to one another, remark on the weather; just a moment of encounter, a little reminder of the permeability of the barrier between our lives and the lives of the people around us—between our homes and the larger home that is our community. Front porches facilitate that somehow.

One evening last spring I was walking through the neighborhood as the blossoms fell and gathered on the streets, and the silhouette of a man on his porch greeted me. “It’s a beautiful night,” he said. “It feels like hope.”

It feels like hope. What an unexpected yet wonderful thing to say to a passing stranger. But he was right, that moment did feel like hope—both the beautiful evening and his poetic greeting.

Early on in the most isolating phase of the pandemic, those porch greetings were sometimes the only real face-to-face interaction I might have in a day, and it was a balm for the loneliness of uncertain times. You might recall that there were stories in early 202 from around the world of people going out on their front porches or their balconies to wave to one another, to dance and to sing, as if to say: yes, we’re all still here. We’re still together, even if we don’t always realize it. 

When we’re out on the front porch, the world is a bit kinder, a bit gentler—we suddenly realize that we live amidst a thousand open thresholds rather than row upon row of closed doors. A thousand open hearts; a thousand possibilities to stop and say hello, maybe even pause together in the night and smell the blooming flowers, to watch the stars come out.

I know, of course, that not all of us live in neighborhoods with front porches, but I hope that at some point in your life you’ve experienced what I am describing—and if you haven’t, then some evening in late spring or summer, park at the church and come take a walk through my neighborhood, and let yourself experience what it is like to see your neighbors again. I promise they’ll be out there on those stately old porches, and you will be greeted, and you will go home feeling a bit more like you belong to this world.

So why all this talk of porches? Because actually I think that they’re a great way of thinking about our life of faith.

Here’s what I mean: It can be tempting to think of our faith as something very private, something that is done behind closed doors, in the seclusion of our church sanctuaries or during our bedside prayers. 

Perhaps we’ve just always done it that way, or perhaps we are suspicious of certain folks who practically chase you down the street with their religious views. Either way, we might start to act as though our Christianity is like eating alone or singing only in the shower—just something between us and God. And while there is indeed a deeply personal dimension to our relationship with Jesus, there is also something else that he asks of us—a willingness to step outside of our domesticity, to seek his face in one another and among the rest of our neighbors–especially the ones we don’t know very well. 

We don’t have to parade ourselves through the streets every day—but we can’t keep the joy of our salvation sequestered either. Our faith needs to exist in that liminal space between indoors and out, neither zealously private nor zealously overbearing. 

And so, it occurs to me that we need a front porch kind of faith. 

Deeply personal, yes, deeply grounded, but also open, inviting, hospitable, and a bit vulnerable—a faith that breathes out in the open air, a faith that is ready to meet whoever comes along and to bless them. A faith that is ready to love our neighbors in Christ’s name. 

The struggle to find this balance is as old as the church itself. Paul, in today’s famous passage from the first letter to the Corinthians, has a lot to say about love, and it is beautiful to hear, but we are well-served to remember why he was writing this letter in the first place. You see, the church in Corinth had some wealthy and worldly members in it—people who tended to think rather highly of themselves. As such, they had a tendency towards insularity—the wealthier members kept to themselves and didn’t share table fellowship with their poorer brothers and sisters. And some of them saw Christianity as, essentially, another Greek mystery religion—a pathway to further wealth and health and wisdom for themselves, rather than a dramatic reordering of their value system and their conduct in the broader community. 

And so when Paul speaks of the preeminence of love over and above all other virtues and achievements, he is telling the Corinthians—and us—that far more than cultivating eloquence or wisdom or impressive piety, we are called to simply take care of one another, and to especially take care of those who need us the most. We are called to recognize our interdependence upon one another. We are, in other words, called to have a front porch faith—a faith that is outward facing, open, and neighborly.

Someone once said, after all, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Neighbors. That’s who we are in this whole thing. To be a neighbor is our primary vocation as Christians. Not heroes on our own personal quest, not would-be saviors, not judges, nor rulers—just neighbors. Neighbors sitting on the front porch, in joyful proximity to one another, calling out blessings into the summer night, watching the fireflies, waiting for the stars.

Each of us will live out this vocation differently—whether we have an actual front porch or not. For some of us, it might look like getting to know our broader community and its needs a bit better. For others it might be delving more deeply into the ministries and the offerings of this parish. For some it might be writing a letter of encouragement or making a long overdue phone call. There is no bad place to begin. There is only the invitation to do so—to step out, to greet the world and discover that Paul was right–yes, indeed, love does abide, everywhere, in everyone, and the bravest, most impressive thing we can ever do is to live as if this is true.

And when we do so, may we discover the deep satisfaction of being a neighbor and of having one.

May we encounter the joy of remembering that each of us is an integral part of all things.

And at the end of all our journeys, may we find the front porch that waits for us, a lamp glowing in the darkness, and a voice to welcome us home. A voice that says,

It’s a beautiful night. It feels like hope.