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. 

Unforgotten: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on August 29, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9.

Last week a group of us here at the church began our Sunday afternoon program for Confirmation, Reception, and Reaffirmation of Baptismal vows, and as I’ve been preparing the content for that, a couple folks have mentioned something that perhaps you have noticed, too: there are so many funny, obscure-sounding words that we use in the church and in the liturgy—hang around an Episcopal Church long enough, especially in the sacristy (itself one of those funny words) and you are liable to pick up a second language of sorts. In seminary my friends and I spent a lot of time making puns using liturgical vocabulary and I realized: Phil, you really need to get out a bit more, go see a movie, get a hobby or something. 

All that is to say, here is your liturgical vocab word of the day: anamnesis.

Anamnesis. Technically, this is that little portion of the prayer at the altar during the Eucharist where we say (or chant) together something like: Christ has died/Christ is risen/Christ will come again. This is the anamnesis—a word that could be translated as “a remembrance, an act of remembering”— because in that moment we are saying, together, what has happened in the story of our faith and what we trust will happen in the future. We are remembering and restating that past, that present, and that future promise together, with one voice, as one body.

But a more literal and perhaps more evocative translation of the word anamnesis, as a professor once told me, is found by splitting up its parts—amnesis (which means “to forget”—like the word amnesia) and the prefix an-, which means no or not.  So literally, Anamnesis is to not forget

Not simply happening to remember a nice, pleasant thing once in a while when we’re feeling nostalgic, but to firmly, resolutely choose to “not forget” to never forget what Christ has done and continues to do for us and in us and through us. 

The practice of anamnesis is to guard against forgetfulness—our own and the world’s—to lay claim upon the knowledge and the experience of something or someone—for us, Jesus— that is precious enough to reiterate, over and over and over again. In the anamnesis, we proclaim what is true and what is fundamental, in a world that is all too ready to forsake these things for the expediency of the moment. Sunday after Sunday…Mass after Mass…like a sustained note across the chaotic centuries: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Now more than ever, perhaps, it is easy to be forgetful. Bombarded by the news of the world; dizzied by rapidity with which one crisis follows another; caught up in the cacophany of competing claims upon our attention. We are so overstimulated that it is hard to keep it all straight, to sift through all the data, all the opinions, and to not lose sight of what is deep and persistent and real. 

I have joked more than once in recent weeks that on some days I don’t recall my name or what it is that I am supposed to be doing in any given moment, but there is some truth there in the joke, because at times I do think we forget our real identities in the mad scramble to keep up, to stay on top of things—we forget, in our fearful haste, what our true name is.

It is: Beloved; Child of God; Redeemed one; Liberated one; Peacemaker; Mercy-bearer; Branch upon the vine of Christ. 

If we’re not careful, if we don’t keep telling the story, we forget this.

“Take care and watch yourselves closely,” Moses tells Israel in today’s reading, “so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” He knows, just as we do, that not forgetting is hard, but he also knows that it is essential if Israel is to bear the fruit of God’s promises. So he is saying, to them and to us:

Hold on to the memory of the God who called you out and delivered you from your despair. Hold on to the memory of the God who would not give you up, who fed you, who made a way for you where there was no way, who guided you into your true identity to be a sign of justice and peace to the nations. Hold on to this, beloved ones, because it is so easy to forget, it is so easy to cut yourself off from the truth of who you really are, who God has ordained that you will be. You have to keep telling the story, and you have to keep embodying the story, so that you will not forget. And in your not forgetting, in your anamnesis, even when you suffer—for you will suffer—you will yet remember that life is more than suffering. You will still sing the freedom songs of Zion, even in a foreign land.  You will not lose hope, because even through a thousand starless nights you will still remembver, still dream of what is possible. And you will not lose your way, not forever, because the unforgotten story will show you the way home. 

This is still our task, still our calling: to not forget the story. And to pass it on. To ensure that what God has done and continues to do remains unforgotten. If we do nothing else with our lives than that, we will have done something very good. 

That’s why we keep coming back, that’s why we keep learning all these funny church words and sitting through sermons and singing these same songs, and praying these same prayers over and over again—this is why we keep proclaiming, through every season, that Christ has died/Christ is risen/Christ will come again—because we need to remember that this is what is true. That in a world full of illusions and shadows, this is Truth itself.

And even if, someday, we forget everything else—our name, our accomplishments, the faces of our loved ones, the day or the month or the year, I pray to God that we will never forget the words of this place, the prayers ingrained upon our lips, the words of a story that tells how Love formed the stars, how Love Incarnate could not be killed, how Love’s Spirit has never left us. And I pray that even when we are dust, that the dust remembers the story still, that the earth trembles with the memory of this love that refuses to be forgotten. 

That is why we are here. Because Love refuses to be forgotten. Love is its own type of anamnesis. 

Remember that, when things in the world start to feel especially scary, as they can, and when things in your own life start to seem uncertain, remember that throughout all the ages, throughout all the rise and fall of history, throughout all the confusion and the mistakes and the distortions of the human heart—remember that Love refuses to be forgotten. It is the one thing that has never faded, never given up, never been vanquished. Love endures all things.

And that is the story we can’t forget.

Or, perhaps, better yet, that is the story that refuses to forget us.