I got a number of questions last Sunday about the hangings and vestments we have up now. We use this set regularly in the fall here at Emmanuel, but it made me realize it’s been a couple of years since we talked about them and about the message they were created to embody, and in any parish a couple of years is a long time. So I thought I would tell the story again.
All this fabric art that adorns the space was given as a gift to Emmanuel and commissioned from the Sarum Group, the workshop of an artist from England named Jane Lemon. She came over and lived and prayed with us to learn who we were, and out of that came this set of vestments and hangings, which are meant to be an artistic statement of our vocation as a parish, a picture of Emmanuel’s unique call from God. She also made us a purple set for Lent, but I’ve never heard of another parish that has a set like this one, a piece of liturgical art that deliberately holds in front of us who we are meant to be and how to get there.
So let me unpack it a bit. Take a look at the altar – and if it’s too far for you to see well, there are postcard images of it in all the pews today as a gift to you. I’ll say more about that later, but for now let’s look at the art. As you can see, the life of God streams down from the tabernacle where we keep the Holy Eucharist, the real presence of Jesus among us. You notice the rays of Jesus’ power coming forth, glistening with bright life. Where do they land? They land on us, the people of Emmanuel, pictured as that field of wheat below. The art reminds us every time we look at it: For us, everything flows from Jesus and his presence; we have to start by drinking in that presence; to start anywhere else is to fail before we begin.
You also notice, though, that that divine life Jesus is pouring out to us has competition. The field is studded with red poppies, which Jane Lemon intended to be symbols of passivity and indifference. Christ is trying to share his love and power with all of us, but the field also has sleepy poppies who aren’t awake to it yet. Still, slowly, as Jane Lemon wrote in her artist’s statement, “The wheat overcomes the poppies.” Jesus gradually does his work.
And as he does, the field starts coming to life. We see that this wheat is beginning to flourish and grow. And the love and power that came down from Jesus’ living presence in the Tabernacle swell to the point that they can’t be contained inside the field any longer. The love and healing of God begin to move outward. The artist writes, “The (red) thorns which frame the altar frontal symbolize the problems which surround this city parish, (but) [t]he positive way the parish works with [the neighborhood] is reflected in the golden thorns, good coming out of evil.”
There’s no naïve triumphalism here; it’s a mix of red and gold. What Lemons pictures is that slow, incremental change in people and energy and sense of mission that is a hallmark of the way God really works in and through real parishes. The way Jesus’ life affects any church is slow, organic, ambiguous, with setbacks and downtimes, but it has such a determined power.
We could not get a better picture of our call from God than this frontal. What a gift it is. A constant witness that all the power, all the life comes from Jesus; his power brings us to life first; we start to let that life heal and change us, and then it naturally moves out through us to meet the needs around us as the transformation and healing gets bigger – and footnote, there will always be some resistance.
Now Jane Lemon sets this story specifically in our city location, inviting us to think about the specific kinds of healing and love that our neighbors need, and she anchors it, for Emmanuel as a Eucharistic parish, in the presence of Jesus in the Tabernacle. But what I want you to do now is compare this work of art that encapsulates our parish’s mission to the work of another artist, the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 35, the first reading from this morning, uses a different metaphor in the text we heard to tell essentially the same story; for him, the love and power of God is pictured as water, flowing out into a dry desert landscape, letting thirsty and hurting people drink, bringing flourishing life to what was once dry and dead. Let’s hear it.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. It’s close to the same story, isn’t it? Golden light calling the wheat forth to feed the world’s hunger; clear fresh water calling an oasis forth to quench the world’s thirst. They are both trying to tell us: God is pouring out his life. Receive it, and it will so heal and feed you that you will start to be used by God to heal and feed others. There is endless power and love available if you look in the right place.
Christians read this section of Isaiah as pointing forward in time to Jesus, who radically opens up the channel for God’s love through what he does in his death and resurrection. In Christ, the spiritual barriers that block access to that golden light and that thirst-quenching water are removed. He opens up access to the flood of God’s healing and transforming power that we can’t get on our own. Even when some of us keep letting the old blockages hold us back, even when some of us keep getting distracted by lesser kinds of meaning elsewhere, even then the offer is there. 24/7, Jesus is saying: come to me and drink. Come to me and be suffused with light. Come to me and be healed.
And we see him doing exactly this in today’s Gospel, by the way, literally physically healing as a sign of his mission. In my twenty-four years as a priest, I’ve seen all kinds of healing happen – physical, emotional, spiritual in individuals or relationships. I’ve seen healing in parish systems that were codependent or controlling. I’ve seen healing in neighborhoods where Christians chose to open their hearts to be little wells of Isaiah’s water or lamps of Jane Lemon’s golden light. I’ve seen Jesus open the channel, in all those places, for God’s power to make things better. Not just quote, religious, unquote things. God wants to make everything better.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. So let me ask you: what’s your desert? What’s your wilderness? Where are you broken, or lost, or silenced? Where do you struggle to believe that there is hope, or that God has noticed the pain? Have you heard the news that God is willing to shine his light and pour his water on you, that your healing is the reason Jesus went to the Cross? Have you heard that it’s not up to you to construct a way to fix and heal yourself, and that growing as a human being doesn’t have to be the world’s most exhausting and frustrating do it yourself project? Have you heard that there’s a purpose and a mission already given by God that are much bigger, and much more generous, and much more lifegiving, than any goal you could ever come up with on your own? Or are you still out in the desert, panting with thirst and trying to dig your own well?
If you belong to Jesus, when you come forward to receive him in Communion today, remember that in the sacrament you are being given the most direct access available on this earth to the love and the healing depicted in those rays of golden life that are streaming down from our Tabernacle. Little bits of that light get reflected all over the place, of course, in everything good -- our families, our friends, rewarding work, meaningful leisure – but it is offered to you full strength here and nowhere else on the planet. What a shattering privilege it is. There is enough love and light here, every Sunday, there is enough in the experience of taking the full strength of who Jesus is and what he has done into your own being as you eat and drink his presence, there is enough for the rest of your life and beyond. When you come to this rail, let it in, full strength, to heal and to nourish you in all the places that you need it.
And then… this is why we put the postcard of the altar frontal in the pews. It’s our gift to you. Bring it home with you, and put it on the fridge or the bathroom mirror, or in the Bible you read in the morning, or somewhere you will see it. Let it be the token and the testimony of what Jesus is doing for you here at this altar, so that every time you are tempted to let your brokenness have a bigger hold on you than his wholeness, or your lethargy have a bigger hold on you than his energy for service and mission, or your dark fears have a bigger hold on you than his light and peace, you can look at this image of what Jesus does. And you can say, with this beautiful work of art that is so unique to us: No. At that altar, I can receive the power of God. I can receive the life of God. I can receive all the meaning and all the mission I could ever need. I can drink in my meaning and my purpose. Full strength. Every week. And it’s enough. It’s more than enough. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.