I was completely blown away when I got to church this week and, for the first time, saw the Sarum all-seasons frontal on the altar. Not only because I think it’s beautiful, with its thorns and wheat and its golden rays of light, but because it seemed to me to carry some message I needed to know more about. So I went to our parish history to see what Jane Lemon, the artist from England who designed it, intended this frontal to symbolize about Emmanuel. As many of you know, these Sarum hangings were specially commissioned for us and based on her living and praying in the parish for 2 weeks. Let me read sections of her artist’s statement to you.
“The wheat reminds us of the prairies and symbolizes growth in Christ… as seen in the parish’s mission and ministry. The poppies on the other hand are symbols of the indifference which can be our comfortable reaction, but the wheat overcomes the poppies. 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. The rays falling on the wheat represent God’s love and grace …at work in the parish.”
In Brown Bag Discipleship a few weeks ago we were looking at I Cor 15, which is one of the great New Testament passages on the Resurrection. It’s the longest chapter in any of Paul’s letters. In it Paul builds an extended case for what Easter means: he talks about the various groups of eyewitnesses, he unpacks the implications, he famously comments that if Jesus isn’t alive, the whole Christian enterprise is a shuck, and near the end he goes off into the joyous, really popular part: Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?
You often hear that little bit at funerals, which has the effect of focusing the chapter down to one aspect of what the Resurrection brings us, the assurance that in Christ we can receive a life that continues after death. That is a wonderful hope, but especially with this frontal on our altar and especially on Rogation Sunday, it’s good to remember that it is far from the only hope God gives us in the Resurrection. We see this in Paul’s final climactic verse which, unfortunately, hardly anybody ever reads, even though the whole chapter leads up to it. Paul takes 57 verses building this case for what Easter means, and that does includes a hope for our own personal survival. But that’s only part of the whole case Paul is building here. What’s the climactic verse I’m talking about? The last sentence of I Cor 15, verse 58 is “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”
Now if I have shrunk the hope that God is going to do for the whole cosmos what he did for Christ down to a hope that I’ll go away to heaven after I die, I am going to be completely flummoxed by that verse. I’m going to think it doesn’t follow. If all I care about is getting to heaven later, I would expect Paul to say not “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.” I would expect him to say something more like, “Therefore my beloved, sit back and relax, because God’s got a heavenly future in store for you off in the clouds somewhere, so it really doesn’t matter too much what you work for on earth.”
But Paul would never say that. Because he understands the whole hope of Easter, just like the rest of the New Testament understands the whole hope of Easter. The reason this verse is the climax of the chapter is because it announces that our bodily life now, our this-world life, our actions, our involvements, are not, after all, valueless or spiritually insignificant just because they will die. Because Easter has defeated death, they do, after all, count. All of those things, like the physical body of Jesus, will be included in what God raises into new Creation.
If the Resurrection is true, then, what we do in the present matters immensely for who we will be and what our world will be in the fulness of time. If the Resurrection is true, this frontal that was commissioned especially for us is right on the money. The wheat fed by grace overcoming the poppies of complacency, the thorns made golden with resurrection life transforming the red thorns of the old world. This frontal has got the story just as straight as St. Paul does. What we do – by working in our offices or our homes, speaking kindly of our neighbors, planting a garden, playing with children, donating time to the food pantry or the PTA, taking care of our property – none of that is worthless. God wants to flood all of it with the life of the world to come and take it up into his great future, wheat flourishing under his light, complacency melting away, red thorns turning gold. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”
That’s the Resurrection hope in 3D, Easter the way the Bible sees it and the way this beautiful frontal that is unique to our church depicts it artistically for us. The world renewed by all that wheat and golden sunlight – and of course it’s also perfect for Rogation Sunday today. I’m sure Rogation is new to many of you, but I’ll just say that it began in about the 5th century as an agricultural festival. The old practice was actually for everyone to process around the entire boundaries of the parish, covering several acres. They would put a cross at the various property lines and ask God to do his thing of helping life flourish on each property. We’re going to take a much shorter walk this morning, but I do want to note that this mentality is part of our special heritage from the Church of England, so it’s no wonder an English designer reflected it on our frontal. The Anglican thing is to think in terms of the geographical parish and see ourselves as called to promote the wellbeing of our geographical parish.
You do hear people use the word parish as if it refers to a church, either the building or the members, but it actually means the geographical area God has given that church to love and tend. So West Side Park is part of our parish. Farren’s and Seven Saints are part of our parish. The new downtown farmers market which Emmanuel is helping sponsor is part of our parish. The fields and businesses and housing developments around town are part of our parish. All of that is the thorns waiting for transformation, or in the process of it, that you see on the frontal. It all belongs to God, and he asks each one of us, as some of his representatives in this particular environment, to help take care of it – just like this building belongs to God, and our money belongs to God, and our time belongs to God, and our homes and gardens belong to God, and he asks us to help take care of them. The wheat overcoming the poppies, the red thorns transfigured to gold. Resurrection put into practice. Easter here and now.
How much sense it makes, then, that Rogation Sunday is in Easter Season; that we have a God who values our labor and values our earth and will not abandon either of them. He values our crops and their fruitfulness, he values our gardens and their beauty, he values our ecosystem and its balance, and he offers us the chance to represent him by adding to that value in our own neighborhood, in steadfast faith that because God is going to do for the whole cosmos what he did for Christ, our labor is not in vain. As you come up for Communion today, I hope you will take a closer look at this frontal. It’s more than a piece of great art. I hope you will use it to pray for us all, that we may be worthy of its message and live out its vision of our call. And if you brought something with you today, as we’ve been asking, that you use to take care of your garden or fields or neighborhood, will you take a hold of it now, please, and stand up? Let’s pray together for God’s blessing on these things, and that he will use more and more of us here at Emmanuel to spread his risen life as we tend our neighborhoods and practice Resurrection in our geographical parish.
Sections of this sermon rely on the scholarship of N.T. Wright, drawn from several places but especially from his 2008 work Surprised by Hope.