Borrowing from Herbert’s words, today is a day of “old customs.” It is the 6th Sunday of Easter which is also known as Rogation Sunday. Now I have an older Book of Common Prayer here … a 1928 BCP to be exact. It was given to me on April 17, 1976 – the day Bishop Richard Millard, the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of California, laid his hands on my head conferring the sacrament of Confirmation. In the 1928 BCP, as in prior versions, this day appears in the lectionary as “The Fifth Sunday after Easter, commonly known as Rogation Sunday.” Take out your prayer books for a moment and turn to page 895. It is the lectionary for year A and you’ll see listed “Sixth Sunday of Easter” … but the word “Rogation” is missing. Rogation Sunday, and Rogationtide, was dropped in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and it was also dropped from the Roman Missal about the same time. Part of the reasoning behind this was that Rogation Sunday seemed a quaint throwback to a time where our economy was more agrarian and, with the rise of urban and suburban living, it just seemed out of step with our modern life. But, with all due respect to the Standing Committee on Liturgy and the General Conventions of 1976 and 1979 who approved our “new” BCP, I’d like to suggest they were just a bit shortsighted.
Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare meaning “to ask.” The tradition began in Vienne, France in 470 … in the waning days of the Roman Empire. The town had suffered from a period of severe natural disasters which decimated the crops. Rogationtide was the Church’s liturgical response. By the time George Herbert wrote his book, this almost 1200 year “old custom” had four distinct aspects to it: “First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field; secondly, justice in the preservation of bounds; thirdly, charity in loving walking and neighborly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any; fourthly, relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largess, which at that time is, or ought to be used.” So Rogationtide was more than just about crops and fields – it was also about the preservation of boundaries which led to the tradition of “beating the bounds” and noting where parish lands had encroachments. Part of this process was to engage in “loving walking and neighborly accompanying one another” so that reconciliation of differences (especially with respect to boundaries) could be attained. And finally, as an act of stewardship and recognition that all blessings come from God, the relief of the poor through liberal wealth redistribution was to be accomplished. Clearly, blessing, boundaries, justice and generosity were all interlinked in this liturgical act.
At the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland in 2007, Resolution 2007-3 was brought to the floor. It was entitled “Caring for God’s Creation through Waste Prevention and Recycling” and it generally encouraged parishes to take up the cause of reducing waste and enact recycling programs as an act of stewardship. The final paragraph of the resolution read “Resolved, that this Convention urges parishes to designate the Sunday closest to Earth Day each year as Stewardship of Creation Sunday.” Now on the surface this sounds like a good idea, right? There’s only one problem … Earth Day was established in 1970 … one-thousand, five-hundred years after the first observance of Rogationtide. You see, the Church already knew about “Earth Day” – we’d been doing it since the end of the Roman Empire! But by dropping Rogationtide from our Prayer Book, the younger members of our Church had lost their history! Earth Day was copying the Church … and I thought it was time for us to take back the Church’s role in teaching the world about the stewardship of creation.
So I rose to speak to the resolution. I offered a friendly amendment to change the wording and strike the words “Earth Day” and replace them with “Rogation Sunday.” I gave the rationale for reviving Rogation Sunday and Rogationtide and was very appreciative that the Secretary of Convention was kind enough to let me speak before … calling me out of order because I technically wasn’t a delegate yet (I was 6 weeks shy of ordination). One of my fellow priests stepped in and offered the friendly amendment in my place and it was accepted and the motion carried on a voice vote.
The Church has historically defended care of the Earth, taught respect and preservation of boundaries, undertaken the work of reconciliation, and the teachings of Jesus speak directly to the rebalancing of wealth in care for the poor. This is our witness and this is who we are. This is why we blessed the Food Forest project today, why we blessed the animals and the town, and why we beat the bounds. And these practices are liturgically enacted this day but are reminders that what we do this day is part of the warp and weft of our lives as Christians.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is the one who asks the Father to send the Advocate, the Paraclete, to guide us into all truth. There really is no good translation for the Greek word Paraclete – but it implies the one who comes alongside us to help and assist us. It is this Advocate who helps us become co-creators with God, if we just listen for the opportunities to do so. I believe this Paraclete has been quite active here in the past three weeks as plans for the Brunswick Food Forest have come together far faster than anything I could have imagined and residents of Brunswick have joined this vision to bring fresh and healthy produce to our community. This is the work of Rogationtide, isn’t it? To ask God’s blessing on our work and crops that they might be a blessing to all of our community and to continue the co-creating and reconciling work of God in this community.
I invite you this Rogationtide to claim your Christian witness as a steward of the earth, a steward of right relationships with others in the respecting of boundaries, to seek reconciliation as an expression of honoring Christ in others, and to be generous in your giving of treasure and talents. We have something to teach the world in these old customs … and something to learn about God and ourselves.