The good news of rogation, 6 Easter (C) – 2007

May 13, 2007

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5; John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9

Today is Rogation Sunday, when the church has traditionally offered prayer for God’s blessing on the fruits of the earth and the labors of humankind. The word “rogation” is from the Latin rogare, “to ask.”

Historically, the Rogation Days are a period of fasting and abstinence, asking God’s blessing on the crops, for a bountiful harvest. Ancient pagan observances of robigalia included processions through the cornfields to pray for the preservation of the crops from mildew. And Christian honoring of Rogation Days has varied over the centuries: from observance on the fixed date of April 25 to great outdoor processions on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day. Elizabeth I of England ordered the “perambulation of the parish” at Rogationtide, a custom still observed in many places.

This brings to mind an image of our processing down the avenue, declaring everything within the geographic boundaries of this parish to be specially set apart and consecrated as holy, pronouncing to every soul we encounter the liberation offered through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and staking our claim for the working out of the plan of salvation and the bringing of God’s kingdom here in earth.

And of course, in older days, the clergy had the responsibility of what we used to call the “cure of souls” within the parochial boundaries. That is, everyone within these lines was technically a member of the parish. Every institution was a chaplaincy concern. Not just every Episcopalian, every single person. And Rogation Sunday was a time to “beat the bounds” – to walk around the boundary of a parish – to be certain you knew just where those boundaries were and who was inside them.

Bookstores abound with resources for setting and keeping healthy boundaries. These books tell us when to say yes, and when to say no. They encourage you to “take control” of your life and to “stop hiding from love.” The objective is becoming separate, individual, and autonomous.

Now, healthy boundaries are a good thing. They help us live more fulfilling lives, respecting others and respecting ourselves. They help us overcome depression, codependency, and anxiety, and to avoid unnecessary anger and hurt.

And yet, as good as healthy boundaries can be, and as useful as they are – Jesus appears to be telling us something altogether different about boundaries. In the Gospels, his message is not about keeping a healthy balance between work and home, not about maintaining respectful distance from others. No. Jesus says he is the vine, and we are the branches. We are part of him, and he is part of us. Knit together, or grafted to one another. And if you do not understand what this means to us, do not let your hearts be troubled, as Jesus promises that the Spirit will come and teach us everything we need to know. The one who healed the sick will cure us of our ills as well. For Jesus, it’s all about being in relationship, connected, a part of the larger body, walking together in the Way.

The image Jesus offers of living a separate, autonomous life is horrifying: those who do not abide in him will be thrown away like a branch, to wither, be thrown into a fire, and burned.

You may remember this famous quotation: “No man is an island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” John Donne, the poet and priest who wrote those words some 400 years ago, seemed to understand. For Donne, as for Jesus, boundaries are an invention of foolish humankind.

For instance, what happens in a family when one member falls ill? Everyone is affected. Each member may also catch the disease; people get involved in the sick person’s care, things change – for everyone. Even if you are a child, if your little brother gets sick, you may not have new responsibilities – but you are sure to notice a difference in your mother’s ability to be attentive to you.

We are all part of one vine, all connected, all interrelated. When we realize this, we stop trying to work for our own selfish gain at the expense of others, for we know that harm done to anyone is ultimately harm done to ourselves. When we admit we are part of the true vine, we begin to draw nourishment from each other, instead of competing and fighting with each other.

This is not to say that the kinds of things we call “boundary issues” don’t have merit, or that “healthy boundaries,” as society understands them, are not good things.

If the Israelis and Palestinians realized they were part of one vine, they’d stop trying to hack each other out of existence, realizing that their violent efforts only serve to sever them from their common humanity and prolong the cycle of violence and oppression.

If politicians, or Christians, or any of us realized we are all part of one vine, we would search out ways to cooperate with each other and serve the common good, instead of championing partisan interests.

We in the church can perhaps understand this best, for Jesus tells us he is the true vine, and his Father is the vine grower. We are part of him, and he is part of us, and we are – all of us – rooted in the dirt, the same earth that connects us to every living thing: every plant, every person, every molecule, and every rock.

Everything we think or do affects this world – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in very big ones. Every time we cry, the world cries with us. Every time we laugh, the world laughs along. Every time we sin, the world is damaged by our actions.

But when we do our best, when we try to respect others, when we seek to follow in God’s ways – then the vine thrives, more shoots are sent out, leaves appear, and then, in God’s good time, the rich harvest of fruit comes: grapes for eating, for drying into raisins, for fermenting into wine, seeds to be planted for harvests yet to come.

This is the good news of Rogation Sunday, of Earth Day, of Mothers’ Day, of every day. This is the message of the angels, as brought to earth in the person of Christ Jesus. This is the hope for our salvation, the fruit of our inheritance, the future of our children. This is part of what the Holy Spirit has come to teach us, and accepting it is part of our collective healing.

We are all of us part of the one true vine. May we all come to rejoice in that revelation.

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates is associate rector of the Church of the Ascension in New York City.

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