1 Corinthians 3:10—14
The Church Pension Fund publishes an infamous yearly calendar, notable for its lighthearted, if not “punny,” cartoons centered on scenes one might encounter in the church. If you hang around Episcopal circles long enough, you’ll come across it, I promise you.
One cartoon appears year after year (as far as I can tell) and it always grabs my attention. Its content is a simple scene. The rector of a church of shown addressing, very matter-of-factly, three young acolytes in the following way: “In observance of the Triduum, our sacristans and our verger with gather in the narthex with lucifer in hand, ready to extinguish the tabernacle light near the aumbry, prior the all night [sic] watch in the columbarium following the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Got it?” Two of the acolytes are noticeably perplexed, looking as if they had just received instructions in ancient Greek or advanced calculus. The third acolyte reassures them, whispering, “Don’t worry, stick with me. I speak Episcopalian.”
Whether you’re new to the Episcopal Church or a cradle Episcopalian, you have probably noticed just how much jargon gets thrown around in Episcopal circles. It is part of our charism; something that identifies us as Episcopalians. Indeed, something we Episcopalians tend to treasure. If you look on the front page of your bulletin, near the top you’ll find one such example in the form of the word “rogation.”
In my early days of church life, when I began thinking maybe this church could be part of my life and I could be part of its life, I remember that for many years, I had no idea what this word, “rogation,” meant. At first glance, this English child of the Latin word rogare, or, “to ask,” might pass us by as just another example of that idiosyncrasy many of us have come to treasure about the Episcopal Church. Another anachronism, a word homeless and out of time, part of a whole collection of eccentricities around music, prayer books, church furniture, bells, and smells.
But “rogation” is not simply some quaint linguistic oddity. Rogation can bring the church perineal invitations to rise to her vocation and examine the foundations of her ongoing building project. In many ways, this is perhaps her fundamental vocation: asking.
Historically, the church has set aside the three days leading up to the Ascension as special times of prayer for the protection of crops and harvests, marked by processions on the land from which the human being was formed and continually fed. This little season within a season marked the significance of human agricultural labors, and the knife’s edge communities often walked, knowing well the deadly consequences of failed harvests.
But we, gathered here in Cambridge, and many of us joining online, don’t likely live in such close proximity to the labors that bring food from the earth. Unless we routinely grow out own food, we are likely quite separated from the kind of historical relationship much of humanity has had with farming.
The provision of three collects for Rogationtide anticipate this, however. Consider the wording of the collect prayed today: Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Note the words like “industries” and “commerce.”
Here is another collect for Rogationtide, and to highlight just how different these collects can be from one another, let’s hear it as it appeared in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer,
Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth, in whom we live, move and have our being, who does good unto all men, making thy sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sending rain on the just and the unjust; favourably behold us thy people, who do call upon thy name, and send us thy blessing from heaven, in giving us fruitful seasons, and filling our hearts with food and gladness; that both our hearts and mouths may be continually filled with thy praises, giving thanks to thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This collect definitely smells of the countryside.
So what are we to make of this little season, living as we do in the 21st century west with the impending crisis of climate emergency? Should the absence of explicitly agricultural imagery force our hand—should we admit that rogation is, in the end, an anachronism?
To this question, the lectionary seems to answer, “no.”
You may have noticed, each of the readings for today contain not a single agricultural image. Paul exhorts each member of the church to an honest self-examination of the foundations upon which their lived spirituality is built. The imagery is architectural.
The portions we hear from Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are equally lacking any explicit references to farming or seeds or sowers. The imagery is even harder to pin down. Instead, we are told yet again to ask of ourselves:
Where is my treasure?
Where, then, is my heart?
How is my vision?—is the eye of my heart healthy?
Which master do I really serve? God? Or wealth?
We are reading a new book in the refectory during our corporate meals— Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. What I love about this book (aside from the artistry of its composition and Debbie Blue’s penetrating prose) is the way her exploration of the biblical portrayal of birds has reminded me of the importance of looking, really looking, again and again at what St. Augustine called “the Book of Nature.”
By inviting us to think again about the many and varied ways our human interpretation of birds can teach us, Blue brings into clear focus the bible’s ceaseless insistence that God has given us the gift of otherness as a means to teach us, and as a place for encounter with God. The otherness of birds and beasts to humans; the otherness of people to people, particularly the stranger and the guest. Here, the reality constantly confronting us in the color and song of birds or the difference of a person who does not view the world we do, invites the church to discern her true foundations, her true treasure. And if she cannot—if her eye is unhealthy and her body full of darkness—Rogationtide provides a reminder that she must ask God for the gift of her heart’s true treasure. And she asks for this gift not simply for the sake of successful harvests, but for the healing of the whole of creation.
For the people baptized into Christ’s dying and rising, this means a participation in the paschal mystery, of life laid down to be taken up again. For Jesus is the church’s true treasure. Jesus is the foundation she must constantly seek, asking God to build her faith on nothing less. Not her idiosyncrasies or anachronisms, her liturgies or prayer books, her buildings or furniture.
And so in this little season within a season, those members of Christ’s body who do not live in such intimate proximity to land and harvests are invited to ask Jesus to show them where they have built their foundations. Indeed, the asking nature of Rogationtide is a two way enterprise: God asks us, and we then ask God.
Take these days before the Ascension to ask God to renew the imagination of the church and to build up the Body so that it might rise to the present crisis. To learn from people and bodies and stories and creatures we often disregard.
There, Jesus—risen, glorified, wounded, will meet us in the midst of life, in the midst of our asking. If our foundations will be revealed, as Jesus said, with fire, may it be then be fire of God’s mercy and love, not the fire of our own refusal to ask. For maybe, just maybe, that is the church’s fundamental vocation: to ask.
Tuesday in Easter 6
Ask… and it will be given. Search…and you will find. Knock…and the door will be opened for you.
What prevents you from asking, searching, or knocking?
It might be literal lack of clarity. Who should I ask? Where should I search? Is this the right door, or is it that one?
It might be an emotion on the fear continuum: anxiety; suspicion; pessimism; insecurity; loneliness. What if I hear “No” in reply? What if I spend all that energy searching but find nothing helpful, nothing worthwhile? What if I knock and that door remains shut tight, with not a light to be seen behind the dark window panes as night falls?
It might be a well-intentioned desire for independence or self-sufficiency; or the desire to appear competent or smart. What if I can just figure this out by myself? That way, I won’t have to be a burden or impose my question or need on someone else…
This icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so endearing. On her breast the medallion of the infant Christ. Mary’s arms extended in the orans position, the posture of a priest at the altar. Here Mary pre-figuring how she is carrying and offering the body and blood of Christ who comes from within her.
Mary carries Jesus, who is hidden. God’s taking on our human form, hidden for nine months in his mother’s womb. It will happen again to each of us: Christ’s hiddenness. How Christ who comes to live within us is sometimes so hidden, sometimes working out in the secrecy of our own hearts what cannot be seen. Not yet. Not by us; not by others.
This image of Christ, whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word.” Such a paradox, because the Word pictured in this icon cannot speak even one human word. The Word of God, alive and present in a completely silent way.
And then Mary, whose eyes are not on Jesus. Her eyes are on the world, which she sees and shares with Jesus from her heart. Since the meaning of Christ’s coming is to save the world, the Church’s primary mission must be worldly: the church, not radiating its holiness to a godless world, but giving itself to a world God so loves: people, skies, waterways, plants and trees, birds and creatures big and small. The Church’s primary mission must be worldly, offering God’s love and care to a world dying to be saved.
Our lection this morning is one of three or four concentrated stories of healing in Matthew’s gospel. Usually, they are considered together in context. But this morning we hear only one of these: two blind men following Jesus and crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” Jesus engages with them and asks, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They reply, “Yes, Lord.” He then touches their eyes and says, “According to your faith let it be done to you.”
For me, this story brings to mind a prayer which we find in the Rite I liturgy of the Eucharist in the Prayer Book. The Prayer of Humble Access[i], while beautifully worded in the archaic poetry of the Rite, evokes different feelings in people depending on their experience. Some find the language self-deprecating. Yet, others find in it inspiration. It begins: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
St. Teresa of Avila, Mystic, Doctor of the Church, and Monastic Reformer
1 Samuel 3:1-18
I am a bit embarrassed to admit this, but for a long time, the story of the calling of Samuel struck me as adorably tender and precious, even childish.
Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” […] The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”
One has to admit, there is something warm and domestic about a young boy thrice mistaking the voice of God for the voice of his (sleeping) instructor and guardian, Eli.
Now, these are not bad qualities. Something captivates us in a story where even a child sensitive to God’s presence. To be sure, we doubtless recognize this as a community that comes together to pray the words of another child sensitive to the presence of God—“be it unto me according to your word,” the words of Mary of Nazareth.
For all the mysteriousness of prayer, Jesus, by word and example, teaches us simply to keep at it. I’m sure his disciples couldn’t help but notice the way he would slip away to pray, often. Occasionally he brought a few of them with him on these extended prayer times. His prayer must of have been of such a quality that it inspired the request to “Teach us to pray” that opened this dialogue. Aside from the Lord’s Prayer, there is precious little about the form and substance of these prayers aside from Jesus’ own persistence at it.
He goes on to assure them that they will receive, they will find, and doors will be opened to them. It seems evident that they need reassuring, anyone who has attempted to pray for something will quickly run into the uncomfortable truth that it’s not as simple as putting in your quarters and selecting which soda you want. Nor is it even like filing the correct paperwork for a zoning variance and navigating layers of bureaucracy until getting approval.
God is not a vending machine. God is not a bureaucrat. God is not a trickster. Jesus tells us he is our heavenly Father, capable of giving good gifts like we would give our own children. God is our good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. God is the great physician in the business of healing the sick.
“Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.”[i] Why? Why did Jesus pray through the night? It seems that in the morning Jesus had the clarity whom to call to be his 12 apostles. But why didn’t he just know that without praying? Why so many times in the Gospels do we read of Jesus’ setting off to pray to God whom he called “Father”?
In the Gospels, we read Jesus prays:
- at his baptism[ii];
- when he withdraws from the crowds[iii];
- after healing people[iv];
- when he is transfigured with God’s light while on the mountaintop[v];
- before walking on water[vi];
- after he learns of John the Baptist’s death[vii];
- before he brings his dead friend, Lazarus, back to life[viii];
- for his apostle, Peter, in the early days and at the end[ix].
We are told Jesus prays about food:
- at meals[x];
- before the miraculous feedings of the multitudes[xi];
- before and after his “last supper” when he meets with his disciples[xii];
At the end of Jesus’ life, he prays:
- three times in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion[xiii];
- from the cross his agony and then his surrender[xiv];
- after his resurrection when he breaks bread for his friends at Emmaus[xv].
Tonight’s first lesson is the rescue at the Red Sea. Remember the story. Through Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery, God saved our family from famine by bringing them to Egypt. Later expanding in number, they were made slaves and remained so for 400 years. Freedom seemed impossible.
Through a burning bush, God sent a shepherd, Moses, to say: “Let my people go.” When Pharaoh refused, God turned the river to blood, sent frogs, gnats, flies, and more. God’s people packed their bags and ate a meal of lamb with its blood above their doors so that “death’s dark angel [would] sheathe his sword” and pass over them. Finally, fed up, Pharaoh said: Go. Our people fled into freedom!
Soon they found themselves on a dead end at Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army approaching. Trapped between water and the enemy, our people panicked: Why did we leave if only to be slaughtered out here?
Moses said: “Do not be afraid; stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today … . The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”[i]
A pillar of cloud blocked the Egyptian army’s view. Moses raised his staff, stretched out his hand, and as we heard read today, God drove back the sea, turned it into dry land, and the people walked right across. The Egyptians pursued them, also coming into the sea on the dry ground. God clogged their chariot wheels, let the waters return, tossing them into the sea. God saved our people and destroyed the enemy.
The Exodus is the story of epic escape, freedom from slavery. The Lord—and only the Lord—saves. Humanity cannot save itself. Deliverance is definitively divine. While wonderfully good, this is hard news. Like our ancestors, we desperately try to save ourselves. We want to work our way out. We resist asking for and receiving help. We complain, deny and don’t trust. The Exodus reminds us of this somber truth: we cannot save ourselves. We are like slaves in Egypt and dead-end at the Red Sea. We need a savior.
Listen again to Moses: “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Like Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God.”[ii] We often shoot off panicked prayers, frenzied, striving and scared. How can we be still?
Stop. For a minute or for a few. Stop what you’re doing. Stop the noise. Disconnect from devices. Take deep breaths. Go outside to breathe fresh air. Shake out the panic, or walk or run. Gently sway, rocking, calming yourself. Gaze at something beautiful: light and shadow, tree, bird, or you own hand. Pray your desire: “Let me be still, and know that you are God.”
While we run, fight, and hide, we were also created for stillness. Nightly we surrender to sleep. Whether bird, dog, or human, we can calm ourselves and one another. Imagine a bird gathering her young under the shadow of her wings. Imagine an adult picking up a child and rocking until the child relaxes in loving arms.
Dear children of God, we have a savior who knows our necessities and our weaknesses.[iii] When there is no way out or it appears we are at a dead end, our God continues coming to save. “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” God invites our still surrender, and when we cannot, we may find ourselves being picked up, held and rocked in safe, loving arms.
[i] Exodus 14:13-14
[ii] Psalm 46:10
[iii] Collect for the Sunday closest to July 20: “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.” Book of Common Prayer
How many times have I heard this passage from the gospel, sighed and thought, you’re right, Jesus. I just need a nap. I just need to recharge my batteries and I’ll be set. But that recharge inevitably diminishes and I’m back to weary. What’s really needed is a power adaptor, a way to plug into the source of power directly.
A friend of mine keeps string cheese and granola bars in her purse at all times because she gets hangry. She knows that if she gets to a certain point, her energy will fail and that combination of hunger and anger will drop her into worse than a catatonic state. It can become a frantic cry for relief like a young child having a meltdown at the park.
Jesus’ invitation is not simply to cease activity but he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” In part, Jesus is sharing our burden, yoked together with us. And he is teaching us how to bear the load because there is the work of love to be done.
In Jesus’ day, demons were thought present most everywhere, especially in the desert, in places without cleansing water, in woods and gardens, to those with sickness, around tombs, accosting lone travelers, to the newly-married, to a woman in childbirth, to someone who sneezes.[i] Demons were especially unruly at sunrise and sunset, and in the heat of midday. Demons were troublesome when one was eating, so the mealtime prayer was not just for thanksgiving but also for protection.
Saint Paul presumed a battle being waged in this world between good and evil, and it is we who are being fought over. He writes, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against… the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[ii] Meanwhile, Saint Paul adds the assurance that “we are more than conquerors” to every spiritual distress.[iii]
Whatever kind of spiritual armor or spiritual vaccination you need for your own protection, pray for that. It is a good way to begin the day. Pray it for yourself, and for those who have a place in your heart. And at the end of the day, pray for a kind of inner cleansing of any distress which could otherwise infect the soul. This is a way of co-operating with God’s provision, and protection, and power to face the challenges of life – the physical, mental, spiritual challenges – with confidence and freedom.[iv]
[i] In addition to Matthew 8:28-34, similar accounts of Jesus’ power over demons may be found in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39.
[ii] Ephesians 6:12.
[iii] Saint Paul writes, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
[iv] The English word “confidence” comes from the Latin, confidere: “to have full trust or reliance,” that is, confidence in God’s presence, and power, and protection.