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