The Fifth Sunday after Easter
The Reverend David A. Brounstein
St. Matthew’s Church
25 May 2014
The Book of Common Prayer notes that this fifth and last Sunday in Eastertide is commonly called Rogation Sunday.
The word “rogation” is derived from the Latin word “rogare” which means “to ask or to beseech” and is taken from our Gospel text, quote, (John 16:23-24) “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.”
We frequently think of seedtime, planting, and prayers for an abundant harvest as the main emphasis of rogation. Rogation Days began in fifth century France after a series of natural disasters. The Bishop instituted a solemn three-day observance where the people were to petition God for forgiveness of their sins, for protection from further calamities, and for bountiful crops. Old Ordo Kalendar’s reflected that this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the last three days of Eastertide, were purple or penitential rather than the usual Eastertide white indicating celebratory feast days or seasons.
Over the years, the rogation days have lost most of their penitential attributes. Few of us living in Orange County pray that there will be enough rain for agriculture or to provide feed for what will eventually appear in the meat counter at the market. We assume that agricultural abundance will continue unabated and grocery shelves will always be well stocked.
If you have ever listened to the radio while driving through the Central Valley, your perspective would probably change. The mainstay of programming is a non-stop discussion of the daily crop report, current temperatures, expectations of rain, pest problems and the sale of farm equipment. For farmers, these matters are of primary importance on a daily basis. In these rural areas, some churches continue the rogation tradition of liturgical processions out to the fields to bless crops and young livestock. In doing so, it provides a tacit reminder that God and humanity cooperate in the creative process of agriculture.
This theme first appears immediately after the Creation narrative in the second chapter of Genesis. We read that (Gen 2:8,15), “The Lord planted a garden and took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to dress and keep it.” In effect, at the beginning, God established a unique partnership with man. As in every partnership, there are duties and expectations of both parties.
Rogation Days remind us that all agriculture, be it a garden or farming endeavor, remains a collaborative effort. To obtain a bountiful harvest, human effort is required in addition to what God provides. A field needs to be prepared, seed needs to be planted, irrigation provided, and workers to gather the crop and “separate the wheat from the chaff.”
In his Epistle to the Church at Corinth, St. Paul employed a similar metaphor and applied it to the preaching of the Gospel, quote, (1 Cor 3:6-8) “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor.”
St. James, oft maligned by numerous Reformation theologians, practically applied a similar metaphor to God’s Word that has been planted in the garden of our heart. In his Epistle, he exhorts us to, (James 1:22) “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” St. James was primarily addressing matters in his local first century worship community that, not surprisingly, continues to persist and impact the Church some twenty centuries later. Then as now, there are people who regularly come to Church each week, people who hear the Scriptures read aloud, and people who hear the homily and its application to their lives. They truly believe in their heart that Church attendance, adherence to right doctrine, a donation in the plate, and prayerful listening is sufficient to make them a faithful Christian. All of these things are good, yet, St. James calls this limited response self-deception.
Implicit in the Jewish worldview, assumed by every writer in both the Old and New Testament, was that there is a unity, a holistic connectedness, in each person among their body, soul and spirit. St. James teaches us that a Christian is required to incorporate God’s Word and what they have heard and learned in Church into every aspect of how they live out their life. It is putting theory into practice. It is how one becomes a “doer of the word and not a hearer only.”
There is a Jewish parable that tells the story of a rabbi who was coming from the house of his teacher. He was riding leisurely on his donkey and was happy and elated because he had studied much Torah, the first five books of the Bible. By chance he met an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him saying, “Peace be unto you.” The rabbi did not return his greeting but instead, said to him, “You are good for nothing. How ugly you are. Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?” The man replied, ‘I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me ‘how ugly is this vessel you have made.’ The rabbi immediately realized that he had sinned, dismounted from his donkey, and prostrated himself on the ground begging to be forgiven by both the man and by God.
We too, come to Church and hear the Word of God – but then, like the rabbi, when we go on our way, we begin to encounter all those people and situations in our lives we consider to be ugly. Some are family members or co-workers. There are the multitudes on our streets and freeways who provide empiric evidence that they are unable drive a vehicle, especially if they are talking or texting on their cell phone; there are people who continually aggravate or frustrate us and waste our time. They greatly test our patience. Others still, who are street corner beggars or homeless. They remind us of human needs that we would prefer to ignore.
We can laugh at the human foibles in the parable and at the same time be somewhat troubled. The rabbi in this tale could well be described as a hearer of the Word but not a doer of the Word. To his credit, he immediately confessed his sin and acknowledged his lack of charity. The rabbi learned that his study of Torah was not solely for his personal edification, but was something to be lived out in every aspect of his life and with his community. That is the point of the tale and why it has been preserved in rabbinic teaching.
The rabbi knew that there was no real way he could effectively help the ugly man, but came to the sudden realization that this person was made in the image of God, and at a minimum, deserved to be treated with dignity.
We cannot help all those we encounter in our lives who cause us difficulty, many of whom do not want to be helped. Still, Christ calls us to treat them with respect. In addition, we are to earnestly pray that God would begin a new work in their lives as He has done in ours so that they would be made whole. In this Eastertide season we remember that God loves us and brings the gift of healing, of redemption and the promise of resurrection to all those who come to Him. We are also to remember to look for concrete ways in our everyday lives to extend those gifts to others.
May God strengthen and empower us through the Holy Ghost to be doers of the word and not hearers only.