Today is Rogation Sunday, when the church has traditionally sought God’s blessing on the fruits of the earth and the labours of humankind.
The word rogation comes from the Latin rogare, meaning ‘to ask for something’. Historically, Rogation Days are a period of fasting and abstinence, seeking God’s blessing on the crops and expressing hopes for a bountiful harvest.
In ancient Rome at this time of year the festival of Robigalia, honouring the god Robigus would have been taking place. The priests and people would be Processing through the cornfields asking for the preservation of the crops from mildew – and in return a sacrifice was offered – very specifically the sacrifice of dogs! (Thank goodness our dalmatians, Bill and Ben, can’t read this sermon)!!
The Christian tradition of honouring 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. Queen Elizabeth I ordered the ‘perambulation of the parish’ at Rogationtide, a custom still observed in many places.
Imagine us processing around Tain or Dornoch declaring everything within the geographic boundaries of our charge to be specially set apart and consecrated as holy – pronouncing to every soul we encounter the liberation offered through Jesus Christ!
Of course, in times gone by, the clergy had the responsibility of what we used to call the ‘cure of souls’ within the boundaries of their charge or parish. That meant that everyone within the border was technically a member of the charge or 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 charge so as to be certain you knew just where those boundaries were and who was inside them. It was really important to know your boundaries.
That phrase ‘to know or set your boundaries’ is popular in mainstream culture nowadays.
Bookshops are full of resources with advice to help us set and keep healthy boundaries. These books tell us when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’. They encourage us to ‘take control’ of our lives and to ‘stop hiding from love’. The objective is to become separate, to be an individual, become autonomous.
Now healthy boundaries are a good thing. They help us live more fulfilling lives. They helps us respect others and respect ourselves. They sometimes can help us overcome depression, co-dependency or 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 and it’s not about maintaining a respectful distance from others.
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 because 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 and walking together.
You may remember this famous quotation – but I wonder if you remember who said it:
‘No man is an island, entire of itself; 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 might also catch the disease; people get involved in caring for the sick person, 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 parent’s ability to be attentive to you.
We are all part of one vine, all connected, all interrelated. When we realise 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 Russian leaders realised they were part of one vine, they’d stop trying to blow others out of existence, understanding that their violent efforts only serve to sever them from our common humanity and prolong the cycle of violence and oppression.
If politicians or Christians or any of us realised we are all part of one vine, we would search out ways to co-operate with each other and serve the common good, instead of championing our own particular interests.
We in the church can perhaps understand this best, for Jesus tells us he is the true vine, and his Father is the gardener. We are part of him, and he is part of us, and we are – all of us – rooted in the soil, 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 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. This is the message of the angels, brought to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. 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.
May God bless you and those you hold dear this coming week.