Rogation Day (6 Easter Year C) 5-1-2016
Lections: Deut. 11:10-15; Ps. 67; Rom. 8:18-25; Mark 4:26-32
So this is kind of an unusual day, right? It’s not every Sunday that we get to march around our garden. We’re even deviating from the usual Eastertide lectionary this week, which, I have to admit, made me a little nervous to preach today. We’ve had such a fun time in the books of Acts and John, with the risen Jesus and the early church, and suddenly we now find ourselves reading Deuteronomy and Mark. What’s up with that?!
As you (hopefully) have picked up by now, today we are celebrating a Rogation Day, which, our Latin nerd friends can tell you, comes from rogatio, or “asking”. The story behind it is that around 470 A.D., a French bishop, St. Mamertus, saw his diocese threatened with fire, famine, earthquakes, and even wolves all within a single year, and so, he instituted a period of communal fasting and prayer, asking God to spare them from these natural disasters. Apparently, it worked well enough that it caught on and became a spring-time tradition held the three days before Ascension Day, which is this Thursday. Thanks Mamertus!
But enough with the history lesson. What does all that have to do with us in Cambridge in 2016?
To start answering that, let’s look again at the passage from Deuteronomy. Here we have the Israelites still stuck in Moab about to cross the Jordan River and finally enter the Promised Land of Canaan. Moses, about to die and pass on leadership to Joshua, is giving the people of Israel 34 chapters of final instructions and a blessing. In the portion we read, Moses tells the Israelites that Canaan is not like the Egypt they left 40 years before. In Canaan, there is no Nile floodplain that allowed a farmer to irrigate from the river simply by digging channels with his foot. Instead, the people will have to rely on the seasonal rains for their crops. And Moses promises that God will send those needed rains but only if Israel will heed God’s every commandment, loving God and serving God with all their heart and soul.
If. What a powerful word. We humans like our conditions and stipulations. We like to know what the options are and what’s required of us and we really like putting conditions on others. We are addicted to seeing ourselves as always the actors and architects of our own blessing and cursing. And if there’s anything we excel at, it’s trying to make God in our own image.
A few centuries after Moses, Mamertus, that French bishop, also managed to convince his flock that if they fast and pray, then God would deliver them from the natural world that was distressing them. In the Pentecostal church I grew up in, it was a known fact that the reason America was so powerful and so prosperous was because we were a Christian nation that had obeyed God. But we were in imminent danger of losing God’s blessing if we stopped being a Christian nation. Even in my own life, I can’t help but think that if an unusually good thing happens, like me getting into divinity school, it’s solely because I did something good and right.
And on the flipside, I am often tempted to think that bad things happen to me or those I love because I didn’t pray enough or in the right way or with the right words. If I had loved God more, if I had truly served God with all my heart and soul, then would my friend Jesse have died in that terrible car accident 2 years ago? If I truly heeded God commandments, then would I feel so alienated from my family? Yes, if is a powerful word, my friends.
Jesus understood the power of this word, the power of the conditional mindset. In the first chapters of Mark’s gospel, we see Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons over and over again. And if there was anything that proved to first century Jews that God’s blessing was conditional on people’s behavior, it was being struck with a disease or being possessed by unclean spirits. But Jesus comes to liberate those afflicted, to heal extravagantly, to restore people to right relationship with God and each other. He came to meet people in their brokenness and show them God loved them and that transformed them. And he didn’t put conditions on any of it, especially not ones based on people’s behavior.
In fact, in the two “agricultural” parables from today’s reading, we see Jesus confront the destructive mindset that our actions can have such a direct relationship with God’s love for us. In the first parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of God, this new reality of liberation and reconciliation, to a seed that is sown but grows without the sower really knowing how. When Jesus says, the “earth produces of itself,” the Greek verb there is related to our word automatic; it doesn’t require the sower to do any work at all to produce the grain, the fruit of the kingdom. We are only needed at the beginning, to sow, and at the end, to bring in the harvest. God does the rest.
I like to see this parable as Jesus speaking directly to our 21st century diseases of over-commitment, over-achievement, and individualism, the tendency we have, myself very much included, to think that the good fruits of our lives are all dependent on our every action. But we don’t know why or how God blesses us, how God allows our freedom from sin and shame, from brokenness and fear to multiply in our lives and in those around us. We can only chalk it up to God’s abundant love for us.
In fact, back in Deuteronomy, before, Moses lays out the if-then scenario, he first says to the Israelites that Canaan is a land that God looks after, that the eyes of the Lord God are always on it. So God is always preceding us, blessing our lives before we ever deserve it, because God knows we can never deserve it. With his ministry, Jesus is thus simply reminding the Israelites, and us, of that ancient truth that God doesn’t formulaically meet sin with punishment nor righteousness with blessing, because we can never be sinful enough that God doesn’t love us nor can we be righteous enough that we don’t need God to love us.
It’s only when we acknowledge how extravagantly God loves us that we are transformed, and only after that can we can embark on the long, hard road of heeding the commandment to love God and our neighbors, to serve God with all our heart and soul. We realize God’s conditional blessing is just a restatement of God’s unconditional love. Then, yes, ultimately, patiently we wait for God to give the rain in its season and we gather in our grain, wine and oil and eat our fill.
If we can do the work God has given us to do, without thinking there are limits to God’s love, without thinking it all depends on us, without putting conditions on others, then we will be part of building this mustard seed kingdom, where the small seed grows beyond imagining into a place where everyone can find their own liberation. On this rogation day, let us ask God for that kind of blessing. Amen.