Reference: Joel 2:21-28
Growing up in urban society, many kids think of food as coming from the supermarket. The connection to the earth, the cycle of planting, cultivating and harvest, the natural events of soil, rain and sun, and our dependence on this for our nurture and indeed survival has been lost. Among the remnant of people still in rural areas, the experience is not much different. Farming has changed, and an age of specialization and agri-business means most farmers today shop at the supermarket as well. The days when every farm had chickens, cows, vegetables, grain, hay, and more and could sustain itself without much outside shopping are mostly gone.
It’s not the only connection which is lost. The Gospels are written for an agricultural people, and Jesus’ own discourse is laden with references to a rural world. In the recent observance of Good Shepherd Sunday, our pastor had to spend half the time explaining what it’s like to be a shepherd, and even what it’s like to be a sheep, and the problems they faced in daily life, because for most of us, these are archaic images in a book or church window, not part of life. Only then could the pastor proceed to clarify Jesus’ references. This is but one of a multitude of references easily understood not only by Jesus’ rural audience, but by the largely agricultural societies of the next 19 centuries as well.
This Sunday is Rogation Sunday. It is traditionally the time when the fields and agricultural animals are blest by the priest. In many places, the parish pastor proceeded throughout the parish, followed by the congregation, festively carrying cross, banners and other ecclesiastical paraphernalia. Sometimes it took days, but everyone’s place received its blessing as the newly planted fields began their annual miraculous process. It was a feast of optimism. Putting little seeds in the ground and expecting to eat for a year from the results is entirely an act of faith. It was a process very dependent on weather and nature, out of human control. It was also a time of anxiety since too much or too little of many factors (rain, hail, wind, insects, blight, heat, frost, etc.) could be destructive. Crop failure could be life-threatening. Harvest was a triumph of life and faith, an appropriate time for the Thanksgiving festival.
Even 50 years ago, in my first parish as a pastor, Rogation Sunday meant going out the door of the church and processing a hundred feet to the large cornfield next door, where the newly planted crop was just beginning to poke its head up above ground. Even though the transition to specialized agri-business rather than sustenance farming had mostly happened, the farm families who constituted the congregation were still aware of the direct connections between the earth and our continued existence, and our role in helping that happen.
All that is now unavailable on Rogation for the great majority of American Christians. The supermarket supply seems continuous and endless. When, rarely, it is disrupted, it has more to do with manmade events such as strikes, highway closures, wars, borders, or economic glitches. The point here is not nostalgia. The old ways could result in great suffering at times. Rather, it is the question of how to connect earth’s children to their stewardship of the Father’s creation in a meaningful way.
Rogation Sunday frames that question. And in a way, nothing has changed. We still need food to survive, and the miracle of the process by which it arrives is still the same. What is different is that it is all remote from our personal experience. Our generation does not understand the faith of planting nor the thanksgiving of harvesting, nor does it grasp the drastic dependence of humans on the earth and her Creator for our very existence.
Rogation comes from a Latin term referring to prayer. We moderns prefer to think in terms of Dominion. We do not define success as faith in a proper application of seed, rain (perhaps helped along by some irrigation, which is simply rain stored for later), soil, and sun. Modern application is provided by Monsanto to dominate the crop, destroying its weedy and buggy enemies through poisons like Roundup, charging up the soil with chemicals, altering the genetics of plants to make them produce more profit. In similar ways, we dominate the forests, waters, minerals and animals of our earth. We are a clever species which can devise ways to do this.
Unfortunately, the connections lost as we dominate turn out to be crucial. It is time to read the instructions. Dominion was bestowed in order that we might steward and nurture the earth (see the first chapters of Genesis), rather than pulverize it in a frenzy of greed and a grasping attempt to become divine. The Prophet Joel illumines the path back to being a responsive and responsible humanity. “Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given you the autumn rains in righteousness, he sends you abundant showers.” The action of God also consequently impacts the environment around us: “Be not afraid, O land…Be not afraid, O wild animals, for the open pastures are becoming green, the trees are bearing their fruit” (Joel 2:21-23).
So many environmentalists fail to understand the larger picture of the connection as to how it is the Lord who puts it together. So many Christians fail to understand the connection of their faith to the elemental stewardship of the Lord’s earth.
The modern Rogation Sunday is needed more than ever. It is there to connect the concern of the environmentalist with the faith of the Christian. It is there to shower blessing on our prophecy of stewardship, the long-term connection to the future of the earth, “our common home” (as Pope Francis expresses it), not the short-term disconnect of profit through plundering and exploiting her. Then “you will have plenty to eat until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you” (Joel 2:26).