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Add in a Little Gratitude: A Sermon for Rogation Sunday

Well … if you’re here after yesterday, then you definitely get extra credit! We had a (not surprisingly) huge funeral for a much loved and long standing member of our parish, Peter Herman. And I’m glad to see so many of you also here today because we’ll be celebrating, mostly after this service, the recipient of this year’s Audrey Davies Award for outstanding service to our parish, Jen Young. I can think of few so deserving as Jen, and was thrilled to hear she was selected to be this year’s recipient. But more on that at the coffee hour shortly. (Congratulations, Jen!)

And of course - Happy Mother’s Day. I’ll say a prayer for our mothers present and absent at the end of the Prayers of the People.

I thought I’d keep today light, and the church makes that a bit easier because in our liturgical calendar today is one of my favorites, actually: Rogation Sunday. This is an English thing, and remember we are descended from the Church of England. The name “Episcopal Church” was our attempt to rebrand ourselves after the Revolutionary War when to be called the “Church of England” was probably not going to win many converts. 

“Episcopal” just comes from the Greek word meaning “bishops,” and so we basically called ourselves “that church with bishops,” removing the English connection from the title altogether -- but not from our identity in a deeper way. As Episcopalians we’ve had the advantage of being able to pick and choose the things we like about that English (or Anglican) identity: no king, but pomp, yes, and all this wonderful architecture. And such charming occasions as Rogation Days. Rogare is the Latin word for “ask” and the church for centuries has set aside these latter days of Easter to “ask” God’s blessing on our fields and the crop about to be planted. Practicality trumps liturgy, and theology, at a certain point; we need food to eat. That’s where our thoughts turn (or used to) in late spring. 

Where I served before coming to St. James, about sixty miles north of here, we actually ended church on Rogation Sunday and then walked about ten minutes up the hill from the river to the farm of one of our parishioners to bless his fields. His family was descended from the English Livingstons who were granted large tracts of property along the Hudson River by Queen Anne in 1704, who at the same time also granted 200 acres of farmland in lower Manhattan to Trinity Church Wall Street. Just 214 acres. (Today they own just 14.)

What remained of that farm of my former parishioner, (like with Trinity Wall St) just a small tract by now, was a working farm and we as a parish would all march up there after church and trudge through his fields blessing them. It was a lot of fun. 

The English custom (on which this was based) was just that: the clergy and a procession of people would spend Rogation days--they go from today until next Thursday, which is the feast of the Ascension--they’d spend those days “beating the bounds” of the parish. That is, marking the perimeter of land that the church belonged to (think “parish” not like a single church but a whole area, like they still use that word in Louisiana, parishes for neighborhoods), marking that perimeter and then blessing the fields within it.

We don’t really have rituals for this in our time, but if we did, I like to think we’d be more grateful for the food we eat, and the labor that goes into it.  

Church customs like this can seem antiquated in a world where food just appears, is genetically modified so it can be shipped from far away any time of the year and so give us the illusion that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. Even if that’s true, food is always work, for someone, somewhere. Ancient customs once born of necessity can at least still remind us today not to take for granted the fact that food (and everything that sustains us) is a gift of God, of the earth, and of the work of others’ toil on our behalf. It is, and was ever thus.  

I know you had no idea when you walked in here that it was Rogation Sunday (or even what that was). But I hope today we can leave here more thankful for what we have than we were when we walked in. If coming to church does no more than just that for us, increasing our gratitude, it will have been more than enough.

Happy Rogation Sunday.