Stewards of Creation
Care of the Earth focus of Rogation Days
God of heaven and earth: We humbly pray that your gracious providence may give and preserve to our use the harvests of the land and of the seas, and may prosper all who labor to gather them, that we, who are constantly receiving good things from your hand, may always give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Once a year, throughout China’s history, the emperor would march from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven, where they would enter this circular, sacred space, face heaven, and pray for a good harvest. Today, we mark Rogation Days. Rogation is an ancient church festival where the people of God would gather to seek God’s blessing for a community and its sustenance.
Rogation means “to ask.” We pause, and we ask for God’s blessing on our lives, our likelihood, our faith, our humanity, and on our agriculture. The festival originated as a prayer for a good harvest, but as culture dictated, the celebration expanded to include industry and commerce.
Jesus said, the Kingdom of heaven “is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
It is fitting that the parable of the mustard seed is the gospel reading selected for Rogation Sunday. Those who till soil worldwide seek God’s blessing as they care for and nurture what has been planted. A mustard seed is a very, very small seed. From something small, insignificant, and unnoticeable grows a beautiful tree, a place of shade and respite, a residence for those seeking shelter, for those seeking life. From almost nothing, something. What we do between the “nothing” to “something” is stewardship.
Llia Delio, in her introduction to her book Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, reminds us on Rogation Day that “Even though Christianity is a creation-centered religion, we have turned our attention away from the earth and toward heaven in hope to gain eternal life. We Christians not only profess belief in a personal creator, God, but we say that creation is good and God has loved it to perfection by entering into it, taking on human flesh, and dwelling with us as the risen Christ. It is crucial to discuss the barriers that keep us from an ecological conversion of heart and from taking action to heal our world.”
The season of Eastertide is all about healing. Jesus has been crucified. He has died. To heal the world and restore creation, God raises Jesus. Christ is risen. Jesus commissions Mary in a garden outside of a tomb, and through her, ordains us, his followers, to spread the good news that from death, God can bring life. But we must help God in this ministry. Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” Because God has blessed us, we must bless others. We are to usher in God’s kingdom through intentional communities of faith right here and right now.
As the matriarchs and the patriarchs cry out, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”
How has God blessed you? How have you blessed others? What season of blessing are you in right now? Being born? Dying? Planting? Harvesting? Weeping? Planting?
Elizabeth Gilbert, in her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, shares this insight, “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it; you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment. It’s easy enough to pray when you’re in distress, but continuing to pray even when your crisis has passed is like a sealing process, helping your soul hold tight to its good attainments.”
Eastertide is a season of blessings. We are blessed with surprises, uncertainty, unbelief, and with things we could never have imagined. It is a season of surprises because we discover that death is not the end but the beginning of something else. It is a season of uncertainty because everything we think we know is challenged by everything going on in the world around us. It is a season of unbelief because we are asked to take seriously what we see, but more importantly, to take seriously everything we do not see. It is a season of re-imagining because, just when we think we have a grasp on the current reality, new data comes in, which may not compute, so everything shifts. We scramble and prepare for what is next.
This is Eastertide.
It is the church’s tradition that, during Eastertide, we read the beginnings of the institutional church as recorded in the Book of Acts. We join Paul, speaking to the people of Athens on Mars Hill at the Acropolis. Paul’s conversion was not the blessing he was expecting. This blessing came in an instant and pushed him into the unknown, unfamiliar, a complete reset and reboot. He was struck blind on the road to Damascus.
God sent a man to bless Paul with new sight. It was a new vision with respect for God’s law and scripture but interpreted through the incarnational lens of the son of love. Was Paul prepared for this? Can we ever prepare to accept changes of such a great magnitude? Where everything we believe is snatched from us in an instant?
When Paul opened his eyes, everything he thought he knew, a lifetime of study and discernment, fell from his eyes like scales scraped away from a fish’s eyes. Nothing looked the same. Everything Paul had built - gone. What he thought he knew was proven wrong. Everything he had worked for during his lifetime evaporated. He knew only one thing. Jesus had called him into the unknown, promising to work through him by the power of the Spirit.
Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31)
In our reading from the Book of Acts, we join Paul in Athens. He discovers a city of philosophers, teachers, thinkers, and learners, a polis, a citizenry dedicated to intellectual pursuits. This citizenry loved debate and discovery. They sought understanding. They hungered to know more. This fervor propelled the Greeks to want to understand their Gods. Who were they? Why did the Gods act the way they did? How were the gods able to manipulate human emotions - making humankind fearful of the unknown? Who would advocate for the people? The gods didn’t care.
As Paul walked around Athens, he saw idols everywhere. On a rock beneath the Acropolis, Paul addressed the crowds. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’
Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, an Episcopal priest in Mississippi shares this, “It is striking to note that Paul recognizes the altar to an unknown god as the most accessible entry point for introducing the Athenians to the presence of God among them. God who cannot be confined in shrines of our own making. Because they held space for the unknown, the Athenians could entertain the possibility that the divine was coming to them in a form they had yet to recognize. The altar to an unknown god was their way of holding space for what they had not yet experienced. The unknown is our new constant companion. The illusion of certainty is gone. And in its place is a heightened awareness of the truth that all we really have is each present moment.”
Jesus, in a moment of blessing, in a moment of conversion, taught Paul the truth of the unknown. In a moment of conversion, Jesus taught Paul that, ultimately, all in life is a mystery. The unknown can become a powerful idol if we don’t have faith in the way. Fear of the unknown prevents us from recognizing God’s blessings. So, we follow the Emperor into the Temple of Heaven. We line up one behind the other to participate in these moments of rogation that remind us that God is blessing us and is present with us every moment.
Jesus said, the Kingdom of heaven “is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
What in you needs God’s blessing to grow? What in you needs to be nurtured and cared for so you can see life differently? What needs to die? What needs to be resurrected?
Never forget, God calls you, calls me, to labor in the field. I may not know or live to see the fruits of the harvest but tilling the soil is enough.