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City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 11, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Acts 10:44-end
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

From our opening hymn, you might be wondering why Harvest Festival has come early. The answer is that in the Book of Common Prayer, today is Rogation Sunday, and the hymn choices this morning reflect this.

But what is Rogation Sunday?

Nowadays the marking of the agricultural year in church has become more-or-less reduced to the Harvest Festival. There are still some churches which keep such days as Plough Sunday, but by and large, in an age when most of us having nothing to do with agriculture or food production, that dimension of the Church’s calendar which is connected to the agricultural year is often deemed “irrelevant”.

In my view this has been a colossal mistake. The sense of an integrated calendar, in which the shape of the year interconnects with both the life of Our Lord and His saints and with the seasons of the natural world and the human economic activity it sustains, this sense of integration was once one of the critical social functions of religion. Its loss has had profound consequences.

Rogation comes from the Latin verb Rogare, meaning “to ask”. At Harvest Festival we give thanks for the harvest; during Rogationtide we ask that God would bless our labours and give us a good harvest. Rogation days are days of fasting and prayer. Processions around fields and the blessing of crops were once a major feature, and in some places processions to mark parish boundaries still occur.

The connections between fertility and religion are ancient and I think more-or-less universal. It’s an aspect of the ancient Jewish religion that we tend not to spend too much time thinking about, but once you become aware of it, you realise how pervasive it is in the Old Testament. The whole sacrificial system with its offerings not only of animal sacrifices but also of grain and wine and oil, the association of God with both the taming of the destructive waters and the provision of rain, and many of the major pilgrimage festivals of the ancient Jewish religious year, all these things point to the centrality of agricultural life in ancient societies, and the profound sense of dependence of human life and activity on the natural world and ultimately on the creator God.

We see that in today’s psalm, Psalm 98, which may well have originally been used at an autumn harvest festival, with its wonderfully integrated sense of the whole creation praising God.

Let the sea thunder and all that fills it,
the world and all that dwell upon it.
Let the rivers clap their hands
and let the hills ring out together before the Lord…

The modern economy has greatly reduced our sense of dependence on nature and on the creator God. Not that we are in fact any less dependent either on nature or on God than we ever were; we are just less aware of it. A person who spends their working life in an office or in a call centre, or perhaps now carrying out those same computer- and telephone-based roles from home, such a person will have little sense of the fact that the plastics from which their machines are made come from oil, itself the result of the decay of living organisms. They might also have relatively little notion of the natural processes that are the starting point for the ready meal they eat for their supper.

Modern life is in many respects characterised by dis-integration and an illusion of independence. But we are ultimately no less dependent on nature, on each other, and on God, than the people who sang Psalm 98 at the ancient harvest festival in Jerusalem.

All human economic activity is ultimately embedded in the natural world, even if the complexity and refinement of modern economies often conceals this fact. Or in Christian terms, all human economic activity is dependent on God’s creation, and on God the Creator. The ancient rhythm of the Church’s calendar, punctuated by days of fast and feast, days of prayer and days of thanksgiving, these ancient rhythms are all about that dependence of human activity on God and God’s creation; the loss of these rhythms may have a lot to do with our unhealthy relationship with creation, and the destructive consequences that flow from that.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.

Today’s gospel reading also speaks of our dependence on God. Jesus is not speaking of human economic activity, but of the life of the Church. And just as all human economic activity is ultimately dependent on God’s activity in creation, so too the life of the Church is dependent on the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ: as the Father loves the Son, so the Son loves His friends and commands them to abide in His love. They are commanded to love one another, as Jesus has loved them; and they are appointed to bear fruit, fruit that will last.

As lockdown recedes, and both economic life and the life of the Church begin to return to something like normal, we are starting once again to make plans. We are entering into a time of planting, a time of nurturing crops, a time of green shoots, a time of hoping for growth. In the life of the Church our minds are turning from a kind of survival mentality, trying to keep some form of Church life going through lockdown, to thinking about how we can grow out of our current situation. How can we bring people back, how can we bring new people in, how can we grow in discipleship, how can we grow to a deeper commitment?

Many observers have noted the influence on the Church in recent years of ideas taken from the world of secular economic life, the influence of management culture, and a tendency to look at the Church as a kind of failing old-fashioned high street store, much loved in memory, but rarely visited. From everything that I have said about the problems of modern economic thinking, the tendency to dis-integration, the detachment of economic activity from the natural world and the creator God in whom all things live and move and have their being, from everything that I have said on that subject, you won’t be surprised that I am unhappy about the influence of secular economic thought within the Church. Although we certainly do want more people to come to Church, our primary purpose is not maximising footfall or increasing revenue, but glorifying God. The truths entrusted to the Church have always been rejected by many, and we should not be shocked or surprised by that.

So this Rogationtide, let’s be reminded that in every aspect of our lives, from our economic life to the life of the Church, we are dependent on God and God’s loving provision for us. And as we begin once again to make plans, and especially as we begin to make plans as a Church, let’s remember that we are called to abide in the love of Jesus. This is the place from which everything else proceeds. No matter how good our ideas, how clever our strategies, how intelligent and well-informed our plans, none of it will matter a jot, and none of it will bring forth fruit that will last, unless we abide in His love and obey His commandment to love.

So as we enter what we hope and pray will be a time of renewal and growth, let us first be sure to open our hearts to Jesus, and to seek Him out in prayer, in meditation on the Holy Scriptures, and in the Holy Sacrament. Let us seek Him out too in one another, by showing that love for one another that He commands. And in the spirit of Rogationtide, let us pray that God would bless and guide our endeavours.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.