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Sermon on Rogation Sunday 21 May


The Revd Canon Prof John Rodwell, Lancaster Priory


These days, at four in the morning, a blackbird starts to sing outside our bedroom window, disposing the beautiful song just as much for the benefit of our neighbours as for us.  Wild birds have their territories but they seem to take little notice of the limits of our own properties.  Later in the day, the blackbird’s melody will sound out equally over both teams competing for ground  on the grammar school playing fields beyond our wall. Far above, we sometimes hear black-headed gulls call, a raven  or even a curlew, birds of the moorlands nearby, nesting on the Bowland Fells, land which the Duke of Westminster thinks is his alone.

High and low alike among us (and I’ll leave you to choose who’s who there), old and young, mortgaged landowner, property renter or those who compete for ownership of ground, we are all alike, tenants here on earth.  At least, that is the clear message of Scripture: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (Ps 24,1; I Cor 10,26). For it is a basic tenet of our Christian belief that our place here upon earth, our span of life, the hold we have on the place we call our home, all this comes ultimately and only by the grace of God. And that tenancy we share with all that God has made, those creatures other than ourselves which also have their claims here, among earth, and sky, ‘rushing wind’, the ‘clouds that sail’, the gifts that make the fabric of our home, all of this likewise originating from him, ‘All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing … Let all things their Creator bless’, as we sang in our opening hymn.

Such sentiments we express often in the hymns and readings in our worship here, but particular times in the Christian Calendar give us special prompt to do so and reflect.  One such occasion is today: Rogation Sunday.  Strange name: ‘Rogation’. It comes from the Latin rogare, ‘to ask’ for on this day, parishes traditionally asked God’s blessing on the land and its crops at a time of year when things were looking lean, Despite the burgeoning of springtime greenery now, winter stores were getting low in May and June and summer and autumn harvests of hay, grain, fruit and vegetables, not yet home and dry.  These days, in the sophisticated world in which we live, we are cushioned from such direct dependence on the seasonal cycles of the natural world.  In our shops, on the web, we can find almost anything, anytime, often from far beyond our own bounds. And the gifts of water and power that God has given, we buy these as commodities, delivered to us by a utility from afar. This makes our celebrations of Creation – Rogationtide, Plough Sunday, Harvest – seem almost theoretical, or at least at some far remove, best celebrated maybe in rural parishes, where some vestige of those natural seasonal rhythms, closeness to the earth,  survive.

As a professional environmental scientist, I could give you all kinds of evidence about how nature is a complex of interconnections, one creature dependent upon another within a fabric of soil and water; how a change here has repercussions there, a shift now implications for the future; and how humankind (that’s you and me) have become disproportionately effective in altering the balance of things, maybe sometimes beyond repair. You could believe that scientific evidence or not. As Christians, however, we do not have an option but to confess that all that there is, earth and sea and sky, and all its splendour of living things, comes from God and that, of all his creatures, we are the only ones with the religious sensibility to celebrate it as Creation, the moral sense to care for it all. As Christians, we say that this responsibility is one of the marks of our mission: ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of Creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’. This is not Green politics, but a basic tenet of our Christian belief and commitment. And our understanding of the Blackburn diocesan Vision 2026 should make us see that we are charged to speak for the whole of Creation in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Vision 2026 is not only about numbers in church; it is about the innumerable things with which we make a common home on earth, and which God desires should also feel his love. That is our charge.  To make that love felt there.

It’s good from time to time to reflect on whether we really do this and how well so, commissioned by the Priory Resources Group, on your behalf, Rebecca Aechtner, David Redmore, Rob Whitely and I have been asking questions of our community here to measure our Creation care.  We have used a framework produced by Arocha, a Christian environmental charity that works with churches, schools and communities to protect and restore the face of the earth. The Ecochurch assessment looks at how imaginative our worship and teaching is when it comes to proclaiming our companionship with Creation; whether we manage our buildings, land and finances in an environmentally sensitive fashion; how we engage with our community and the wider world to share and celebrate the God’s gifts in nature; and whether we thoughtfully organise our own lives – in what we eat, how we travel, how we sustain our homes. For, yes, this kind of commitment comes home in our day-to-day decision-making and in the mundane practicalities of life.

We are grateful for all who have cooperated in the assessment and the sheet in the worship booklet for today, which you can ponder in detail afterwards, summarises the results. You’ll see there that we actually do quite well in what we say and do when it comes to worship and teaching but in other areas we could do more, sometimes much more.  In certain things, we are constrained by other important factors, for example the architectural quality of this lovely building where we gather to sing of Creation’s glory. That limits our ability to make it as environmentally neat in energy efficiency as we might wish.  But in our community and global engagement and in our shared and personal lifestyles, there is much yet to change, so as to live up to the claims we make in what we sing and pray about on occasions such as this.  On Rogation Sunday, we do our asking of God for the good of all his Creation, not just for our own well-being and salvation.

Much of our creditable Creation care here depends on particular groups and individuals already aware of our responsibilities and opportunities. Now we need to enlist the energy and imagination of everyone in the congregation, of all we Priory People, to acquit ourselves of what is a challenge, but also a chance to celebrate together what should also be a joy: to sing with all of Creation the praise of God from whom all comes.

Our detailed findings in the assessment we have made will now go before the Priory Resources Group and the Parochial Church Council to help shape up what we do next. But what will make a difference ultimately is that we all take this message to heart and take it home.  We can be pleased with how well we do so far.  In fact, we can make a case to Arocha for a Bronze Ecochurch award and work on towards Silver and Gold in all that we do.  But such a prize is not where we have our eyes fixed.  With the tenants in the vineyard in this morning’s Gospel (Matth 21, 33-43), we shall certainly be judged in how far we ourselves fall short in our care for God’s estate.  We shall be judged by the generosity of God, that he gave life to all that there is and new life to us in Jesus Christ.  Which one of us would wish to be found wanting in the face of such grace?

A Sermon preached on Rogation Sunday by Revd Canon Professor John Rodwell, 21 May 2017

The image is ‘Consider the Lilies’ from the Christ in the Wilderness series of Stanley Spencer 1939.

You can hear another sermon on the theme of Creation Care, Lancaster Priory’s contribution to the Just Water Campaign, by googling, then clicking on ‘Resources’, then ‘Church Resources’ and scrolling down to 13 March for the video link.