Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Bona Fide Double Header

Scripture for the 6th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

We have today a bona fide double header. We’re celebrating the relationships we have enjoyed with Williams seniors who have been part of our parish community. And we’re dusting off a dirty little custom by observing this as Rogation Sunday.

Let’s start with that, so I can quickly explain that the dirt about Rogation Sunday is good clean garden soil. The thing is, we’ve gotten so far from any sense of agricultural rootedness that even mentioning the name Rogation is apt to get a blank stare. What is it?

It sounds like something you might do to a garden, but no, that’s rototilling, not rogation. Interrogation gets us close to the right meaning: asking. In the Letter of James, we read, “You covet something and cannot obtain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”

So there. If you spy your neighbor’s neatly rototilled garden and can already imagine perfect tomatoes ripening on his vines, beware of malign temptation to ask for mildew or nasty horned worms to hit his side of the fence, lowering the bar for neighborhood excellence.

Ask, instead, what you might be able to accomplish for God with that patch of good sunny well-drained backyard soil. Let inspiration take the upper hand over temptation. This has been happening around us here, as some of our parish leaders have become inspired by what other churches have done with their greenspace, even tight strips of lawn alongside busy urban sidewalks.

Last summer, such inspiration blended with perspiration to yield a good crop from what was nicknamed the Garden of Eatin (in the northwest corner of the rectory yard) tended by a little cluster—Charles, Robin, Van, Claudia—who styled themselves St. John’s Lay Weeders.

This spring, Leigh and Anne have offered us the use of their gardens. We now have a little network of missionary gardens.

The dirty truth about successful gardens—it’s equally and annoyingly true about unsuccessful gardens, as well—is that blood, sweat, and tears are among the unlisted organic compounds in any crop. There is sacrifice and hard work involved, and what is at stake is survival. Ask any true farmer, especially a farmer who tries to earn a living from the land.

Which is why the custom of observing Rogation days shows it to be serious business. Before the 5th century, when the Church took Rogation under its wing, pagan religions sponsored processions through the cornfields of Europe, praying for the preservation of crops from mildew. The Church added to the processions a period of fasting to drive home the point that we’re talking survival here.

While that memory of fasting won’t prevent us from having coffee hour this morning, we recognize that our parish gardens, the ones we bless today and who knows how many more where God is invited to inspire, these gardens have people’s survival in view. Today we’ll ask for the cultivating of mindfulness, our own and that of each passerby who knows the purpose of these gardens, mindfulness that responsible stewardship includes helping our at-risk neighbors achieve food security and helping them enjoy the sensory pleasures of what the good earth yields to the persistent gardener.

What also makes today special is the pleasure we celebrate in friendship and partnership with Williams seniors who have been part of our parish community. We give thanks today for Nana’s constancy in worship. For Emily’s commitment to singing in our choir. Andy’s willingness to tackle the untried, preaching included. We raise our thanks for James’s seasons in the choir. For Ben’s engagement with the choir, and the Feast. And for Nneka’s service as a lector.

They’ve made a place for themselves in this congregation, and have made this congregation humanly richer and spiritually varied. They’ve been good at asking tough questions, the kind you have to love because they make you grow. We’ve been blessed by them; and, in the mutuality of love, it may be that we have played a part in God’s blessing them.

Today is not our only spring Sunday with special purposes about it. Next Sunday, The Rt. Rev. Abraham Yel Nhial, Bishop of Aweil in South Sudan, will be our preacher at both services. In 1987, at age nine, Abraham Nhial became one of the approximately 35,000 Lost Boys of Sudan, orphaned in the campaign of ethnic cleansing launched by the Khartoum government. These boys, spared (or as likely rejected) by government troops, walked barefoot for hundreds of miles to escape the carnage in Sudan, heading first to Ethiopia, and then, when no longer welcome there, to Kenya and long exile in the refugee camps there. Abraham was one of the 16,000 Lost Boys to survive that horrific journey, escaping gunfire, disease, infection, wild animals, drowning, depression, and despair.

After fourteen years of ordeal in the wilderness, ordeal in the camps in Ethiopia, ordeal in the camps in Kenya, in 2001, the year of our own ordeal with terrorism, Abraham Nhial came to America, one of a too-small number of Lost Boys admitted to this country. Within three years he had earned a bachelor’s degree from Atlanta Christian College, married his sweetheart from the refugee camp in Kenya, and co-authored the book Lost Boy No More. He attended Trinity School for Ministry and was ordained to the priesthood in 2009, having become an American citizen. A year later, he accepted the call to become Bishop of Aweil, one of the fastest elevations in all of Anglican history.

Twice a year, he visits fellow Lost Boys in the United States and his sponsoring parish in Atlanta. He also uses these visits to spread the message about what has happened in South Sudan and to extend the network of people and organizations who want to see the new nation flourish.

He is coming here because he asked if he may visit us. That was a moment of rogation, when his asking was relayed through a mutual colleague who will accompany him next weekend, The Rev. Janice Ford. It may be that he heard of Williamstown because of the past decade of good work by the Sudan Relief Task Force that Elizabeth Williams and Jeanne Blake and a wide circle from the First Congregational Church poured great energy into. This was an ecumenical partnership that supported he ministry of a remarkable woman (and her community), Mother Raile Daffala, Anglican deaconess then in Khartoum and mother-in-law of The Rev. Carrie Bail. Mother Raile gave to each church a bowl that has constantly reminded us that responsible stewardship includes helping our at-risk neighbors achieve security and helping them enjoy what the universe yields to the persistent seeker.

Last November, we received a surprise visit by Bishop Daniel Sarfo, who soon afterward became Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Ghana. It was Bishop Scruton who arranged that visit, on the hunch that we would enjoy Bishop Sarfo and that he would enjoy us. That we should receive another African bishop just six months later is its own witness to the universalizing of our life, and to the reality that within the Anglican Communion, we, though many, are one body.

That is the message of Pentecost, our third-in-a-row special May Sunday when we will cause the church to grow through holy baptism.

And not long after that, on June 9, our own Bishop will make his first visitation here to confirm members ready to claim their faith and practice as Christians, or be received into membership in this branch of Christ’s Church, or reaffirm their faith within the circle of this congregation. If one of these holy steps seems right for you to take, this week would be a good time for us to talk about it.

I have spoken this morning of so many holy steps. Processions to bless gardens. Steps taken by students finding their way to this house of prayer, soon to be taking next steps out to a world that needs them. Barefoot steps across desert and jungle by young refugees. Remarkable steps taken by our Communion’s youngest bishop. Holy steps that will be taken by people dear to us here.

How many ways those steps show the constancy of God’s grace in human life, in all things and above all things, as our collect today says. How central to all our journeying is openness to that grace. To that mutuality of love, that dynamic bonding of the mind of God and human mindfulness, that alchemy of the Spirit of God touching the openness of the human heart, the courage it takes to participate in the working-together for good of all things, for God is in and above all-- stronger than death, stronger than terrorism, stronger than all that threatens the earth.