Faithful Stewards, Good Gifts

+In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

Good morning. Since the church buildings have been closed, your staff has been working from home except to pick up the mail or check up on things. Louis Cordero, our building manager, stops by All Saints’ a couple of times a week. I do a walk through every day. Let’s face it, it’s an easy thing for me to do. It’s not much of a commute from the rectory!

Usually when I walk through the building, there aren’t any surprises. Thank goodness! But this past Thursday morning, I discovered something unexpected. I found a wheelbarrow – still wet from the morning’s thunderstorm – parked at the end of the hallway in the church school. Like Moses with the burning bush, I had to investigate. It’s not everyday you find a wheelbarrow in the church school hallway.

I walked around the wheelbarrow, opened the door, and looked outside. Several bags of fertilizer were laying on the ground along with a few plants. Somebody had decided that it was time to plant some of the raised beds lining the sidewalk that leads to the alley west of the church.

The timing of the start of planting season at All Saints’ could not have been more perfect since we’re focusing on the beauty of “this fragile earth, our island home” this Sunday, and the responsibility we have to care for it as stewards of God’s creation. The music, the readings, and the prayers have all been chosen with this theme in mind.

I was pretty excited to discover little pots of parsley and kale next to sacks of peat and composted manure out in the yard this past week. Maybe it was the old farmer in me who was so happy – the one who shows up every spring around this time. But I suspect my happiness was more closely related to what’s going on this year. The plants represented hope in what is certainly an otherwise dark and troubling time. Lately it’s the little things that make a difference.

Why are we focusing on God’s creation this morning? The reason goes back hundreds of years to what are known as the Rogation Days. I realize many of you have never heard of the Rogation Day, so let me offer a little background.

The Rogation Days have been traditionally observed on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Day. The first record of them comes from the 5th century in France where a local bishop called his diocese to prayer as they were facing a disaster. The Book of Common Prayer stills sets aside these days for us to pray that God will give us fruitful seasons, will bless our work, and will help us remember we are stewards of God’s loving providence – that we have been entrusted with the land, the water, and the air, and are ultimately accountable to God for the care of these resources.

In England, the Rogation Days were kept by “beating the bounds” of the parish church.  It was a time of asking – that’s what the word Rogation means – asking God to bless the earth and to provide enough food to sustain people who were living in the local village. The parish priest and congregation would line up behind the crucifer and head out of the churchyard into the fields surrounding the village, chanting psalms and prayers as they went.

Since Rogation Days always come during springtime in the northern hemisphere, and since spring planting was in progress when the processions were going on, the purpose of them was to bless the fields just as the seeds were starting to germinate, and to pray that an abundant harvest might come later on in the year.

The custom of processing is still kept in a few places – often in full church regalia. But these days it feels like an anachronism – a relic of bygone days when people lived according to the rhythms of an agrarian life. Just imagine the fun shows like Monty Python or the Vicar of Dibley would have with rogation processions.

But a good harvest was no laughing matter then, and still isn’t. We forget how close to the edge human beings have lived throughout most of history, and how tenuously even our great-grandparents lived. A year’s crop could be wiped out by insects or hail storms, too much rain or too little rain. People’s well-being is still shaky throughout much of the world. Even those of us who live in great privilege have learned a few things during this pandemic, as supply chains have been affected and as hoarders have cleared staples from grocery store aisles. Mostly we’ve just been inconvenienced.

We’ve never experienced famine or even food insecurity for that matter. And it’s only been in the last weeks that most of us have even begun to see the human cost involved in keeping the salad bars stocked and the meat cases full at Jewel-Osco or Whole Foods or Mariano’s. So, before we dismiss Rogation Day processions as quaint and anachronistic, perhaps we should stop at least once a year to reflect on the extraordinary gift of the earth.

I’ll never forget when humans saw the whole earth from space for the first time. It was thanks to a photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Christmas Eve in 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission. The photo, known as ‘Earthrise,’ showed us what our planet looked like – how vulnerable and beautiful it was – a ball of blue and green sailing through the void.

Many years after the iconic photo was taken, someone: “We should take care to pin the image to the fridge and apply its lessons to our lives.” And I want to say that, in a world beset with ecological crises, and dominated by a culture that abuses and exploits God’s creation in order to try to sate insatiable desires, we need to rediscover the Rogation Days and the processions that once marked it.

Why, we could schedule a small procession outside the Environmental Protection Agency to protest all the major climate and environmental policies that have been dismantled during the last three and a half years. Or we could schedule another procession around the Department of the Interior which has worked to open up more land for oil and gas leasing by cutting back protected areas and limiting wildlife protections. I came to Chicago from a state where the rivers used to burn, and I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world where we’ve gone back to the old days.

The good news is that our planet has the ability to heal itself if we give it half a chance. I haven’t had the bandwidth to pay as much attention to the news recently other than news about the pandemic. But there have been pandemic-adjacent stories about the environment that have caught my eye in the last few days. One of them was published on Thursday.

The story said that the US is on track to produce more electricity this year from renewable power than from coal. A decade ago, coal provided nearly half the nation’s electricity – and, with it, enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. The change has driven down America’s CO2 emissions by 15% since 2005, and emissions are projected to be down another 11% this year. This is due in part to the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus, in part because we are all driving less, but mostly due to fact that wind and solar power are not only cleaner alternatives to coal – they’re cheaper. On May 1, of this year, wind power alone supplied nearly three times as much electricity in Texas as coal did – in Texas of all places.

As economic activity starts up again – and it needs to for all of us – countries and businesses are faced with choices that have consequences for God’s creation. Steven Erlanger, the chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe for The New York Times, laid out the choices in a recent article this way: “With the global paralysis induced by the coronavirus, levels of pollution and carbon emission are dropping everywhere — leaving bluer skies, visible mountains, splendid wildflowers. Even Venice’s famously murky canals are running clear. After decades of industry and government slow-walking the climate issue, for some it is proof that effective action can be achieved. But nature’s revival has come at enormous cost, with Europe’s economy projected to decline 7.4 percent this year. So for many , , , concerns about climate . . . can seem less so now. Those competing camps are now locked in debate over how and what to rebuild — between those who want to get the economy moving again, no matter how, and those who argue that the crisis is a chance to accelerate the transition to a cleaner economy.”

Some think the virus only strengthens the need for climate action. Others think “there should be no higher priority than to repair a ravaged economy, postponing stricter environmental regulations if necessary.” The battle lines are being drawn.

So, maybe there’s more to this Rogation Sunday than first meets the eye. I will be the first to acknowledge the complexity that exists in our current situation. There are many factors to balance – the health and safety of everyone in society – especially those who are most vulnerable – the desperate need so many have to get back to work – and, then, all that a functioning economy can do for our well-being. But, as Christians, we must also advocate for the care of creation as good stewards on behalf of the One who made all things and placed them in our care.

Two years after Bill Anders photographed the earth rising above the lunar surface, a folk singer named Tom Paxton wrote a song. The title of it came from the one of the creation stories in the Bible where humankind was placed in the Garden of Eden to till it and to keep it. The song is called “Whose Garden Was This?” and the lyrics are a haunting reminder of what this planet would be like if we failed to care for it:

“Whose garden was this?

It must have been lovely.

Did it have flowers?

I’ve seen pictures of flowers,

And I’d love to have smelled one!

Whose river was this?

You say it ran freely?

Blue was its color?

I’ve seen blue in some pictures

And I’d love to have been there!

Ah, tell me again I need to know

The forest had trees

The meadows were green

The oceans were blue

And birds really flew

Can you swear that was true?”

“Whose Garden Was This?” by Tom Paxton

Merciful Creator, grant that we may be faithful stewards of your good gifts. Amen.