Today is Rogation Sunday. In the Christian tradition, Rogation is a time of procession, praying and fasting that looks towards the Ascension of Jesus to be with his heavenly Father. It is also a time of the blessing of the fruits of the earth. I believe that this blessing is important now for us to engage in at a time not only of the war in Ukraine, but also when the farmers are struggling to make ends meet in the current cost of living crisis. In ancient times there was a swatting with branches of local landmarks to maintain a shared mental map of parish boundaries.
It is this last aspect of Rogation practice that I would like to focus on in my sermon today. I would like to consider the meaning and purpose of boundaries.
Boundaries can be mental or physical and it seems to me that some boundaries are there for good reason while others are not. A good mental boundary is one whereby a person listening to the problems of another sets a boundary on the encounter to avoid the wearing down of both parties and to allow for future stages in the dialogue to take place. A good physical boundary is one which defines and beautifies an area designated for a shared purpose which benefits all. An example of such a boundary is our stone wall that surrounds our church garden, adding to its beauty and defining it as an area for all to enjoy in a variety of ways. It is a hallmark of the value we place on it that we are endeavouring at present to have it repaired; a task which has not been done for many years. A bad physical boundary is one which does all it can to keep people apart in a state of hostility. With this in mind there was much rejoicing when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Then there are the bad boundaries that aim to keep out immigrants who are trying to enter a country having fled in desperation from war and want their own native land.
It is not always obvious, though, whether a boundary is good or bad. In his book ‘Tales of a Country Parish’, that recently had a very successful launch here at St Mark’s, the Vicar of Savernake Forest, the Reverend Colin Heber-Percy, refers to the writing of Simone Weil, the French philosopher and theologian, who was born in 1909 and died in 1943. Simone writes of two prisoners whose cells adjoin. They communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing that separates them but is also a means of communication. Simone goes on to say that it is the same with us and God. Every separation, he writes, is a link. Following on from this line of thought, Colin Heber-Percy gives an example of the Prodigal Son who is separated from his father but then returns and the father rejoices. It is, Colin writes, the separation that gives this text its meaning. To my mind it reflects the eternal love of God for us all that forgives our sins and rejoices in our turning to him, particularly if we have gone astray.
It is this eternal love of God that knows no boundaries and is the overriding theme of John’s Gospel.
In the text that precedes today’s Gospel reading, Jesus assures his disciples that he will not leave them orphaned. He will, after his death, continue to live in them and they will live in him. The Crucifixion, then, appears to be a boundary between us and God but it will fail utterly as God the Father and God the Son will come to the disciples and, as John expresses it ‘make their home with them’. The effects of this are peace and rejoicing that Jesus is going to the Father.
Let us pause to consider what this peace offered by the eternal boundary-free love of God means for us all. For the disciples, John goes on to say that they will receive the Holy Spirit to ‘teach them everything’ and remind them of everything that has been said to them. He is also reassuring his disciples in saying what is to come in a way that will allay their fears of the Crucifixion.
This assurance will bring peace but not as this world gives. The peace given by the world is bought at a price. As Fergus King writes in his commentary on John’s Gospel, the so-called ‘Pax Romana’, that is the peace claimed to have been established by the Roman Empire, came about through ravage, slaughter and rape. Today, peace and prosperity are looked for through the suppression of dissent, freedom of speech and even the curtailing of human rights. This does not mean that people have never sought peace but they tend to seek it in a way that does not benefit the many, only the few. Having recently refreshed on my studies of European history, it appears that the Congresses that were convened in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries failed to create a lasting harmony in Europe and the League of Nations that was the forerunner of the United Nations did not succeed either. We remain therefore in a world where there is always a war going on somewhere which does seem to be a terrible waste of life and potential for the future.
Nevertheless, in this war-torn world of ours we need not give up hope for a better, more peaceful life. There is hope to be found in many of today’s crusades. The crusade for climate change and the breakthroughs that many charities have made following petitions to Government for a better state of affairs. Then there is the hope that many people have given to refugees in offering their accommodation to them. There is the quest for a deeper appreciation of nature to pass on to new generations. There are the breakthroughs made by medical research for the cure and prevention of diseases and so the list goes on. No-one can say, although it is not yet universal, that the modern world does not strive for peace in good ways. It does, but I believe that we can help ourselves further towards peace by avoiding where possible any bad boundaries that separate us from each other in a negative way. Covid has cast a deadly shadow across the world and there is a cost of living crisis but if we avoid bad boundaries and remind ourselves through prayer and worship of the boundless love of God then I believe we will win through.
To keep us on track I will end with the first verse of an eighteenth century hymn by Robert Robinson:
‘Come, thou font of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy never ceasing
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious measure
sung by flaming tongues above;
O the vast, the boundless treasure
of my Lord’s unchanging love!