A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter: Rogation Sunday
May 15, 2022
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
The title of my sermon today is “Love Like a Farmer.” It’s not the best title. It sounds more like a country song than a sermon–or worse, like a five cent harlequin romance novel. But bear with me; you’ll see where I’m going.
Before we get there, though, we need to talk about what today is. Today, on the fifth Sunday of Easter, we are celebrating Rogation Sunday. We haven’t done this as a community before, although I have visited many of your farms and gardens on Rogation days in the last couple of years. Rogation days are an ancient custom of the church, when we set aside a special time to pray for our farmers, our land, our crops, and our communities. At the end of today’s service, before we dive into the pork butts and all that delicious food, we will go outside and we will follow the cross around our property. At each four spots, we will read a passage of scripture and say a prayer, beseeching God to bless our farmers, to watch over our crops, and to give us an abundant harvest for the good of the world. My hope is that our two churches will continue to gather here at St. Peter’s, year after year, to pray these prayers together.
These Rogation days were once rather common. One of my favorite poets, who was also a priest in the Church of England, is George Herbert. Herbert was the priest at a small rural parish like this one in the 1600s. He writes that “[the Country Priest] loves [Rogation] Procession, and maintains it, because there [is] contained therein [...] a blessing of God for the fruits of the field.” As you can see, Rogation days go way back. Over time, however, the Church got away from a regular Rogation celebration. As folks moved off the farm and into the city, the old customs and agricultural prayers were forgotten, even though they are still in our prayer book. We can’t do that here. Other parts of the country may have forgotten about rural America, but we cannot. We have chosen to live here. Many of you have chosen to work the land; for some of you, the very land passed down to you from generation to generation as an inheritance. You have chosen the hard work of agriculture, the work that Adam undertook in Genesis, the work of toil in the soil. If I’ve learned anything over the last three years as your priest, I’ve learned that your work is hard and honest, and that you truly rely on the Providence of God from seedtime to harvest. That means your work is holy. God bless you for it.
Our readings today don’t seem to have a lot to do with growing crops or blessing fields. The psalm is about how all of creation praises God, and that includes our soybeans, corn, and rice. They praise God in their growing. But other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection to agriculture work.
That brings me back to my title, “Love Like a Farmer.” It is inspired from today’s gospel passage. Our passage comes from the Last Supper, just after Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet. He comes back to the table, and he gives them a new commandment. “Love one another,” he says. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Our world doesn’t know much about love. We equate it with a warm fuzzy feeling we have while we are holding our beloved. We think of love as those butterflies we get in our stomach at the homecoming dance. In short, we think of love as an emotion.
Love can have an emotional element. We often feel love that way. Think of your wedding day, or when you first held your child, or when as a child you ran and jumped into your parent’s outstretched arms. All of those are emotional things; we feel love. The problem comes, however, when we stop there. When we say that love is just a feeling. If we stop there, what Jesus says today is shallow and vague. “Love one another,” he says. We can think he wants us to have warm, fuzzy feelings in our hearts when we’re around one another.
But that’s not what Jesus means. Jesus is talking about something deeper. Jesus is talking about love as a decision–a decision to show up for one another, to fight for one another, to sacrifice for one another, to lay down everything for one another. That’s the type of love Jesus showed us. For Jesus, love is a concrete action: It’s washing feet; it’s hanging out with the outcasts and sinners; it’s forgiving someone when they’ve hurt us; it’s laying down our lives so that someone else can live.
Farmers are called to love like that. They love the earth. They must take care of their land; make sure it has what it needs to grow; pay attention to the health and composition of the soil; think about how what they do today will impact the farmers who are caring for this land in 100 years. That’s love–real, concrete love.
They have to love their neighbor. They love the neighboring farmer–not their competitor, but their neighbor. When they’re in trouble, they show up to help in whatever way they can. I’ve seen it happen, and so have you. Farmers also love people they haven’t even met, working hard so that people everywhere will have something to eat, so they don’t go to bed hungry. That’s love–real, concrete love.
And in doing all of that, they love God. Not abstractly, but concretely. Caring for God’s creation. Caring for their neighbor and the total stranger they will feed. That’s holy work. That’s what it means to love like a farmer.
In whatever we do, whether we farm or work in an office or work on the road or build houses or volunteer or spend some well-earned time in retirement, Jesus tells us we must love. We must love concretely, with actions. We must love the world God has made and care for it. We must love our neighbors as ourselves and care for them. In doing so, we love God.
Love concretely. Love like a farmer. Because loving like that makes our work and our entire lives holy, offerings to God.
A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 8, 2022 - Mother's Day
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” We know these words from Psalm 23. Attributed to King David, himself a shepherd at the beginning of his life, this image of a shepherd continues to enliven our imaginations and teach us about who God is and what God is like. Jesus, who calls himself the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, says in our reading from John, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Granted, we don’t know a lot of shepherds today. We don’t have them in our world in the same way they were in Jesus’s world. Shepherds were often a metaphor for kings. Shepherds were overseers, watching over and caring compassionately for the sheep, or the people. And yet, even with this princely association, they were despised, held at arms’ length, rejected and excluded and marginalized and kept in their place. The shepherds at Jesus’s birth, smelly and lowly as they were, were not welcome in royal palaces.
David knows this negative side when he calls the LORD his shepherd. But he calls God a shepherd anyway, because God, like a shepherd, gives himself, cares for the sheep, sacrifices his very body if necessary. Jesus, also, leans into this metaphor, knowing full well both sides of this shepherd image–the good and princely, the bad and despised. But he calls himself the Good Shepherd, the watchman, the protector when enemies are around, the provider in the valley of death, the One who leads us to what we need for life, the compassionate One who lays down his life and gives up everything for the sake of the flock, the Church, us.
Shepherds: both princely and despised. It’s a powerful contrast. Christ the King is mocked as a criminal. The Sacred Head is sore wounded with grief and pain weighed down. The Word who calls creation into being is rejected by that very creation. The Good Shepherd, the pinnacle of princely images, is despised, marginalized, cast out, slaughtered.
Today in the secular calendar, we commemorate Mother’s Day. It’s not a church feast, but it’s a good day to give thanks for and celebrate the mothers in our lives. Mothers of all kinds: biological, adoptive, foster, emotional, spiritual. It is also a day to remember and care for those who desire to become mothers or who cannot become biological mothers. We remember and support those who have difficult relationships with their mothers or their children. We remember mothers who have lost a child, and children who have lost their mothers. For all of these, this day can be supremely painful. If that’s you, I hope you’ll hear this: God loves you, and so do we.
On this Mother’s Day, I wonder if something from what I have said about shepherds sounds familiar. I cannot help but to see some parallels. On this day of all days, motherhood is extolled as a princely estate, a pinnacle of human vocation. And while not all mothers are good, if you had a good mother, you can identify with that. Mothers give of themselves wholly. Indeed, they give of their very bodies to give life, sacrificing who they are, sometimes painfully, for another.
I was once at a lecture with a renowned theologian, a very learned, wise, and holy man. During the Q&A, he noted something along the lines of how mysterious it was that God would sacrifice himself, his very life, his very body, in Christ Jesus, and all for us. A profound theological thought. Later, I heard a classmate of mine, at the time nursing her child, respond. It didn’t seem so mysterious to her. She was, after all, sacrificing her very body for the life of this infant. What was perhaps mysterious for the theologian was natural to this mother-priest. Perhaps that is why some say, if you want to know more about the love of God, look at the love of a mother for her children.
This insight was also shared by St. Julian of Norwich, an English mystic and the first woman to publish a book in the English language. In her Song of True Motherhood, she said this:
God chose to be our mother in all things
and so made the foundation of his work,
most humbly and most pure, in the Virgin’s womb.
Christ came in our poor flesh
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death;
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.
- Julian of Norwich, "A Song of True Motherhood" (EOW 1, 40)
And yet, just as with shepherds, mothers, this pinnacle image of goodness and nurturing love, can be vilified, marginalized, despised, cast out. As with shepherds, mothers receive both messages. Consider how women are sometimes ridiculed for nursing their children in public. Or take, for instance, my own mother. When I was a toddler, we took a trip on a Greyhound bus. I was fussy, as you might expect a toddler to be on a bus or, indeed, anywhere. After about an hour, another woman on the bus rushed forward, grabbed mother by the arm, and shouted, “Get that baby to shut up! Mothers these days don’t know what they’re doing!” Something embedded in the bedrock of our society gave that woman permission to do that–to approach another woman struggling with a toddler in the middle of the night on a bus, not to offer help, but to accost her. Not one passenger said a thing.
Side bar: If I ever hear of something like that happening in this church, we’re going to have a problem. This church belongs to our youngest members just as much as it belongs to you or me. And if they want to praise God by making some noise, we had better not stop them. I hope we can all be like Bebe Townsend, who reportedly said to Leah Carter while she was trying to sootheFinley, then an upset infant, “That baby is not bothering anyone.”
If you want to know what the love of God is like, look at the love of a good mother. Look at her compassion, her care, her selflessness, the way she won’t give up on her children. Look at how she sacrifices herself, her very body, to feed her children, to protect her children, to help her children grow. Christ, the Good Shepherd, is also like a mother. Jesus gives us himself, sacrifices everything, to redeem us and to feed our souls: This is my Body, this is my Blood. Do this in remembrance of me. And all because of love–a mysterious yet natural love. As Julian of Norwich said, “Christ came in our poor flesh to share a mother’s care.”
A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
April 24, 2022
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Old doubting Thomas. We get this familiar reading from John’s Gospel every Low Sunday, the Second Sunday after Easter. Christ, resurrected and alive, shows up to the ten disciples, minus Thomas and Judas, of course. They tell Thomas Christ is alive. He doesn’t believe it. Defiant, he says, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." We know the end of the story. Christ shows up the next week, on Low Sunday. This time, Thomas is there. And Christ invites him to see and touch the mark of the nails and the hole in his side, the wounds of the crucifixion. Thomas believes: “My Lord and my God.”
But let’s back up. Let’s take a good look at Thomas, because I don’t think this is a basic case of doubt. After all, all the other disciples, those other ten, they doubted, too. They didn’t believe Mary Magdalene or the women.
Thomas appears a few times in the gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he only appears when all of Jesus’s disciples are listed. In John’s gospel, he is part of a few key stories. We heard one of them this morning. Another key moment comes from John 11, when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. You remember the story: Jesus has got word that Lazarus is sick, but he delays. Finally, Jesus says, well, gang, let’s go to Judea to see Lazarus. The disciples are not fans of that plan. They remind Jesus that the religious authorities in Judea were just trying to stone him. Why would you go back into danger? But Jesus is adamant; let’s go. He tells them Lazarus is dead, and he has to go raise him.
It is at this moment that Thomas gets one of his big lines: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas is resigned. He’s saying, let’s follow Jesus, and we’re going to die, but let’s go anyway. Thomas has unwittingly discovered something here: following Jesus means we must die. Thomas would die a martyr’s death, giving his life for Christ. So would countless others, like Bonhoeffer, a German pastor killed by the Nazis. He said it this way: When Christ calls someone, he calls them to come and die. You and I may not die a martyr’s death, but we are called to follow Christ and die just the same–to die daily to sin, to die to our own will, to die to ourselves, and to put on Christ, to put on holiness, to put on newness of life in God. At this point, Thomas is sure: he will follow Jesus and die with him. That’s what any good disciple would do. Thomas thought himself a good–maybe even a perfect–disciple.
This episode shadows the one we read today. Thomas, who was once willing to follow Christ to his death, has now discovered something about himself. When Christ was arrested and taken away, tried and crucified, Thomas fled. As sure as he had been that he would follow and die with Christ, when the time came, he couldn’t do it. He ran away and hid out. And he was left with shame, with guilt, with disappointment in himself. He was faced with his true self–and it’s a far cry from that grandiose person, that perfect disciple he thought he was. He’s not willing to just accept that Christ is back from the dead. Such a sight would confront him with those memories of fleeing, the disappointment he harbored at his response, the shame and guilt he felt at what he had done.
More than doubt, I think Thomas struggled with a sort of perfectionism, a perfectionism that had been destroyed that Good Friday and replaced with internal shame and loathing. The events of Holy Week showed him he was far from the perfect disciple he thought he was; no, he had fallen, and fallen all the way to the bottom.
Have you ever been confronted with yourself like that, with your own failings that strip you of any illusion that you are perfect? If you have, perhaps you can understand Thomas’s response to his fellow disciples.
This happens to us in all sorts of ways. We start diets and exercise regimens, and we don’t live up to our expectations. New Year’s resolutions end before January is out; sometimes Lenten fasts don’t last a whole 40 days. We make plans–financial plans, careers plans, family plans–and they fall through. We break our promises: our promises to our friends, our promises to our children, our promises to our spouses, our promises to ourselves, our promises to God. Like Thomas, we are confronted with a hard truth about ourselves at each failing: We are not perfect, and we cannot live up to that perfect version of ourselves that lives in our minds, that we try to cling to. And we suffer for it. We carry around shame and guilt. Our esteem is damaged. It all weighs us down, a heavy, self-imposed yoke.
Then Christ shows up. In Christ and his perfect love, we are painfully confronted with all of those ways we don’t love, those things we have failed in, the brokenness in our lives. We are confronted with that heavy yoke of suffering, of promises broken, of pain imposed, of perfection thwarted. But what does Christ do? He invites us to come to him and lay those burdens down. Come here, Thomas, Jesus says. "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Yes, Thomas, you fled, you hid out, you did not live up to your own expectations of perfection. But come to me anyway, and lay down those heavy burdens you have heaped on yourself.
In Matthew Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It’s Jesus’s invitation to Thomas, and us, today. Come to me, lay down your burdens of past failures, of promises broken, of disappointment at your own human imperfection. Lay all of that down and just come to Jesus. And he will give you rest. Take off that heavy yoke of perfection you have made for yourself. And put on Jesus’s yoke. For his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
The 50 days of Easter are about God’s victory over sin and death, God’s victory over everything in this world. Nothing is too big for God: No sin is too great, no fear is too insurmountable, no burden too heavy. God has conquered all through the death and resurrection of Christ. And that includes our failings, our missteps, our disappointments, our human imperfections. For in the end, Christ does not ask us to live up to that vision of perfection we carry around within us. He knows we cannot live up to that. No, he just asks us to come to him; to die to our sin, our way, our illusions of perfection; and then to live. To live by him and with him and in him, forever and ever.
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