Agriculture, the Church, and Rogation

Matthew 13: 3-9  Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” 

Jesus, and the Biblical authors, clearly recognized the importance of soil. The Gospels are replete with parables that convey God’s message through creation-oriented language. Down the centuries the deep connection between God, Creation, and Scripture has been honored and celebrated through festivals and worship liturgies.  

“Rogation days” are a historic way of connecting Christian faith to soilAs the ELCA resource “What are Rogation Days?” explains, they were celebrated during the fiftdays of Easter on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Day. However, the resource also notes that “Churches that have maintained the practice of celebrating Rogation Days in our time now no longer mark these days specifically before Ascension. Instead, Rogation Days are celebrated at times and places that meet local needs. With an increased awareness of the need for the stewardship of creation both within the church and within contemporary culture, the themes of thanksgiving for the land and petitions for a fruitful earth may be adapted around broader cultural celebrations of Earth Day or at other times.” The name comes from the Latin word rogare, meaning “to ask.” Celebrations were elaborate and often included priests and parishioners processing from their churches to the fields where they would ask for God’s blessing. 

Rogation day celebrations spread throughout Europe. They had early origins in France, predating their formal adoption by the Catholic Church. An Episcopal Church resource explains that in the fifth century French Bishop Mamertus introduced days of fasting and prayer to ward off a threatened disaster, an early form of rogation observance. In England rogation days were associated with the blessing of the fields at planting. The vicar beat the bounds of the parish, processing around the fields reciting psalms and the litany. In America they too have been associated with agriculture and rural living. Wherever Christians have celebrated Rogation, they do so amid cultures and religions that, in their own ways, also mark the phases of the agricultural season.   

Rogation and Climate Change 

Luke 8: 15 : 15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. 

For those in Jesus’s time, good soil was fundamental for a good life. In the literal sense, the quality of soil determined the quality of the harvest, which would in turn determine the income of a family and their ability to feed themselves and their community. Jesus’s parables make use of this natural reality to express how we as people of faith must become “good soil” to hear and hold God’s message.  

In the twenty-first century, it is important to mind both the literal and metaphorical ways in which Jesus speaks to us. As always Christians are called to be “good soil” to God’s Word. Now, however, the literal soil that Jesus invokes is unwell. Manmade climate change is degrading soil quality. As we know from the Scriptures and our own scientific understandings, the health of our soil determines the health of everything that stands upon it.  

Establishing and strengthening our spiritual connection to the land is important, but taking concrete actionto sustain the soil is vital. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection published several reports on how the commonwealth’s climate change fate is linked to the health of its lands. We already see increased heat, pests, and precipitation — all predicted to worsen over the next few decades. Pennsylvania is one of the nation’s largest energy producers. The commonwealth relies on its forests, which offsets 11 percent of its emissions, to mitigate the greenhouse gas pollution that makes Pennsylvania alone accountable for 1% of the world’s emissions. Expanding, giving thanks for, and protecting forests and uncultivated lands is essential.  

Connection to Justice 

“Lord, let my heart be good soil, open to the seed of your word. Lord, let my heart be good soil, where love can grow and peace is understood.” – ELW, Hymn 512  

As we give thanks for our soils and the foundations they provide for ecosystems and food systems, it is important to connect this holistic vision to working toward justice. Pennsylvania is one of the nation’s largest energy producers, and therefore has one of the highest emission levels. The commonwealth’s major industrial facilities are among the worst in the nation in terms of pollution exceedances, contaminating waterways that make essential sources of drinking water and recreational bodies unsafe. Often already vulnerable communities are the ones most exposed to this abuse of our water and soil. You can read more on water contamination in this recent report. More about plastic pollution specifically can be read here. 

Environmental justice, particularly for waterways, is a vital issue for residents in Eastwick, Pennsylvania. Eastwick is a community near the wetlands of the Delaware River, a major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. It is also near a “superfund” site, identified locations that are especially prone to flooding and leaching of hazardous materials. As governments continue to develop the land, many residents have experienced significant flooding, as the water table has nowhere to go. The wetlands are treasured by the people who live in nearby communities, and Lutheran Disaster Response is working to ensure these habitats and the people who live nearby are protected from flooding caused by development and exploitation.   

The health of the relationship between our communities and the soil is also intimately tied to farming. Hunger in Pennsylvania continues to grow, with recent studies showing 12.5% of the population is food insecure, including 17% of children, and 15% of seniors. Better connecting hungry Pennsylvanians to food, through pantries and programs like the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS), is one way the productivity of our lands can be better utilized. Ending hunger through ending food waste is one way in which both environmental and justice concerns can be addressed together. 

For more information on addressing issues of justice, check out our supplemental advocacy resource. ELCA World Hunger is hard at work addressing food insecurity in our nation and around the world. Supporting their work is a powerful way to address hunger through Lutheran faith.  

Worship Resources 

“For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies: Christ, our God, to thee we raise this our sacrifice of praise.” ELW, Hymn 879  

There are numerous ways that Lutherans can celebrate Rogation days in their worship. Evangelical Lutheran Worship contains Propers to commemorate the “Stewardship of Creation” with prayers for a fruitful season. ELW also contains a set of prayers that may be used for Rogation services. There is a “General Order of Blessing” for a service taking place near a farm or field, and scripture and hymn suggestions are provided. Recommended hymns can be found under the topic of “Creation” or “Stewardship.” Of the Land and Seasons is another useful ELCA resource that shows the connection between creation, rural rhythms of life, and worship in our congregations. 

Click here for liturgical samples written for rogation services and used by United Lutheran Seminary at their spring convocation on April 21st, 2021. We encourage the usage of this litany, so that we can hold each other’s needs in common prayer.

How You Can Make a Difference 

Genesis 2:15 – “15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” 

Alongside the celebration of Rogation days and holding the earth and its soils in your prayers, there are numerous concrete ways you can act to preserve the foundations of our ecosystems. The Pennsylvania DEP lays out several activities and practices to ensure you make a positive difference. These include supporting sustainable farming methods through your consumer choicesplanting native flower and tree species in your yard and throughout your community, especially near waterways where erosion is a concern, and use wood products from properly managed Pennsylvania forests. These actions help to preserve soil health, native habitats, reduce carbon emissions, and support Pennsylvania workers.  

If you’re a Pennsylvania farmer looking to make sustainable changes to your business, The Department of Agriculture offers grants and loans through PAgrows, which helps finance projects that will reduce emissions such as bio-fuels and supports no-till farming. The DEP also shared information on Clean and Green, a preferential tax assessment program that encourages protection of the Commonwealth’s valuable farmland, forestland and open spaces, bases property taxes on use values rather than fair market values. Currently, more than 9.3 million acres are enrolled statewide.”  

Congregations can get involved in pursuing climate justice, restoring soil, and fighting food insecurity, too. In Pennsylvania Lutheran congregations have already eliminated polystyrene containers from their hunger ministries, earned Energy-Star ratings from the EPA for their efforts to make their buildings more energy-efficient, added solar panels to their buildings and are creating community gardens to provide local, sustainable food to those in need. Your congregation can connect with Lutherans Restoring Creation, and consider becoming a “covenant congregation.” Connect with LAMPa to learn more.  

For those who are seeking to make changes in their day-to-day lives that honor the earth, the ELCA offers in its social statement “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice” a unique form of “tithing” that can help us form a healthier relationship with God’s creation. 

We challenge ourselves, particularly the economically secure, to tithe environmentally. Tithers would reduce their burden on the earth’s bounty by producing ten percent less in waste, consuming ten percent less in non-renewable resources, and contributing the savings to earthcare efforts. Environmental tithing also entails giving time to learn about environmental problems and to work with others toward solutions.

This concept of tithing for the earth harkens back to the concept of sabbath and the jubilee laws in the Hebrew tradition regarding preserving the earth for future generations by resting the land. Tithing as described in the social statement is meant to be an available opportunity for all. Acting, after all, may simply begin with education and conversation.