This is my sermon for Rogation Sunday, the traditional name for the Sunday before Ascension Day.
The word ‘rogation’ comes from the Latin for ‘to ask’. There is a tradition of praying for the crops to grow well and produce a good harvest.
In 1950 my father was a vicar in rural Somerset. One farm after another. Rogation Sunday was a major event every year. They used to beat the bounds of the parish. This was a procession all round the parish boundary. Before they had maps this was the way the community remembered where the parish boundaries were.
The congregation would all turn up. The band would play for the hymns. The vicar would lead the procession. At certain points they would stop. They would sing a hymn. The vicar would pray for fertility, asking God for a good harvest.
So off we went: the congregation, the band, my father the vicar, my mother pushing the pram, me in the pram, my big brother, and, most excited of all, Taffy. My parents had recently acquired Taffy. They wanted a dog, but my father was determined to have nothing to do with puppies. It had to be a male, and since he was a Welsh sheepdog, we called him Taffy.
But Father, spiritually-minded as he was, wasn’t always good at practical matters. We processed, we stopped, we sang, we prayed for fertility, and Taffy provided. Five puppies.
Taffy was so excited with the procession that she wasn’t bothered about the puppies. Mother put them in the pram with me and took us home to what would have been an empty house, except for the cat. Do I need to tell you? Six kittens. When Father came home, he declared: ‘Never again will I pray for fertility!’
Here in Liverpool we don’t do Rogation Sunday processions. Here, food comes from shops, not fields. If you go to Moorfields station, you don’t see a single field, let alone a moor.
But the shops get food from fields. We still depend on fertility.
Rogation days, praying for fertility, isn’t a Christian invention. It goes way back before the beginnings of history.
For a very long time all our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. They lived in small groups. They didn’t grow food. They took what nature provided, either by picking things from plants or by hunting animals.
Then, about 10,000 years ago, in some parts of the world, people learned to plant crops and grow food. That way, there was a lot more food. More people survived so populations went up. They built cities. It wasn’t necessary for everyone to grow food, so there arose a class of people who lived off the food grown by others. They developed a ruling class who imposed taxes on the farmers. The farmers became peasants, obliged to grow as much food as possible and provide a surplus for the ruling classes.
This is what the ancient Roman empire was like at the time of Jesus. At the top were the governing class with a supreme ruler. The top 1% of the population owned about 50% of the wealth. Under them were scribes, soldiers, merchants and priests. But the overwhelming majority of the population were the peasant farmers. The peasants paid the taxes to maintain the system.
Governments squeezed as much tax as possible from the peasants. They left the peasants with just enough to keep themselves and their families alive. There were always some peasants who couldn’t feed their families after paying their taxes. There were always people starving to death, and others surviving as sex workers, beggars, burglars and bandits.
In reality there was more than enough food to feed everyone. But because of the taxes, many didn’t have enough.
The problem was worst when there was a bad harvest. Too much rain, not enough rain, a disease in the crops. So whatever gods they believed in, they would pray for good weather and fertility, so that they would have a good harvest.
This suited the government. Instead of admitting that starvation was caused by their own greed, they blamed the gods for bad weather.
Now I want to ask: how does this compare with today? The most obvious difference is that we are not farmers. But we still depend on food. We still have people who eat too much, and people who are starving.
Governments still see things from their point of view. They eat plenty, but they find it easier to tolerate other people going without. There is still greed.
They still put the blame for shortages on forces beyond themselves, but they no longer call those forces gods.
It seems to me that this makes a big difference. If we try to imagine what it must have been like to be a peasant farmer, round about the time of Jesus, obviously they knew that the harvest depended on having the right kind of weather. Those who also believed the weather depended on moody gods, would pray to the gods and offer them sacrifices. If the weather improved they might think the sacrifices worked. But for how long? They would have thought that life would carry on being uncertain because the gods were just moody.
The modern secular story is different. We have a plan to make permanent changes. Progress. The problem lies not with moody personal gods but with impersonal forces, laws of nature. Europe has a long history of intellectuals thinking we can improve on the environment. One day we are going to solve all our problems. Economic theory is going to make us all richer. Technology is going to produce more useful machines. When combine harvesters were introduced there were people saying that nobody would ever need to go hungry again.
It didn’t happen. I’ve been hearing all my life that the latest new technology, or economic system, would in the future solve all our problems. That future never comes. Sometimes the number of people without food goes down, but sometimes it goes up. For the last seven years it has been going up a lot. Why? It’s nothing to do with the weather, it’s nothing to do with economic growth, it’s nothing to do with technology. It’s because whoever has power takes more than their share for themselves, and leaves others without.