Peter ordered that [the Gentiles] be baptised… Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. From Acts 10:44-48, NIV.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again…..
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
From Mending Wall by the American poet Robert Frost.
Today is Rogation Sunday, named from the Latin rogare, to ask – a reminder of Jesus’ words in John 14, “I will do whatever You ask in my name.” In times when a poor crop would mean hunger to come, prayers were asked in springtime for God’s blessing on the sowing of the seed and the hope of a good harvest. Rogation processions developed to bless the fields, sometimes leaving crosses there as a reminder, and often following parish boundaries. George Herbert, the poet born in Montgomery not far from here, wrote of the four ‘manifest advantages’ of a Rogation procession:
“First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field: Secondly, justice in the Preservation of bounds: Thirdly, Charity in loving walking, and neighborly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any: Fourthly, Mercy in time is, or ought to be used.” The Country Parson, 1633.
Over time, this grew into beating the bounds, also walking the boundaries to ensure that the youngsters of the parish would physically know the landmarks and limits of their own location. This was also an opportunity to mend any dilapidated walls or fencing and settle any boundary issues, whether of the land or relationships. Given the zeal with which sheep here sometimes try to break out of their field, Frost’s poem about boundaries and whether or not to maintain them is amply illustrated in this valley:
“We keep the wall between us as we go/ To each the boulders that have fallen to each.“
In the Gospel and Acts readings today, boundaries are being broken down. After being followers, disciples and servants, Jesus now calls those with him his friends, telling them that he has made known to them everything that he has learned. That is an astonishing thing for Jesus to say to them and to us today as these words are read – but the hallmark of this friendship is love, a command not an option. Peter also, having initially thought it important to keep the boundaries of the faith and custom of the Jews, has realised that Gentiles are part of God’s plan because they have been heard speaking in tongues and praising God. The Holy Spirit is being poured out on even the Gentiles! After a struggle with what is being asked of him, Peter now urges their baptism and is then asked to stay with them which, previously, he wouldn’t have been able to do according to the demands of the ritual of Judaism. What an astonishing and fundamental change of heart for both Peter and those Gentiles!
All this has implications for us as some boundaries established during the pandemic are now being broken down whilst others are still being maintained. Shortly, it will be possible to meet indoors and to hug those from whom we’ve had to be estranged during the last year – some will welcome this whilst others may not. For some, an adjustment may be required and, for others, a change of heart and mindset like Peter’s as the consequences of the pandemic on lives and health the world over continue although they are easing in the UK.
If there are things with which we struggle, then perhaps we should ask God’s guidance this Rogation Sunday as the limits of freedom and responsibility are explored and access to heath care and food are marked. The supermarkets now enable the provision of food more readily, but this comes at a cost as this week’s tensions between Jersey and French fishermen over the limits of fishing rights have shown. That applies to the human stewardship of creation, too, and the simple act of not cutting the lawn has been suggested for No Mow May so that bees, insects and wild flowers can be helped to flourish. As we face the needs of others as well as ourselves and Jesus’ command to love, each of us will have to decide whether to maintain or dismantle the boundaries we face, and what we need to ask God for. In this perspective, Frost’s words may have a renewed resonance:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walking in or walking out
And to whom I was likely to give offence
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
That wants it down…..”
With my prayers – pob bendith,