A Sermon by the Rev. Janet L. Abel
Preached on Sunday, July 20, 2014


The Problem with Chestnuts: Hard Shells and Awful Taste

You’ve heard today’s Scripture lesson before, I know, the story from Matthew 13 about the sower, the seeds, and the soils.  This is what we call a “chestnut” in preaching because it is a parable you’ve heard many times.  It’s kind of like an Easter sermon:  It’s hard to do something new with a subject you know so well.  Most of us have heard it preached in one particular way, with which I don’t especially agree.

Chestnuts make me think of roasting chestnuts in Manhattan.  When I moved there, I bought my first roasted chestnut from a street vendor.  Have any of you ever done that?  They smell so good, and then you eat one.  Ugh, oh dear!  I never did that again.  They smell really good, and they’re part of the Christmas experience at Rockefeller Center, but take it from me, don’t buy them.  They’ve been sitting in that fire pit for 20 years or so, and that’s exactly how they taste.

This is the problem with preaching “chestnuts.”  They’re really hard, and you’ve heard them many times over.  How to hear them anew?  How to hear once more about the sower, the seeds, and the soils?

If you noticed the signboard out front, it doesn’t reflect the full sermon title.  It’s either sowers and seeds or sowers and soils.  We have reached the limit of the number of S’s that we have for use on the signboard.  Our sexton, Cindy, called me in the middle of the week:  “What are we going to do?”  And I said, “Let’s take a word off.  It’s okay.”  There were more S’s needed (twelve for two signs) than we have in our letter case (ten).  But I wanted to talk about all three elements of the parable, which is why I came up with this title, “Sowers, Soils, and Seeds.”

Different Roles for Different Stages

We all know there are multiple roles we play in life, depending on what stage we’re in, where we are, who we’re with, and what we’re doing.  Life changes, and roles change too.  I once heard a children’s sermon on this subject, and the pastor used hats.  Think of all the different hats we wear in our lives, sometimes several at once, subject to how busy we are and how many irons we have in the fire.  Life can be pretty complex.

Once in a while I think about childhood in summertime, and as I’m trudging back and forth to work, those days come to mind.  Do you remember how endless summer seemed, how carefree?  But I know it wasn’t.  I know children have stress.  It’s different from the stress of adulthood, but it’s often the result of trying to please adults or parents.  Today, of course, kids are really busy in summertime.  Lots of them go to different schools or camps for special activities or join various sports teams that require regular attendance and practice.  For many children, their time seems more highly programmed than in the past.

For lots of us, though, looking back through the lens of midlife, it seems as though we had an endless amount of time in summer to lie on our backs and watch the clouds, as with time, go floating by.  When was the last time you did that?  It’s relaxing to gaze at cloud formations and try to discern what they look like.  Skipping around and throwing stones and walking through the woods and collecting flowers – they are all melded into a wonderful time of year.  We weren’t at all bored by the end of August, I remember.

In August the thought of the relentless approach of schooltime may have seemed to some like the flip side of childhood, but some of us generally loved school.  It was very structured; I liked that.  As time went on and we dispersed to various colleges, we loved the fact that, even if you had a horrible class, which was sometimes the case, it eventually came to an end.  It was nine weeks of feeling horrible, and then it was over.  Then you’d begin again.  Being a student has been one of my principal roles in life, and it still lingers on.  So it is with everyone.

Work is also a good thing generally, at least for me.  Like school, it gives us something to do, a purpose, a structure.  In my case, it’s the nursing home and assisted living, in addition to my responsibilities here at First Congregational Church.  You know I work at the homes Monday through Friday, and I now have the additional duty of leading services there on most Sunday afternoons.

A Prescription for Just Sitting:  Get Up and Go

Do you like to visit nursing and assisted-living homes?  I ask because there are plenty of people who don’t, even though I myself spend a lot of time in that situation.  For me it has become my world, but it’s not a place most people like to visit.  When asked why, they tell me, “Oh, Janet, it’s so depressing.  I don’t want to end up there.  I don’t want to end up sitting in a hallway or worse.  I don’t want to be reminded that’s how life can end.”  These remarks are true; we don’t like such negative thoughts about our own ending.  Truth to tell, many people actually fear them.

But not everybody is just sitting around.  We keep the residents very busy if they can physically or mentally do an activity.  We try our best to get everyone active and involved, and in fact people are more socially involved in assisted-living facilities than they were in their own homes, especially if they have a physical ailment and can’t get out.

Nowadays bingo, lessons of one kind or another, musical performances, trivia games, Bible study, and the like are all right down the hall.  Friends too are right down the hall.  The residents don’t eat alone; they’re really not living alone.  And should one get into some kind of difficulty such as a fall or an ailment, there’s also a nurse right down the hall.

I’ve come to realize that in some ways these facilities are a great place to be.  They’re much safer and more socially active than in a private home.  You’re less alone.  The residents and I talk about that a lot, what stage of life they’re in and what roles they’re playing.  They still have some hats to try on, although the kinds of hats they wear change from time to time.

Life is less physically active for the residents in many ways, and they’re doing less than at a younger age.  That’s a problem.  A lot of us have physical ailments that get worse by sitting too much.  We have to force ourselves to get going.  When you have a home or an apartment, you’ve got to get up and do the things you must do, even if you’re hurting.  This actually helps how we feel.  Got to make the bed, got to make the meal, got to clean.  It’s actually a good thing.

For most of my residents, however, they don’t have to do such chores.  They sit more, so it feels worse when they actually do move.  Depression is also a problem for the elderly.  It’s been estimated that a good 80 percent of the residents I work with are clinically depressed.  And why is that?  Much of the cause of nonclinical depression is that the residents are not doing enough, and I think that the main contributing factor is that they don’t feel they still have a purpose in life.  Their roles have declined, so why are they still around, they ask themselves.  Many of the people I talk with are afraid to reveal such feelings to me.

We have five or six people who are over a hundred years old, and they say to me, “What’s the deal?”  “Where’s God in this?”  “I’m not supposed to be here, but here I am.”  How to deal with that kind of attitude is something I have thought about during my entire time at Elizabeth Church Manor.  It’s been eleven years now, and it’s tough.

How do you give people the gift of purpose in their lives when they are limited in their physical or emotional ability to be active participants in their own lives?  You think about what they can do and try to let them do it.  Take your hands off, exert less control, and let people do what they can do because it really does matter.  Having a role, however small, helps people.

Sowers, Seeds, and Soils – All Are Roles for Us

Our parable today is a famous one, as mentioned at the outset.  I deliberately didn’t read the entire excerpt, but there’s an explanation.  The disciples turned to Jesus and asked, in essence, What does that paragraph about the sower really mean?  Jesus gives an explanation, but I don’t buy it, not really.  Jesus rarely gives an explanation for his parables.

When Are We Like Soils?

He does it twice in Matthew, and this is the orthodox church talking.  Here’s what it means:  You’re all soil, and you’d better be good soil because I’m the sower, giving you the word of God.  It’s all going to depend on whether you are good soil or not.  Is the seed going to bounce right off?  If that’s the case, if you’re a concrete path or you’re choked with thorns or you’ve got rocks, then you’re done.

Well that’s really nice.  Thank you, Jesus.  Let’s move on.  Let’s hope for good soil.  That’s the way it was preached to me when I was a kid.  You know I was a Baptist.  Then it was always presented in a very matter-of-fact way:  Be good soil or else.  Be the one that’s chosen, be the elect or else.  Two ladies are in a field; they’re both working.  Then the end comes, and one’s gone.  Don’t be the one who remains.  As a Baptist, we heard this over and over.  We even watched films that were scarey for a kid.  People on a plane, and boom, the end comes.  Hopefully you’re either up in heaven or you’re not on that plane.

So are we soil, stuck in that role?  Or can we in fact cultivate ourselves?  That’s what we do to our soil.  As you know, I’m not good at gardening, but we can take the rocks out of our soil.  Take the thorns out, make sure the seed doesn’t get on the path.  But what if we’re all three?  What if life is more complicated than simply being a type of soil?  Just a responder, just a passive participant in life, responding to the seed that’s being flung at us?  What if we’re sowers?  Or seeds?  Or sometimes we’re all three at once.

At different times in our lives, there are different symbols.  Remember, Jesus taught in parables, and parables are symbolic.  He talked about something very earthy, very practical.  Here’s something I think you can relate to:  Sowers, soils, and seeds.  But he also talked about life and people and roles, the roles that we play.

When Are We Like Sowers?

The classic image, of course, is that Jesus is the sower, giving us the seed, and we’d better respond.  But I think we’re sowers too.  At many times, we are giving out a message, maybe all the time.  We can think about the message in a minute, but we’re always sowing something, aren’t we?  Giving something out, something that’s coming from inside.  Is it love?  Is it irritation?  Is it hate?

What is it that we give out in our words, in our tone, in our time, in the things that we do, in the things that are important to us and the people that we spend time with, in the work that we do, and in the play?  We’re constantly sowing.  Hopefully, it’s love and grace and kindness and mercy.  Hopefully, it’s the slow word and not the quick, irritable word – something we all work on every day.

I have two rocks in my home.  One is new, and it says “Faith,” of which I always need reminders.  The other rock, which I’ve owned for years, bears the word “Patience.”  So I’m stuck in a hard place, between “Faith” and “Patience.”

I’m always working on the kind of seeds I’m sowing.  Think about how the seed is sown:  In the old days, the sower carried a big bag filled with seeds, which he scooped out by the fistful or with a trowel.  Then he went whoosh with his hand, scattering the seeds in a careful semicircular pattern on the ground.  That’s not how we sow today, is it?  When one seeds a garden, it’s done more carefully.  Dig a hole, and place the seeds so the plants are a certain space apart and are not overcrowded.

Once again, I’m not very good at this if you see my garden, but the old-time sower obviously required more seed per yard of coverage.  Whoosh.  The seed goes everywhere.  We’re not stopping to judge who is receiving the seed.  It is sown to everyone.

When Are We Like Seeds?

I think we’re seeds as well as sowers.  Sometimes we’re receivers, but other times we’re the actual thing that’s being planted in someone else’s garden, and for good reason.  It has been said that we’re in a specific place and time for a reason.  Certain residents and I are there at the same time.  We intersect, and sometimes we grow in each other’s lives.

The following quotation is from Macbeth, not one of my favorite Shakespearean plays.  I took a course and had to read them all, but that one is particularly bloody.  Macbeth goes down the path of murder and keeps going until he himself is killed by Macduff.  Banquo is the good guy.  He dies early on, but not before the king has said to him, “You are dear to my heart,” to which Banquo replies, “If I grow on your heart, let the harvest be your own.”  Beautiful imagery, using seeds and sowing.

I believe we are planted in different places for good reason.  We blossom in certain soils.  In others, we don’t, perhaps because we hit a concrete path or some rocks or thorns, and so we move on.  But we’re here because we’re supposed to be here, blooming in each other’s gardens as congregants and as members and friends of First Congregational Church.

When are we soil?  I think we are soil.  We are receivers as well as givers as well as the thing itself.  Sometimes I think we can be the garden path, hard as a rock.  And the seeds we’re getting aren’t going to make it.  They’re just going to bounce right off the rocks.  Why is that?  I think the garden path and the rocks and the sower are all pretty much related.  We’re sometimes too distracted to play the role that’s needed of us at the moment.

So Much to Learn and to Receive

There are times when I have to work at my role.  In the afternoon when it’s really hot, and I must go to a resident’s room and sit there while he or she starts talking, forcing myself to think, okay now, really listen carefully.  Yet I’m still thinking about going to the store after work to get half-and-half, eggs, and whatever else is needed.  Now the visit’s over, and I haven’t been there.  I’ve been on the garden path, and if the resident was planting a really wonderful seed, I missed it.  It’s not going to blossom in my life because I wasn’t there to hear it.

Of course we’re never supposed to do that.  We must not be distracted but rather present, open to all, represented by the good soil.  We must be soil to the sowers and seed and to the residents.  It can be depressing to go to a nursing home or an assisted-living facility, but there’s so much to learn and to receive there.  As some of you have undoubtedly done, sometimes I have had to force myself to go and have talked about the feeling that you must force yourself to go:  I’ve got to go to Wilson, I’ve got to go visit, I’ve got to go see Mrs. Jones.  I don’t really want to, but when there, I slow myself down, take out the rocks and thorns and then listen.

Working at these facilities, I have received so much more than ever expected, and sometimes the seeds I’ve received have truly blossomed.  There is so much wisdom, so much experience, so much love to be found in these homes.  The residents need visiting; they need your time; they need you to stop and be good soil for their seeds.  They are good sowers in that moment, and they still have a role to play.  We have to be open to it; we have to take the time.

If it’s true in the nursing home, it’s even more true in the hospital.  And in the pew, the supermarket aisle, the desk, the neighborhood, everywhere.  As a caregiver, you’ve just got to slow down.  That’s really the thing that allows us to receive more and to be gracious about it.  And when we’re giving out, we’re both sowers and receivers.  It’s wonderful when you know someone’s really receiving, hearing us, taking the time.  And it’s as true here in the congregation as it is anywhere else.

Sometimes in our lives, we are caregivers.  A lot of us are way more comfortable in that role.  Have you ever been a care-needer?  Not as comfortable, but there are times when you need to receive and not give.  We need to allow ourselves to receive.  Frankly, I have trouble even hearing a compliment.  Sometimes it’s deflected:  “Is that a new blouse?  I love that on you.”  “Oh, this is old.  You’ve seen it a million times.”  I’m a garden path, bouncing your seed right off.  I don’t let it in, yet people want to give.

The adult and the child.  A lot of us have been there.  You have roles to play.  When you were a child, as in summertime, you needed care from your parents, and it was given.  Then one day, it happens, it changes.  The roles are reversed.  You’re giving the bath or you’re making the meal or you’re bandaging the knee.  You’re the caregiver, and they’re the care-needer.  Love you forever, and you realize that this is life.

Our roles change, but they’re all needed and necessary.  We’re all soils, seeds, and sowers.  We’re all three.


We Are Not Alone

We Are Not Alone

A Sermon by the Rev. Janet L. Abel
Preached on Sunday, July 13, 2014


What Jesus Didn’t Say

We are not alone.  A great passage of Scripture and one of my personal favorites is the excerpt from Matthew 11: 28 that I just read (NRSV):  “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens.”  There are times in our lives when we know that this excerpt hits us in a special way.  We need these timeless words.  Other times we may be less vulnerable and less receptive to them.  So what makes a burden heavy?  By its very definition, a burden is always heavy.

Here’s what Jesus didn’t say:  Come unto me all you who are skipping with happiness.  Come unto me all you who have not a care in the world, you who are completely happy.  Know that this invitation is issued to those who have some burden they are carrying.  The weight of the world is on their shoulders.  In the Greek – which I often bring up since I suffered through an entire year of Greek – it translates as “all those who toil and having been laden.”

We’re all toilers at something at some time.  Thankfully, however, work doesn’t always feel like toil, does it?  Every job, inside and outside the home, can sometimes feel like toil, and at other times it’s a blessing.  Aside from the obvious, work has seasons, like life.  At times work is wonderful; it gives us purpose, something to do, and it goes well.  At other times it really feels like toil.  It’s both, a little like toil, nothing major.

You know I have two cats at home.  One, named Steve, is two and a bit of a character.  We’re close, and I occasionally joke that Steve is my fiancé.  People at work are confused because I sometimes wear my mother’s diamonds.  When he’s bad, which is frequently, I take the ring off.  This morning when I got up, the curtains were on the floor, with the curtain-rod brackets down somewhere on a chair.  I thought, that’s just great!  The last thing I wanted to do was to hang curtains before going to work.  But I did.  It was a bit toilsome, but not bad.

The Seasons of Life Include Both Toil and Rest

Life has its seasons, and, like life, work is sometimes toil and sometimes not.  The second half of the invitation is for all those who are carrying heavy burdens.  What might those burdens be?  What is it that can make life heavy?  But burdens are a fact of life, aren’t they?  A burden is a load that we’re given or that we take on.  We can assume a burden either way.  It can result from a diagnosis of disease, from a job that ends with no other job in sight, from a new job that’s just beginning, from a new term of office here at the church, from a family member who’s in trouble, or from any one of hundreds of other causes of a new burden.

I have a friend for whose husband we prayed for a long time.  He died in early May.  Then just a couple of weeks ago, her sister came to my friend’s front door at 5:30 in the morning – you know that’s not a good sign – and told her that her grandson had been in a serious car accident.  He lingered between life and death for weeks in the ICU, and it felt too heavy for my friend.  She was being handed too much, on top of grieving for her husband.  She was additionally burdened with worry about her grandson, not knowing whether he was going to make it or not.

Sometimes we’re given too many burdens at once.  It’s been said that we’re not given any more than we can carry, but that’s not true, is it?  Occasionally we get too much.  And then there’s the thing itself that happens, the cause of the worry and anxiety that surround it.  That too is a terrible burden.  Sometimes I think it’s often worse than the thing itself.  Anxiety and fear cut us off, isolate us.  That’s also an awful burden.  I had been thinking about illness itself, but isolation is one of the worst things about being sick.  Whether mentally or physically, we feel cut off.  We feel as though no one understands what we’re going through when we’re ill.

A Prescription for Rest

“Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Oh, that word “rest.”  That’s a much more agreeable word, isn’t it, than “burden”?  What comes to your mind when I say the word “rest”?  What is your favorite image of rest?  I think there’s nothing more restful than lolling about in a hammock on a summer day, when you should be doing yard work.  If you come to my house, you can tell I’ve made my peace with weeds.  I’ve decided that they deserve as much of a chance at life as do plants.

There’s something about hammocks.  I sleep better there than almost anywhere else.  My couch also comes to mind when I think about rest.  It faces the TV, the stereo, and the fireplace.  I love my couch, I really do.  And as I get older, I have to tell you, there are times when I’m toiling that I picture my couch and can’t wait to get home to it.

Vacations are a special treat in these summer months.  A lot of you have been away or might be going away.  Beach or mountains, camp.  Swimming and grilling, picnics.  Good sleep at night is good rest, and that is a blessing when we realize that insomnia deprives some of us of sleep.  That’s a burden, not being able to sleep.  And after a good rest on vacation, there’s less pain on sitting or standing.  Some of us know what that’s like on a daily basis.  And perhaps the ability to rid ourselves of anxiety, of fear, of isolation.  That’s no easy thing to do, is it?

“Take My Yoke Upon You”

In the three last verses of Matthew 11, Jesus is getting at how to do just that.  Don’t we all want to hand over our burdens?  Don’t we want to worry less?  Don’t we want the load of what we’re carrying at least to feel lighter?  But frankly, we can’t always hand off what we’ve been handed in life.  It’s our load to carry.  But Jesus said to us, “Take my yoke upon you.”  Excuse me?  When I first read that, I thought, “How does that lighten our load?”

And what is a yoke anyway?  You’ve seen it in the movies, or maybe some of you know from a farm what a yoke is, how oxen are yoked together.  It’s a big two-piece wood-and-metal contraption that curves over the base of the necks of a team and under their necks, against which the force of drawing is exerted by their shoulders.

And Jesus is saying, here, are you heavy-laden?  Clunk.  Sounds odd, doesn’t it?  How does that lighten our load?  Well, two oxen wear that yoke so they can pull and plow more effectively together.  Their load is theoretically cut in half.  Not only does it keep them together, but it also spreads out the burden of whatever it is they’re pulling, the plow or the cart.

In a similar manner, humans can bear their burdens more effectively by working together.

In the Ancient Near East (ANE, shorthand for the time period in which Jesus lived), during the old days of Israel and the Middle East, this mechanism was used on human beings in order to control them as prisoners or slaves.  You’ve probably seen that in the movies too, when actors wore those wooden contraptions with their arms attached to them.  It’s not a pretty image to think of these things in use on humans, even in the early days of our own country.

A yoke was a symbol of control, ownership and service, and early on it became a mark of slavery, which was common.  Marks or brands were also used to identify slaves.  Earrings too, as well as tattoos.  Forced economic or political labor was known as “bearing the yoke,” as Israel bore the yoke of Imperial Rome.  Is that the kind of yoke that Jesus meant?  “Take my yoke upon you.”  I don’t think so.

The Yoke as a Symbol:  You’re Never Alone

So what Jesus really means is that we’re never really alone.  Our heavy burdens can make us think so, but Jesus is right there because we are all connected.  And if we feel that connection, for that’s what the yoke represents, then we know, deep in our soul, that we’re never alone.  We’re all here to help carry each other’s burdens.

And that’s why our last two hymns today are “Abide with Me” (you’re right here with me) and “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”  Take my yoke upon you, and there you will find rest for your soul.  What kind of rest is that?  It’s not just putting our feet up, is it?  Not the kind we get from lying on a beach in Hawaii.  But it’s the kind of rest we feel inside, no matter what is going on in our lives.  The knowledge, the sure knowledge that all will be well and we that have nothing to fear.  We are never, never alone.

So “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus.  “You will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”