Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sermon: "Ears to Hear"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 20, 2014 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 55:10-13; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Intro to Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Today’s gospel passage is the Parable of the Sower.
This familiar story that Jesus shared with his followers tells the tale of a farmer who tosses out seeds in hope and discovers what happens when those seeds fall on various types of ground - on a beaten path, on rocky ground, on ground choked with thorns, and finally on good, fertile soil.
The second part of today’s passage contains an explanation of the parable that equates the seed with the word of God and names the good soil as those who hear God’s word and allow it to bear fruit in their heart.
We may wonder why Jesus, who often spoke in parables when he was in public, took the time to explain the meaning of this particular parable to the gathered crowd when most other times he did not.
Many scholars believe that the most likely reason is that the explanation of the parable offered here is not original to Jesus, but was added at a later date, either by the author of the Gospel of Matthew or by a later editor.
While the explanation offers a legitimate interpretation of the story, in some ways its presence undermines the very reason why Jesus spoke in parables.
The practical reason is that it was often dangerous for Jesus to speak in a direct manner in front of a crowd that could contain Roman or religious informants who were all too eager to report his counter cultural words to their superiors. So instead he sometimes couched his teachings in stories and parables in the hope that those who opened their hearts would hear the message underneath.
But the deeper reason why Jesus chose to teach through parables is found in the Parable of the Sower itself.
Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears listen.”
We all have the ability to hear God’s word – but what we hear and how we act on it can be different for each one of us, and can change depending on how open we are to hearing it and what distractions we have going on in our lives.
Sometimes we are fertile soil, sometimes we are choked by weeds, and sometimes all we have to offer is barren ground.
The meaning of Jesus’ parable may take a while to take root.
But God ensures that if just take the time to listen, the seed will grow when we’re ready.

“Ears to Hear”

Once upon a time, 4,845 years ago, before the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built and a thousand years before Abraham walked the earth, a tiny seed took flight on a cold mountain wind.
The seed flew through the air and tumbled along the stark, rocky ground, turning end over end before finally coming to rest in a jutting outcrop, some 10,000 feet up, on the sloping side of a mountain.
Wedged in-between the rocks, the tiny seed had little chance of taking root. The limestone soil below it was shallow and dry and devoid of most of the nutrients that a seedling would need to survive.
The wind at this elevation was relentless, precipitation was scarce, and the temperature hovered way below freezing for 11 months of the year.

Yet on that day, 4,845 years ago, this tiny seed defied the odds and took root.   
Somehow, someway, it found just enough moisture and just enough nourishment in that rocky soil to break itself open and send out a tiny shoot towards the sky.

That seedling grew into a mighty tree.
A bristlecone pine, to be exact, that today sits just below the tree line in the White Mountains of California, just over the Nevada border.
Scientists have named this particular tree Methuselah, after the longest living person in the Hebrew Bible - the grandfather of Noah who was said to have lived 969 years.
At 4,845 years, this knotted and gnarled pine named Methuselah is the oldest living organism on earth.

Robert Mohlenbrock, a professor of botany at Southern Illinois University, recalls the first time that he visited the Bristlecone Pine Forest in California to study the ancient tree.
Mohlenbrock wrote, "At the time I thought that any organism that lived longer than the norm had to have optimal conditions to survive.” 
For plants, that would mean moderate temperature, shelter from extreme weather, and plenty of moisture and nutrients.
“But,” Mohlenbrock continued, "when I stood in that bone-chilling wind looking at Methuselah, I knew I had been wrong."

Here was a tree that not only defied all odds in taking root, it had also withstood thousands of years of fierce winters, minimal rainfall, and more recently the encroachment of human beings.
Methuselah survived the California gold rush, the nuclear testing in the nearby Nevada desert, and the influx of curious scientists who in the 1950’s cut down and destroyed a neighboring bristlecone pine to examine it, only to discover that that tree, named Prometheus, was even older than Methuselah, having taken root over 5,000 years ago.

One might say the bristlecone pine was seemingly designed to thrive in harsh conditions.  It has a shallow but extensive root system that spreads underneath the tree seeking water wherever it falls.  The wood is very dense and resistant to invasion by insects, fungi, and other pests.  And where other species of trees suffer rot, bristlecone pines endure, even after death, standing solidly on their roots for many centuries to come.

Now, you may wonder why I chose to share this story of this odds-defying ancient tree when its existence seems to contradict Jesus’ lesson of the Parable of the Sower, the time-worn gospel story that teaches us that only seeds that land on rich fertile soil have a fighting chance to survive.

Of course the seed that Jesus speaks of is not the seed of a hearty bristlecone pine, but an everyday ordinary plant seed, which we are intended to see as an analogy for the word of God.  
For the word of God to take root in us, the parable tells us, we must offer ourselves up as willing and fertile soil, and nurture that seed to fruition.

But we may wonder if something about this analogy falls short.

While we can imagine an ordinary plant seed needing ideal conditions to take root, one would think that the word of God would not be as fragile and prone to failure as the parable implies.
After all, how prevalent would God’s word be, if it had to rely solely on the fickle and unforgiving soil of humanity to survive and flourish in this world?

So perhaps Jesus’ parable is not so much about the quality of the soil as it exists in us, as it is about the hardiness of the seed…..and the persistent and nurturing presence of the sower.

Think back to the time when you first heard the word of God.
Perhaps you were a small child and your parents read stories to you out of a family bible.
Perhaps you went to Sunday School where you drew pictures of Moses parting the read sea, made heavenly angels of out of construction paper and cotton balls, and you learned to equate the moral teachings of Jesus with the Golden Rule – to love your neighbor as yourself and do unto others, as you would have done unto you.

Perhaps you had limited or no exposure to religion as a child and you first encountered the word of God as a teenager or adult, and found it to be confusing, contradictory, or hopelessly outdated for our age.

Perhaps the way you hear the word of God is not limited to the sacred texts that we call scripture, and you also hear God speaking in other forms of literature, in music, in art, in nature, in the voices and actions of ordinary human beings who serve as vessels for God’s extraordinary Spirit in this world.

Regardless of how we encounter the word of God, we often hear it, interpret it, and act on it, in many different ways, as we move through our lives and integrate our experiences from the world around us.
The word of God is not stagnant, and neither are we.
As we change, and the circumstances of our lives change, the meaning that we find in these ancient texts changes, too.
The word of God that we hear as a 15-year-old struggling with peer pressure, parental expectations, and the excitement of having our whole lives ahead of us, may be quite different than the word we hear as a 65-year-old, when we’re immersed in thoughts of retirement, downsizing, and issues of health and mortality.

There may be times in our lives when we don’t hear God speaking to us at all – because we don’t have the time to listen, or we’re struggling to find meaning in religious beliefs and traditions that for us no longer ring true.
And there are still other times in our lives when we seek and find meaning in every experience and in every encounter. God is all around us, and we revel in the abundance of grace in our lives.

The beauty of God’s word is that has the ability to speak to us in many ways, over the course of our lives, and in the course of one day.

The spiritual practice known as lectio divina – or divine reading - involves a contemplative reading of a short passage from scripture. The same passage is read three or four times in a row, with the participants pausing between each reading to reflect on the word or the invitation that is heard each time.
Those who try lectio divina are often surprised at how a different word, phrase, or message will rise up for them each time they read the same text, and how even a familiar text can offer up a new insight or a new interpretation that they had never considered before.

The seed that God scatters among us is persistent.
Regardless of whether we self identify as barren soil, rocky ground, or prone to being overcome by weeds, the seed of God’s word lands on us regardless and often it will lie dormant until we’re ready for it to take root.

Brandon Stantan is a NY photojournalist who specializes in portraits of everyday people that he posts on his website titled, “Humans of New York.”
Stantan photographs people from all walks of life as he encounters them on the streets of NYC, and then asks them brief but personal questions:
“What is your happiest or saddest memory” - “What advice would you give to a large group of people?” - “Can you tell me about your work?”
The photographs alone are moving, but the answers that Stanten receives to his simple questions are often insightful and inspiring.

A few days ago he published a photo of a middle-aged African American man who was sitting next to a trashcan and wearing the orange uniform of a city street cleaner.  We don’t know what question Stanten asked the man, but the response the man gave is as follows:

In my heart of hearts, I wanted to do the right thing, but selling drugs was easy. Everyone was doing it. I mean, I'm not using that as an excuse, I made my own decisions. But I grew up around these Robin Hood figures who would sell drugs, then buy supplies for kids who were going back to school, or pay rent for an old woman who was about to get evicted. All my friends were doing it. It almost seemed fashionable. I never felt proud of it. I always thought I'd transition to a job with the Transit Authority, or a job like this-- something I'd feel good about, but instead I transitioned to jail. I did six years. When I got out, it was tempting to go back to the easy money, because everyone around me was still doing it, and I couldn't get a job. But luckily I found an agency that helps ex-cons, because there aren't many companies looking to give people a second chance. I've had this job for a few years now. You know what product I'm selling now? Myself. Everyone here in Times Square is my client. And I'm picking up all the trash so that they can have the full Times Square experience.

This is a modern day parable of a seed being tossed on rocky, thorn choked ground that had little hope of taking root.
And yet take root it did.
Just as it does every day in places that we least expect it and in ways that defy belief.

When we hear the parable of the sower we often get lost in the explanation that follows Jesus’ parable and place the focus on ourselves and the quality of the soil that we have to offer – and then we beat ourselves up if our soil is not good enough….and we can’t seem to pull ourselves out of the thorns that suffocate the seeds that God throws upon us.
But as with all of Jesus’ parables there are many ways to hear it.

What if we try shifting our focus off our own shortcomings and instead see the parable as a celebration of the extravagant nature of the sower – this God who tosses seeds with wild abandon knowing that some will land on rocky, unfertile ground, and some will land on ground so choked with weeds that it’s unlikely that anything will ever grow.
But God throws those seeds anyway.
Because you never know when one will take root and send a tiny shoot into the light and the rain and inspire others to grow as well.

As we circle back to where we started and consider the tenacity of the bristlecone pine tree, it may surprise you to hear that Methuselah is no longer the oldest living organism on earth.
In 2013, scientists examined another bristlecone pine not far from where Methuselah stands, and they were able to determine that this yet unnamed tree sprouted from a seed that took root in 3051 BC, making it 5,063 years old, 200 years older than Methuselah.

Perhaps, the unlikely occurrence of seeds taking root in unfertile soil is not as rare as we would think.

All those who have ears to hear, listen.

And thanks be to God.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Sermon: "The Yoke's on You"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 6, 2014 – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 145:8-14; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“The Yoke’s on You”

Think about for a moment how you would complete the following sentence:
“Life is _________”

What word would you choose to fill in that blank?
Life is good?
Life is challenging?
Life is unpredictable?
Life is a burden?

How we fill in that blank may depend on our disposition – whether we choose to lift up the highs or the lows of our lives, but it may also be a reflection of what we’re experiencing in the moment, as there are times when we may gleefully say that life is good, or fun, or rewarding, and there plenty of other times when we would insist that life is hard, unforgiving, and downright exhausting.

Exhausting is the word I would choose this week.
But that’s to be expected after having spent 9 days on the Senior High mission trip with 26 teenagers and 10 adults living and working and driving to and from the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee.

I think it was around day four, when we all looked at each other and said,
“My God, it’s only Tuesday - we have five more days of this!”

At that point we had three teenagers who had thrown up during the night and were out of commission with a stomach bug, and panic was setting in over who would be next. 
Others in our group were complaining of sore throats, head colds, and dehydration.
We had several teens who were feeling home sick, and we had teens and adults who were anxious about health concerns of loved ones back home.
On top of all this, the work we were doing was hard.
Replacing roofs, rebuilding decks, crawling under trailer homes where only animals and insects dared to tread. All of it in the blazing hot sun and sudden downpours that are typical of late June in Tennessee.

Thrown into this mix were the challenges of our accommodations – sleeping bags and air mattresses on a church floor, sharing living space with two other youth groups from different parts of the country, and four outdoor showers for 70 people and only a small window of time each day to use them.

The trip also featured a travel night spent in what turned out to be a very sketchy motel in Virginia, a harrowing van ride on a narrow mountain road in a driving rainstorm, and the realization that on our work sites we were for the most part unskilled laborers being entrusted with technical construction projects, armed with only a written instruction manual and limited tools and materials.

For most of the trip it felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants.
Both on the work sites and at the church, teens and adults alike were functioning in crisis mode for a good chunk of the time.

It was exhausting.
And it was so, so worth it.

It’s often said that we go on these church mission trips to help the “less fortunate” among us - as if we’re knights-in-shining-armor swooping in to lift up those in need because God has blessed us with the means to do so.

But as anyone who has been on trip like this will tell you there are no “saviors” and “victims in need of saving” in this story.
We’re all just people reaching out to each other.
We may live in disparate circumstances and have different life experiences but we come together to learn from each other and do things for one another… because we feel this pull inside of us that we just can’t ignore - this pull that says we’re all God’s children, and we’re all deserving of love, and happiness, and a sense of security and comfort in our lives.

Mission trips are life-changing experiences for everyone involved.
As a group we helped five families in eastern Tennessee live more comfortably and securely in their homes, but we received just as much in return.   And I’m not talking about gratitude.

Some of the families we worked with did express gratitude with an outpouring of hospitality, cards, and letters.
But the other families were either absent or showed open discomfort with our presence, either out of embarrassment of their living situation, or because of the tiring task of playing host to an endless stream of strangers in their home, day after day for weeks on end.

Yes, it would be nice if everyone we served in life expressed gratitude for what they’ve been given, but as one of our teens so wisely said on our final night in TN – we weren’t down there fixing houses because of the thank you’s and warm hugs we would get in return…we were there to serve others because it was the right thing to do.
Because it was the loving thing to do.
And we do it regardless of what we expect to receive in return.

But the truth is, we did receive so much in return.
As a church group from Amherst, NH we may have had the means and the method to dedicate a week of our lives to helping five families in Appalachia, but our teens and our adults took back so much more than thank you letters and a set of new construction skills.

One of our freshmen girls learned that she had the capability and the strength cut metal rebar in the hot sun for hours, because she knew it would be used to hold up the underside of someone’s home.
One of our junior boys learned how to tape and mud drywall, and after he saw the home where he’d be working he very maturely admitted to feeling ashamed for complaining about the night we spent in a not-so-clean motel, when some families lived in much worse conditions every single day.
And one of our senior boys learned how to fix a roof, and he also learned just how much the younger teens look up to him as a leader and a role model, and that they see his quiet, reserved manor as a strength and something to be admired, and not something he should ever apologize for.

As always, our group itself was a source of comfort and strength for our teens.
They leaned on each other and they lifted each other up.
We had freshmen on their first trip away from home who rose to the challenge and discovered a sense of resiliency they didn’t know they had, and we had seniors on the brink of college, who felt loved and safe enough within our group to express their fears and vulnerability, and in doing so gave everyone else the permission to do the same.

This kind of communal support is something to be celebrated and cherished, at any age, and it’s a wonderful illustration of how all of our individual burdens are lessoned when we take them on as a community.

In our gospel text today, Jesus talks about easing our burdens and our weariness by bringing them to him, because his yoke is easy and light.
This yoke that he speaks of is the yoke that all Jewish rabbis offered their followers. The yoke, or mantel that was placed upon a student’s shoulders was unique to each rabbi, and it consisted of the rabbi’s teachings and his understanding of what it meant to live and follow the law as a person of God.
Jesus declared that his yoke was easy and light not because he didn’t believe in upholding the Jewish law or because his standards were much lower than other rabbis.
Jesus’ yoke is easy and light because it removes the burden that we’ve mistakenly placed upon ourselves and instead places it upon God.
This burden is the belief that says we have to earn God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. This burden causes us to feel apart from God if we fall short, and prods us to keep tabs on everyone else and where we rank in God’s favor in comparison.
This is the burden that Jesus says we can toss aside.
Because God’s grace and love are given unconditionally to all.

But what about the other burdens that we carry?
The burdens that we weigh us down because we’re imperfect beings living with other imperfect beings in an imperfect world?
This is where Jesus offers us the yoke of community.
This is a yoke that is not confining but freeing.
This is the yoke that tethers us to one another and makes the individual loads that we carry so much easier to bear.
Because we’re not built to carry all of our burdens on our own.
None of us is strong enough to do that.

But knowing that doesn’t stop us from trying.
How many of us keep our struggles to ourselves, because we fear that others will see us as weak or vulnerable?
How many of us fear that if we lean on others too much they’ll grow impatient with us and drift away?
None of us wants to be a burden on others.
So we carry our burdens in silence.

Jesus’ frustration with the generation of his time was that they too were hesitant to accept the light and easy yoke that he was offering.
It all sounded too good to be true.
John the Baptist had been rejected by the masses as being too “out there” to be taken seriously, with his “turn or burn” message and his austere ways that were extreme even for first century Palestine.

But Jesus seemed to take it too far in the opposite direction.
Rather than reject the fallen and the ostracized he befriended them.
He ate and drank with them.
Surely the burdens that these people carried were too great for God to overlook – addiction, prostitution, greed, laziness – these bottom dwellers were the black sheep of their families who took much more than they gave and tried the patience of the good hearted folks who attempted to reach out and help them.
Surely they didn’t deserve the attention of the man who claimed to be the Messiah who had come to save the people of God.
The people of God were worshiping in the Temple and working for a living -  not drinking the day away or begging for handouts in the street.

This fickle generation who scoffed at Jesus’ ability to judge who is worthy of God’s saving grace and who is not, is not much different than our own generation.

In Tennessee, when the adult leaders of all our work teams gathered each day to share stories about the families we were helping, it was all too easy to allow judgment to creep in.
We remarked on the cleanliness of their homes, the way they treated their children and their animals, the money they spent on cigarettes or alcohol or other extraneous items, the presence of a big screen TV or a cell phone in a run down trailer home (regardless of how old or outdated the technology seemed to be), and the lack of gratitude or warmth shown to those of us who had come so far to help. 

It was all up for judgment, as if any of us would fair much better if we allowed a group of random strangers to peek in our closets, listen in on our family squabbles, or question our need for financial aid for our children’s schooling or tax breaks for our businesses when we seem to have more than enough money to spend on cable TV and double mocha lattes.

Who gets to decide who is deserving of help with their burden and who is not?  
Not us, says Jesus.
This yoke that he speaks of ties us all to one another.
Our burden is lightened by our participation in community, and we in turn help lighten the burden of others, whether we’re aware of it or not.

On our trip to Tennessee, our teens and chaperones learned things that will stay with them for a lifetime, and every family we worked with made that possible simply by asking for help.
We are yoked to one another, whether we like it or not.
And as Jesus has tried to teach one generation after another, life is so much easier if stop trying to carry all of our burdens on our own, and stop arguing about who is worthy of having their burdens eased and who is not.
It may be a cliché to say, “Let go and let God handle it” but in this case that’s exactly what we need to do.

So I’d like to revise my response to the question I asked at the beginning of this sermon.
Life during our nine days in Tennessee was exhausting…..but it was also challenging, fulfilling, and good.
Because we had each other to lean on in our weariness, and our heavy burdens were made light in each other’s presence.
Because God was present with us….then, now, and always.

Thanks be to God.