“O, What a Morning!”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“O, What a Morning!” ~ John 20:1-18

Please join me in prayer … “God, for whom there are no barriers, no stones too big to remove, roll away our resistance to you.  Let your words fill us with new life and bring us out from the tomb of indifference, alive again in you.  Amen.”

In her memoir, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen remembers … “All through my childhood, my parents kept a giant jigsaw puzzle set up on a table in the living room.”  As a preschooler, Rachel wanted to help with the puzzle one morning. She climbed on a chair next to the table and spread the loose pieces out.  She remembers that some were bright and cheerful looking … and some were “dark and shadowy.” To the pre-schooler, the dark ones looked like spiders or bugs, so she stuffed them under a sofa cushion so she wouldn’t have to look at them!

For a couple of weeks, whenever she was alone in the living room, she hid a few more of the “ugly” pieces. Her mother eventually realized that the puzzle wasn’t coming together because more than a hundred pieces were missing! She asked Rachel about them and, of course, Rachel showed her where they were hidden.  After her mother used those pieces to complete the puzzle, Rachel remembers being astounded that the dark pieces didn’t spoil the picture but actually made it more beautiful. 1

The grown up Rachel tells us, “I have been with many people in times of profound loss and grief … when an unexpected meaning begins to emerge from the fragments of their lives. Over time, this meaning has proven itself to be durable and trustworthy, even transformative. It’s a kind of strength that never comes to those who consistently deny their pain.” 2

This, I believe, is a good image for the resurrection experience in John’s Gospel. Peter, another “beloved disciple,” and especially Mary Magdalene, have come to a transformative place in their lives. They move from profound loss and grief to a brand new focus on life and meaning. Their stories will help others see Jesus. We’re invited to grab hold of the pattern or, better yet, to let the pattern grab hold of us.  In doing so, we can trust it to inform our lives as well.

At first, all that Mary can see are dark pieces. Jesus has been killed, and now his tomb has been disturbed. She runs and tells Simon Peter and the other disciple that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The two men run to the tomb, enter it in turn, and see the linen wrappings but no body. The one whom Jesus loved sees and “believes,” but he believes without understanding. They go home. The dark pieces just don’t fit together.

As for Mary … even though she sees bright angels in the tomb … she’s too distraught to let them clear up the puzzle for her. A man comes up to her. She turns around. The picture hasn’t yet emerged, for she sees him as a gardener, someone standing between her and what she wants. But of course it’s Jesus. He calls her name: Mary! She knows his voice, just as any sheep knows the voice of its own shepherd. She turns to him. The gospel writer deliberately keeps using this verb: She turns to him.

Then Jesus talks about his work and gives Mary her work. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God….Go, tell my brothers!”  What she hears is, “Mary, you are my sister. Mary, I am not alone any longer as child of God. Mary, welcome to the family of God. That is what my resurrection life means for you.”

She tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” … tells them all that he has said to her. Out of the dark puzzle pieces, transformative meaning has come to Mary. She is the first apostle of the risen Christ.

Easter is when God puts the entire puzzle together, and the beautiful pattern of new life emerges to astound us. Easter is God’s vote of confidence in Jesus Christ … and at the same time Easter is God’s vote for us as beloved sons and daughters with Jesus … disciples invited to join God’s mission to love and bless the world.

Easter is about God’s profound “yes” to Jesus: his life, his ministry, his vision, his outreach, his self-giving love, even to his death on the cross. The darkest pieces still have their place in this pattern.

Easter is God’s profound yes to us, too.  We have been ushered to a place at the table.  Here we are surrounded by family. We are strengthened and sent out to tell what we have seen of the Lord.  What we have seen is that the love of God in Christ comes through even death and the tomb to find us.

We have seen that the dark pieces of life – and we all experience them – can be placed alongside the bright promises of God for a fuller picture. Through it all, Jesus calls us brother, sister, and beloved.

We have seen the gifts that emerge: healing, wholeness, hope, and obedience to the larger purposes of God in our lives.

Jesus meets us at our tombs and in our gardens. He is living; and he is here. Especially on Easter morning, we invite him to bring all the pieces of our broken, complex, wonderful lives together in the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.

Finally, on this glorious Easter morning, following the shadowy pieces of Lent and Holy Week, we can finally bring forth our Alleluias as we see the puzzle completed!  Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Thanks for the inspiration belongs to Joan L. Beck, Lectionary Homiletics

1. Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom (Riverhead Books, 1996), 169.
2. Op. cit., 170.

“Love in Action”

“Love in Action” ~ Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

In his book, The View From the Cross, John Clarke tells the following story:

During the American Revolutionary War a man dressed in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers who were repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions at them but doing nothing to help them. Asked “why?” by the rider, he answered with great dignity, “Sir, I am a corporal!” The stranger apologized, got down from his own horse, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers.

When the job was done, he turned to the corporal and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.” The helper, you see, was none other than George Washington.  Like all good commanders, he was giving his leaders an example to follow.1 Read the rest of this entry »

“Heart Scripts”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on March 22, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Heart Script” ~ Jeremiah 31:31-34

Please join me in a word of prayer … “Ever faithful God; train us by Christ’s teaching, school us in Christ’s faithfulness, that as we walk in Christ’s way, we may come to share in your glory.  Amen.”

God said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”  These are some of the most beautiful words in scripture … they are a promise … telling us that we are important to God, telling us that God longs for relationship with us, as much as we long for relationship with God.

Imagine a community where God’s people know the promises of God deep in their hearts – a community where God’s people sense that the power of God’s saving love is at the very core of their identity.  Can you picture such a community?  Have you ever seen such a thing played out in “real life” … in “real time”?  What does this kind of community look like?

We’ve talked about Koinonia Farm on other occasions … it fits our conversation today, as well.  The documentary film, “Briars in the Cottonpatch,” tells the story of Koinonia Farm and its founder, Clarence Jordan.  Koinonia is a Greek word meaning “to live in fellowship and community” and this is what the folks who founded Koinonia Farm in 1942 aimed to do … to live in fellowship and community.  It’s what those who live there today still strive for … but there’s an awful lot of struggle between those two dates … from the beginning until now.  Read the rest of this entry »

“What He Has Made Us”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on March 15, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“What He Has Made Us” ~ Ephesians 2:1-10

Please join me in a word of prayer … “Holy God, we seek you in the temples of power, but you are found on the margins.  Broaden our vision, widen our understanding, that we may hear your liberating Word with open hearts.  Amen.”

One of the most famous phrases in the New Testament has to be this one, pulled from the letter to the Ephesians … “By grace you have been saved through faith.”  So we ask about the nature of grace.  What is it? Grace, I believe, is a lot like a surprise gift. You have no idea it’s coming, but when it does, your life is changed because of it.

Bill Moyer’s documentary film on the hymn “Amazing Grace” includes a scene filmed in Wembley Stadium in London. Lots of musical groups, mostly rock bands, had gathered in celebration of the changes in South Africa, and for some reason the promoters scheduled an opera singer, Jessye Norman, as the closing act. The film cut back and forth between scenes of the rowdy crowd in the stadium and Jessye Norman being interviewed. For twelve hours groups like Guns and Roses blasted the crowd with loud music. The crowd yelled for more curtain calls, and the rock groups obliged. It was fantastic! Read the rest of this entry »

“God of Holy Covenant”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on March 8, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“God of Holy Covenant” ~ “Exodus 20:1-17”

There’s a little poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that says: “The world is full of so many things / I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

The world is full of so many things—so very many things, in fact, that rather than make some people happy, it makes them miserable! Since there are temptations in so many directions, it’s difficult to choose which way to turn – it’s hard to know just which way we’re called to go!

There are lures of money and all that it can buy, driving a person to work night and day. It can pull a person away from family and friends. In fact, it can make one deceive and even harm loved ones. It can make people lie and cheat and steal.  The love of money drives people to run over other people. It’s used to excuse immoral behavior. “I was only doing my job!” “I did what I had to do!” “I was only trying to get ahead in life!” The love of money eats into so many lives.

There’s also the lure of power and prosperity, of popularity and status, of education and influence. All of these claim to lead to happiness and self-fulfillment. And they draw us in, don’t they? It’s easy to believe this is the way to live, seeking prosperity, popularity and influence.  Finding one’s way in life can be hard. It’s hard enough for many adults, but most children and young people growing up today have a long, hard search in determining their life’s direction. Read the rest of this entry »

“On Saving Lives”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on March 1, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“On Saving Lives” ~ Mark 8:31-38

Please join me in a word of prayer … “Holy God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.”

Two weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, it was all about the glory. We celebrated as we walked up the mountain with Peter, James, and John to see Jesus shining, and talking with Elijah and Moses. Three days later we came to this communion rail, and on our knees we bowed our heads, receiving a smudge of ashes.

Lent is just full of the emotion we try to protect ourselves from every day we awake. It calls us not only to look at God’s story—but invites us to become involved in it and feel it, to walk the journey and to know that God’s story is our story.

This morning let’s put ourselves in Peter’s place for a bit, and imagine his life with Jesus so far. We’re about half way through Mark’s Gospel today, chapter 8, and I wonder what stories Peter would tell us about his journey. Perhaps he’d start with the call at the Sea of Galilee, “Follow me and fish for people.”  Or their first worship together:  when the man with the unclean spirit burst into the synagogue where Jesus was teaching, and he healed him. Or later, at dinner on that Sabbath day, where Jesus’ power and authority gave way to care and tenderness as he healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Read the rest of this entry »

“God of Covenant”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on February 22, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“God of Covenant” ~ Mark 1:9-15

Please join me in prayer … “God of call, God of transformation, God of the Lenten journey; help us to discern your still, small voice.  Open us to change and growth that we may walk in the wilderness with Jesus.  Amen.”

We often think of Lent as a journey, a journey made up of all the places Jesus stops – as he makes his way from his Transfiguration to his Crucifixion. But in truth, the forty days of Lent represent his forty days in the wilderness, where the only goal worth mentioning was the goal of survival.

Then too, the forty days of Lent represent the forty years the Hebrew people spent wandering in the desert, getting nowhere for two generations. In the Bible, forty means a lot, and those forty days spent going nowhere on the outside represent a huge journey on the inside.

So Jesus spent a lot of days in the wilderness, where the Spirit drove him after his Baptism. Matthew and Luke also tell this story, with a much more elaborate description of the ways Satan tempted him.  Mark is economical. One verse: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (Mk 1:13, NRSV).  That’s it.   Read the rest of this entry »

“Return to God”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC on Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Return to God” ~ Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

The prophet Joel tells us that God, like the sound of a trumpet, calls us to return.  Return from where? … Where have we been? … Take a moment to think back over the past week … or the past month … or the past year.  Consider what we’ve done with our time … how we’ve used our abilities … how we’ve spent our money … what we’ve done with our energy … Where has our heart been?

Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life, Ash Wednesday liturgy

This idea of repentance, of returning to God … to what we know is good and pure and holy … can be hard to nail down.  Deep down, we may really want to repent, but it’s not always easy to know what “repent” means for you or for me.  Maybe it would help if we looked at an example of what repentance is not.

The story is told of a man with a nagging secret who couldn’t keep it in any longer.  In the confessional he admitted to the priest that for years he’d been stealing building supplies from the lumberyard where he worked.  “How much did you take?” the priest asked.  “Enough to build my own home and my son’s house.  And houses for my two daughters.  And our cottage at the lake.”  “This is very serious,” the priest said.  “I’ll need to think of an appropriate penance.  Have you ever done a retreat?”  “No, Father, I haven’t,” the man replied.  “But if you can get the plans, I can get the lumber.” Read the rest of this entry »


A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on February 15, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Transfiguration” ~ Mark 9: 2-9

Please join me in a word of prayer … “Lord Jesus, your light shines within us.  Let not our doubts nor darkness speak to us.  Let our hearts welcome your Word and your Love.  Amen.”

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, and I trust you’ll believe me when I say it’s one of those dates on the church calendar that’s really hard to explain well.  Smarter minds than mine have tried to put Transfiguration Sunday into something like a “sound bite” that we can all understand. The most some will say about it is that it’s the last Sunday of the Epiphany season of celebration, Epiphany being the time when God-in-Jesus is revealed most fully.  Others will see it as the last opportunity for reveling before we begin the solemn season of Lent.

As I see it, the Transfiguration is more about worship than it is about revelry … it’s about ending the Epiphany season with an exclamation point … before we move into a different kind of worship season.  Worship is what we might really need to explain, if we need to explain anything, on Transfiguration Sunday. Read the rest of this entry »

“What He Came Here For”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on February 8, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“What He Came Here For” ~ Mark 1:29-39

Please join me in prayer … “Holy God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.”

In today’s Gospel the whole city is gathering around the door, pressing in to see Jesus. The demands on him were already piling up. He had cured many, cast out demons, and taught constantly.  Jesus was, no doubt, tired – both physically and emotionally. He knew he needed time to withdraw. The Gospel tells us that he left early in the morning to be alone and to pray.

And, of course, his disciples went to find him. When they found him they said, “What are you doing, everyone is searching for you?”

Jesus, I imagine, must have had a moment of real frustration. You know how it is .. when you’re trying to retreat from the demands of your schedule and someone continues to interrupt you. Just how do you “enjoy the journey” when everyone and everything is searching for you, wanting a piece of you, demanding your time?  In Jesus’ case it was even more intense … he had just healed Simon’s seriously ill mother-in-law … so the expectations were enormous. Read the rest of this entry »