“Liminal Space”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on August 10, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Liminal Space” ~ Matthew 14:22-33

Please join me in a word of prayer … “Eternal God, in the reading of the scripture, may your Word be heard; in the meditations of our hearts, may your Word be known; and in the faithfulness of our lives, may your Word be shown.  Amen.”

A Gospel riddle for you … When is a boat more than just a boat? The answer … When “the boat” Matthew is writing about is the Church. Typically, when Matthew says “boat,” we need to think “church.”  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus and his friends spend a lot of time in boats. Matthew tells two stories about dark and stormy sailing trips on the lake. In today’s story, the disciples are in the boat, all on their own, without Jesus.

The fishermen among them know enough to be troubled about sailing the lake at night. They know that they will be helpless if a strong wind comes along. On this particular night the wind and waves are against them, but they survive.  Then, in the morning, Jesus comes to them. When they see him walking over the waves, they are terrified.

So…..if the boat is more than a boat, in this case, then Peter is more than just Peter. He’s the representative follower of Jesus—not just the representative of the first twelve, but a stand-in for all future generations of disciples, including you and me. He steps out, betting that Jesus is really there with him. He’s not so sure of what he can see, any more than Matthew’s church … or you and I … can be absolutely certain that Jesus is always with us. Read the rest of this entry »

“Wrestling With God”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC on August 3, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Wrestling With God” ~ Genesis 32:22-31

Today, we’re treated to one of the more dramatic events in Jacob’s story … a story that’s filled with dramatic events.  We know that Jacob struggled from the very first … struggled with his twin brother, Esau, even while they were still in their mother’s womb.  “If it is to be this way, why is it that I live?”  Rebekkah demanded … as she let go of the illusion of sweet, laughing babies … abandoned her fantasy of twin brothers who would grow up to be the best of friends.

She had great fears about the future of her boys, and for good reason!  Even God told her that “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you will be divided.”  It certainly didn’t sound much like the beginnings of a great dynasty to Rebekkah.  Where had God’s promise of a great nation gotten lost?  Could such a promise be fulfilled in the midst of intense family feuding?

Jacob continued to struggle in every way he knew how, in every situation that presented itself where he didn’t naturally come first.  He couldn’t let go of the feeling of frustration that came with knowing that he was not the first born.  Jacob, as we know, grabbed onto his twin brother’s heel as they were born, struggling to get into first place.  From the very beginning he understood the significance of birthright and blessing, and he did everything within his power to get these things, whether or not they were rightfully his. Read the rest of this entry »

“Hurricane Sandy”

HPUCC, as most of you know, has a long history of sending commissioned work camp crews to various parts of the country in response to storms and natural disasters; and you heard Ned reference that in the course of our history the crews have become more “diverse”. When I first joined this church in 1999 there was a work crew preparing to go to Iowa to work on homes that had been damaged by a tornado. Naturally I was ready to pack my bag and hop on board. But I soon learned that the adult work camp trips were for men only, they had never had a woman go before and weren’t sure how that could be handled J Well 15 years later, I am very happy to say, we’ve figured out how to “handle it”, and this past June the crew that went to Staten Island numbered 6 women and 5 men. I’m sure it’s changed the dynamic of the trips but hopefully we are better work crews for it. At least now there are people along who are willing to ask for directions when the way gets lost! Read the rest of this entry »

“The Extravagant Sower”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC on July 13, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“The Extravagant Sower” ~ Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The parable of the Sower is one of seven such stories in Matthew’s 13th chapter.  Very different stories, they’re all parables on the nature of the kingdom of heaven.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” it’s “like treasure buried in a field, like yeast, like a pearl of great price, like a net let down in the sea.”

I don’t know what the people came to hear that day.  If they were looking for a scholarly lecture in theology, they were certainly disappointed.  What they got were more like dreams, or poems, in which images of God’s kingdom are passed before them … images that are as familiar as the crops in their own fields and the loaves of bread in their own kitchens … but with a strange new twist.  Jesus seems to be saying that these ordinary things have something important to tell us about God’s purpose for us.  Jesus seems to be saying that these ordinary things are illustrations of some truth … a truth that seems clear to them one minute, and then hidden in the next minute. Read the rest of this entry »

“Yoked”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on July 6, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Yoked” ~ Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Please join me in prayer … “Loving God, in the reading of the scripture, may your Word be heard; in the meditations of our hearts, may your Word be known; and in the faithfulness of our lives, may your Word be shown.  Amen.”

Some days, the Bible is more difficult than others. I don’t just mean difficult to live as it suggests; that’s nearly always challenging!  I mean, some days it’s just plain difficult to understand. Not only do we have to sort through a world-view that’s two thousand years old, where the earth is flat and the sun moves around it, and any kind of illness must be caused by a demon—we also have to translate its images and stories and metaphors into ones that make sense for our own day and time.

Here’s just one example … in the early twenty-first century, well over 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. Yet only about 100 years ago 80-90% of people were agriculturalists, and only a small percentage lived in cities. This was also true in Jesus’ time … lots of business and intrigue took place in Rome, and in Jerusalem … but most people lived in small towns or villages, and made their living from the land. So, you could tell parables about weeds and wheat, about sowing seeds on the path and on good ground, and about lost sheep…and your listeners would know immediately what those things were like. Read the rest of this entry »

“Rewards of Welcome”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on June 29, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Rewards of Welcome” ~ Matthew 10:40-42

This morning’s Gospel according to St. Matthew tells us that the disciples are about to go on a mission. They’re heading out to share the gospel message … by casting out unclean spirits and by curing every disease and sickness. This is a tall order and they’re going to need serious provisions. But Jesus has instructed them to go out with only the clothes on their back … that’s it … no extra tunic, no money, no food. The only thing they have to rely on is the kindness of strangers. Hospitality is their only provision.

Behind Jesus’ instructions to the disciples, I hear a lesson for us all … hospitality is crucial to the message of forgiveness and healing, of justice and mercy, of righteousness and hope. No hospitality … no gospel message. So … if hospitality is so important, how do we go about practicing it? According to Jesus’ instructions, by offering a cup of cold water.

Really, Jesus? It’s that simple? It’s that small? You’re talking about the advancement of a kingdom! If something that big relies on hospitality, how is a cup of cold water going to adequately express it? How is such a small act of kindness going to change anything? How is “being nicer” going to bring God’s kingdom to earth, as it is in heaven?

How is that cold cup of kindness a meaningful expression of hospitality? In spiritual terms, that small gesture takes seriously the instructions Jesus gives to the disciples: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” According to the Jewish law of Jesus’ time, a person’s messenger was the same as that very person. Like Paul says in Galatians, “You welcomed me as Christ Jesus.” To welcome a disciple with even a cup of cold water is to receive Christ, and to receive Christ is to receive God. Read the rest of this entry »

“Providence”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on June 22, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Providence” ~ Genesis 21:8-21

Please join me in prayer … “Holy God, your Word is a lamp to our feet, and a light to our path.  Give us grace to receive your truth in faith and love.  Amen.”

It seems to me that Sarah has endured a lot in her long life. Her husband has a habit of picking up and moving on, just when she gets settled in a place. When they travel through foreign countries, sometimes he makes her pretend that she’s his sister, so that the king can romance her and not want to eliminate Abraham as a rival. God has promised to make a great nation out of Abraham, but Sarah has never gotten pregnant.

So I don’t see how we can blame her for trying to move the plan along. When she doesn’t get pregnant herself, she tries for a surrogate. She gives her maid, Hagar, to Abraham in the hopes that Hagar will bear a son to him. It was a common practice at the time … with no implications of anything immoral. Maybe we can sympathize with her desperation and even give her credit for taking some initiative. Maybe we can be sympathetic when she becomes jealous that Hagar easily becomes pregnant with Abraham’s son. Read the rest of this entry »

“What We Were Created For”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on June 15, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“What We Were Created For” ~ Matthew 28:16-20; Genesis 1:1-2:4a 

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.

According to Matthew’s account of events following the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus instructed his disciples to meet him on a mountain in Galilee.  The disciples were pretty much used to his mysterious ways, so, as far as we can tell, it seems they obeyed without much hesitation.  This is what they heard … what’s commonly known to us as the Great Commission. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teach people to obey all of my commandments.”  Again according to Matthew, these are Jesus’ final words.

Think about these words for a minute … “obey” and “discipleship” and “commands” are words we tend to avoid, aren’t they?  Words that don’t sit so well with us, in our quest for independence of spirit and action.  Regardless whether they come from preachers, evangelists, or our Sunday School lessons, we allow them to wash over us with only the slightest implication of the deep meaning they’re meant to convey. The problem is that … in our religious tradition … these words have become more associated with images of manipulation and control, rather than conveying the images of love, compassion and non-violence that Jesus embodied in his teaching.

In many cases, our Christian terminology and symbols have been used for centuries to dominate rather than free people … and so we begin to shut down when we hear words like “discipleship” and “obedience” and “commands.” Our imagination simply leaves the room. “ Not going there,” we say, “not going to be ruled by the convictions of others.”  Concepts such as the Great Commission … converting people to the Christian cause … have often been used as permission to do violence in the name of Christianity.

That violence can be domestic, or church-related, or the kind we saw in the Great Crusades.  It can be the type of violence seen in the imperialistic efforts of many Christian missionary movements that sought to dominate and destroy whole cultures in the name of Jesus. Read the rest of this entry »

“Visions and Dreams”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on June 8, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Visions and Dreams” ~ Acts 2:1-21

Today, as we move into Pentecost Sunday and the season beyond, we look at the birth of what we know as “the church.”  Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the church and, while its beginnings were humble, they were also filled with excitement, hope, visions, and dreams.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote that the church exists as a “story-formed community.” One of the big stories of the church is what we tell and celebrate today: Pentecost Sunday. The explosion of the Spirit of God. The story about how the Spirit of God took ordinary people and gave them extraordinary power.

Our Scripture is a collection of stories about a particular group of people to whom particular events occurred. The stories of Scripture are told in such a way that they help us see what’s going on around us. They uncover the essence, the truth, about life. In uncovering the truth, they help us to tell and live our own lives truthfully.

The book of Acts is a story. It’s the story of God using ordinary people to create a new world through the power of the Spirit. Acts is a stubborn refusal to keep quiet and accept the world as fixed.  It’s a story of people willing to be empowered, to be changed … a world where the ending is far from settled, the outcome is not predetermined. Instead, there’s always the notion that God is breaking through – that things can and will change as people respond to God’s interruption. Read the rest of this entry »

“Go Light Your World”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on June 1, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Go Light Your World” ~ John 17:1-11

When Jesus had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” - Acts 1

Emily Heath is a United Church of Christ pastor, as well as a writer for the UCC’s “God Is Still Speaking” Daily Devotionals.  Emily wrote the following reflection on this morning’s reading from the book of Acts:

“When I was growing up, we lived about an hour from Cape Canaveral. On days when the space shuttle was going to be launched I would watch the news for the countdown: “three…two…one…liftoff!” Then I would run through the dining room, out the front door, and onto the driveway where I’d arrive just as the space shuttle cleared the top of our neighbor’s roof. I would watch it soar up into the sky until I couldn’t see it anymore.

I think that when I first read about Jesus’ ascension into heaven that’s the way I envisioned it, with Jesus shooting up into the heavens space age style. After all, scripture tells us that Jesus was “lifted up” into the clouds. But the disciples, meanwhile, were standing around, looking up, and wondering what in the world just happened.

Scripture also tells us that … while they were standing there … two men in white robes approach and ask, essentially, “Why are you standing around with your heads in the clouds?”  Read the rest of this entry »