“Advent Joy”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on December 14, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Advent Joy” ~ Luke 1:46b-55

Please join me in a word of prayer … “Loving 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.”

It’s bedtime for the nine-year-old boy and, after his prayers, he has one last question for his dad, “Dad, what is praise?”

Surprised by the question, but undaunted (as dads tend to be!) the father responds, “If you go to a standard dictionary you get things like, praise is the ‘act of expressing warm approval or admiration of something or someone.’” The look on his son’s face says that this response doesn’t sound quite right.

“I’m guessing that you’re asking about the word used at church.” Yes. “’Warm approval and admiration’ don’t really cut it, do they, when we’re talking about praising God?” No, they don’t. Read the rest of this entry »

“Advent Peace”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on December 7, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Advent Peace” ~ Mark 1:1-8

Please join me in a word of prayer … “But as for me, I keep watch for the Lord; I wait in hope and in peace for God my Savior.  My God will hear me.  Amen.”

At one time or another, most of us have known the absolute frustration of staring at a blank sheet of paper marked, “Page one.” Getting started is often the hardest part of writing anything, so how hard would it be to begin writing the greatest story ever told? How would you start with recording the story of Jesus?

The Gospel of Mark … and we heard the opening verses read this morning … doesn’t begin like Matthew, Luke, or John. Mark has no shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night … no Mary … no Joseph … no manger … no wise men … no Herod … no expressions like “In the beginning was the Word,” and no baby Jesus. Mark either doesn’t know the stories of Jesus’ birth, or he doesn’t think they’re important enough to keep in the final draft.

Mark starts his Gospel with a wild man in the desert: “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Child of God.  In a similar vein, Isaiah wrote, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you.  He’s a socially, religiously, politically incorrect prophet.’”

John is the voice crying in the wilderness, the honking horn, the buzzing alarm clock. He wears animal skins and his breath smells of locusts dipped in honey – and that’s on a good day. This John has never seen the inside of a barber shop. Read the rest of this entry »

“Advent Hope”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on November 30, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Hope” ~ Mark 13:24-37

Please join me in a word of prayer … “Holy God, help us to give voice to the wonderful news: You, yourself are coming to dwell among us!  Quicken our imaginations to find new and creative ways to proclaim the coming of the Christ Child.  Amen.”

Have you ever known what it means to be really hungry? It starts as a sense of appetite, a feeling that you could really do with a bit of something, maybe a snack. And then it grows, and if you’ve got no way of finding a meal, you begin to feel how fragile you are — an ache in the stomach, your concentration beginning to waver.

Then it becomes hard to do ordinary things, so you look for distractions — something absorbing that takes your attention away and enables you to lose yourself. You start to doubt your own judgment, and you realize you’re becoming incredibly selfish, because you find yourself so caught up in your own desperation that you can’t consider the needs of anyone else.

And when finally you do find food, your ache for the pain to go away is so great that you don’t truly enjoy the food … you don’t savor its taste or texture. You greedily wolf it down, because your body’s taken over and the rest of you has been elbowed aside. Hunger’s drained all the joy, and you’re left with a kind of savage need. Read the rest of this entry »

“Surprised by the King”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on November 23, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Surprised by the King” ~ Matthew 25:31-46

Please join me in prayer … “God of Love, the words you speak have power … power to create, power to disturb, power to heal.  Help us to hear your creative, disturbing, healing Word for us today.  Amen.”

All through November, our scriptures have been made up of prophesies and parables of what we call the “end times.” These are grand and sobering themes in any season, but they come with a special sense of urgency in this season … this season when we have less light and more cold.  In this season’s darkness, it seems as if the anxiety that so often comes with nighttime is sharper.  In the midst of beheadings and bombings, surrounded by murder in a synagogue in Jerusalem and murder in our cities in North America, we feel a growing concern for our country and our world … we focus on the shadows that may have fallen on our own lives.

The liturgical year—which is what we call our calendar of worship—comes to an end today, in this dramatic Gospel story of the end of time. It’s the grand finale—a blaze of light in the darkness, as we announce Christ the King Sunday.  Then a new liturgical year begins, the season of waiting in the darkness, with Advent blue, the color of the night sky.

The gospel for us today is the third of three parables in Matthew. It’s a story about judgment, a theme presented so often by our friend Matthew, with those unsettling stories and scary warnings. Six of them end with weeping and gnashing of teeth, as someone is cast into the outer darkness. Read the rest of this entry »

“Blessed to Be a Blessing”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on November 16, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Blessed to Be a Blessing” ~ Matthew 25:14-30

Please join me in a word of prayer … “Loving 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.”

It’s always a bit of a surprise that in this season just before Advent we have texts like this morning’s gospel … texts that speak to a bleakness in the human condition … a sense of hopelessness that could easily pull down our spirits, texts that could instill a sense of “all is lost” … and not likely to be recovered any time soon.

Right before we start our preparations for his birth, Jesus is preparing for his final trip to Jerusalem, heading straight toward the cross. He has an urgency about his messages, an urgency that says “be ready … it’s closer than you realize” … (remember last Sunday’s message about the young women and their oil lamps?). “Here’s a vision of the kingdom, and it’s not what you think it is.” More risk will be required than you can imagine.

Our culture tells us it’s time for decorations and carols and Santa and cookies … yet our scriptures tell us it’s time to move out into the wilderness for a while … time to get acquainted with John the Baptist and his unique perspective. If you come to church regularly during this season right before Advent, and if you’re paying attention to the tone and the urgency of the scriptures … then if you also spend time in the marketplace, you might suffer a kind of mental whiplash … because the two messages are so very different. The idea that you can celebrate before you contemplate offends Jesus’s sensibilities and should cause us to act with caution. Read the rest of this entry »

“Saints and Sinners”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on November 2, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Saints and Sinners” ~ Matthew 23:1-12

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’s kind of obvious that our stories over the last few weeks come from somewhere near the end of Jesus’ earthly life. Why do I say that? Simply because the Pharisees keep cropping up more and more often—and other religious leaders, too. Early in his ministry, Jesus wasn’t really on their radar. But now that they’ve gotten wind of him, they’re pretty sure he’s dangerous … and they’re trying on a regular basis to catch him at something. The plan is …either get him to say something blasphemous, so they can haul him up before the authorities … or get him to say something unpopular, so that people will quit following him. Maybe he’ll even say something anti-government, and get the Romans in on the act (like that bit about whether it’s lawful to pay taxes, or not).

For whatever reason, the Pharisees are worried. Is it personal, that Jesus makes them look bad: that this upstart has gained such a devoted following? Is it religious: do they really think he’s leading people away from God with the things he’s teaching? Is it political? Are they fearful that the Romans will intervene if they can’t find a way to settle down the crowds around him?

In large part, we really don’t know the answer to any of these questions. What we do know is that the conflict with the Pharisees kept building. The confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders are more frequent. Even if we didn’t already know “the rest of the story,” we would sense that some kind of crisis was about to happen.

We aren’t quite there yet with today’s reading. But notice that we do have a new development beginning. Prior to this, Jesus had pretty much left the scribes and Pharisees alone … except when they came looking for him. Granted, that was starting to happen a lot, but he wasn’t the one initiating the confrontation; he wasn’t the one doing the provoking. In today’s reading, things are different. The tables are starting to turn.

This episode comes on the heels of a bigger story, where the Pharisees have asked Jesus to tell them which is the greatest commandment. So chances are, they’re still standing around as our story begins. The end of chapter 22 tells us that from that point forward, no one dared to ask him any more questions… but it doesn’t say that they went away!

So even though Matthew begins chapter 23 by saying that Jesus was speaking to the crowds and to his disciples, it’s likely that the Pharisees and other religious authorities were still there, and that Jesus had in mind for them to overhear his words. Immediately after today’s ending at verse 12, Jesus begins a whole series of “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees!” … which would hardly make sense if they weren’t there to hear it. He begins, though, by talking not to them but about them.

“Do what they teach you about,” says Jesus, because, after all, they do “sit on Moses’ seat.” In other words, they are the authorities on God’s word. “But do not do what they do, for they themselves do not do what they teach.” I can just imagine the Pharisees’ blood pressure starting to rise! “They lay burdens on everyone else’s shoulders,” continues Jesus, but they themselves won’t lift a finger to carry them. “They put on a good show when others are watching, and they love to sit at the head table and have people call them ‘rabbi.’”

In other words, do as they say; they’ve got that half of it right. But don’t do as they do. Don’t let anyone call you “rabbi,” or “teacher,” because there is only one teacher. Because they exalt themselves, they will be humbled…but if you humble yourself, you will be exalted.

How many of us have been hearing that for most of our lives?! How many of us have learned, through hard experience, that’s it’s easier to say than to do? Even the earliest saints of the church struggled with keeping some kind of balance between humble and exalted.

Here’s an example … Remember the reading we had from Paul this morning … it’s from 1 Thessalonians, which is considered by many to be the oldest book in the New Testament. Paul starts out this passage with great humility, reminding the congregation how he and his partners in ministry labored and toiled, night and day, so that they might not be a burden on anyone in the new faith community.

He humbled himself, while he was with the Thessalonians, by working hard to support himself. But in the very next sentence, he can’t resist also reminding them “how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.” Did we just hear a little “exalting himself” slip in there? It can be difficult, then and now, to find a way to establish your credentials without bragging about yourself.

Paul, because he was bringing a new teaching, had to make it clear to those who heard him that he was someone in a position to know what he was talking about. Sometimes, though, he had a little too much to say about himself! Remember, though, that Paul probably had been a Pharisee before his conversion — so it sounds like he was at least an improvement over the crew that Jesus was talking about!

As we observe All Saints’ Sunday today, it seems to me that this “humble” vs. “exalted” contrast is one way for us to think about “who are the saints?” As Christians in the Protestant tradition, we know that we don’t think about “saints” in quite the same way as our Catholic brothers and sisters. We don’t typically pray to them, or try to get people named an official “saint” after their death. But we do say that we believe in “the communion of the saints,” so, who are they?

It occurred to me, studying this passage of scripture, that one of the surest signs of a saint is humility. Saints do their good deeds quietly and behind the scenes; they don’t want to be seen by others; in fact, it embarrasses them. Far from having the place of honor at banquets, they are usually behind the scenes altogether, fixing the food in the kitchen, or serving it to the guests, or staying behind to clean up afterwards. When someone greets them with respect, or calls them “teacher,” or sets them up as an example, they refuse the honor.

They are all too aware, sometimes painfully so, of the ways in which their actions do not always match up with their words, and their best intentions. From the outside, we see their good works. From the inside, they know of all the good works they have neglected or omitted doing … perhaps, they even know of “bad works” in their lives that they hope no one finds out about. Saints are humble, no doubt about it.

Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason Jesus got so frustrated with the Pharisees, and the scribes, and the rest of them…is that they were so close to being saints, and they never quite got it right. They were teachers. They genuinely cared about trying to live their lives rightly, according to God’s law, and they often did lead exemplary lives in that respect. But they never could quite let it go at that. They had to be noticed for it. Rewarded for it, somehow. They exalted themselves, and wanted others to exalt them as well. It’s precisely that kind of behavior that led Jesus to say that we should do what they say, but not what they do.

There’s a common expression in our language that we hear particularly in church settings: We talk about “saints and sinners” as if those were two different categories of people. Like “sheep” on the right, and “goats” on the left. The truth of it is that “saints” and “sinners” are exactly the same people. What I mean to say is that all saints are sinners, but not all sinners are saints. Here’s the distinction. In the first place, everybody is a sinner. We all fall short of the glory of God. All of us have every reason to be humble, and very little reason to be exalted. We’re human, we can’t help it, we mess up.

Some of us know this; we accept it about ourselves, we laugh at ourselves, and we say quite honestly, “do as I say, not as I do.” Others of us resent it. We see only the good deeds that we do, not the hurtful deeds that we also do, or the good deeds that we fail to do. “Don’t tell me I’m a sinner!” we exclaim. “Why, compared to persons X, Y and Z, I’m a saint!”

I’ll end with this paradox: The saints are those who know themselves to be sinners. The sinners are those who believe themselves to be saints. Or in other words: The exalted are those who have humbled themselves before God and others. The humbled are those who thought of themselves as exalted, higher, better.

All of us are sinners. All of us can be saints. If we do what we know is right, whenever we can…If we refuse to seek recognition for it…If we know that, despite our doing what is right, our salvation and our future depend on God alone…then we are saints. Whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves, whatever our sins may be, we can be saints, only by the grace of God. Amen.

Thanks for the inspiration belongs to Julie Adkins, Lectionary Homiletics

“Belonging to God”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on October 19, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Belonging to God” ~ Matthew 22:15-22

Please join me in prayer ….. “Loving 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.”

Well, here we are, once again approaching a brand-new Stewardship Season … that time of year when we think about our giving to the church. Contrary to what we might often think, stewardship does not apply just to money, but to our entire lives!  It involves recognizing what God has given us, and what we might give God in return. After all, the meaning of the word “steward” is someone who cares for what belongs to another. When we practice faith-based stewardship, we recognize that all that we have and all that we are belongs to God.

Our gospel passage for today is a familiar one.  It’s one of those stories, like the Widow’s Mite, that gets used during the stewardship season with predictable regularity.  In today’s story, Jesus is asked a question about whether one should pay taxes to the emperor or not. What we need to understand is that this was not just an academic question. At this point in Jesus’ life, the Pharisees had decided that Jesus was a threat to their religion. They were actively seeking a way to trap him, to trip him up, to bring an end to his teaching and ministry. So when they asked this question, they were, as verse 15 says, “plotting to entrap him.”  They sent some of their disciples, people who were loyal to the Pharisees, along with some Herodians, to Jesus. Read the rest of this entry »

“CROP Walk”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley, 10/12/14

 

The following sermon was received this week by way of email from Fr. Alexander Veronis of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.  Fr. Veronis suggested that local pastors share this message with our congregations in preparation for next week’s CROP Walk.  So, this message comes to you with not only the permission of the author but also the recommendation of the author!  Fr. Alex writes:

“The sermon today will deal with hunger and the Annual CROP HUNGER WALK of Lancaster that combats hunger and makes food available to those who have no food.  Church World Service has effective programs in 80 countries to eradicate hunger and poverty and to enable people to secure a future with food.   Two specific goals of the CROP WALKARE: Read the rest of this entry »

“Our Christian Identity”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on October 5, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Our Christian Identity” ~ Matthew 21:33-46

Please join me in prayer ….. “Loving God, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear what you are saying to us today.  Amen.”

This morning’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel tells a parable that’s all about confrontation … and we really don’t like confrontation!  Yet we know that sometimes confrontation is necessary and sometimes it’s appropriate, even though it’s unpleasant.  In this case, the confrontation is with a religious leadership that rejects God’s calls to accountability.  Jesus is holding that leadership responsible for producing fruits that bring life to the kingdom of God.

So, what is the message for us in this story?  What I hear is a claim that, along with God’s unconditional love and grace, comes accountability.  I hear a claim that we are responsible for creating a transforming presence in the world … a presence, in other words, that is consistent with the non-violent politics of Jesus.

The stone the builders rejected should, according to our scripture, become the chief cornerstone of the Church. So if the Church accommodates itself to the deforming and violent politics of the world … it will be judged … and, ultimately, rejected, as a model for the politics that God intends for the world. The love that binds the Church together will be lived out in the one who was crucified …. the rejected stone who is the chief foundation of the Church. Read the rest of this entry »

“Gospel-Worthy Living”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on September 21, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Gospel-Worthy Living” ~ Matthew 20:1-16

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

Our scripture states … “And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us … who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

This story of the workers in the vineyard can really offend our sense of fairness and justice, can’t it? Talk about an employer who doesn’t seem to have a clue!  What would inspire any CEO to pay a group of workers the same for one hour’s work as he paid for twelve hours?  Where’s the incentive to be a “go-getter” for the company good?

I say, it’s a wonder those “first shift” guys didn’t form a Vineyard Workers’ Union right then and there … and demand negotiations … and organize a boycott of the vineyard owner for unfair labor practices. At the very least, I’ll bet their spouses and families got an earful when they got home from work … about a lunatic landowner with no sense of fair play and no understanding of what it’s like to labor all day in the hot sun.

Imagine how different the scene might be in the home of one of those who only worked for an hour …  “Honey, you’re not going to believe what happened! I was really starting to get worried because I didn’t get hired early this morning, and I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough money for dinner. But the weirdest thing happened. At five o’clock this guy came around, and he said “Come on, I’ve got some work for you in my vineyard.”

So, I only got to work for an hour, but would you believe it, he paid me a whole day’s wages, just like everyone else! You should have heard them griping! I guess maybe it’s not exactly fair, but I’m really glad he did it. We desperately need the money, and I was more than eager to work for it.” Read the rest of this entry »