“Palm Sunday Christians”

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

“Palm Sunday Christians” ~ Matthew 21:1-11

Today’s the day that Marshal Dillon has finally arrived to clean up Dodge City!  Every Festus, Doc, and Miss Kitty has been praying for the day the marshal will teach the Romans a lesson about who’s in charge. When the gun smoke clears, the emperor will be the one with his picture on a wanted poster…..  And if you have no idea what I just said, take a minute after church to talk to somebody a generation older than you!

Five hundred years earlier, the prophet Zechariah had said that one day there would be a parade like Palm Sunday. That ancient promise was etched in the mind of a glory-starved nation. For half a millennium, they kept an eye open … watching for King David’s successor to gallop into town and assume the throne. For five hundred years these people have been hoping, wishing, and waiting to line the road. For five centuries everyone who thought it was time for the big parade has been wrong, and yet they keep dreaming.

When Jesus decides it’s finally time, they are ready. It’s Passover. Jerusalem is packed like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. As Jesus rides like a conquering king into his capital city, the people wave and cheer wildly.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest,” they cheer until they are hoarse. Trumpets sound. Ticker tape flies. They laugh, dance and sing. The disciples think that it is the best day they have ever known … and they are not far from the truth. Read the rest of this entry »

“Through Dark Valleys”

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

“Through Dark Valleys” ~ Psalm 23

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

We’re going to take a look today at some stories – stories of the lives of people like you and me … stories about the intersections of their lives with this beloved piece of scripture we call the 23rd Psalm.  First, a story straight out of the bible story.

It was a low point in the history of the Hebrew people … a people who are already distinguished by their suffering.  Babylon knew that Israel would not go down easy, and the only way to conquer those headstrong tribes and hold them down was to break their backs.  So, the Babylonians abducted the leaders, the military personnel, and the craftsmen, stripped them of their property … and forced them to march 500 miles to the northeast.

Forced migrations are incredibly cruel but very effective in breaking a people’s spirit.  After forty years … and two generations of struggle … the Hebrews were offered the option to return to the desert outpost that their grandparents had called home.  Some of the Hebrews decided to stay in Babylon, but some went back to re-build the crumbled walls of the temple.  Somehow, in that rebuilding process they found faith and hope. Read the rest of this entry »

“The Outsider”

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

“The Outsider” ~ John 4:5-42

This morning’s very long Gospel lesson is about a very long-standing problem – the problem of marginalization. It puts before us a number of questions that deserve serious consideration … questions like … What is marginalization? What causes it? What perpetuates it? Consider some people or groups of people who are marginalized in our society … people of color, those who are disabled- physically, mentally, and learning disabled, the poor, homeless, prisoners, the LGBT community, students who are bullied, anyone noticeably different from what our society considers “the norm” … whatever that means.

When you are marginalized, you have a whole different set of rules you live by.  You know where you can go and where you can’t.  You know who you can talk to and who you can’t… who accepts you and who does not. And something else happens to you when you are marginalized…something internal. You begin to think of yourself as “less than,” and in some cases … even deserving of the poor treatment you receive.  And it can become such a part of what we think of ourselves, it dictates our expectations not just from others, but from God.   It’s like the difference between shame and guilt.  When we feel guilty, we fee that we have done something wrong; when we feel shame, we feel that we are something wrong.  Shame is the feeling associated with marginalization.

To be marginalized means to see yourself as different… separate from… broken… not normal…

This is the woman at the well.  Clearly an outsider, for whatever reason, this woman was separated from her community.  When we first see her, she is alone … collecting her water for her household long after all the other women had come and gone. She couldn’t be a part of the daily gathering early in the morning … where women would check in with each other, share gossip and news and laugh and cry and care for one another.

But her status in the community didn’t rattle Jesus.  In fact, he sought her out.  Inclusiveness is an intentional thing, you know?  It’s not something that just happens by itself.

The interesting thing is that Jesus didn’t wait for the “other” to come to him… Jesus went out and sought the “other.”  In a time and place where Jews and Samaritans were not supposed to even talk to one another, Jesus is intentional.  He intentionally travels through the city of Samaria, intentionally waits by the well, and intentionally engages this Samaritan woman … this unclean thing, this lowest of the low … outcast from her own community, and he engages her exactly where she is …

“Give me a drink” he says to her.  She’s wary perhaps … maybe a little fearful… but definitely toughened by years of her status as an outcast. Who was this man addressing her?  No one addressed her.

And she looks Jesus up and down …  and she wonders aloud… “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  And Jesus surprises her by responding … “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

OK, she thinks, I’ll play along … “Sir”, she says, “you have no bucket, and the well is deep.”  But then for some reason she drops her guard… a new idea comes to mind,  “Where do you get living water?”

And Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  Familiar words but oh, so powerful.

And in the response that pours out of her, we get a glimpse of the true suffering of the Samaritan woman… “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

At one time or another, all of us, perhaps, have felt like the woman at the well.  All of us felt like we were the ones on the outside, marginalized … outcast, unworthy … maybe that’s why the story works and translates so well for so many of us.  Who among us hasn’t felt the desperation of this woman … “Sir, give me the living water so that I won’t have to keep coming back here day after day…

Lord, give me something, so I won’t have to keep feeling like I’m banging my head against the wall, trying to get it right….  God! Give me the living water so that I can be accepted… so that I can know that you love me… too… not just those on the inside, not just those who are “in”, who have position or great jobs or money or leadership… not just those who tell me that I’m not good enough, or haven’t lived right, or don’t pray right or don’t give enough or do enough or have faith enough.  Give it to me! Show me how to be enough!

But Jesus lets her in on a secret… her life of “not enough” has been no secret to him… Jesus lays her past out for her, including her non stellar track record for marriage … “You’ve had 5 husbands, and the one you are living with now isn’t even your husband,” Jesus reminds her… (and  before we start judging – maybe she was taking it slow… if you were married five times before and none of them worked out, for whatever reason … wouldn’t you maybe be more cautious before tying the knot a sixth time?)

In any case, how do you think she felt when Jesus pointed this out to her? No one likes to be called on their stuff, I don’t care who you are.

So she puts her back up, gathers her wits about her and gives a sharp reply … “OK, so you’re a prophet” … then she goes on, almost accusing him … “this is our mountain… Samaritans… and we’ve worshipped here for generations … and you Jews tell us that people can only worship in Jerusalem…. So what do you say to that?”

Can you picture Jesus at this point thinking … “ok, this woman needs to hear the basics” … so he tells her the basics…  “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  In other words… “It’s not about when, how and where you worship … it’s about worshiping God with a pure spirit…”

Maybe it was the tone of his voice… maybe it was the calm in his presence … maybe it was just that it was Jesus, and when we are in His presence, everything is better, but whatever it was, when he got to that spirit and truth part, the woman softens… and says “I know the Messiah is coming, and when He comes, he will tell us everything…”

Is she baiting him to see if he’s the one?  I don’t know, but if she was, then it worked.  Because for the first time in the Gospel of John Jesus reveals his identity as the Christ.  His answer, in the English translation … “I am he” … is enough to tell us that Jesus is the Messiah… but in the Greek it’s even more powerful … in the Greek his answer reads simply “I am.”

“I AM!”  The same I AM that was, and is, and is to come…. The “I AM” of the burning bush, the “I AM” of the parting of the Red Sea, and water coming out of a rock… the same “I AM” whose breath hovered over the face of the deep… “I AM” the first and “I AM” the last… beside which there is no other God… I AM.”

The answer she was hoping for … the answer we all long for…. the only answer that truly satisfies. I AM is at the well, standing in front of her, calling her on her stuff, but not for one second letting her out of his holy engagement…  And for this lowly, marginalized, less-than-enough woman, it was the moment of transformation… transformation to forgetfulness

Have you ever experienced that transformation?  The transformation to forgetfulness takes place the moment we realize we are standing in the presence of the Mighty One … and we forget who we are and only remember whose we are, and we get so caught up in the Glory of I AM that everything else we knew to be true ceases to exist.

And in her forgetfulness she runs from the well back to the village… forgetting her water jar… what good is that now?  Forgetting that she is an outcast in the village, forgetting that no one has listened to her or taken her seriously in years, forgetting that she is the lowest of low, forgetting that she is not supposed to talk to the women of the village, much less the men … and runs right to them, unable to contain the living water that is now gushing up from inside of her, spilling out of her like a flowing fountain.   Living Water is bubbling up and pouring out through her saturated spirit, so that everyone she comes in contact with can’t help but get soaking wet with it as well.

Because that kind of drenching transformation to forgetfulness … the kind of genuine transformation that only comes from an encounter with the living Christ … is the kind that waters everything in its path until it eventually bears fruit.

So, when she pours out her message, “Come, see the man who told me everything I have ever done”  and it splashes all over the thirsty villagers, they soak it up like a sponge …  the Spirit that was poured into her at the mention of “I AM” was now working to transform others to forgetfulness… they forgot that this is the woman whom they have cast out, the lowest of the low … now they saw only a spirit washed pure and clean… they forgot and they followed her, and they believed.

My friends, this morning I AM is at the well… God is intentionally seeking to flood the driest parts of us with water that will change the face of who we are … as individuals and as a church! I AM is at the well, waiting for us to forget all the things we think we can’t do and drink deeply of what we can do through Christ!

I AM is at the well, offering each of us a transformation to forgetfulness… and you don’t need a bucket, or a cup or a Nalgene bottle to capture it … this water is continuously pouring out from above .. all we have to do is put down our umbrellas, lift our heads and open our mouths…  and let that living water soak our souls… and I promise you, if we accept it, there will be so much water in here it will be flowing out onto Maple Avenue … what an awesome God we worship! Open yourselves and drink until you are filled!

“Night-time Visitations”

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

“Night-time Visitations” ~ John 3:1-17

Listen to one of the ancient stories of our faith ….. Once upon a time ….. scripture tells us ….. God looked at the world and saw that it was a mess.  At least ….. the human being part of the world was a mess ….. and the humans were doing a pretty thorough job of messing up the rest of creation, too.

When God looked at the world, God saw people using and abusing each other, instead of loving each other.  God saw people using any means possible to get more possessions and land ….. means that included blatant theft, deception and war.  God saw adults not just neglecting children, but also abusing them, physically and emotionally.

God saw a world where true commitments of lifelong love were few and far between … a world in which self-gratification was seen as more important than caring and compassion … where everyone was in life to get what they could for themselves.  God saw all this ….. and much more ….. and God became more and more angry, because what this world had become was the exact opposite of God’s original intent for it. Read the rest of this entry »

“Lost in the Wilderness”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on March 9, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Lost in the Wilderness” ~ Matthew 4:1-11

There are so very many ways to get lost.  And most of them include some kind of stumbling over love.  Even Jesus had to wrestle with what it meant to be loved, and he had to do it more than once.

When the name Beloved washed over him at his baptism in the Jordan, he didn’t get to sun himself safely afterward.   Matthew tells us (and Luke agrees) that he was immediately driven into the wilderness, alone, and beset by powerful temptations.  According to Webster, temptation is the enticing, alluring desire to do something unwise.  And so it was, for Jesus.

Power.  Fulfillment.  The freedom to go it alone.  These were the temptations that came to Jesus, and it took him days … so many days … weeks of days … to rise above them.  Wrestling with temptation seems to be an essential part of the human journey.  And for many of us, the struggle lasts for years.  And for some, the fall is profound; even into death.  Read the rest of this entry »

“Transfiguration”

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

“Transfiguration” ~ Matthew 17:1-9

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

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, and I know you’ll believe me when I say it’s one of those dates on the church calendar that’s really hard to explain clearly.  Smarter minds than mine have tried to put Transfiguration Sunday into something like a “sound bite” that we can all understand. Perhaps the most that 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 to us most fully.  Others will claim it as the last opportunity for reveling before we begin the solemn season of Lent.  That’s why we often have what we call a Mardi Gras celebration on Transfiguration Sunday, a last chance to “get it all out of our systems” before we move into a season of repentance.

I don’t like to reduce something as significant as the Transfiguration to an excuse to party, even though I enjoy a good party as much as the next person.  After all, I grew up in the fastnacht capital of the world, the place right up the road that was even visited by former Today Show host Willard Scott! Read the rest of this entry »

“Go Beyond”

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

“Go Beyond” ~ Leviticus 19:10 and Matthew 5:41 and 46

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.

I’m actually going to reference the book of Leviticus in my message today … something I never in a million years expected to do!  It’s often said that every preacher has their favorite texts – the ones we go to over and over again, if we don’t have the lectionary to keep us diversified – and every preacher, as well, has their least favorite texts – the ones we never touch, whether the lectionary forces them on us occasionally or not.  Leviticus is very high in the least favorite texts category for me.

A little history to set the stage … The Book of Leviticus gets its name from the Jewish Levitical priests who used it as a manual to help them in their worship plans, among other things. It is a book about worship. And about holiness.

But if you’ve only experienced Leviticus in the American culture wars, you might be thinking, “I’ve been reading the wrong book”.

Because, to our ears, it seems like a book of rules. Of who is in and who is out. Of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  It tends to be used to wound, to exclude, and to control people in today’s usage.  But this is not the way it was written … not the original intention at all. Read the rest of this entry »

“Right Relationships”

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

“Right Relationships” ~ Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Our message today takes a look at life through the eyes of some of the “greats” ….. people like Moses … Thomas Edison … and Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.  But, first, we need to start with a toast, because that is exactly what Moses offered the children of Israel in today’s scripture from the book of Deuteronomy.

Standing on the far side of the River Jordan … waiting to cross over … Moses prepares to give his last sermon to his people.  Think about the importance of that moment. The Israelites had come out from under the rule of a brutal dictator … wandered in the desert for forty years … and were now standing on the shores of the Promised Land.  It was a second chance, it was a new day for their people.

On this momentous occasion, Moses preaches a fiery message to his people, ending with one of the best, big, bring-it-home sermon lines of all time:  “Choose life … so that you and your descendants may live.”  Actually, I think it was less of a sermon line than a toast.  I envision Moses raising his glass ….. like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” ….. and giving the great Jewish toast “l’chaim,” ….. “to life!”  Given what was at stake, I can also imagine Moses mumbling, “And don’t mess it up!” Read the rest of this entry »

“Salt and Light”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on February 9, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Salt and Light” ~ Matthew 5:13-20

There’s something I’ve noticed lately, and maybe you have as well.  Have you noticed how sophisticated we’ve become about our food over the last two or three decades? Every year brings a new flavor trend: one year it’s truffle oil, another year it’s pancetta with everything, another year everything has to be caramelized. It’s as if our mouths are constantly craving new tastes. Even plain old salt isn’t good enough anymore—it needs to be black sea salt, pretending to be something other than sodium chloride.

But the fact is, no matter what the current flavoring trend is, good old sodium chloride is the best seasoning we have. The fact that we eat too much of it only underscores how good it tastes. Every cook knows that the recipe isn’t finished until the salt is added to the pot. Salt gives the best flavor when it’s added to the dish while cooking, not sprinkled on the top at the end—it works best invisibly, flavoring the whole dish. Read the rest of this entry »

“Free to Follow Jesus”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on January 26, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Free to Follow Jesus” ~ Matthew 4:12-23

Please join me in prayer … “Loving God, if you say, “Go,” we will go.  If you say, “Wait,” we will wait.  If you say, “Step out on the water,” and they say it can’t be done, we’ll fix our eyes on you and we will come.”  Amen.

One of my favorite definitions of vocation comes from the book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner.  He says,

“Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, meaning ‘to call.’  It means the work a person is called to by God.  There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than the voice of Society … or the Super-Ego … or Self-Interest.

By and large, a good rule for finding out is this.  The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work that

  1. You need most to do and
  2. The world most needs to have done.

If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement a … but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement b.  On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement b, but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed “a” but you probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

“The place God calls you to,” Buechner concludes, “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I would say that vocation is more about who you are, than about what you do.

We continue this Sunday with the idea that God has called us, not just by name, but to a special purpose.  When we find and claim our own vocation – that which fulfills us and creates good in the world – we are freed from the bonds of what others may expect of us or claim for us.  Discipleship comes in many, and sometimes unlikely, forms. Read the rest of this entry »