“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 »

Untroubled Hearts

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on May 18, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Untroubled Hearts” ~ John 14:1-11

Please join me in prayer … Holy 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.

The verses in this morning’s reading from St. John’s Gospel are so familiar that I think it’s easy to forget where they come from.  We can easily lose touch with the fact that they’re part of a very long speech by Jesus, given on his last night on earth.

The speech begins right after Judas has left the group, and Jesus doesn’t stop talking until it is time for him to cross the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives and be arrested. The speech moves in loops and circles, as Jesus keeps coming back to just a few themes that he repeats over and over again … just to make sure he is understood:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.

Trust me; I am not abandoning you.

Love God; love me; love each other.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Read the rest of this entry »

“The House of the Lord”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on May 11, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“The House of the Lord” ~ Psalm 23

….and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

God has given us a home. The Psalmist calls it the House of the Lord and these very familiar words of one of our most beloved Psalms promise that we indeed live in that home and will live there forever. No wonder the great mystic, Meister Eckhart, said: “If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘Thank you’ that would be enough.”

The House of the Lord lacks for nothing. It’s a place of abundance and beauty. In contrast to the parched places of our lives, it’s a place of vibrant and nourishing green pastures. In contrast to the noise of our daily lives and our frazzled spirits, it’s a place of deep, still waters … a place where silence carries us to the wellsprings of our faith. In contrast to the desperation of endlessly seeking after the latest thing, the newest whatever … when we are at home with God, we know that our cup is already filled to overflowing.

God is our home. And the more we know that, really know that, the more we believe it in our heart of hearts, the more we will shift from anxiety to assurance, from fear to fullness, from getting to gratitude. And our prayer will become “Thank you.”

Richard Foster, a Quaker, tells a story about a time of temporary homelessness in his childhood.  It was a time when he learned how to find home in God, giving thanks for it. He calls it “his grateful center.” When he was seven, his parents wanted to move from their home in Nebraska to the West Coast. But they ran out of money before they reached their destination and spent the winter in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains. What was surely a very difficult time for his parents was heaven to this little boy. Read the rest of this entry »

“After Easter”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on May 4, 2014 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“After Easter” ~ Luke 24:13-35

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.”

Well, here we are … a few weeks past Easter … but this morning’s Gospel takes us back to the events of Easter day. The women have just raced back to the other disciples to offer their testimony. “The tomb is empty! He is risen!”

And Luke tells us that the disciples didn’t believe. Unimpressed, they thought the women had come back to them with an “idle tale.”

So Cleopas and another follower … one who isn’t named … are heading out of town, thinking that they had just bet it all on the wrong horse and lost. Jesus was supposed to redeem them. He was supposed to be the one.

Now he’s dead, and his body has gone missing, if the women’s story is to be believed at all.

So much for this great plan to be disciples, to follow him around Israel, healing, teaching, sharing God’s love with the world. Read the rest of this entry »