“To Tell the Truth”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC on May 17, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“To Tell the Truth” ~John 17:6-19

“That they may be one.”  This is the deep-seated prayer of Jesus as it’s relayed to us through this morning’s Gospel reading.  This is what Jesus wants for us in our relationships with one another, and he isn’t afraid to put it out there – before God and everyone else – as he prays just before his arrest and crucifixion.  It seems odd, doesn’t it, to revisit this scripture that actually took place prior to his arrest and crucifixion?  But this is where we’re led and so this is where we’ll go.

“That they may be one.”  We might be tempted to say, “Who are you kidding, Jesus? It didn’t happen in your time, so why would you imagine it would ever happen in our time?”

Jesus was relentless, though, in telling his followers that they should be one in this world, in their culture and their time. It goes along with Jesus always reminding them that the Kingdom of Heaven is here – not something that will come in the next world, but here and now. So, this may be one of the most puzzling verses in the gospels, and Jesus says it several times, in several different ways. He says it always as a very positive statement, not as a question, like, “Wouldn’t it be nice if they became one as you and I are one?” He says it as if he expects it to happen. He says it as if he thinks we even understand what he’s talking about.

Jesus so often has a way of talking about us as if he expects the very best from us, no matter how many times we’ve proven his faith in us to be misplaced, or misguided, at best.  It’s enough to make us sometimes wonder if Jesus knows what he’s talking about. Read the rest of this entry »

“Abiding in Love”

A meditation preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on May 3, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“Abiding in Love” ~ 1 John 4:7-21

Please join me in a word of 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, alive again in you.  Amen.”

When we take a good look around us, we often find ourselves living a world where many people – according to the popular song lyrics – are “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  We are one of the most “connected” generations of all time, and yet we are more isolated from those around us, more separated from friends, family, God, even ourselves – and therefore lonelier – than any generation of humankind.

In a recent news article, one observer argued that all of our “connectedness” through social media, like Facebook, is in fact only an unsatisfying substitute for real relationships.  The study shows that it seems the more “connected” we are through our social networks, the more lonely we’re likely to be! Read the rest of this entry »

“An Active Love”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on April 26, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“An Active Love” ~ 1 John 3:16-24

Please join me in prayer … “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.”

President of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Michael Jinkins, tells an intriguing story in The Christian Century magazine …  “The first thing that struck me about First Presbyterian Church in Dallas was not the imposing building, but instead, it was the wording on the church sign that grabbed my attention … “Justice is love distributed.”  Justice is love distributed.

“I turned that sentence over and over again in my mind as I made my way into the church.  It was an appropriate sign for my mission that day.  I had come to talk with Associate Pastor Bob Lively about bringing a group of young people and their adult sponsors from our church in suburban Irving to join First Presbyterian’s “Stew Pot ministry.”

Jinkins goes on to say that a friend had shared an article with him about the beginnings of the “Stew Pot ministry.”  Pastor Bob had been walking along the sidewalk in front of the church one day when he passed a homeless man sleeping at the base of the steps.  Lively walked into a colleague’s office and said, “That is my Lord out there.”  And a new ministry was born. Read the rest of this entry »

“You Will Be My Witnesses”

A sermon preached before the congregation at Hamilton Park UCC, Lancaster, PA on April 19, 2015 by Rev. Catherine M. Shiley

“You Will Be My Witnesses” ~ Luke 24:36-48

The preacher Brett McAfee has created a fictitious scene telling us what it might have been like to be a part of the early movement of the Christian Church.  His imagination tells this story:

“On the fourth Wednesday evening in May, 90 AD, First Church, Caesarea, is having a business meeting. The chair of the evangelism committee is presenting a report: “Our Monday night visitation program has slowed down. The numbers aren’t as big as I wish they were. Some of you know that Second Church claims to have more people in Sunday school than we have, but I suspect they’re counting babies in the nursery and anybody that walks past the sanctuary.

Anyway, this Saturday we’re going to start a new program that just came from denominational headquarters. This program will lead to “Pack-a-Pew Sunday” and, I believe, a new record for the most verses of “Just As I Am.”   At 9:00 on Saturday morning, we’ll have a thirty-minute training session to memorize our lines. We’ll wear gold letter S lapel pins. When people ask, “Why are you wearing an S?” “We’ll answer, “We’re Super Christians. Would you like to be a Super Christian, too?”  Our experts estimate that for every one hundred and eleven houses that we visit we’ll find a prospect. Are there any questions?” Read the rest of this entry »

“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 »