…the wisdom to know the difference…

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on February 19, 2023

Scripture:Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, [six days after Jesus had prophesied his death and resurrection] Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.  As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. –Reinhold Niebuhr

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday.  Every year, at the end of the Epiphany Season, we read this story about a very strange meeting on a mountain top.  This is one of those Bible stories that, at first glance, makes little sense.  It feels like a weird dream sequence, something that follows a wild meal, that maybe is as much a nightmare as anything else.  I mean, look at it – Jesus changes before them?  Instead of clothes, he’s clothed in light, like the brightest of sunny days.  What does that mean?  Peter and James and John think they’re seeing Moses and Elijah, and they’re so fuzzled by their vision that they can only think to make a shelter for each of those great people.  Not one thing that happened on that mountain top made one iota of sense, not to those who were there.

What this story means to us is going to depend on more than what it literally describes.

Because “Transformation Sunday” isn’t really about what shade of white those clothes of Jesus turned into.  And it’s not about the design of the huts, or whether or not there was food, or even if Moses and Elijah were literally there.

Transformation Sunday is about transformation.  It’s not about outward signs; it’s about inward realities.

In the famous Serenity Prayer, UCC pastor and professor Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:  God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Transfiguration Sunday is a day that’s all about that wisdom to know the difference.

It’s important, this lesson says, to know whether or not you’re focusing on building huts for Moses, or recognizing the holy in your midst.  

It’s not that one is more important than the other; it’s that we need to be clear about which one is which.  Because, you know, it’s a lot less trouble to do concrete things like building huts, than it is to recognize and react to the holy in our midst.  We are called to pay attention to the differences.

This is related to that old saying:  Don’t miss the forest for the trees.  It’s not that the trees aren’t important – they are, and there’d be no forest were there no trees.  But if we can’t see beyond the individual tree, if we don’t allow ourselves to see beyond our own individual experiences, then we’ll miss the meaning of the whole.  Life is about more than me, mine and myself.  It’s also about us and ours, and everyone’s.

Here’s the core of the problem, at least for us.  When we focus on the trees, the day to day, immediate challenges, we are acting as individuals.  What we are not doing is acting as a church.  A church is a group of people who, in covenant with one another, work together.  In this analogy, churches are forests – a group with a common purpose and goal.  When one group goes this way, and the other group goes that way, we are nothing but a bunch of trees.  But to be a church, we need to act as one group, focused on our agreed upon goals… we need to be forests.

Now, we’re Congregationalists.  And an argument can be made that congregationalists, at their foundation are natural trees, almost incapable of acting as forests.  No one’s going to tell us what to do, right?  Well, yeah, kinda, sorta.  but over the centuries we’ve come to understand that you can carry that “everyone for themselves” theory too far.  You may remember Roger Williams, a founder of Rhode Island after he was driven out of Massachusetts?  He’s perhaps the best example – for instance, he believe that only with all parties agree on absolutely everything, can there be a true fellowship.  He woduldn’t even take communion with his wife.  It pretty much illustrates the truth that congregational individualism, taken too far, is a kind of anarchy which destroys community.

But here’s something we maybe don’t pay enough attention to:  one of the reasons we became the United Church of Christ was that we agreed that we are better together… that there’s something wrong with rugged individualism, everyone going their own way.  Working together in covenant with one another – within the church, among the Association’s churches, and in the Conference, is absolutely central to the way we think the world works.  We must work together if we are to be faithful to God.

Most of the time, we think that working together describes our relationships with the other churches of Middlesex Association, the Southern New England Conference and other religious groups here in Middletown. That’s true, but it’s not the whole of it.

Most essentially, working together describes our relationships with one another here in this church, not just how we talk with one another at coffee hour, or prayer time sharing, but also in all the work of this church.  At its best, at its most faithful, we are a team, a forest – a group which plans and works together, not a collection of individual groups, each off doing what they think works best for them.

And now we’ve circled back to the transfiguration which Reinhold Niebuhr points toward… in knowing the difference, knowing what really matters, knowing what we believe as a church about the importance of working together as a team.  Because it’s only as a team, as a community, that we can clearly discern where it is that God is calling us to go.

It’s up to us:  will we be trees, each of us pursuing what we believe is most important?  Or will we, continue to be transformed, transfigured into a forest, coming together, working together to seek and to follow God’s call for our church?  Will this be a Transfiguration Day for us?


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Choices, Choices

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

1 Corinthians 3:1-3

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

St. Paul was a loser.  

He says so himself.  It’s right there at the beginning of the first letter to the Corinthians – off to speak to the folks in Corinth and terrified:

            I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate—I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it—and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else. 

The traditions say Paul was a tentmaker, someone who made tents from scratch…probably a lucrative occupation in a world where everyone traveled slowly, where lots of people simply migrated along the food and water supplies with their flocks, and where the motels (well, they called them caravanserais) were not on every block.  So, we might deduce that Paul, in his work with tents, was good at what he did, at least good enough for folks to remember his skill…just as we might well deduce that he was very good at his other occupation – starting religious communities to live in the way of Jesus Christ.

But Paul thought he was a low-talent, poor-speaking nobody.  He hadn’t met Jesus in the flesh, after all.  He was not one of the “elite” living in Jerusalem and running the main organization.

So, you know what should have happened when he stood up and spoke, especially when he spoke to crowds who didn’t want to hear his message.  Their rejection should have destroyed him.  He should have slunk away in shame from his performances.

Instead, he kept on speaking.  Instead, he founded churches all over Turkey and Greece.  Instead, in his letters, he wrote words so powerful they still bring wisdom to our lives today.

The Old Testament lesson . . . is part of Moses’ final words to the children of Israel.  Moses has led them through the desert, led them out of slavery in Egypt, led them through forty years of wandering, and now, as they approach that land, the focus of their hopes and dream, Moses is dying.  He will never reach their goal; he will never see for himself what God has promised.

But he knows that the land toward which they are heading will be easier in so many ways than where they’ve been.  He knows that in this new place, doing things the “easy way” will be baked in.  He knows that, having settled down, it’ll be harder for them to adjust to change, harder to accept that, somewhere along the way, they’ll have to set aside beloved old habits in order to maintain God’s way in this new land.

Who are we?

Some years ago, I was working with a church that had just been through some difficult times.  As part of our work together, we had a Conference person come to help lead us in a conversation about who we are.   She wanted to hear from us as to what we’d been doing, and who we thought ourselves to be.

At one point, she said something like, “well, we all know you’ve been through so much; where are you now?”  Our members responded with what they thought was going on, and the Conference person looked at us and said something like, “you’re not a troubled church; you’re a resilient church.  You folks are survivors.”  

And suddenly the church’s picture of itself turned around.  We’d been the church that had been through several unhappy settlements in a row; we thought we couldn’t keep a pastor.  We’d been the church with a pastor who went to jail.  We were bad at choosing pastors.  But our Conference person heard us talking about all that and what we’d done since, and turned our picture of ourselves on its head.  We were not victims.  We were not losers.  We were resilient; we were survivors.

Back in the day it seemed as though all you needed to do to be a successful church was to call an attractive pastor, preferably one with a wife, two children, a Chevrolet station wagon and perhaps a cocker spaniel dog.  And people came.  Every Sunday, new people came.  They brought their families; the Sunday schools bulged; there were wonderful, life-changing youth programs.  It made us feel like the winners of life.

But today we live in a different world.  It’s not just that hordes of new people are not breaking down the doors to get in –what success means has changed.  It’s no longer about having the best looking pastor, or the forty-member choir.  Today it’s more about how well we build community, how honestly we look at our own strengths and challenges

Who do we want to be?

When I was a small child, my grandmother first exposed me to an ancient Connecticut proverb.. I bet the older folks here learned it too.  Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.  That’s why I have a braided rug fragment that grandma made, using my mother’s wedding suit. 

Of course it’s about more than re-using clothes or recycling this or that.  It’s about how open we are to taking what no longer works and moving in a new direction, one more suited to our current needs.  When we hit a wall in one direction, we cast about for a new way to get to where we want to be, where we think God is calling us to go.

But you know, it doesn’t matter if that’s who we are, or who we can be, if we don’t know it.

For years and years, I had springer spaniel dogs.  You might know that springers get their name because they are capable of springing (jumping) straight up, maybe 3-4 feet, when they’re hunting, to catch sight of the birds.  This means that, at least in theory, most springers are more than capable of springing right onto a kitchen counter.

But they don’t know it.  If they see another dog do it, they’ll try, and succeed.  But even if you train them to jump, like in canine agility, they don’t generalize, and they don’t realize they could get on the counters (thank heavens).

Because they don’t know they can do it, they don’t do it.

St. Paul didn’t know at first that he was a great thinker, a great speaker, a great leader.  But faced with new opportunities, he took a chance, gathered up his courage, and grew into what was needed for this new time and place.

How are we doing that today?  What choices will we make, going forward?  How will we grow into what’s needed in today’s world  to help people learn about a this way of life?

How will we proclaim justice?  Practice mercy?  Live inclusively? Be open to new ways of understanding?  Share and spread God’s love in all our days?


© 2023, Virginia H. Child

Restoring Our Flavor

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 29, 2023

Isaiah 58:1-12 :  Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,  to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and [God] will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,  if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,  then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  The Lord will guide you continually,  and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. 

Matthew 5:13-20:  “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.   “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

In the middle of last month, I was reading the travel tips column in the Washington Post and came across an essay written by someone who flies, a lot.  He wrote:

Flying economy can be a nightmare. There are few, if any, ways around this. When you’re in the air as much as I am, you have to scratch and claw for every ounce of satisfaction — not to mention humane treatment.

With my frequent flier status on our side, even my traveling companion can benefit. We can enter the lounge together and enjoy a few drinks in a comfortable environment; we can check our bags for free; and we can board the plane early, securing invaluable overhead space. Sometimes, we can even both be upgraded to first or business class. But if there’s one seat available and I’m the next in the line, I’m sorry, but I’m taking the seat and leaving you behind in economy.

I’ll send you back a freebie drink or two if I can — I’m not a monster — but if there’s an opportunity for a lie-flat business bed, I’m jumping on it without hesitation and putting myself down for a night’s rest. See, I had to earn that airline status, and there’s no easy way to do it. I log hundreds of thousands of flight miles every year to climb that ladder. It’s my blood, sweat and tears (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration), which has me rocking double Delta Diamond and United 1K status, and I very much intend on using the upgrades I’ve amassed.

. . . . I empathize with your discomfort, I truly do. But that’s all the more reason I should alleviate my own instead of suffering beside you. There’s no honor in being miserable together for the sake of it.

[Jake Emen:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/tips/seat-upgrade-debate/   1/16/23]

Think about this:  He says — There’s no honor in being miserable together for the sake of it.  So, if I get a chance to better myself, I’m leaving you behind… hey, I’m paying for the tickets.

It’s times like this when I wish they’d bring back that British tv series “Walks With My Dog”…. just 45 minutes with some vaguely recognizable British tv star and his or her dog, walking around rural England.  It seemed like every episode ended with the two of them at the pub or the ice cream strand.  No fights, no arguments, just peaceful, quiet, low-key stuff, and the most beautiful photography.

No one on Walks with my Dog ever says “me first” and I’ll share if there’s any left over (well, maybe the dog thinks that…..)

But Walks with my Dog isn’t real life, is it?  I don’t know that it ever was life, but if it was, it’s not these days.  These days, our world’s more like the one the traveler describes…. I’ll take care of myself, and if there’s an extra bag of peanuts, I’ll pass it back to you.

There’s such a strong temptation to just close our eyes to what’s going on.  It’s tiring to live with endless selfishness, with constant conflict, and just one thing after another.  We can close our eyes, we can unsubscribe from the news, but it’s still there.  Turning our backs doesn’t solve anything.

Now, I’m not talking about the respite times we all need – the 24 hours without media, or the day trip to the beach, or time with a good book.  Those times are intended to help us regroup, recharge and re-enter the struggle.  But sometimes we just want to step away, not just for a moment, but forever.  And if we step away, it means the meanies in our world win.  

So, today I want to remind you that what we’re doing is the most important thing in the world.   

We are engaged, as Christians,  in the struggle to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… to house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and strengthen our family and community ties.  And in the doing of that, we are the salt that brings savor to all of life.

We’re working to make a difference for people who have no power on their own.  We’re working to build a community based on God’s love for all the world.  We’re working to end hatred and war; we’re working to bring justice to our land.

This is hard work.  It’s tiring.  Sometimes it feels as though we’re making no progress at all.  But it is absolutely worth our time and effort.

Here’s the second thing:

What we’re doing is making a difference.  Sure, we can’t see it all that well, and yes, sometimes it feels more like we’re headed backwards.. but that’s only true if we see things in the short haul.  When we look back and remember where we were not all that long ago –we can begin to see that we do indeed make change.  Just think about the changes we’ve made here in Middletown:

Today, we care about issues of racism, and we act to change the way racism still affects our society.  Fifty years ago, we couldn’t bring ourselves to act to change the restrictive real estate practices of our city.

Today, we are a fellowship based on our common commitment to build community and change the world.  Fifty years ago, we were a place to see and be seen.  Then, belonging to this church said that you mattered; today it says you love God and want to make a difference.

Our lives as Christians are built on a platform of love.  

As Christians, we are called to live lovingly. 

We are called to turn away from anger, to reject contempt.

We are called to actively stand up for love.

We are called to know the truth, for with the truth, we will be free.

Go now, in love.


© 2023, Virginia H. Child