…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

Author: tobelieveistocare

I am an interim pastor in the United Church of Christ, having served as a settled pastor for over thirty years. I play classical mandolin and share my home with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

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