The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Our Sunday Forum Ministry Team had a great one-liner: “Haven’t we been doing Lent for a year now? I’m tired of giving stuff up!” And if you read my Tuesday reflection, you got my take on Lent: Maybe in this pandemic year, don’t give anything up for Lent. Perhaps there are even a few things that you can shift to build back some of your deepest yearnings, whether that’s calling a friend, writing a letter, using our Lenten devotional booklet…Find something that is life-giving and restorative.
This has been a year of monumental changes for all of us, and many of us resist change not because we are curmudgeons —but I know there are a few of us who self-identify that way — but because we often equate change with loss. About 15 years ago when we were renovating the sanctuary, some of our members thought of changes in this space as loss… “My children were baptized in front of that altar,” “That railing was a memorial gift,” “We like having the choir sit off-stage behind a wall.” But there were also comment and actions that looked at the transformation of the sanctuary more positively. “We like the new acoustics,” “We appreciate being wheelchair accessible,” “We enjoy the new organ.”
The past year has been one of nearly perpetual change for us, moving our meetings to Zoom, pastoral care appointments outdoors, the sleepout vigil over FM radio in our parking lot, and numerous changes in the way we broadcast our worship. (I can tell you that this one feels especially chaotic to the staff right now!) One of the serious advantages of the pandemic is that no one can say, “We’ve always done it this way!” because none of us has ever done it this way before.
One of the advantages for our Strategic Planning Team is that in some ways, we have a nearly blank slate for some big, hairy, audacious goals, based on what we’ve heard from you all in focus groups. But instead of thinking about loss, try to think about change that is positive. You can see that right now if you try…what have we changed during the pandemic that we’ll keep around? Streaming services for one, so that if you’re not feeling well or you’re out of town (or across the world, like someone watching right now), you can still be part of Plymouth’s worship. Meetings by Zoom allow folks who don’t like to drive at night, or who live far from the church, to participate in meetings. (And some of you are probably wearing pajama bottoms and a nice, presentable shirt in those Zoom meetings!) We can preserve some of the changes we’ve made.
William Sloane Coffin, the great sr. minister of the Riverside Church in New York, once said, “Most church boats don’t like to be rocked; they prefer to lie at anchor rather than go places in stormy seas. [And God knows we’ve been in some stormy seas this year!] But that’s because we Christians view the Church as the object of our love instead of the subject and instrument of God’s [love]. Faith cannot be passive; it has to go forth – to assault the conscience, excite the imagination.
What have you learned as part of this church as we’ve sailed through stormy seas over the past year? Maybe you learned that the building is great, but it isn’t the church. Perhaps you’ve discovered just how important fellowship with other folks here is to you. Maybe you’ve learned how to be connected to God in ways you hadn’t expected. What have you learned as we’ve sailed the stormy seas?
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The Transfiguration is a rather odd story, isn’t it. And I’m not entirely sure why it is an annual celebration. I mean, we don’t have an annual celebration of the Beatitudes, which present Jesus’ message in concise form, so why the Transfiguration? Maybe because it is a story of the miraculous? I sometimes irreverently refer to our observation of the Transfiguration as “Shiny Jesus Sunday,” but I think there is more to the story than just Jesus’ aura.
This is an earlier painting, completed in 1311, still in the style of a Byzantine icon, by Duccio, and it was originally in the cathedral in Siena…and somehow it ended up in the National Gallery in London. It is splendid, but it has none of the movement of Raphael’s famous Transfiguration, which is in the Vatican Museum. Raphael’s Jesus is airborne…which doesn’t actually happen in any of the gospel accounts, and it always made me wonder if Raphael decided to add a touch of the Ascension onto his canvas. In any case, this enormous, magnificent painting helps us to know how important the story was during the Renaissance in Italy.
But why should the Transfiguration be important to us? That’s the $64,000 question. What if we started by taking a look at the term, itself. “Transfiguration,” isn’t a word we use in our everyday discussions to describe a change of appearance or a change in the state of being. Transfiguration has two Latin roots, trans (across) and figuratio (form or shape)…but the Bible wasn’t written in Latin, so I went back to the original Greek of Mark’s gospel, and the word used is one that we are more apt to use today than “Transfiguration.” It’s the verb form of metamorphosis meta- means beyond and morphe means shape.
If we think about Jesus having a metamorphosis on the mountaintop, perhaps that is reason to think that it was an important experience in who he was becoming. We often think of metamorphosis in biological terms: a tadpole losing its tail and growing arms and becoming a frog…a caterpillar weaving a chrysalis around itself, growing colorful wings in the darkness of the cocoon and emerging as beautiful butterfly. In this story, something happened to Jesus when the cloud descended over him. He emerged as a different person, or perhaps he emerged as a person who was even more authentically himself and who he was meant to be. It is also the second time God makes an appearance with Jesus and tells his followers, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him,” just as he appeared at Jesus baptism.
I wonder if this pandemic is our chrysalis time, a space when we are being changed in ways of which we are not yet aware. So, what about you? Have you ever had a big change in your life that has left you profoundly transformed? I know some women have been changed by the experience of childbirth. Others of us have been metamorphosed by getting sober. Some of us have experienced laying on of hands in an ordination service and been changed by the experience. In our mission statement here at Plymouth we talk about inviting, transforming, and sending, and that center element, transforming is a big piece of our spiritual journey. We aren’t supposed to begin our faith journey and finish it in the same place…that’s why it’s called a journey. Have you experienced a spiritual transformation? Has it happened just once, or has it occurred on multiple occasions? Some people speak of being born again and again and again… You may not hear the audible voice of God, but her presence does break into our lives, especially if we are listening for the still small voice.
Lent, which starts this Wednesday, is a time when you are invited to pay attention to God’s presence in your life. And so, as we journey through this long season of pandemic, I invite you to look not just for things to comfort yourself, but also for things that have shifted, and to try and embrace them.
I’m no Pollyanna, and I know that sometimes changes in our lives leave us with scars, physical, mental, and spiritual. You may have experienced the metamorphosis of a cancer journey that left you with bodily scars and may have robbed you of different abilities. You may have gone through the grief associated with the tragic loss of a loved one. You may have been told by a church you grew up in that your sexual orientation or gender identity was sinful. There are any number of hurts that we absorb as a part of our life histories, and as my colleagues have spoken of healing the past two Sundays, I encourage you to look for the love of God to know that scars are part of you, part of your history, part of yourself.
In Japanese tradition, when a precious ceramic vessel breaks, it is not discarded, but rather handled with reverence. In a process called kintsugi, the crack is not hidden, but rather filled with gold, so that the repair glints in the light and takes on a beauty all its own. My prayer for you is that whatever seems broken within you will be filled with the golden presence of God.[end Japanese bowl] And may all of your metamorphoses become a part not just of who you are, but of who God is calling you to become.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Wm. Sloane Coffin, Credo, )Lexington: Westminster John Knox, 2004), pp. 140-141.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.