Preachers often focus on Peter’s unthinking outburst offering to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Such booths would concretize his all-to-human desire to experience continually the radiance of God. Life, however, is not like that; it’s not all mountaintop highs. Life is full of ups and downs, both high mountaintops and low valleys.
My favorite artistic depiction of the Transfiguration is that by the High Renaissance painter Raphael. The top of Raphael’s painting portrays the glory and radiance described by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, and Luke on the mountaintop, while the bottom shows what’s happening down below, what our lectionary reading leaves out. If we read further in Mark’s Gospel we find (as Paul Harvey might have said) the rest of the story:
A couple of months ago, I was part of a conversation among several parishioners about the set-up for our celebrations of the Nativity. We looking at our plans for Christmas services, and a member of our altar guild exclaimed, “That’s the problem! Things are always changing around here!”
A few days later at the November vestry meeting, as we were discussing our preliminary work on the 2018 budget and looking over the church’s calendar for the coming year, one of our vestry persons expressed some frustration saying, “That’s the problem! Nothing ever changes around here!”
In Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s novel of post-colonial political intrigue in Africa, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), one of the characters (echoing Karl Marx’s famous aphorism about religion) opines:
Charity . . . is the opium of the privileged, from the good citizen who habitually drops ten kobo from his loose change and from a safe height above the bowl of the leper outside the supermarket; to the group of good citizens (like youselfs) who donate water so that some Lazarus in the slums can have a syringe boiled clean as a whistle for his jab and his sores dressed more hygienically than the rest of him; to the Band Aid stars that lit up so dramatically the dark Christmas skies of Ethiopia. While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.
For many years, nearly all of my life as a parish priest, every time the story of Christ the King separating the sheep and the goats, Matthew’s picture of the judgment at the end of time, rolls around, I have read it, understood it, and preached it as Jesus’ admonition to us to be charitable. I have read it as an instruction in favor of individual charity, and so novelist Achebe’s statement, his condemnation of charity as “the opium of the privileged,” pulls me up short and discomfits me.
Give us open minds, O God, minds ready to receive and to welcome such new light of knowledge as it is your will to reveal to us. Let not the past ever be so dear to us as to set a limit to the future. Give us courage to change our minds when that is needed. Let us be tolerant to the thoughts of others and hospitable to such light as may come to us through them. Amen.
That prayer was given to me a few years ago by a member of this congregation. She said she’d found it in going through some of her old papers. It is a prayer attributed to John Baillie, who was a Church of Scotland minister in the mid-20th Century; in fact, he was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland during the 1940s. I think the three most important words in this prayer are “Give us courage” because they directly address the lesson of today’s reading from the Holy Gospel.