Thursday, April 21, 2011

Perishing Beauty: A Maundy Thursday Sermon Meditation by David Albert Farmer

An African Jesus at the Last Supper

Maundy Thursday Reading (from James 1)

2My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 9Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, 10and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. 11For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

Prayer (borrowed from the Center for Liturgy, St. Louis University, adapted)

Jesus washed

his disciples’


Gracious God, we would

learn that you, the Infinite, all-powerful God,

the God of inexhaustible love,

are at heart, a


of all.


us not

ignore or just

tolerate our neighbors.

Let us wash, like Jesus did, their feet

and give to them their food and drink. Amen.

I hope this part of our reading from the book of James caught your attention:

Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.

A few things to note here. First, as the ancient Hebrews first noticed, God is a God of reversals; the world tends to set things up one way, and God seems to think that the opposite arrangement is best. So, James expects that those who are regarded as lowly in this world will not always be lowly; in time, and in God’s way, the lowly will be exalted. Similarly, James expects that the rich of this world will be brought low along with all the power and prestige that went along with the high-ranking status their money bought for them.

Keep in mind, in both cases, that James does not likely have individuals in mind, but rather groups. The lowly as a group will be exalted, and this isn’t a one time thing nor does it happen to all the lowly-regarded at the same time. Same with the rich; not all the rich are brought low; nor does their loss of prominence happen to them all at the same time.

Second, the lowly are never lowly in God’s eyes and should not be lowly in the eyes of those who take their cues from the God about what we learned in the life, teachings, and ministry of Jesus from Nazareth. The poor, the sick, the homeless, the helpless certainly suffer in this world; even so, in their this-worldly plight they are like seeds planted who end up, against the odds, sprouting into flowers with beautiful blossoms. And the rich and powerful of this world who buy their beauty will lose their perfect petals and, eventually, fade into nothingness. This is not because God wishes harm on them since God loves all people, all of us, unconditionally, but because they have built anti-human and anti-humanitarian empires that abuse so many people that those no longer willing to be abused strike back and, in the process, shatter and scatter the once-beautiful petals of the power people. The book of James calls this “perishing beauty.”

Wasn’t Bernie Madoff’s lavish lifestyle a pretty picture for a long while? There

is no lovely flower to his life in his prison cell. Same with Mubarak and Gaddafi; one down and several to go, but Gaddafi is likely the next one. Power, prestige, privilege fading in the hot sun of people who have had it with oppression and who are determined to get hold of freedom or die trying. On the inside, there may never have been much beauty, but on the outside respect, order, and accomplishment looked lovely. No more; now there are faded flowers after faded flowers. New flowers will bloom in their places, flowers planted in sand rich with respect for human dignity and worth.

Our country had better be opened-eyed about these uprisings for freedom in Arab countries. The politics we praise and utilize here are a long way from the utmost respect for every citizen embraced by those who brought this country to birth. More and more people are seeing the beautiful flowers of their freedoms fade in the scorching heat of celebrity and power plays laughingly called “representative politics.” The downtrodden won’t forever remain downtrodden. Perishing beauty will often lead to beautiful and new blossoms as the previous plants fade into oblivion.

Third, there is so much exaltation of Jesus during this season, but in his cultural and historical time and place, he was one of the lowly. Certainly, the power people won out over him, and they got rid of him--well, for a time, kinda sorta. Now, few people remember the Roman hierarchy who stood behind Pontius Pilate when he ordered Jesus’ execution, and there are few people in the whole who haven’t heard of Jesus, whatever their theological take on him. Who are the beautiful blossoms now? Pilate and his Caesar Tiberius or Jesus? The answer is clear, isn’t it?

We most of us can’t keep from seeing power, prestige, and privilege as things of beauty, but they don’t last. A lowly carpenter and part-time preacher, a perennial that keeps blooming beautifully century in and century out, more widely remembered worldwide than any of the leaders of the mighty Roman Empire, perished beauty.

So one of several points Jesus reminded his disciples of at his last earthly meal with them was that the values of the world were likely to remain in conflict with the values of God. There’s nothing wrong with being someone whom society at large regards as lowly. In fact, if sufficiently influenced by the ethics of Jesus we do not long to be above those whom we are called to serve; God will take care of recognizing our beauty when the time is right.

The disciples, thus, were to have a sip of wine and a bite of bread--the most basic food and drink utilized in their world; then they were to go out and minister to everyone--those who might be able to help their cause along and those who were in a “take only” position because they had absolutely nothing to give in return.

Someone told me the other day about another of Bill Perkins’s stirring acts of ministry to Wilmington’s destitute. I did not know that Bill has been known to recline beside a homeless person dying on the street and embrace that person as she or he moved out of this realm of poverty and into the realm of God’s riches. That flower will not fade.

Where will these elements of remembrance take you in Jesus’ name? To perishing beauty or to permanent beauty by God’s standards?

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