Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Homily: "Beauty We Did Not Create" (Delivered 5-4-08)

Opening Words
[This morning’s opening words were read by two children in the church. They stood on either side of a table holding baskets over-flowing with flowers for the Flower Communion Ceremony.]

This table was empty before we placed these flowers on it. The church was empty before we entered it.
Now, this table has many flowers on it, and looking out at you I see many faces.
[Holding up a Red Flower] Many of you are like this red flower, full of fire and passion. You care deeply.
[Holding up an Orange Flower] Or, you are like this Orange flower. You are daring and original.
[Holding up a Yellow Flower] Some of you are like this Yellow flower. Your faces are full of sunshine and you are content with life.
[Holding up a piece of Green Leaf] Some of you are like this piece of green. In the Earth you find wonder and amazement. You care for this planet
.[Holding up a Blue Flower] Some of you are like this blue flower. You come to church with grief and sadness.
[Holding up a Purple Flower] Some of you are like this purple flower. In the West, purple is the color of royalty, of Kings and Queens. You have come to regain your faith in the power and goodness of humanity.
[Holding up a White Flower] Some of you are like this White Flower. You look to the future… to learn… to grow… to change.
[In Unison] We are a diverse community. We each bring our own gifts and together we make a beautiful arrangement. Let us bless these flowers and bless our church community.

For the reading, I read the poem “A Man Walks Through His Life” by Jane Hirschfield. The poem gives us the image of a man walking down a road and eating apples, pears, and peaches that grow abundantly on trees on either side of the road. The poet’s voice interrupts and states her desire to confront the man and ask him, “Where is the plum tree you planted?” The poet stops, as if a peach pit has become stuck in her throat. She realizes that she too consumes the labors of others.

Jane Hirschfield’s poem bears a striking resemblance to a few pieces we frequently use in Unitarian Universalist worship services. Consider these words by The Reverend Peter Raible:
We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves beside fires we did not light.
We cool ourselves under the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are forever bound in community.
I assure you that I could come up with similar readings and quotations, poems and sermon excerpts sufficient to fill an entire sermon’s duration. I will spare you this monotony.

James Baldwin, a Harlem Renaissance author well-aware of the pain, oppression, and injustice manifest in the world was able to claim that a central question of our existence should be, “What do we do with all this beauty?” [Rebecca Parker has featured this quote by Baldwin in her writings.] If I could be permitted to slightly alter his question, I would ask, “What do we do with all this beauty, all this beauty we did not create?” On this Flower Communion Sunday, I want to riff on the theme of “beauty we did not create.”

For those of you who are newer to Unitarian Universalism, let me recount for you, briefly, the tradition of the Flower Communion, an authentically Unitarian ritual. The Flower Communion was developed by a minister named Norbert Capek, who converted to Unitarianism in New Jersey in the first decades of the twentieth century and then returned to his native Prague to found a Unitarian movement there. His congregation in Prague was largely made up of former Catholics who desired religious services that were stripped of traditional rites and rituals, smells and bells. But, one Spring day Capek had a revelation and instituted a communion of flowers the very next Sunday. It was a ritual representing the uniqueness we each bring to our common community and the gifts we receive from encountering one another. The ritual was simple: each person was to bring a flower. During the first hymn, children in the church would process with baskets of flowers and lay them on the altar. These flowers would be consecrated, blessed, and prayed over. Finally, each person would leave with a different flower than the one they had brought.

Capek’s life had greater significance than his being a liturgical innovator or the Father of Czech Unitarianism. When Nazi Fascism took hold of Germany and Hitler’s army blitzkrieg-ed across Europe, Capek resisted, was arrested, and was sent to die in a concentration camp. Before he was sent to Dachau, he spent a year imprisoned in Dresden. While awaiting his eventual journey to the gas chambers, he wrote letters, meditations, prayers, and hymns. One of his meditations, written while imprisoned, went like this:
In the depths of my soul,
There where lies the source of strength
Where the divine and the human meet,
There quiet your mind, quiet, quiet

Outside let lightning reign,
Horrible darkness frighten the world.
But, from the depths of your own soul
From that silence will rise again
God’s Flower.
[As quoted in a sermon by The Reverend Judith Miller.]
James Baldwin lived under the yoke of the dual oppressions of racism and homophobia, but asked, “What do we do with all this beauty?” Capek went to his death contemplating the triumph of the human spirit and divine beauty.

What I am trying to get at here, albeit indirectly, is that the perception and appreciation of beauty is not a trifle or a frippery. It can be an exercise in courage. It can enlarge our hearts.

What do we do with all this beauty, all this beauty that we did not create?

In theology there is a word called “grace.” When we speak of grace in the religious sense of the word, we are speaking of all the good that we receive that comes to us unbidden and undeserved. Grace has to do with the universe conspiring to bless us, to offer us the blessings of forgiveness, kindness, care, and beauty despite our own failures to earn these things.

Of course, when we speak of grace using the term in its more secular sense, we often speak of dancers, musicians, actors, and athletes who seem to move easily and effortlessly through a world that is often hard and cold and indifferent. The religious and secular meanings of the word “grace” are related in a sense. Each seems to say that the world is a place where our endeavors are fraught with difficulty and challenge, but that sometimes, somehow, we can manage to transcend this hardship. Through something, something from outside of ourselves or from within we manage, in the words of a decade old sermon by Ken Sawyer, “to do better than we very well ought to given the circumstances.”

Grace: A ballet dancer’s pirouette. Grace: A fluid motion of Mario Chalmer’s fall-away three-pointer with 3 seconds left in regulation in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game. Grace: a pear, an apple, and three peaches despite the fact of the plum tree we left unplanted. Grace: “All things which come to us as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves.” (To paraphrase Richard Fewkes)

Whenever I introduce the Flower Communion Ritual I like to encourage everyone to take a flower whether you have brought one to contribute or not. To take, even if you have not brought, is a lesson in grace. I like to say that our flowers have the magical power to do a fish and loaves, feeding of the multitudes, type of thing… which, by the way, is also a story about grace.

Maybe it is the theologian in me… Maybe it is the poet in me… Maybe it is the romantic in me (as reluctant as I often can be to admit that such a romantic resides within me)… but whatever it is, I have found myself in an encounter with beauty and grace, a beauty I certainly did not create and a grace to which I have no rights of entitlement in particular. It is possible to understand grace in a theistic sense or in a naturalistic sense or in a humanistic sense. All I know is that I have profit from beauty I did not create.

This is the way of community, incidentally. Like Norbert Capek pointed out when he used Spring flowers as a metaphor for the gifts we give to and receive from community, community can be a source of grace and often we receive more than we put in. Like fishes and loaves… like our flowers that seem to magically multiply… somehow we are part and party to something greater than the sum of what everyone puts in. Somehow.

There is a line by Albert Camus that I have always thought of as deeply inspirational. Camus writes, “In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible Summer.” This quote, I can’t help but think has something to do with the willingness to appreciate and apprehend beauty.

And that is what is we are going to do in just a second or two with our Flower Communion liturgy. I find that it works best when we pass the baskets through the congregation. When you receive a basket select out a flower for your neighbor. Give your neighbor the gift of that flower, and offer your neighbor a blessing: “Please accept this gift of grace and beauty.” I invite you to participate.