Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Homily: "In Lieu of Flowers" (Delivered 6-7-09)

Flowers mark our lives:

As babies, when we are dedicated in a Unitarian Universalist Church, we are presented with a flower, a symbol of our inherent beauty and individuality.

In the games of childhood we sing about pockets full of posies; make dandelion chains, and pluck petals from daisies to augur whether we are loved or loved not.

In our adolescence, proms and cotillions involve the wearing of a corsage or a boutonniere.

And then there are weddings. Many wedding processions include a flower girl; many brides choose to carry a bouquet. Some couples decide to include the artistry of an elaborate flower arrangement—or several! Following many religious wedding ceremonies are secular wedding celebrations and these often include the tossing of the bouquet. (I think we can all be glad that Norbert Capek created the flower communion and not the garter communion.)

Later in life, flowers take on a different meaning. They are less the symbols of forward-facing celebrations. Increasingly they are the symbols of compassion and sympathy. Flowers adorn hospital rooms and are an unspoken gesture of comfort to another person in a time of grief and sadness. In our own church, each December, two of our members call on a dozen or so persons within our congregation, visiting and bringing a poinsettia plant to spread cheer.

At life’s end, we gather at memorial services. The presence of flowers is universal. In fact, flowers are so much an expected part of the memorial service that it is now almost as common for a grieving family to stipulate their wishes with a common phrase: “In Lieu of Flowers.”

About seven years ago, one of the Unitarian Universalist congregations in Tulsa decided to commission an exquisite watercolor painting from a nationally known artist. They charged the artist with presenting a visual representation of our UU faith. The final painting contained at least twenty symbolic elements, representing such disparate concepts as the place of the democratic process in our voluntary associations, the delicate balance between liberty and justice, the evolving nature of our theology including our own role in “building our own theology,” our connection with Transylvanian Unitarianism, and our theology of death. However, in this painting, the most central element is an enormous, extravagant flower arrangement.

The arrangement is held by a clear glass vase. The vase represents the institution of the church. It is clear glass because our religion is not a place where we are sealed off from the outside world; instead, our religion compels us to look outwardly, to see the truth of the world, and our religion bids us to go forth and live lives of purpose and calling, compassion and consequence.

The vase holds water, which in the painting symbolizes what some call God or the Spirit of Life. The water is a symbol of that which gives us life abundant, refreshes our spirits and our minds, and restores and nourishes us. The water escapes our attempt to grasp it fully. It is what Rudolph Otto called “numinous.”

Out of this water, contained by the vase, explodes such an extravagant bouquet. Each flower, a person. Each flower, different and unique. Each flower, contributing a part to the whole. The arrangement demonstrates the power of diversity; we would be something less if each of us were a carnation. We would be something less if any flower was missing. You can play with this metaphor in your own mind.

Standing apart from the great bouquet, there is a tiny blue vase that holds a single, yellow tulip. This stand-alone flower, differentiated, is a reminder that in community we do not lose our own individuality. And this tension between individuality and community is a reality about which I could preach a dozen sermons and still not exhaust what there is to say on the subject.

But, this tension is one that I want to begin to explore, however briefly, in the remaining time that has been given to me this morning. When Norbert Capek consecrated the flowers at the first Flower Communion he called forth a blessing upon them with these words, “Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these thy messengers of fellowship and love. May they remind us, amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection and devotion to thy holy will.”

I’ve always thought that calling flowers, quote, “thy messengers of fellowship and love” was very cute, very precious, and darling. But as I recounted the ways we use flowers to mark the passages in our lives, I could see how flowers actually are messengers of fellowship and love. That’s exactly what they are whether you bring them when you are showing up for a date, or carrying poinsettias with you on your house calls.

But, the flowers also, symbolically, become us. In the painting from the Tulsa church, the flowers are not flowers; they are people. We become the messengers of fellowship and love, called to be one in desire and affection and devotion.

And thus, I want to offer you all a few words of challenge this morning. While it is necessary to strike some balance between life in the elaborate spray of the bouquet, and life in solitude standing alone, living in the way of the tulip becomes a life lived very much “in lieu of flowers.” According to the theology of this painting, the bouquet does not lessen the individual. In fact, the bouquet may sharpen our distinctiveness. The sunflower is not any less a sunflower because it is positioned next to a rose.

In a frequent reading in the back of our hymnal, George Odell writes that we need one another. He writes about needing one another when we are mourning and needful of comfort, when we are in trouble or afraid, and when we are in despair or temptation or need to be recalled to our best selves again.

This morning, thanks to the leadership and the perseverance of our Intern Minister, and thanks to the willingness of more than a dozen of our members to commit, we are better able as a community to comfort one another in mourning, and be present to each other in times of despair. Just as our own second principle calls on us to show compassion in human relations, our third principle asks each of us to encourage one another to spiritual growth. George Odell continues by saying that we not only need one another in times of personal struggle and hardship, but that we also need one another, "when we would accomplish some great purpose and cannot do it alone."

When we would accomplish some great purpose and cannot do it alone… if we swing too far to the side of the single yellow tulip, at the expense of the bouquet, we forsake our ability to work for those great purposes that we are too small to work for alone.

This morning also includes the opportunity for us to enter into a bouquet relationship, not only with one another, but with other congregations across Johnson and Wyandotte County for the purposes of community organizing in order to improve health care. Indeed, we need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose and cannot do it alone. We are in need of others and others are in need of us.

This morning we have participated in a communion of flowers. We have reminded ourselves of how they have been, through our entire lives, messengers of fellowship and love. Like them, let us also carry forth the message of compassion and commitment, of encouragement and justice, of fellowship and love. May it ever be so.