I want to begin by mentioning one particular poem by Billy Collins, the former US poet laureate and a favorite poet of many members of this church. In his exquisite poem Litany, Collins strings together a list, a litany, of increasingly unusual and unlikely metaphors. [Click here to check out an unlikely recitation of the poem.] But, Collins begins his poem in more familiar territory, opening with the lines, “You are the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine.”
Bread and wine. These are universal archetypal images. (As are the chalice and the blade, for that matter, but that’s a different sermon for a different time.) These are objects with deep metaphorical resonance, especially in the Christian tradition: Take, eat, this is my body; take, drink, this is my blood; loaves multiplied; water into wine. And, especially in the Jewish tradition: the challah bread and wine on the Shabbat table; the matzo and four glasses of wine during the Passover Seder. And the deep metaphorical importance of bread and wine is by no means limited to the Jewish and Christian traditions.
I was led to reflect on metaphors that are used to symbolize communion for two different reasons this week. One of those reasons is obvious. Today is our Flower Communion and it would be helpful to say something about its meaning. The other reason – pardon my digression, this will come around eventually – has to do with hearing about the news from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church which was held in Tampa, Florida, this past week. Delegates from America’s largest mainline denomination come together every four years to debate and vote on changing the official positions of the church. This past week the Methodist General Conference took up the issue of making the denomination’s stance on homosexuality less discriminatory. Attempts to make the denomination’s teachings more welcoming and inclusive were soundly rejected.
Over the last decade and a half, we’ve witnessed several American Mainline denominations including the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans take at least small steps in the direction of inclusion and welcome, but those steps were taken with considerable pain and deep conflict. There is a great temptation to brag about Unitarian Universalism here. After all, our UU General Assembly has been passing resolutions of inclusion and acceptance for gays and lesbians since before I was born. We were decades ahead of our time! And, unlike seemingly every other denomination, we passed each resolution without divisiveness or hostility, and without people being nasty to each other.
In all honesty I have to tell you that I do not enjoy attending the business meetings of our religious movement. It requires a type of patience with which I have not been blessed. But, when I go I thank my lucky stars that this faith tradition is not stuck in deep and hurtful conflict. My deepest fear is that I will become bored, not that the humanity of my friends will be questioned. We don’t debate the exclusion of entire classes of people. This is as it should be.
Unfortunately, it is not how all organizations operate. Institutions can use their bureaucracies and by-laws to inflict harm. Institutions can use their policies, procedures, practices, and processes to wound. Power can be withheld or wielded destructively. Organizations can become bullies. Again, I bring up our tradition for comparison not to brag, though perhaps a little bragging is healthy. No, rather, I find the capacity of institutions and systems to inflict pain and to dehumanize others to be sobering. It is important to me that we don’t do that.
This past week, I was struck by an image from the United Methodist General Conference. This is where I bring us back from the digression. Following the vote at the Methodist General Conference to uphold the church’s discriminatory teaching, a group of activists and protesters occupied and shut down the meeting. They rose up and marched in. Their singing filled the assembly hall. They gathered in the very center of the room. In the very center of the room, the activists celebrated communion. A loaf of bread and a chalice of wine. I can hardly think of a more powerful symbolic act. The communion table is an open table is a welcome table. Jesus fed the multitude, and who was turned away? The water became wine and who was not invited to rejoice?
No matter how different, distinct, or diverse, still welcomed. No matter how unique or individual, still included. That what those protesters were saying. That's what our UU denomination has been saying for more than forty years.
We’re told that the Unitarian Church in Prague in the 1920s and 30s was made up mostly of former Catholics. We’re told that a good number of these Czech Unitarians, in fleeing from their faith background, sought the opposite in their new religious home. We’re told that the Unitarian Church in Prague did away with robes and vestments, ornate decorations, the formal liturgy with prescribed prayers, and the practice of communion. We can imagine that such a rejection of the old ways was partly reactionary. But, we can also imagine that this was done out of worry that these rites and rituals would become corrupted by abuses of power or by an in-group mentality. They feared that they would wind up pushing others away. And then Norbert Capek had the idea of bringing back ritual, of holding a flower festival in which everyone would bring a flower, place them together in a common bouquet, and then receive a different flower than the one they had shared.
As far as metaphorical significance goes, flowers are right up there with bread and wine. They are potent symbols of life’s passages, from cradle to grave: the single rose at the child dedication, the corsage, the wedding bouquet, the get-well flowers sent to the hospital room, the flower arrangement at the memorial service. They can represent joy or grief, heart-pounding sensuality or calming compassion, life or death.
The beauty of the Christian communion service, when it is done right, is its generous, open-handed welcome. As one hymn that we have in our hymnal puts it, “O come you longing thirsty souls, drink freely from the spring. And come, you weary famished folk, and end your hungering. Why spend yourself on empty air? Why not be satisfied? For everywhere a feast is spread that’s always at our side.”
The flower festival, the flower communion, is beautiful in its own right as well. The bouquet we become together is tremendously rich, spectacular and complex. The bouquet comes into being because each person is willing to contribute a bit of their beauty, their joy, their sorrow. The bouquet comes into being because each person has shared freely of themselves, their own shape and style and personality. The bouquet comes into being because each person is willing to share their gifts, their unique contributions to community. The bouquet comes into being because of each person’s willingness to come together in community. And, in such giving we are also invited to receive, to be blessed by the gifts and lives and stories and beauty and generosity of each other.
If we return to that Billy Collins poem, we might become inspired enough to write out lists of metaphors.
You are the peony, friendly and loud and bubbling out into the world.
You are the daisy, shy and quiet and blending into the crowd.
You are the iris, elegant and also a little delicate.
You are the rose, your life full of complex layers and a few thorns.
You are the daffodil and tulip, early and always leading the way.
And on, and on, and on.
Different, unique, diverse. Absolutely included. Absolutely welcomed.