Sunday, June 02, 2013

Homily: "Lily, Lotus, Sunflower" (Delivered 6-2-13)

Call to Worship
In the New Testament, Jesus teaches, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  Lilies, Jesus says, remind us to live in the immediate present.

In the Hebrew Bible, in the Song of Solomon, flowers symbolize love and sensuality.  The beloved calls, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.”  The lover answers, “As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens.”

In Hinduism the word for devotional worship, Puja, can be translated as “the flower act.”  In Hinduism the lotus flower is evoked as a symbol of eternity, purity, divinity, youth, and abundant life.  In Buddhism the lotus also symbolizes enlightenment and transcendence.

Marigolds are commonly found at Hindu weddings and in Mexico they are the flower associated with the spirits of deceased ancestors.

In Catholicism the word “rosary” literally means a crown or garland of roses, and the rose is commonly associated with the Virgin Mary.

In Unitarian Universalism we gather each year for our Flower Communion ceremony.  Eclectic, diverse as we are, we welcome almost any flower from amaryllis and aster to zinnia and Zantedeschia.  Together the common bouquet of our gathering is our e pluribus unum, our one out of many.  On our annual Flower Communion Sunday, come, let us worship together!


Reading
The reading comes from the poem “Sunflower Sutra” by Allen Ginsberg.  You can read an unedited (and uncensored) version of the poem here.

I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and
sat down under the huge shade of a Southern
Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the
box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron
pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts
of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed,
surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of
machinery.
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun
sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that
stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves
rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums
on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray
shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting
dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust--
--I rushed up enchanted--it was my first sunflower,
memories of Blake
[…]
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset,
crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog
and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye--
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like
a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face,
soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays
obliterated on its hairy head like a dried
wire spiderweb,
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures
from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster
fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O
my soul, I loved you then!
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent
lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye
to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited
grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden
monthly breeze!
[…]
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck
it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack's soul
too, and anyone who'll listen,
--We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening
sitdown vision.


Homily
On the morning of our Flower Communion, I want to talk to you a little bit about Jesus’ lilies, Buddha’s lotus, and Allen Ginsberg’s sunflower.  (One of these religious texts is not like the others.)

Jesus’ line about considering the lilies of the field is found in his Sermon on the Mount, a powerful preaching about our duties to the divine and to each other.  It is a subversive speech.  It overturns commonly held ideals about justice, piety, faith, power, and fairness.  It is a revolutionary speech.  It asks us to disrupt the way society is ordered, and the way we, in our own lives, mimic the conventional values of society.  It is a message of powerful resistance.

Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth.  Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?... And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?...  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” [Matthew 6:24-30]

Jesus is calling on us to resist an economic system that diminishes our lives and to embrace instead a radical vision of sharing and gratitude in the here and now.  Even the excessive wealth of Solomon pales in comparison to the simplicity of the lilies of the field.

In Buddhism, the Lotus flower represents enlightenment and the capacity to rise above, to transcend, the world of attachment and suffering.  In Buddhist iconography, the Buddha is often represented seated on top of the lotus flower.  In yoga, the lotus position with legs crossed and each foot resting atop the thigh of the opposite leg, is a favored posture for meditation.  In Northern India, near the site where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, there is a raised platform in the Mahabodhi Temple decorated with carved lotus flowers.  According to legend, on this site the Buddha paced in meditation and each place he stepped a lotus flower representing enlightenment would rise up from the ground and bloom.

Botanically speaking, the lotus is a most peculiar flower.  Lotus plants grow best in dirty, muddy, mucky water.  Yet they rise above the muck and the mire and appear separate and distinct.  Its petals are always clean and pristine.  Lotus petals were actually studied under a microscope and the petals were found to be one of the most water resistant surfaces in the natural world.  Water on a lotus petal beads up and runs off, washing away any speck of dirt or dust with it.  Like water off a duck’s back, like water off a lotus flower.  The lotus flower, in its symbolism and in its biology, is a flower of resistance.

In the poem “Sunflower Sutra,” its title a play on the Buddhist sacred text “The Lotus Sutra,” beat poet Allen Ginsberg describes watching a sunset with Jack Kerouac near San Francisco’s port.  They sit in the shadow of a giant locomotive.  The air is hazy with the smog and smut of coal smoke.  A film of oil covers the stream.  The landscape is dotted with rusted, gnarled metal.  They see a lone Sunflower, in a pitiful state, standing defiantly amidst the pollution.  Ginsberg writes,

We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset,

The sunflower in this sutra is a symbol of defiance, a symbol of the soul’s resistance.  “We’re not our skin of grime.”  Lotus-like, we can repel bleak, dusty, dreadfulness if we choose to do so.  We can cultivate the spiritual equivalent of the sunflower’s heliotropism, an affinity to face in the direction of light, attentiveness to the sources of life amidst the muck and the mire of life.  The sunflower is a flower of resistance.  It is rebellious, radical, dissident.

So it is that we see – across different faiths, from Jesus’ Judaism, to Buddha’s awakening, to the Beats’ soulful take on the American spirit – across centuries and millennia – across continents and hemispheres – a spirit of remaking our world in a different way, of remaking ourselves.  We hear a message urging us to resist common habits and conventional attitudes that diminish life and stand in the way of what Jesus would call heaven, what Buddha would call enlightenment, and what Ginsberg would call soul.

In just a few minutes, as we hold our flower communion ceremony, and you are invited to come forward to select a flower, I am going to invite you to consider the lilies of the field, to consider what life would be like following Jesus’ teaching:  “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”  Consider this.  Consider how this would change your life.  Consider what Jesus is calling us to resist.

As you are invited to come forward to select a flower, I am going to invite you to consider the lotus.  Consider what attachments, fixations, habits of thought and behavior cake to your life like mud.  Consider what spirituality would allow you blossom and bloom above the muck, water off a duck’s back, dirt off a lotus flower.

As you are invited to come forward to select a flower, I am going to invite you to consider the sunflower.  Consider what it would take to have a “sweet natural eye to the new hip moon” to boldly exclaim, “We’re not our skin of grime.”

Consider how faith is challenging you to live.