Jesus once said, “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.” Of course, Buddha took a simpler approach. He once offered a message that tradition has called the Flower Sermon. The Buddha did not say a word. All he did was hold up a single flower. Not everyone in the crowd understood the point he was making but it is said that at least one person reached enlightenment.
To be honest, I’m not completely sure I know what point he was trying to make either. Perhaps the Buddha was trying to say the same thing Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “The roses under my window make no reference to former roses or better ones; they are what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.”
As someone who spent three years in theology school I can tell you the history of religion is full of a lot of references to former roses; the poets, prophets and preachers of the ancient past. Along these lines, I once had a friend who went to visit a historic church in our denomination but walked away disappointed. When I asked about her experience she said “the congregation seemed to be a group of people who worshiped their own antiquity.” Ouch! And yet this is one of the great challenges of any church with a noble history including our own – we must avoid the temptation to worship our own antiquity.
The poet Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem called May Flower about how Nature reminds us to place our reverence for the past in its proper perspective.
Pink, small, and punctual,
Covert in April,
Candid in May,
Dear to the moss,
Known by the knoll,
Next to the robin
In every human soul.
Bold little beauty,
Bedecked with thee,
Nature forswears antiquity. When we walk through a garden in springtime we do not see any of the former roses. We see flowers that are blooming today. The color and variety of flora preach to us with their mere presence saying, “Live now! Forswear antiquity! Live today!”
Have you ever noticed that very powerful women are often named after flowers? Susan B Anthony helped launch the women’s rights movement in this country and was instrumental in getting women the right to vote. Susan is the Hebrew word for lily. This gives a whole new meaning to the words, “Consider the lilies of the field” doesn’t it?
Rosa Parks launched the civil rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa is the Latin word for Rose. Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian from Michigan became a martyr to the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. Viola is Latin for violet.
Recently, I was reading an article about a young Muslim climate change activist from Michigan who has instrumental in organizing people of color in her community. Her name is Zaynab Elkolaly and she lives not far from the city of Flint where the public water supply has been tainted by lead poisoning. She recently told the media, “The climate movement young people have been fighting for their lives…We’re disrupting the status quo, so we cannot go around doing business as usual. We have to literally dismantle the systems in place. So it’s not going to be comfortable.” Zaynab is Arabic for flowering tree.
The flower can be a powerful revolutionary symbol. In the Ukraine, the floral crown associated with wedding ceremonies has now become a symbol of resistance to tyranny and oppression.
In Hinduism flowers are said to share a likeness to God. The lotus is associated with the goddess Lakshmi, the red hibiscus with the goddess Kali, palash with the goddess Saraswati. The ancient French word for “likeness to God” is Michelle. I mention this because Michele Pfeffer, of blessed memory, was a young adult instrumental in starting our congregation’s environmental concerns committee in 2005. If you walk around the grounds of this church you can see how her work continues even after her untimely death. You can walk through our community garden that is an outdoor classroom and a source of food for people in need. You can walk past our compost piles to get to the top of the hill where you can see the solar panels on our roof. Walking around the inside of our building you can see our recycling containers, our skylights and our energy efficient lightbulbs. Less visible is all the rewiring we did to lower our carbon footprint. Eco-theologians tell us that when we protect the earth then we share a likeness to God. Michelle lived that faith.
After today’s service we invite you to come to a conversation in the Lizzie Crozier French room to learn more about what our congregation has done and how to get involved in making a difference for the environment. Suffice it to say that the conversation will not be only about our noble past but our work in the present moment. In Hinduism, our relationship to the earth is seen as the dance of Shiva, the dance of creation and destruction. Native American tradition teaches that we must “walk in balance.” So as a congregation our goal is to find balance so that our destruction never overtakes creation.
A few years back I went to a gardening show in France and I walked through one garden where I noticed a lot of red flowers. I must have walked through the section backwards because it wasn’t until the end that I saw the description of the exhibit which was called “Le Pouvoir Des Sorcière,” the power of witches. In France even the gardeners are philosophers and so they offered this detailed philosophical explanation of their garden. “Women were known as healers and benevolent mediators between humankind and nature before they were demonized as witches. This demonization of the feminine has led to a way of living that is destructive to both flora and fauna. The flowers in this garden have medicinal properties and can be used to heal people, calling us back to a more benevolent relationship with nature by making good use of the power of flowers. The many red flowers symbolizes the power of women’s blood.” The description of that garden gives a whole new meaning to the hymn, “There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood…” With a few tweaks feminist theologians could create a new hymn.
In the Canary Islands there is a flower known as the Marguerite Daisy and in Unitarian Universalism we have a spiritual ancestor known as Margaret Fuller who presaged the 20th declaration that “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.” She also spoke to the spectrum of gender identity when she wrote, “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” Indeed, the term witches is not limited to women. It has been a label put on anyone willing to be healers, willing to mediate between humanity and nature, willing to work to see all living things flourish.
In the 1960’s people spoke a lot about “flower power,” and one of those powers is the medicinal quality of flowers and plants. For instance rose petals can be eaten in salads and are a good source of vitamin C. Rose hips can be placed in teas that soothe sore throats. Saint John’s Wort is a flowering herb that can serve as a mild antidepressant. Jasmine can be used to treat an upset stomach and improve digestion. Hyssop can improve rheumatism and arthritis. Violets can be turned into a syrup that can ease respiratory problems. Lavender can help in the treatment of insomnia. I could go on and on.
Throughout human history powerful women, healers and revolutionary leaders, have been named after flowers. In 1912 labor activist Rose Schneiderman gave a speech that inspired the creation of a labor song Bread and Roses, a song we will sing together later in this service. She said, “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art…The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
Last week I helped a family grieve the loss of their mother and bury her body in the ground in a graveyard on a very steep Appalachian hillside and as I drove away from the grave after the ceremony I couldn’t help but notice that just beside the road, where not many people might notice, there were tulips blooming in the afternoon sun, purple, yellow and red. For a brief moment they commanded my full attention. Nothing else was on my mind. I can only describe that moment as a personal flower communion. When we lose someone words are not enough. When we are grieving words are not enough. At such moments what we may need most is a flower sermon.
The Buddha gave his flower sermon many centuries ago. You may not know this but the word Buddha has its roots in the words “to bud” to blossom, to bloom, to flourish. So consider the lilies of the field and the roses and the violets. Consider the trillium, the iris and the columbine. Consider the blue flox, the flaming azalea, the morning glory and the wild hydrangea. Consider the tulips and choose to live today.
(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday April 24, 2022)