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The Courage of Wildflowers – 6/17/2013

It is said that the teacher Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field and how they grow; they neither work nor spin. Yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”[i] It is very common to think of flowers in this way: as things that are beautiful for the sake of being beautiful, and for no other reason at all. But the qualities of flowers that we might think of as empty beauty: their colors and fragrances, actually serve important functions. By being colorful and smelly, flowers attract animals, and those animals spread the pollen from those flowers around, and that helps to make more flowers grow. The lilies of the field are actually working quite hard; their prettiness has a purpose.

The native peoples of Australia tell a story about a time when all the flowers disappeared, and the fields and hillsides were bare. It was a terrible loss not only because all that natural beauty was gone, but also because the bees left along with the flowers, and without the bees there was no more honey to be found. The children were particularly upset by this. So the elders went on a long journey, and found their way up into heaven, into the sky. That place was filled with flowers blooming everywhere. They returned to earth with some of those flowers from heaven, and planted them here, and everything that blossoms and blooms came from this. What is true for flowers and plants is true for all that lives: everything owes itself to something that came before.

Today we celebrate the flower communion, this ritual of bringing flowers to church and exchanging them, because of Norbert Capek. Norbert was the founder of the Unitarian Church of Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia. He devised this ritual to feed the religious impulse of his congregation, that dimension of the human spirit that is fed by ritual and symbol, and he did this somewhat against their own inclination. Most of them had had enough of traditional religion, and were content to hear him give moral and philosophical lectures each week – but Norbert believed his people needed habits and practices to share in and to shape their community.

Thousands of miles and three-quarters of a century away, most Unitarian Universalist congregations in America hold some version of this ritual in the spring or early summer each year. The practice is almost a miniature dramatization of how we function as a spiritual community. Each of us lives in the world with our own stories and experiences. We gain from our living fragments of wisdom and insight, small and beautiful. Coming together into a congregation, these pieces form a great bouquet – a rich mixture of color and shape. There is a collective beauty that deepens the value of each individual blossom. Then, as we set out to return to our separate places, we take with us new insight, new beauty: new flowers.

In a greenhouse or a garden, flowers grow on command, or at least, the will of some human being is among their prerequisites. A total lack of skill at horticulture (such as I possess) may prevent them from growing, but the reverse is not true. No gift or merit will cause a neat and ordered garden to spring up for you: it takes effort. In the wild, however, things are different. The unpredictable, anarchic paintbrush of petals drips its color wherever windblown seeds and unseen shoots find purchase. Sometimes this makes for a good home: enough sun, enough water, little danger to new growth, and sometimes it does not. The courage of wildflowers is in their persistence: they appear and return again and again in the most desolate and improbable places. In the ashen wake of a forest fire, in the jagged crack in a patch of asphalt, on a scrap of earth only briefly beyond the reach of the sea, flowers bloom. One may wither or choke, but others may spring forth thereafter.

Norbert Capek created the ritual we celebrate this morning, but if it had only been for him, we would not be practicing it now. Norbert believed in the dignity and value of all human beings, and the rights of all people to live and live free. In Central Europe, at the outbreak of World War II, such ideas became things that one could be arrested, jailed, or even killed for. Sometimes in this world, it can be a dangerous thing to bloom: to show forth who and what you are, to grow into the fullest expression of your own true self. People won’t always like your colors; some of them may decide they don’t like you. So it was with Norbert.

While he did not survive the war, his wife, Maja, did. She was traveling in the United States when the fighting started. She couldn’t return home, so she did what she could here, rallying support for her country and building connections with American Unitarians. She is the one who taught this ritual to the first of our churches in this country. Each year, the practice renews like a blooming perennial, and it was Maja who first scattered the seeds.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus makes his point about the lilies of the field by asking, “If this is how God clothes the grass, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will God clothe you?”[ii] The courage of wildflowers prompts us with a similar question: “If this is how bold and determined, a frail, delicate plant is prepared to be, how much more should I be willing to risk myself, in order to be myself?” We human beings blossom when we are our best selves: when we live, and love, and work, and dream, and believe according to what is most true in us. Not because it makes us indestructible, not because there is no risk involved, not because it is easy but because it is hard. Because without our determination to unfold our lives despite the costs, there would be less color, and fragrance, and beauty in the world. Like everything else that lives, we are here to grow. May each of us be courageous and persistent, my friends, in our flowering work.

[i] Matthew 6:28-29

[ii] Matthew 6:30


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