“Flower Communion: Learning to Love Dandelions”
Rev. Tony Larsen
May 24, 2020
Intro to Flower Service/Opening Words
Many UU churches today celebrate Flower Communion, which was developed by Norbert Capek, a famous Unitarian from what is now the Czech Republic.
He has an interesting story, which I'd like to briefly recount for you. He was born in 1870 (150 years ago) in Southern Bohemia and became a Baptist minister there, and eventually the head of all the Baptist churches in Czechoslovakia. But he found their teachings too narrow and eventually left the ministry to become a journalist. But a number of articles he wrote about the coming of World War One angered the government, so he had to leave the country and came to the United States in the 1920s. While visiting a Unitarian church in New Jersey, he realized his beliefs were more in line with Unitarianism, so he studied to become a Unitarian minister.
When the U. S. entered the war, he served in the U.S. Army Intelligence Department. After that he came back to his homeland and founded the Unitarian movement in Czechoslovakia, which grew to be about 10,000 members--5,000 of them in his own church in Prague (probably the largest church we UUs ever had in the world--our first and last mega-church!).
When the Nazis invaded his country and took it over, Capek's books and sermons were confiscated, and he was sent to various concentration camps, including Dachau, where he was executed in 1942. According to prisoners of those camps who survived, Capek was a great inspiration and helped many others survive and keep hope.
Now, when Rev. Capek started the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia, he was looking for a symbol that could unite people from different backgrounds. He thought about a communion of bread and wine, but realized it might not work for people of Jewish background. (You see, he had people joining his church who were Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant.) He wanted something that could unite everybody, so he came up with a living communion, a communion of flowers. He asked each parishioner to come to church with a flower and put them all together in a vase, and then take a different one home. And so the symbol of the Czechoslovakian Unitarian Church became a vase with flowers.
During Dr. Capek's life (he got a doctorate of divinity degree from Meadville Theological School in Chicago--which is where I went to seminary)--he wrote the words and melodies to over 90 hymns. In fact, Czech Baptists still sing many of them, and there are 3 in our own hymnbook. One of them, which you'll be hearing later, is "Mother Spirit, Father Spirit," which addresses God as both male and female--a fairly radical notion at the time Capek wrote it. (You'll hear it sung after Joys and Sorrows.)
Now, in honor of Norbert Capek, founder of Unitarianism in the Czech Republic, AND founder of the UU Flower Communion ceremony that we celebrate today--we kindle this chalice flame (reciting the words Norbert Capek wrote):
Unison Chalice Lighting Words (Norbert Capek)
In the name of sages and great religious leaders
who sacrificed their lives
to hasten the coming of the age of mutual respect ...
let us renew our resolution
to be real brothers and sisters
regardless of any kind of bar
which estranges us from each other...
knowing that one spirit,
the spirit of love, unites us.
Introduction to Joys and Sorrows
The Gospel of Matthew says: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin and yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" Mt. 6:28-29).
And Kabir, the 15th-century mystic of northern India--respected in his lifetime by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs--wrote these words: "Don't go outside your house to see flowers. My friend, don't bother with that excursion. Inside your body there are flowers. One flower has a thousand petals. That will do for a place to sit. Sitting there, you will have a glimpse of beauty inside the body and outside, before gardens and after gardens."
As we share our joys and sorrows, let us remember the beauty each one of us brings to the world we live in. Our personalities, as different as they are, are like the different-colored flowers that make up a bouquet. We do not have to have the same gifts and talents to make up a vase of blossoms; all we have to do is respect the gifts we have, and the gifts others bring, and give thanks for the garden. So, instead of our usual custom of lighting candles for joys and sorrows, we will see the pictures of flowers you have sent in: each picture beautiful on its own, but even more beautiful when joined together (like a garden).
Sharing of Joys and Sorrows
Moment of Silence
Since this is Memorial Day weekend, a time when we remember those who died in war, and sometimes put flowers on veterans' graves, let one flower represent our gratitude for ALL who struggled in war or in peace. We raise up, on the altar of our hearts, a flower of memory and hope, to guide our weary steps in the paths of peace.
Let us have a moment of silence.
Sermon: “Learning to Love Dandelions”
The title for today's sermon is "Learning to Love Dandelions." It comes from a story I once read (that may or may not be true, but I've read it in a number of places).
It's about a man who always had a heavy crop of dandelions on his lawn, and he tried everything he could think of to get rid of them. But he just couldn't. So he wrote to an agricultural college (sometimes the story says it was the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or a state agency of some kind). Anyway, he wrote to some botanical authority and told them about all the remedies he had tried (to stamp out the dandelions) and ended his letter with "What should I do now?" A couple weeks later he got this reply: "Dear Sir, We suggest that you learn to love them."
So what might there be to love about dandelions? For that I give you the UU minister Robert Fulghum, in his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten:
"I like dandelions a lot. They cover my yard each spring with fine yellow flowers. The young leaves make a spicy salad. The flowers add a fine flavor and elegant color to a classic light wine. Toast the roots, grind and brew, and you have a palatable coffee. The tenderest shoots make a tonic tea. The dried mature leaves are high in iron, vitamins A and C and make a good laxative. Bees favor dandelions, and the cooperative result is high-class honey...
“If dandelions were rare and fragile, people would knock themselves out to pay $14.95 a plant, raise them by hand in greenhouses, and form dandelion societies and all that. But they are everywhere, so we call them ‘weeds.’ Well, I say they are flowers, by God, and pretty fine flowers at that. Besides, in addition to every other good thing about them, they are magic. When the flower turns to seed, you can blow them off the stem, and if you blow just right and all those little helicopters fly away, you get your wish. Magic. ...
“And if all that isn't enough, consider this: Dandelions are free. Nobody ever complains about your picking them. You can have all you can carry away. Some weed!" (pp. 68-69 in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten)
As one of our Unitarian forebears once put it (Ralph Waldo Emerson): A weed is just "a plant whose virtues have never been discovered."
In other words, the difference between a weed and a flower is our judgment.
You can see this pretty clearly if you've ever had children or grandchildren. I remember once visiting a church family, and their 3-year-old son was out collecting dandelions from their lawn as a bouquet for his mom. And he was just so pleased that there were so many of these beautiful golden flowers. He gave me one too and you could see the joy in his eyes as he gave me what he obviously considered a treasure.
You know, if you don't tell them otherwise, kids think dandelions are flowers. It's only adults who see them as weeds.
Someone even told me once that her daughter came home one day and said, "Mom, you should see Jamie's house. They have an even better dandelion garden than we do.”
Now, to be honest, I don't care that much whether you have a lawn worthy of the Green Bay Packers (you know, half gold, half green). I don't care whether you grow dandelions to make wine or salad or coffee (or laxatives?), or whether you pull them up whenever you can (as Craig and I always did when he had grass). (That's grass as in lawn.)
My only point is that dandelions--like so many other things in our lives--are given their value by us. And so they might as well stand in for all the things in our lives that appear to be weeds--but which we might find valuable if we looked more carefully.
There was actually an example of this in my local paper a few years ago. There was an article by Sara Moulton (who's a cooking expert on the Food Network) on how to handle food emergencies at Thanksgiving. It was called "Got a Holiday Kitchen Disaster? We've Got a Fix for That." Sara Moulton pointed out that good food doesn't have to come from a well-managed recipe. You can make delicious dishes from your mistakes too.
For example (she says) "Did your souffle fall? Call it a pudding cake and serve it anyway.
Are your cookies too burnt to hand out as is? Crumble them over ice cream.
Cake too dry? Drizzle it with strawberry sauce and call it shortcake.
Brussel's sprouts too burned and dry? Mix them in with mashed potatoes, and they make a healthy, tasty treat."
O.K. That's cooking mishaps. But now consider some other events in our lives that we are sometimes too quick to label as good or bad.
For example: Hearing a piece of music performed poorly--yet you know it's being played valiantly or with enthusiasm or even love--and you can see the beauty in that, if not in the sound itself.
Or saying something stupid and making a fool of yourself--but finding that your friends still love you despite that, and maybe even a little because of that. (There's actually a word for people whose failings makes them more endearing. It's a combination of dork and adorable: Adorkable.)
Having your feelings hurt--but you learn something from that experience (maybe about how you come across to others)--which has a positive effect on your life.
In fact, I can name three people whose lives were changed for the better by hearing something critical about themselves.
The comedian Billy Crystal, who was told that his early comedy routine--while it made the audience laugh--didn't take any personal risks, so it was forgettable. The words stung, but his comedy changed as a result.
The TV anchor Tom Brokaw, who was coasting along in college until a professor he respected told him he should just drop out because his life wasn't amounting to anything. That wake-up call completely changed his life.
Actor Sidney Poitier, who failed so badly at an audition that the man in charge said, "Don't waste our time. Get a job you can handle, like being a dishwasher or something." Sidney Poitier was a dishwasher, and he thought: How did that guy know? I'm gonna prove that guy wrong. And, as you all know, he did!
All of these are dandelion experiences--that is, things that can be seen as weeds OR flowers (and more often as weeds at first, and only with time and thought do you realize they were actually blossoms). But knowing that what we first see as weeds can turn out be flowers, reminds us that the value of a thing may be more in here than out there; and that we are the ones with the power to determine something's meaning and value in the long run.
The last thing I want to say is that there may be a lot of people around you who appear to be dandelions. Whether family members, co-workers, neighbors, church members--they may appear obnoxious at times, and sometimes it seems you have nothing in common, and you can't believe how ignorant and blind they can be.
And what's even harder to stomach is that some of them actually think you are the dandelion! But if you really want to stretch yourself this Flower Communion Sunday, see whether you can learn to love the dandelions who live or work--or are simply related--to you.
You know, when I was a student minister many years ago (in Rockford, Illinois), a member there started telling me about a problem she was having with someone, but in the middle of her story she stopped and said: "Oh, you wouldn't understand--you like everyone!"
There was something biting in her tone; I felt accused; and I sputtered in defense that it wasn't true that I liked everybody--there were people I disliked too (only, none of them would come to mind at the moment).
For some time after, I felt there must be something wrong with me for having such pedestrian taste. But I've come to accept this "flaw" in myself. And in case you have this flaw--or would like to get this flaw--I want to briefly tell you this morning about the benefits of having no taste in friends.
First of all, let me say something about why we dislike people in the first place. One reason, of course, is that some people are jerks, right? That's one reason we dislike people. But there are a couple other reasons too.
1) We may dislike others because it helps us feel good, or better than they are.
2) We may dislike others because we know they dislike us (or we think they might dislike us if they got to know us)--so we dislike them first to save ourselves the trouble of doing it later.
If you don't believe me, or if you think you're above all that, I'd like you to honestly examine yourself: Have you ever met someone at a party and found yourself really liking this person and then wondering why? And afterward you realized it was because this person laughed at all your jokes, and hung on your every word and was interested in everything you said. That's why you liked them--because they seemed to like you! If someone really likes you, it's sort of hard not to like them back.
The reverse is also true: If someone really dislikes you (or you suspect that they do), it's sort of hard not to dislike them back. Oh, we'll manufacture good reasons and rationalizations for our dislike, no doubt. But the real reason may be that it's hard on our ego.
And even if the other person doesn't dislike you, you may dislike them as a way of raising yourself up.
"Oh, I can't stand Eleanor," you say; "she talks on and on and never listens." Yes, but what is the real reason you don't like her? Her constant talking may be boring, but in itself it's not something to make you despise her. The real reason may be that you feel you'll better your position by lowering hers. "I can't stand her--she talks on and on" is sometimes a way of saying, "I'm better; I'm better than she is."
"I don't like George because he's such a bore." Yes, but why does his boringness make you detest him rather than feel sorry for him? Is it because he's arrogant too and that makes you feel put down, so you feel you have to put him down to even out the score?
I submit to you that behind some of our dislikes for other people may be a need on our part to raise ourselves up (by lowering them).
I've seen this in myself. I remember once watching a series of films on group psychotherapy and deciding I just couldn't stand the group leader. He'd say, "Hi, I'm Steve, and I'd like to welcome you to this course on Transactional Analysis."
I said, "He's so phony. He's trying to come across with sincerity and confidence, and that drives me crazy." Then the friend of mine who was watching it with me said, “Tony, you just don't like him because he's just like you."
She was right! I had to laugh because part of the reason I disliked him was that I felt jealous of his seeming ease and competence. And when she said I was just like him, I actually felt sort of flattered. Underneath my dislike was envy, and underneath my envy was, really, a little admiration.
And, of course, sometimes we dislike in others the very qualities we see in ourselves. Sometime, for example, I get annoyed at someone for hogging the stage at a party or in a conversation--and it's because I want to be the center of attention. You see, sometimes we dislike people because we think they have something we don't have, and we're jealous. But sometimes we dislike them because they have something we do have (that we don't like), and we'd like to pretend it's only in them, and not in us.
Now, if you find that, despite knowing all this, you still despise quite a few people--here are a couple suggestions for reducing the load. First: Look at those qualities in other people that you don't like (besides the qualities that you may have yourself) and try to see what's underneath them.
A personal example: I used to dislike someone because she was so arrogant and insensitive--until she finally told me that she was really very lonely and insecure, and didn't know how else to relate. Once I knew that, her arrogance didn't bother me as much anymore. Once you realize that behind many people's harsh words is a real fear or loneliness, and behind talk-talk-talk-and-never-listen is a desire to be liked and respected--people will seem less annoying and more human.
Another suggestion for lightening your load: Look for at least one good quality in the people you tend to dislike. I once heard about a priest who said in a sermon, "I can find something good in everyone." One man shot up out of his pew to take issue and said, "Oh yeah? What good is there in the devil?" The priest had to think about that for a moment but he finally said, "Well, he's a damned good worker!"
Third suggestion for liking more people: Learn to accept yourself more--then you won't have as much need to bring others down in order to bring yourself up. One way to do this is to begin to get rid of your need to have everyone like you. Once you do this, you may even be able to appreciate people who dislike you. There were folks in my home church who didn't like me, for example, and when I first found that out--why, I disliked them right back! But then it dawned on me that the only thing I had against them was that they felt negatively toward me. And I realized it's not their fault that they have good taste.
If I can really be free from the worry about whether other people will think I'm swell, then I can also be free to appreciate as many of them as I want. I will also be free of the need to build myself up by knocking others down. And if you've ever ridden a bus with two suitcases, you'll know what a difference it makes to appreciate more people. I mean, if you're going on a long bus trip, it's always safer to keep your luggage with you rather than trusting the carriers to remember to transfer it to the correct buses; otherwise your luggage may arrive at your destination a week after you do. Now, if you've got those two suitcases, you know how cumbersome it is to put both up on the rack, take both down, walk down that narrow aisle with both, and get on the next bus with both and do it all over again. Carrying one small suitcase makes your trip infinitely more comfortable.
Well, if you love more dandelions, it'll be like riding through life with just one suitcase, because you won't have such a burden to carry. You'll enjoy more of the scenery. The scenery will actually be the same, of course--you're the one who will be different.
Let me leave you with one last reading. This one's by the Rev. Scott Alexander (who grew up in my home church and is now serving a congregation in Florida). Scott writes:
"I have always been in favor of dandelions--there is something so courageous and irrepressible about them. Each spring, despite the attempts of millions of murderous American homeowners, these bright little orphans burst forth faithfully into their intense amber crowns. They proclaim their stubborn hunger for life in the most disparate of places. Be it a narrow crack in an A&P parking lot, an unruly field with hundreds of other hearty plants fighting for space and sun, or a lush lawn of some Sleepy Hollow mansion--my little friend the dandelion is undaunted in its intention to burst and be... (Also) dandelions are a symbol of courage and rebelliousness that does us good. In a culture which seeks to make everything one and the same, the dandelion affirms the need for diversity and individuality in all things. Yes, I like the dandelion. I like this rugged/rebellious weed because it's unique...and bright...and unruly...and tough...and eager...and individualistic...and unashamed in its proclamation of self. Come to think of it, the dandelion reminds me of a lot of Unitarians I know."
Please don't ever think of our church as a well-manicured lawn or a smooth-and-even golf course. Think of it more as a patchwork of daisies and crabgrass and heather and wheat--with quite a few dandelions pushing their way forward. And the neat thing about this place--is that here we can believe that all of these...are flowers.
There's a story I like from India about the god Shiva and the goddess Shakti. They're up in heaven watching people on earth, and Shakti (the goddess) sees a poor man walking down the road, and his clothes are shabby and his sandals are tied together with rope. She feels sorry for him and she turns to her husband, Shiva, and says, "Can't you give this man some money?" And Shiva says, "My dear wife, I cannot do that." And she says, "Why not? What do you mean? You're the lord of the Universe. Why can't you do this?"
And Shiva says, "He's not ready to receive it." And Shakti gets angry and says, "You mean to tell me, you can't just drop a bag of gold in his path?" And Shiva says, "Well, that I can do. But that's quite a different thing." And Shakti says, "Go ahead and do it." So Shiva drops a bag of gold in the man's path. And the man is meanwhile walking along, thinking to himself: I wonder if I will find dinner tonight--or shall I go hungry again? He turns a bend in the road, and he sees something in the path in his way. And he says, "Ah, look there: a big rock. Boy, it's a good thing I saw it. I might have tripped over it and wrecked my sandals even more." And, carefully stepping over the bag of gold, he goes on his way.
What I get from this story is that even in things that look pretty useless or ugly, there might be a great bright golden gift. So give thanks for dandelions, my friends. And Happy Flower Communion Sunday!