The Blossoms of Our Covenant
June 9, 2019, First Universalist Church of Auburn, Maine
Recently a friend of mine, an avid gardener, shared a meme on social media: a picture of a garden gate, with a stately printed sign that reads, “Welcome to the Garden.” Underneath that, another line of text that says, “Please respect the rules.” If you’re thinking to yourself that those two lines together have the same rhythm as the opening lines of the iconic song “Welcome to the Jungle,” you’ve beaten the meme to the punch: the added caption reads, “Guns ‘N Roses really toned it down.” The effect makes the reader sing in their head “Welcome to the garden! Please respect the rules!”
In case my needing to explain the joke ruined it, this is pretty funny when you encounter it in the wild. It’s made me laugh a number of times. But, in a strange way, I couldn’t get it out of my head while thinking about our Flower Communion this year.
I suppose it doesn’t seem quite so odd when we come in and see before us this chancel covered in flowers, ready for the taking. Once a year, our sanctuary becomes a garden, lit up with colorful blossoms, vibrant green leaves, and when you get a little closer, even the smells of flower fragrance and outdoor air. Flower Communion, with its message of diversity, inclusion, and the gifts we give to one another unawares, is our living tradition’s excuse to create a garden of welcome in every sanctuary, every year.
Welcome to the Garden, indeed. There is a wealth of love, of points of view, of ideas about justice and compassion, to be found here, and our gates are open.
And then comes the stinger, though: we ask that everyone who comes in please respect the rules.
Uh-oh. I sort of feel the warning hairs on the back of my neck going up as we meander into this dicey territory together. Gardens and rules together in the same analogy? Isn’t this starting to sound a little bit like that well-known story… you know, with the garden, and the rule about eating the fruit?
Not to worry. The rules we have here in this once-a-year garden aren’t handed down from on high. In fact, we make them and decide on them together. This isn’t God handing down marching orders to Adam and Eve. It’s more like if Adam and Eve formed an autonomous democratic collective with all the other creatures in Eden and decided on their own rules. When there’s no Divine intervention required, the rules start to look less like something handed down by an avenging force, and more like the promises that people make to each other in relationships.
Life in community can be complicated. How we should act—how we should be—together isn’t always clear. What are our responsibilities? Can we pick the flowers we find in the garden? Are we obliged to take care of them, just by being here? Is there a path we’re supposed to stay on to avoid stepping on tender new buds, or are we free to wander as we please? The answer to these questions isn’t always clear, because there is no one answer.
We can look to our seven Unitarian Universalist Principles of inherent worth, justice for all, encouraging spiritual growth, responsibly searching for truth, honoring democracy, and striving toward world community and care for our earth, for guidance. But these goals are somewhat abstract, and when we’re in the thick of life here on earth among one another, in the midst of conflict or stress or the all-too-human situations we find ourselves in, they seem lofty and hard to enact, especially when we all believe different things about the nature of the Holy, of responsibility, of how to best care for one another, what the words “justice” and “hope” even mean.
I’m sure you can each give me answers about where you, individually, stand on all these questions… but agreeing on how to move as a people based on those answers is hard to know. This is why we, as a community, adopted a Covenant of Right Relations a year ago at the congregation’s Annual Meeting. We decided, together, that it was worth the effort to lift up community boundaries, honor for our Principles and Sources, deep listening, sharing of knowledge, time, treasure, and talent. We chose, together, to make the effort to communicate with one another openly, honestly, intentionally, and respectfully. This Covenant has provided the basis of some of the deep work we’re doing as a church as we continue to build resiliency, foster growth in our members and friends, and steward the long-term health of our community, much in the way one would tend a garden like the one we see before us.
In Victorian England, florists developed a “language of flowers.” Each plant, or part of a plant, was assigned a meaning, some very specific. By sending flowers of certain meanings in an arrangement, the sender would be able to convey to the receiver a complex message to describe their feelings. No doubt if our chancel today were inspected by a Victorian florist, that person might decide it communicated something highly complicated and hard to decipher. It might be crying out the same message over and over, in many different blossoms and leaves; or maybe it would be a meaning lost in contradiction. In trying to decode this way, the meaning of each flower would become far more important and relevant than the meaning of the garden as a whole.
But let’s broaden the lens for a minute. Let’s remember that a Victorian English worldview steeped in empire, hierarchy, and racism isn’t the only one with which to look at flowers. Biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer of the Potawatomi people indigenous to what is now Wisconsin and Michigan offers us a different way of thinking about flowers coexisting with one another. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, she writes about royal purple asters and bright yellow goldenrod, which can usually be found growing side by side. If you’re familiar with art, you might recognize purple and gold as complementary colors, which means the colors really pop when they’re right next to one another. “Alone,” she says, “each is a biological superlative. Together, the visual effect is stunning. Purple and gold, the heraldic colors of the king and queen of the meadow, a regal procession in complementary colors…why do they stand beside each other when they could grow alone?” Her training in science, her eye for beauty, in combination with her roots in indigenous thought, taught her that the contrast between the two colors led more insects to pollinate the plants than if they grew apart from each other. She writes, “That…pairing of purple and gold is lived reciprocity; its wisdom is that the beauty of one is illuminated by the radiance of the other.”
In the garden we’ve gathered today, the beauty of one flower is certainly illuminated by the radiance of the others. Why would we look at our flowers—at our community—as chaotic messengers clamoring for attention and conflicting in the Victorian flower language, when we could take Kimmerer’s view instead, and look at this range of contrasts, of petals, of leaves and stems, as a symbol of living in reciprocity with each other? Could we come to see them as an emblem signifying what holds us together, what keeps us in relationship to one another?
Although it isn’t a tradition of this church, many Unitarian Universalist congregations today begin their worship with words inspired by those written by Unitarian minister James Vila Blake:
Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
Maybe these words lack the memeability of “Welcome to the Garden, please respect the rules.” But they are a far more beautiful and profound way of saying the same thing. These promises and this covenant are what bring us back again and again. These promises are what remind us that our mission is more than being a social club. This place is more than a patch of ill-kept grass where you can expect to go down the paths, taking only what you need. This is, in fact, a place where service, reciprocity, and living into our mission are expected of you.
This is no Eden where only the feet of the Elect may walk. All are welcome in this Garden. But in return, this Garden asks your honesty; your sharing; your respect; your fellowship, kinship, and kindness. This Garden can only flourish so beautifully when all of us are willing to respect the promises we make to each other; to accept and honor the gifts and the grace we extend to one another daily; and to show our respect and honor for one another by serving our Garden faithfully, wisely, and beautifully.
Today, here, we are more than a clash of flower messages, each striving to be heard over one another. Together, we are the goldenrod and aster, living in symbiotic beauty and mutual benefit.
Together, we are our church.
May it always be so.
Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, 2013
James Vila Blake, covenant of the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois, 1894