Baccalaureate Sermon – May 17 2008

Those Lilies

Matthew 6: 25-34

My friend Anna and I go way back. We met in Appalachia, where I worked for three years after college, organizing church volunteers and repairing housing for low-income people. After that, Anna and I ended up going to the same seminary in the same year and when we graduated, took a five-day backpacking trip through the Smokies with our friend Scott, whom some of you met on our spring break mission trip this year. Last summer Anna and I took a three-week road trip to the western national parks and Canada and, because Woody and I were busy falling in love at the time, she got to hear all about it during those long drives across prairie and mountains.

There are some unlikely facets to our friendship. After seminary Anna went back to her true love: teaching. Anna is a math teacher and studied things like “packing theory” (another reason she’s quite handy on long car road trips). As most of you are aware, math is not my first love. Usually it doesn’t make the list at all. But I’ve often thought that if Anna had been my math teacher things may have been different for me. She likes to call me “math phobic” and is sure she could have assuaged my fear if she had gotten to me at a younger age.

Besides math problems and issues, Anna has listened and supported me through a lot of twists and turns in the 17 years we’ve known each other. At one point when I was venturing out into unknown territory and had a lot of anxiety about the new direction in my life, she and I spoke frequently of lilies. During that time this passage from Matthew was my touchstone and, though I had faith that I was heading in the right direction, I was full of questions, worries, and what ifs. It was a daily struggle for me to breathe, center myself, calm down a bit, and remember those lilies.

…[C]an any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? 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. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will [God] not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For…your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things… (Matthew 6: 27-33)


Those lilies were both a beacon and a bane to me. In my worry and anxiety they held out hope that there was another way to be in the midst of the uncertainty. They were an example and reminder that God the Creator never left creation, is still creating and providing for every last bit of it – even the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (vv. 26 & 28). If God’s eye is on the sparrow, then surely God watches me (“His Eye is on the Sparrow,” Civilla Martin). On days when I was yielding to the direction my life was taking I would say to Anna, breathing deeply, “I’m trying to remember the lilies.”

A lot of days this scriptural reminder was enough to get me breathing again, enough to get me to the next day. But some days those lilies made me mad! In their beautiful, quiet, faithful glory they were an example I didn’t feel up to emulating. I knew that they were “right” and that the thought of them should bring some peace, but on some of those hard days they just stood there in the field, bright white and glorious, seemingly effortlessly, trusting in God for their every need. On days like that, when I felt incriminated by the lilies, I would call Anna and say, “Those stupid lilies! What do lilies know about life anyway?!”

Lilies presented themselves to me again this week in an article in O The Oprah Magazine. Beverly Donofrio writes about her search, in her 50s, for the next stage of her life’s journey. She was feeling called to a more contemplative life and as she was searching and praying she made the rounds of several monasteries. During her stay at one of them she finished a book she was writing and went to chapel services every day and when she wasn’t doing either of these things she was planting “200 lilies in the forest” (O The Oprah Magazine, May 2008, p. 292).

It’s an arresting image: planting 200 lilies in the forest. There is something furtive about that – why the forest rather than a more open and landscaped area of the monastery grounds? Why so many of them?

But it arrests my attention in other ways, too. Often we are called to respond to God’s grace with grand gestures like protesting injustice on the National Mall in D.C. or giving our lives in pursuit of the cure for cancer. At least equally as often we are called to respond to God’s grace in seemingly small, unseen, impractical, extravagant gestures of thoughtfulness and kindness and beauty.

200 lilies in the forest. Creating more beauty in the world is a spiritual pursuit worthy of any place we find ourselves – inner city or thick of the woods. Giving ourselves over to such acts can seem odd or ill-conceived or even misguided. But giving ourselves over to the steady, quiet, small acts of beauty, joy, and celebration of God’s creation is an extremely faithful way of life. What if no one ventures into the forest to see those lilies? Was her act in vain? Do the lilies still sing to God by their very presence in the midst of all those trees?

Alice Waters knows about creating beauty like this. I read a book about her this week, one with an extravagant title – get ready – called Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (by Thomas McNamee, Penguin Books 2007). It’s about a small restaurant started over 30 years ago in a house in a run-down area of Berkeley. Alice Waters and some friends started Chez Panisse, which is recognized now for creating California cuisine and for beginning the fresh, locally-grown, in-season trend which eventually swept to other parts of the country.

She didn’t start out to become the only American ever recognized by the French as the best chef of the year. She didn’t intend to hobnob with the rich and famous and bend the ear of presidents. In the beginning she never thought she would be responsible for transforming Yale’s dining halls from mushy steam table cafeterias into sustainable and healthful dining rooms.

In the beginning all she wanted was a place to feed people as she had been fed on her travels through Europe. She believed in “an education of the senses” and thought food was a logical and glorious place to start (p.232). Alice Waters understood that some of life’s greatest joys are experienced with family and friends around the table. And she understood that what happened at the table could not be separated from all the people and processes that were involved in getting the food to that moment.  She was never concerned with profit and, in fact, it took decades before any was realized.

In the beginning – and throughout her tenure with the restaurant – she focused on good, simple, sensual food, enjoyed in warm glowing light in a small and serene atmosphere, eaten in the company of friends, in a place where everyone acted like family. From the dishwashers to the foragers (those sent out to find the best peach or the freshest fish) to the chefs to the hostess, Alice’s staff understood that they were about something larger and more significant than a restaurant. Sounds like the Table we know.

I mention Alice Waters because, though she always had a vision and though parts of that vision have always been the same, she never could have imagined in 1971 where that opening night would take her. When she laid the table with care and practiced that radical very non-restaurant-like hospitality, she had no idea what would happen next.

This may be a similar moment for you. With paper in hand tomorrow you will leave life as a UVA student and move on to the next adventure. Maybe you have a road map, with the rest stops picked out and the side trips for sightseeing – a life plan that has you on a certain career path or in a certain family situation at expected times. Maybe you have a job but you’re not sure you’re ready for it or if it’s ready for you. Maybe you are still hoping you figure out some sort of work before your parents ask you about it again. Maybe you have an inkling about the next thing but it sounds so crazy, so “not UVA,” so why-would-I-need-a-degree-to-do-that  that you are afraid to say it out loud. Like planting lilies in the forest or opening a restaurant.

Maybe things will work out as you are hoping and maybe they won’t. But whatever happens, it will work out. Whatever your plans, know that God goes with you. God has you and the lilies and the birds and the grasses and the fleas hitching rides on zebras, and the zebras! – all of this glorious creation – in the palm of a mighty, loving hand. You can rest in that knowledge, even at times when the plans go awry or the lilies are annoying you. You can trust that God does not forget you or leave you to struggle – or celebrate – alone. In every moment is an opportunity to give yourself over to your life and to God’s pulling and pushing.

You can trust this. Consider the lilies again. You may know that they are perennials. Unlike annuals, which must be planted each year and fade with the season, never to grow again, lilies come back again and again without planting.

It’s OK to be a little anxious, even in the joy and celebration of this moment, even in the face of your accomplishment this weekend. But consider the lilies and know that God wants a beautiful, glorious, fragrant, life for you, too. The God who plants lilies in forests and fields and mountains and plains and provides for perennial life for them, has no less provision for you. There will be times when you may wonder if that’s true. There will be times when you marvel at the truth of it. But wherever the road leads you from this place, may you know that God goes with you and before you. May you know that the God who you met here at Wesley and Who gave you this unexpected family is not done with you yet. Just ask the lilies.

Thanks be to God!

© 2008 Deborah E. Lewis