Sermon: Sunday 15 September 2013
Trinity 16 and Flower Festival
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
When I was a little boy, we went to the seaside. We went to the amusement arcades and amidst the machines and rides, I got lost. I don’t remember it but it is told as part of my family history. I now don’t like being lost. I am a bit obsessive about directions, postcodes and maps. Journeys to the unknown in our car can be a bit tense especially if I am driving and my companion isn’t being helpful with the map reading. I suspect being lost has made its mark on me somewhat irrevocably.
Luke 15 is a gospel chapter about people and things who are lost and then found. We heard the story of the lost sheep and of the shepherd who goes after the sheep; the lost coin owned by the woman and her searching until that which was hidden is seen and our reading is followed by the story of the lost son, the prodigal son where there is welcome for the returnee and jealousy from those who although present have missed that sense of homecoming despite it being there all along.
But who or what are the lost? In the story of the lost sheep we concentrate on the single sheep who wanders away rather than on the other 99. Is a parable addressed primarily to the lost or to those who think they are not lost? Verse 3 says that tax collectors and sinners were coming to Jesus and the religious folk grumble. These Pharisees and scribes are the never lost. The shepherd leaves the 99 in the wilderness to go after the lost sheep. The audience had been complaining about Jesus going off to eat with sinners. I can’t recall a stained glass window of this story which concentrates on the 99 instead we see the shepherd carrying back the lost sheep. But just imagine a picture with the 99 abandoned in the wilderness the foreground with the shepherd walking away to look for the lost. We hear Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace – I once was lost but now I’m found.
But if we were amongst the 99 what would we hear? I guess we’d hear something about our own incapacity to see that Jesus who we like to think we’ve got hold of is actually walking away from us to somebody else not part of our group. The transcendence we crave is off stage glimpsed out of the corner of our eye.
The parable of the lost coin is also a parable about something which is out of view. The other bright shiny coins are easily seen and although present are nowhere as interesting as the one which is lost, awaiting discovery. The woman with tenacity insists on her search and does not settle until there is lamp lighting and sweeping and careful looking. The hiddenness of the coin is revealed and there is rejoicing – but what do we see? Yes, of course we see the coin but those with faithful eyes have spent their time gazing on a woman searching, a picture of God’s uncanny perseverance to find the lost.
Hearing this Gospel today in a Cathedral surrounded by these fantastic flower arrangements makes me notice different things in these parables. I’m noticing how easy it is to see and yet to not see. I’m noticing that it is impossible to see everything because there is too much to see. I’m noticing that you can’t see today what I saw on Wednesday and Thursday of last week when all this was in process. I’m noticing that things which were hidden and about which I did not know have come to be revealed through the attention of others to matters and people not in my sights and indeed there are now things set before me, emanating from loyaulte me lie, King Richard III’s motto, which I simply never seen or known before.
These flower arrangements are artworks of worship – offering to God that shows me what it means to offer and to search and to reveal. The playwright Nigel Forde wrote ‘I write not because I see but in order to see’ (Sounding the depths: theology through the arts, SCM 2002, p1). Rowan Williams says of artistic endeavour that as art develops, we find meaning we had not suspected; but if we try to begin with the meanings, they will shrink to the scale of what we already understand; whereas the creative activity opens up what we did not understand and perhaps will not understand even when the actual work of creation is done’. These artworks remind me of seeing, not seeing, seeing afresh of being perplexed and amazed.
So I want to tell you a story written by Trevor Dennis. It is a story about flowers, about art and beauty, about loss and lostness, about seeing and not seeing, about the 99 and the 1, about hiddenness and revelation, about destruction and creativity, about perseverance and grace.
All about was desolation. The stale, stinking canal, the old Victorian tenements, the streets with the rubbish of last month still piled in the gutters, the lamp posts broken. Some of the flats were boarded up, others had their windows broken, all or nearly all, looked sad, tired, and as if they should have been pulled down years ago… At first glance or even third glance, there was nothing of beauty to be seen… Yet if you looked hard you might catch sight of a geranium in a high perched window box, while on the end of one terrace someone had painted a large mural of mountains and fields and birds flying in a blue sky – but the ‘BNP Rules OK’ scrawled across it did not fit with the design.
At the end of Jubilee St the desolation was complete. For 30 years the bombsite had been there ever since an incendiary had fallen on old Mabel and Arthur, asleep in their bed in the front room downstairs. No one had ever been able to persuade them to go down to the shelter in the air raids. No one had ever found their bodies. For 30 years the bomb site had been their only memorial, broken, bearing no inscription. No one had ever put any flowers there. It was covered instead with masonry. It defeated the most persistent weeds.
Nothing grew there. One spring a seed took took. Nobody noticed it but in the end you cannot miss a sunflower. It stood five feet tall with its heavy golden head. Most days were overcast in Jubilee Street but it shone powerfully as if a strange light of its own burned within its petals. It caused quite a stir. Most of the local people had never seen a sunflower and if they had, they had not seen one quite like that. They would gather round in small groups, looking at it, wondering what to do with it. It was so out of place. It did not fit and you could not write ‘BNP rules OK’ all over it to make it fit.
So they just left it alone and thought they would get used to it. But they did not. It showed up the drabness, the desolation all around for what it was: empty, ugly, dead. That was why after a time most of the people grew so bitter about it. It had led a few who were lost out of their wilderness but the rest it had left there, recognising for the first time what sort of place they lived in. They felt hidden, unseen, forgotten and trapped. It became intolerable. You must not blame them. We would have done the same. One night they went in a great crowd to the bomb site and they trampled on the sunflower and danced on it crushing its petals till they were but a stain which the dust soon covered. They went away in silence back to their hidden lives. Yet their destruction in the height of summer scattered that seed over the entire bomb site. Next spring the bomb site at the end of Jubilee Street was covered in sunflowers. At last there were flowers on Mabel’s and Arthur’s grave.
(Adapted from The Flower, Speaking of God, Trevor Dennis, SPCK, 1992, p80-83).
What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one, does not light a lamp, sweep the dust and search until she finds it, with more joy with the angels when the lost know they are lost and when the lost realise they can be and are found by the tireless goodness of God. Certainly this is a flower festival!
© The Very Revd David Monteith