A cartoon has been hanging on the bulletin board in the Office for well over a year. It depicts two men in suits in the back seat of a black limousine. Their window is rolled down. Behind them is a steel and glass office building in a suburban industrial “campus” they are driving away from. One of the two men is clearly in charge; he is giving instructions to the other man as they look out the window together. He says, “Johnson, look at the lilies of the field. They neither spin nor toil. Fire them.”
These two may be off to do many things from the commanding position of the back seat of their limousine, but one thing I am certain of: they are not setting off to seek to the kingdom of God, as they speed past the waving banks of lilies.
What they never pause to consider is why the lilies have been gathering there in front of HQ, why they had become so noticeable in their masses. It never occurs to them that there is a lily protest going on: a lily revolution. Inspired by what they have been reading in the papers and seeing on TV, the lilies of the field have lifted up their voices and sought to be heard. If lilies could carry signs, their signs might read, “Consider us!” If lilies could march and chant, that would be their cry!
And what Johnson and his boss do not realize is that the lilies are not protesting on their own behalf – lilies have no need to protest, no reason to protect collective bargaining rights, or to cry out in misery about their plight, for God looks after the lilies of the field without fail. The lilies gather in their thousands and their tens of thousands for everyone who speeds by with never a thought for anything but toil and spinning, toil and spinning, and all the anxiety that is wrought by our toil and spinning.
Which is to say that the lilies gather in protest for you and for me. They suspect that we are in the limo with Johnson and his thoughtless boss. They believe that either we are in the middle seats, behind the tinted windows that cannot be rolled down, or that perhaps we have been tied up and put in the trunk – we are there either willingly or against our will, they don’t know – but they fear that we are being carried away by forces that do not care about us, that want us only for what we can do for them, not for who we can become, and the lilies are gathering to shout their silent protest on our behalf.
And so they planned a lily revolution: a movement to cry out for us all. “Why are you anxious about so many things that do not matter?” They ask us through an interpreter on CNN. “Why do you worry about what you will wear and what you will eat? Do you not know that God will care for you? Can you not trust in God? Do you not see how beautiful he has made us, and we neither toil nor spin!? Why have you stopped looking for his kingdom?” This last question, though, is edited out of the news footage, because it made no sense to the reporter or to his editor back in New York, who assumed it was a mistake of the translator’s. Everyone knows we live in a democracy, and that no one gathers in protest to ask for a kingdom, to demand a king.
And as we watch the news of the lily revolution, not entirely sure what the lilies are going on about, what their strange demands mean, we may begin to feel a certain uneasiness at how peaceful the lily revolution is. Not a shot has been fired, since lilies cannot carry guns, and there is no reason for troops to shoot at them. Lilies cannot throw grenades, or shove oil soaked rags into bottles and set them alight. Lilies cannot wield sticks or stones. They cannot even wave their shoes in the air in anger. They can only gather in their masses and demand to be seen, demand to be heard as the wind whistles through them.
Lilies can only beg us to consider who we are and why we were put on this planet. They can only urge us to look at the ways we use our energy, the causes we give most of the hours of our days to, and ask ourselves if we really mean it. They can only push us to consider whether or not there is another kingdom we once dreamt about, with a king whose power was made perfect in weakness, whose strength was seen most clearly in the forgiveness he offered, who fed hungry crowds for no reason except that he cared for them, and who was willing to give his life for everyone who realized that they needed saving.
Sometimes, just as the lilies suspect, I am in the car, in that other seat, with Johnson and the boss just beside me, where the lilies cannot see me, but I can see them through the tinted windows, and I see them waving and calling to me about the kingdom, and it makes me want to weep, which I will not do, because of Johnson and the boss, who would think me an idiot if they saw a tear run down my cheek for all that we have given up for the sake of the company, if they saw me cry for the kingdom we left behind in order to toil and spin for the corporation.
And I am trying to remember if I raised my voice from my seat on that day when the boss said to Johnson, “Look at the lilies of the field. They neither spin nor toil. Fire them.” I’m trying to remember if I objected, if I spoke up on the lilies’ behalf. Or if it even occurred to me to think, “You idiot, you can’t fire the lilies of the field, and if you could it wouldn’t matter. See how God cares for them, see how beautiful they are, even though they neither toil nor spin.” And I wonder if I sighed then in my seat in the limo, and if Johnson turned to look at me with a raised eyebrow that said, “What’s the matter with you? And why aren't you toiling? Why aren’t you spinning?”
And when Johnson looks at me with that annoying raised eyebrow, it suddenly occurs to me to wonder about you. Where are you? Have they tied you up and thrown you into the trunk since you were asking questions about the lilies, and you might not have come along as easily as I did?
But as we drive to our meeting where we will toil and spin because that is what we are told we must do in order to get the things we must get and achieve the happiness that has been prescribed for us, the lilies fade into the distance and I can see that they are not protesting at all. I was only daydreaming. Why give the lilies of the field so much thought? Why let my imagination run away like that, when there is work to be done, a salary to be earned, food to be put on the table, etc, etc, etc.
At home at night I sit down in front of the giant flat screen TV that I got on sale, and that I love, love, love, since it greets me so consistently and yields to my touch every time I push its buttons, doing what I want it to do and filling my dark room with light and color from other worlds. And I sit there and flip through the channels, only to land on an old black and white film that gives me reason to pause since it is called The Lilies of the Field, and it puts me in mind of all those waving lilies who neither toil nor spin, who seemed to be trying to say something to me, seemed to be pleading for something on my behalf.
Sidney Poitier is driving his station wagon through the black and white deserts of the southwest, and the car is running hot, it needs water. (How quaint!) For reasons unknown, the handsome Poitier leaves the main road and discovers a small community of German nuns mending a fence in their black habits, beneath broad-brimmed straw hats to shield them from the hot southwestern sun.
Mother Maria is the nun who is clearly in charge. She shows Poitier the pump for water, and as he pumps she says, “Gott is good, he has sent me a big, strong man.”
“He didn’t say anything to me about sending me anyplace,” says Schmidt, Poitier’s character, “I was just passing by.”
Mother Maria responds with a sure smile on her face, “Jah, but you did not pass.”
And I saw myself in that moment, glowing with the light from the big-screen TV, I saw myself in my mind’s eye driving swiftly past the rally of lilies all gathered for me, silently chanting on my behalf, pointing their faces to a kingdom I learned about in Sunday school and had put away with other childish things, as Johnson hit the button, and the window rolled up, and the lilies faded into the distance. God didn’t say anything to me about sending me anyplace. I was just passing by. And I just kept passing by, and turned my attention back to Johnson, and to our boss in the seat next to him.
Tomorrow will be another day to toil and spin. And although I normally take the short-cut which brings me into the parking lot from a back road that passes the dumpsters, not the front entrance that goes by the field where all the lilies are growing, tomorrow I think I will take the extra minute that I normally save and drive in the front way, past the phalanx of lilies that have gathered there.
Maybe I will even go in early, before Johnson gets there so that I can slow down and consider the lilies, ask them about their protest, inquire about their mad revolution. I know it will seem odd to others who see me there, pulled off on the side of the road talking to the lilies, when I could be using this time to get ahead, I might have come in early to toil and to spin some more.
Except that it seemed so simple to Mother Maria: but you did not pass by.
And although the work was hard, and the sun was hot, and he got paid nothing for it, Schmidt built a chapel there for the nuns, and he shared their meals with them, and sang with them, and built up an outpost of the kingdom of God with them there in the southwestern desert where lilies of the field do not easily thrive.
So, the next day I drive to work, and I don’t take the short-cut, I drive around to the front of HQ, with its well cared for plantings, and the swelling ranks of lilies that seem to be blooming in great profusion, earlier this year than perhaps in years past. And I slow my car down, remembering the snide remark in the back of that limo, and the way Johnson laughed so agreeably, so readily at such a sad and lame and hopeless joke. I am driving very slowly now; I can almost count the lilies, one by one. But they are not saying anything, they are not waving signs, they do not appear to me now to be pitching a revolution from their flower beds. They simply stand there by their thousands, holding their gorgeous faces up to the heavens.
And there are no reports on the news, as I had imagined there were, of a lily revolution. Although last night I dreamt again that recurring dream I have been having about a kingdom that is not of this world, where all is peace, and justice flows down like water, and it matters more who your neighbor is than who your customer is.
I am still driving slowly by the lilies of the field, arrayed before me on my way to work. But as I round the corner, I see Johnson standing by the big, black car, waiting. I hear the driver honk the horn impatiently. I hurry to get my car into its spot, grab my bag and my notes for the presentation, straighten my tie. And I slide into the open door of the limo again, past the crossed legs of my boss, past the cynically smiling Johnson, and into my seat as the door slams shut and we are on our way, out the front way.
And I peer out the window at the disordered platoons of the lilies of the field, who seem to me to be getting stronger and more beautiful by the day. And although everything in the car suggests otherwise, I find myself absolutely certain that these lilies of the field are mounting a magnificent rebellion, right here in the shadow of HQ, right here where I pass by with Johnson and the boss, nearly every day.
And I begin to dream of the day that I will not pass by, the day I’ll join the lily revolution.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
27 February 2011
Saint Mark's Church, Phialdelphia