During the pandemic, one way the Rev. Casey Baggott and her family coped with the social isolation was to rent movies. “We went for the real classics — ‘Casablanca,’ ‘The Third Man,’ ‘Inherit the Wind’ and ‘Roman Holiday.’ They are classics because they deal with perennial subjects.”
Baggott preached at the 10:45 a.m. EDT service worship and sermon on Sunday, Aug. 9, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. Her sermon title was “The Lilies: a Story of Transformative Beauty.” The scripture texts were Hosea 14: 5-7 and Matthew 6: 25-33 (NRSV)—
“I will be like the dew to Israel; / he shall blossom like the lily, / he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon. / His shoots shall spread out; / his beauty shall be like the olive tree, / and his fragrance like that of Lebanon. / They shall again live beneath my shadow, / they shall flourish as a garden; / they shall blossom like the vine, / their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.”
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can 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 he 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 it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’”
“Inherit the Wind,” made in 1960 and starring Spencer Tracy, dealt with the Scopes Trial, the prosecution of teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution in a local school in Tennessee.
Baggott said, “It has been 95 years since the Scopes Trial, and we still have not resolved the issue of the origin of life. We are still arguing about whether we can teach religion in schools and how much do we know about the scientific facts. Did life begin through intelligent design or the big bang?”
She said she did not know the “how” — her scientific expertise was not that great — but she did know “who.” “I know God was the ‘who,’ and I leave the details of the ‘how’ to others.”
Dr. Bernie Siegel was writing about silence and explosions, and instead of typing “Big Bang,” he typed “Big Band.” He said his theory going forward was that life did begin with a Big Band, that rhythm, style and beauty were part of creation and it is the job of human beings to listen for the big song and join in, led by God.
Baggott asked the virtual congregation, “How attentive are you to beauty? Jesus called the disciples attention to the lilies.” Jesus said, “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.”
The consensus of commentators is that Jesus is pointing to God’s abundant provision and to not worry about material possessions, Baggott said.
“Jesus chose to carry that message by pointing to the gift of beauty; he points to God’s gratuitous gift. Consider the lilies. What does beauty have to do with anything?” she asked.
Poet Emily Dickinson said that this was the only commandment of Jesus that she would willingly follow.
Baggott noted that when trees began to grow fruit, it was a game-changer for life. They attracted pollinators like bees and birds, they grew fruit which was then consumed. But other plants only developed flowers, “as if their purpose was just to be beautiful.” Jesus taught something crucial about the importance of beautiful things, how useful they can be.
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, tells a story about the ability of beauty to charm and change the world. The story begins at a birthday party in a mansion in South America. A world-famous opera singer comes to entertain at the party. The party is broken up when a group of mercenaries takes everyone hostage and presents a list of grievances they want addressed.
“They spent weeks together in an unholy union, yet hope flourished,” said Baggott. “The problems and tensions begin to resolve. One reason could be the music the group hears every day as the opera singer practices.”
One of the hostage-takers says he never thought that such a woman existed, and stood so close to God that God’s own voice came through her. He wept at bearing witness to that miracle.
“Jesus said to take notice of the lilies, to see the attention getting beauty of God’s grace,” she said. “Have you ever wept at bearing witness to something so beautiful that you could only stand in wonder and awe to see it?”
Baggott said that over the years, parishioners would apologize for going to the golf course rather than attending church. “Who am I to deny them time in God’s green earth? Maybe beauty comes in less tangible forms.”
She gave examples of the birth of her three sons, seeing a life that had been transformed and renewed, a family coming together again after losing a child, those who stand up for and stand by those in dire straits without thinking of the cost to themselves. Despite a harsh background, beauty can spring up.
“What about your life?” she asked the virtual congregation. “Think about the link between beauty and God. In transient, glorious times, God proves God’s existence and love. God uses this hint of God’s presence because once God has gotten your attention. God’s own glory works on us and in us.”
She continued, “The Sistine Chapel, the onion domes of Orthodox churches, the stark beauty of Colonial meeting houses, are beauty offered in reverence to God and can bring change.”
German theologian Helmut Thielicke once visited an old couple. The wife was radiant, even though her face was etched with the joys and sufferings of a long life. Thielicke wondered how she could be so beautiful. He realized that she was dearly loved by her husband, and she had absorbed that love like a stone absorbs the sun’s heat and radiates the warmth back.
“The radiance on her face was not because she was beautiful; but because she was loved, she became the beautiful person (Thielicke) saw,” Baggott said.
Jesus, in telling the disciples to consider the lilies, wanted them to recognize God’s transforming love. “God wants to love us into beauty,” Baggott said.
The prophet Hosea said Israel would blossom like the lily, take root like the forests of Lebanon, have beauty like the olive tree, have fragrance like the wine of Lebanon.
“Do you think you are too ordinary for that transformation? Beauty is ordinary reality transformed by love,” she said. “If you saw all the world with love, would it be different? If you hold the world close to the fire of your love, you will help it transform.”
In the book Uncontrollable Beauty, by David Shapiro, is a story about Obi Island in the Pacific Ocean near Borneo. At the time of a solstice, the islanders gather to watch the sun set and see the light dance and glimmer on the sea.
Baggott said, “On that afternoon, as they walk to the sea, they greet each other with a two-syllable word that translates as ‘prepare for beauty.’ I wish we had a simple word for such a notion. We could use it every day.”
She continued, “We could use it at baptisms. ‘Prepare for beauty.’ We could use it at weddings and communion. ‘Prepare for beauty.’”
Baggott told the congregation as God finds ways to care for us, “we need to pay attention and be prepared to be dazzled, to become Christ-like, to become radiant, glowing and good.”
This is not for our own satisfaction, she continued, but to “share that transformative love and hold the world close to the fire of love. Perhaps together we will see the beauty of redemption, the beauty of courage, the beauty of generosity, the beauty of justice.”
Jesus told the disciples not to worry, to notice the beauty. “Let’s not overlook the potential for life’s stunning beauty. Just consider the lilies. You never know where it may lead. Consider the lilies,” she concluded.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president for religion and senior pastor of Chautauqua Institution, presided from the Hall of Christ. Joshua Stafford, interim organist for Chautauqua Institution, played the Tallman Tracker Organ. Meredith Smietana, mezzo-soprano from Buffalo, New York, served as vocal soloist. Smietana is a recent graduate of The Mannes School of Music, where she received her Master’s in Vocal Performance. She received her Bachelor’s in Music Education from SUNY Fredonia. She participated in the Chautauqua Voice Program last summer and can be heard again this summer in the virtual Chautauqua Voice Program, led by Marlena Malas. The organ prelude, performed by Stafford, was “Prelude on Slane” by Healey Willan. Smietana sang the gathering hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The anthem was “O Rest in the Lord,” from Elijah, by Felix Mendelssohn, sung by Smietana. The offertory hymn was “Lord of all Hopefulness;” the tune was Slane, words by Jan Struther and sung by Smietana. “Behold, the House of God,” by Joachim Raff, words from Revelation 21, was the offertory anthem with Smietana as the soloist. Smietana sang the choral response, “Let us now depart in your peace, blessed Jesus.” The tune was “A la Puerto,” a New Mexican folk song with words adapted by Lee Hastings Bristol, Jr. Stafford played “Ouverture Libanaise,” by Naji Hakim, for the postlude. This program is made possible by Willow and Gary Brost and the Susan and John Turban Foundation.
Today’s postlude, Naji Hakim’s “Lebanese Overture,” was offered in remembrance of those who died and those who are suffering following the devastating explosion in Beirut this week. Hakim was born in Lebanon in 1955 and educated in Paris, where he eventually succeeded Olivier Messiaen at the church of Sainte-Trinité. His “Lebanese Overture” makes use of a number of folk melodies remembered from his early childhood in Lebanon, Mid-Eastern scales and rhythms, as well as the Lebanese national anthem.