A Lilies of the Field Musing
As a family going on six months into this pandemic, we have really been trying to stay social distanced and we always wear a mask when we cannot. We cook at home or do take out. Until it was too hot to go outside, we enjoyed walks. We have read some, played on our devices too much and watched lots of TV.
Personally, with the new emphasis in our nation regarding social justice, I have tried to become more aware of the achievements of the African American community. Even though I thought I knew a great deal, it is evident I have so much more to learn.
Additionally, I want to fully understand some of the trivia I was familiar with.
For example, at trivia nights I could tell you that Sidney Poitier was the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. However, I could not have told you the year or the film.
So, when in doing some reading, I discovered the film was the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, I wondered if it was available on one of the digital streaming services that we get at the Gunter home. I was delighted that it was and since nothing else of any value was on TV, I hit the play button.
I am glad I did. Though it lacked a little of the current features of modern films—it was clear he was not really on the road driving a car—the rest of the film was outstanding, especially the story and acting.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by William Edward Barrett; the plot is based on the true story of the Sisters of Walburga. The setting is the scorching Arizona desert. Poitier portrays an itinerant laborer named Homer Smith, who pulls off the road seeking water for his battered car’s radiator. He discovers a group of impoverished nuns, refugees of war-torn Europe, now eking out a living from the dry desert soil. The Mother Superior has a dream of a “schapel” (chapel) for the community of faith and believes Homer Smith’s accidental arrival is God’s answer to her prayers for someone who will come and build that chapel out of on the ruins of an earlier failed attempt.
Homer sees it differently. He asks to be paid for some repairs he made around the primitive convent, quoting Luke 10:7, “… the laborer is worthy of his hire.” She responds by quoting Matthew 6:28, “Consider the lilies of the field …”
As the story progresses, Homer, a Baptist, ends up building that chapel, finding a part–time construction job to help pay for food and materials. He also helps the German-speaking nuns learn real world American English and teaches them Gospel Music – particularly the old call and response spiritual Amen!
Like Mother Superior, he also has a dream—he always wanted to be an architect. But he exhausts himself with crushing labor in the hot sun.
One of the interesting subplots of the movie is the battle between the stern Mother Superior and Homer over who is actually building the chapel. Homer thinks he is the builder. The attitude of the Mother Superior is that "God" is building the chapel for them using Smith as the tool.
A crucial scene in the movie comes when his dedication inspires many of the Hispanic day laborers in the region to donate materials and labor, which leads to a crisis for Homer. If he allows others to help, will it still be his accomplishment? His pride causes him to quit—temporarily. Soon he realizes his skills in design and supervision, coupled with the back-breaking labor that others gladly share, makes this uniquely both his triumph and the community’s accomplishment as well.
When the chapel is completed, Homer quietly drives off, becoming a figure of local legend. The new chapel becomes not only the home for a community’s life of worship, but also the launch pad for planned schools and hospitals as part of a growing ministry.
There are so many lessons in this film. Lessons about acceptance and calling, about humility and pride, about faith and the power of community. There is even a lesson about insurance! I hope you will get a chance to watch it sometime (if you haven’t already).
What it reminded me is that so often we get caught up in our own concerns we forget to look across the field and see what God might be calling us to do. Homer was worried about only himself and his wages. He was certainly not concerned about helping some poor nuns to build a chapel. A chapel which with God’s help becomes a hub of ministry for the entire community.
Mother Superior is so focused on a brick-and-mortar building that she forgets her call is to help build lives of meaning and hope. It is only by the grace of God she rediscovers this as she helps Homer turn into a man with a mission beyond a daily wage.
The film also portrays two other things we might apply to our lives. First, even though this movie was set and released in the 1960’s, and the main characters are a black man and a white nun, the issue of race never emerges. It’s as if the film is saying—without ever saying the words—that equality and racial tolerance are simply the norm as far Christian behavior is concerned, and thus no analysis is needed.
Second, the film does what Jesus so often does in his parables and teachings, and yet we even as his faithful followers often forget. This is that the miraculous is available to us in everyday life. We only need notice things as simple as the Lilies of the Field.
So today—in in this very moment—remember that loving all people is simply the norm for Christians. And then stop and look for the everyday miracles—be it by smelling roses, watching the sunset or looking out across the lilies of the field.
Have a blessed week.