Please pick a flower to have with you during the service, and if possible, visible on your screen. We cannot exchange flowers virtually, but we can enjoy everyone’s contribution: the essence of Dr. Châpek’s message all along.
The Reverend Norbret Châpek was a Czech Baptist who became converted to Unitarianism in the 1930s, returned to Czechoslovakia and founded the Prague Unitarian Church. It thrived until the Nazis did all they could to break their spirit. They arrested Rev Châpek and sent him to Dachau where he died unbowed. The flower communion was conceived by him and has become a UU favorite across the world.
Flower Communion and the World Today
In the fertile period immediately following the end of the First World War, Norbert and Maja Čapek, living in Orange, NJ, felt certain that liberal religion could thrive in the land of their births. With UUA President Sam Eliot’s blessing, they were off to Prague.
The Unitarian Church they started flourished. State Roman Catholicism had ruled throughout the old Austro-Hungarian Empire—in the dismissive, autocratic style of oligarchies everywhere. Among the earliest members of the Čapek’s church was the influential wife of the liberal, democratically elected Czechoslovak President Tomáš Masaryk. Reeling out of heavy-handed Catholicism, Čapek’s members initially resisted churchy trappings of any kind. Services were “presentations.” Robes were abandoned. Hymns were eliminated, too. But that didn’t seem to work either, as everyone agreed services were void of emotion and colorless. Slowly the Čapeks introduced listening to and singing music, candles, and other liturgical elements. The congregation grew into a mega-church with over three thousand members.
Reverend Čapek soon discovered what all UU ministers learn: it’s hard to get everyone engaged collectively when you don’t have a shared ritual or common theology. Many of his members had positive experiences of the Eucharist, but many did not. There were many members who had grown up Jewish and rejected the rite altogether. How to craft a ritual that incorporated everyone and successfully got everybody reconnected and strengthened…and empowered to care for each other?
His answer: the Flower Ceremony: He asked people to bring a flower from their garden or one they found along the roadside; then he and others would make a mad-dash focal point bouquet; then later, at the ceremony’s close, folks would be invited to take another flower home.
In the late ’30s Maja Čapek was here in the United States raising money when the Second World War broke out. She introduced the Flower Communion to the Cambridge, Massachusetts Unitarian church in 1940. It has grown in popularity among UU congregations ever since.
Norbert Čapek quickly frustrated and vexed the Nazi authorities who had taken over in Prague. Their court records reveal that Čapek’s gospel of inherent worth of everyone was found to be “too dangerous to the Reich for him to be allowed to live.” When jackbooted Gestapo agents came loudly knocking at his door, he welcoming them and offered tea. Struck by his poise, they meekly accepted and left shortly afterwards only, alas, to be arrested a few nights later. Advised later that all charges would be dropped if he apologized to his overlords, he refused, saying the Nazis should apologize to him. He was sent to Dachau Concentration Camp where he died about a year later, but not—according to others who were there—before he inspired many others with his warmth, his charm, and his courage. Even in the darkness of Dachau Concentration Camp, the flower communion brought strength and hope to those who participated….
So when you think about the Flower Communion, think about the courage and even-temperament of its originator, looking the foremost hyper-militarized terrorists of his day in the eye and called them out for what they were. So, yes, Čapek gave us flowers, but he also bequeathed to Unitarians a model, a template if you will, for recognizing terrorism and calling it out.
Yesterday—June 6—marked the 76th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, which was led by Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Many died in that invasion and during the eleven more months of European combat before the Nazis were defeated and their fascist ideology of racism and deceit could be wiped out. Eisenhower knew the horrors of war, but it was only after the fighting stopped that he realized first-hand the depth of human inhumanity when he brought along Generals Omar Bradley and George Patton and their troops to visit Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Eisenhower wanted his battle-hardened soldiers to see for themselves the bodies of Jewish prisoners and the emaciated living human beings who somehow avoided death. Eerily prescient, he wanted thousands of soldier to have witnessed and be able to tell the truth about concentration camp horrors should future naysaying propagandists claim that the holocaust never happened.
Nazi brutality had many targets, but the principle target of their animus were people guilty only of being Jewish. From its inception, Nazi governing philosophy had been to give Germans a sense of racial superiority and entitlement to rule over everyone else. Scapegoating Jews for social and economic problems bedeviling German society, the Nazis took only twelve years to turn a formerly civilized country into a breeding ground of extermination. And ruin.
The scourge anti-Semitism is still thriving across the globe, including in the United States inside the United States. Hate crimes in Pittsburgh, Southern California, New York City, and elsewhere reveal the terror still visited upon Jews. And according to the Anti-Defamation League, murderous assaults and acts of bias are on the rise, along with fear nagging at the hearts of Jewish people haunted by centuries of scapegoating and discrimination. And as current events have shown, the scapegoating and discrimination of African-Americans is also increasing—or at least awareness has increased of the many ways these social ills have infected—and continue to infect—the health of our country. Bigotry and prejudice within America are a pandemic all their own, and are greater threats to the American way of life than any threats from refugees or foreign powers. As Eisenhower himself wrote in 1948, “People are not free who harbor irrational prejudices… [and won’t at least pay] lip service to the good-neighbor principle, which in essence means the recognition of the worth and dignity of each human being, regardless of race, color, creed, or social status.”
To many citizens, our current President’s attacks on Muslims and other minorities have significantly fanned the flames of prejudice. By baiting political opponents with insults and unsubstantiated accusations, Mr. Trump gives implicit permission for emboldened followers to use violence against minorities who, in many instances, they feel have threatened their favored and entitled position in this country.
Unitarian Universalism offers no prescription to heal widespread intolerance. People’s hearts must be changed on a one-on-one basis, through honest conversations and serious meditation on the issues involved (as we’ve been doing for over two years with the support of Pam Orbach and the Right Relations Committee). One thing is clear: healing racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia will require the forceful speaking up and speaking out by both civic, business, and political leaders and their followers. The civil protests over the last days are a very good sign that platitudes about sending prayers and good thoughts will no longer suffice. Silence is unacceptable because it breeds bias. Recognizing this, retired General James Mattis said in a powerful statement to the Atlantic on Wednesday that the President he once supported is actively trying to divide the country and urged American citizens everywhere to unite without him.
Jim Mattis was a successful general who rose to become the Secretary of Defense. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the most successful general of the greatest war ever fought who rose to become among the most popular Presidents in American history. A political centrist and a strong leader, Eisenhower had witnessed the wanton destruction of toxic ideology and war as few others ever have. A brilliant strategist, he commanded armed, free men to open things up, not close them down; to liberate, not imprison; to offer freedom, not fear. On this the 76th anniversary of D-Day, heirs to the gallant heroes who led that fight, may our efforts and our goals be always to the same end.
A Garden of Human Creativity
A garden of human creativity is another name for Beloved Community, or a Community of Congruence, or any thriving community or healthy church. And it’s the United States when we’re at our best; when we’re more closely approaching “the more perfect union” our Constitutional framers were aiming for. And we have approached it: The Era of Good Feelings in the James Monroe Era, for African-Americans the years of Reconstruction, the New Deal, the liberalized social environment coming out of the 1960s, to name a few such periods.
Like America, East Shore Church, has had its ups and downs, its periods of greater and lesser vitality and cohesion. The ministries of Chad Smith and Leon Hopper encompassed two particularly dynamic periods here, and one of the hallmarks of both—of all vital communities—was the wide variety of people who felt welcome here, who found they could quickly integrate into the life of the place and began helping make it all go. And go great guns, with vital programming and more and more links in the greater community.
The President’s unwillingness to engage with any sector of the electorate other than his own base has been underscored by his decision two days ago to go to Maine – I had a church in Maine, and I have to tell you, it’s one of the least diverse states in the country – during a week when almost everywhere else was racked with turmoil and crying out for a conversation about healing racial divisions. Unwilling or perhaps unable to hold difficult conversations with fellow citizens about racial justice issues facing the country, Mr. Trump sought refuge among like-looking defenders in a Northern New England Yankee redoubt.
Here at East Shore, we have made different choices: we have—and it has never been easy—chosen to have difficult conversations about how issues of race, the legacy of white supremacy, and housing and employment vulnerability can encourage beloved community. And about how ignoring these issues—that is, by retreating to some mythical Northern Maine UU land of self-absorption—can only keep beloved community at bay, maybe forever.
For Norbert and Maja Čapek the Flower Communion was Unitarian Universalism’s most perfect symbol and best integrating ritual. And
precisely because it celebrates the gifts of everyone; their contributions are all welcome. People who are uncomfortable with that idea, maybe won’t be comfortable at a UU church, at least not at first. But give it a try and it becomes liberating and can help bring order and ethical clarity to one’s life.
The same is true for America. The moral core of the current protests is the simple demand that law enforcement officers who abuse their authority be held accountable and that African-Americans be free to live without fearing that their lives will be cut short by a chance encounter with the police.
What can be wrong – or un-American – about that? Everything I know, everything I learned from my mother and father, from Angus McLean at the Unitarian Church in Westwood, every echo of the “still, small voice” I have ever detected agree: that these demands are proper and good and wholesome, and good for our country, and good for its people. Indeed, good for the whole world.
So may it come to pass; in the names of Norbert and Maja Čapek, Dwight David Eisenhower, George Floyd, Breonna Talyor, and countless others who have remained steadfast in their resistance to bigotry, persecution, and state domination. May their efforts come to fruition, and their harvest be one of newfound freedom and cultural renewal for all of us.