Our Flowers are but Symbols — June 14th Sermon (Rev. Steve)

Lately, as I have not been able to travel to Hopedale, I have been riding along in the morning with Eileen as she goes to her job as the food pantry manager at Interfaith Social Services in Quincy, where we live.  She drops me off and I turn right around and walk home, which is about two miles.  It’s a great way to start the day and, while it has been slowly getting busier, normally very busy Adams St. has been pretty quiet.  At one point, I pass a very fulsome rose bush right along the sidewalk.  You would probably call it a shade of crimson.   I don’t often just plunge my face into flower blossoms but these I couldn’t resist, and I learned what is often true with highly cultivated roses–there wasn’t much of a scent, very faint.  By contrast, when I served our church in Hudson years ago, I lived in a house bordering the wetlands of the Assabet River where are many wildflowers of all kinds.  At this time of year there were roses too, but these were wild roses; simple, pink, four petal blossoms nowhere near as spectacular as these big, puff balls of crimson—but you could you smell those wild roses ten yards away.  Simplicity and complexity; each have their blessings, and it may be something as commonplace as flowers that teach us that lesson.

The capacity for this appreciation seems to be a deep, human characteristic.  I know of no contemporary society that does not celebrate the existence of flowers.  Flower seeds have been found in Neolithic graves, indicating that our earliest human ancestors buried blossoms with their dead.  From sheer sensual delight to deeper transcendent meanings, humans have always invested flowers with significance and symbolic power–and thus we do here, this morning.

The exact date and place of origin of the Unitarian Flower Ritual is not known with complete confidence, but certainly owes its most fully realized, early form to the Czech Unitarian minister Norbert Capek.  Capek was originally a Baptist, but after visits to the United States and spending time at the Unitarian Church in East Orange, New Jersey, he became a Unitarian.  He returned to Prague, and in 1921 founded what was to become the largest Unitarian congregation in the world.

As a Czech, Capek was well acquainted with the world’s ways of power and greed.  The Czechs were, for centuries, dominated by various empires.  Following the First World War, they experienced a brief period of independence as a part of Czechoslovakia, only to be conquered in turn by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia.

Capek was, by all accounts, a courageous, dynamic and captivating leader.  When the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, he preached constantly against them.  At age 70, he organized a committee of resistance that met in the Unitarian Church and helped Czechs escape from the Gestapo.  Brought in and questioned by the Gestapo, Capek said, “All people who are worth anything are either jailed or examined by the Gestapo.  I would be ashamed of myself, if I were not.”

Finally, on March 23, 1941, he declared “I can bear it no longer!  I must speak the truth and not be a coward!”  He used his Sunday morning sermon to contradict a speech of Hitler’s and to issue his most forthright challenge to the Nazis.  Five days later, the Gestapo arrested him and sent him off to prison.  His crime?  Listening to a foreign radio broadcast.  Informed by his lawyer that he might be freed if he would beg the Nazis for a pardon, Capek declared, “I shall never bow down before them.  They should ask me for a pardon!”

With thousands of others, he was later sent to a concentration camp in brutal reprisal for the assassination of a Nazi leader.  There, at the age of 72, Capek was killed in a barbarous medical experiment.

In the sermon I quoted earlier, Capek said that “[Human beings are] constantly seeking to express the invisible by some symbol.”  I believe he is right, and I would like to consider what we might be symbolizing this morning.  Before he went on to discuss flowers, Capek took up the symbols of the cross and the chalice.  He noted, correctly, that the cross in Christian usage had been transformed (for the believer) from the sign of a shameful death to a sign of noble sacrifice and hope for eternal life.  However, he said, it had lost its purity by being too often associated with intolerance, war and oppression.  The same with the chalice.  Long before it became common among us, the chalice was the symbol of the 15th Century Hussite brotherhood in Bohemia.   Symbolizing open access to the cup of communion, it began as a symbol of freedom and purification of the church, but it too, was eventually used by warring factions in bloody power struggles. Neither symbol had retained its purity.

This is why the Czech Unitarians were choosing flowers as their symbol.  “Each flower,” Capek said, “has something eternal in itself, something divine.  All other symbols are made by the human hand, but a flower is the product of the best forces of nature . . . It is connecting us to the whole of nature and with the One who gave the garment to these flowers.   As the flower grows from the ground and looks up to heaven, so we stand firmly upon the earth but seek for the highest.”

As it is with flowers, so it can be with other products of the natural world—trees, plants, green, living things of all description:  rooted in the earth or in the water, here with us yet seeking for the highest.  Some of the flowers we’re sharing virtually today may have been raised in greenhouses, others discovered along the roadside or in a backyard garden.  You gardeners are well aware that all of this greenery, while it does grow by itself, can nonetheless be cultivated and modified, like the many kinds of roses that now exist through human intervention.  You know that while nature left to itself, can be quite beautiful, yet human art can bring an arrangement and cultivation to nature even more pleasing than random chance.  A deep and quiet beauty can be created that symbolizes both rest and the ongoing quest of the Spirit.  All of these can be deep symbols and metaphors for our journeys in faith, however we may understand that.

Norbert Capek, his Unitarian congregation and their flowers defied Nazi power.  They stood against the most brutal war machine the world had yet seen.  In the short run, of course, they lost; Czechoslovakia was dismembered, and Capek murdered.  The flowers so boldly seen as a symbol of life and peace should have been strewn on his grave, were it even known.  Yes, in that one blink of the historical eye, Capek and his Unitarians lost but not in the long run; which is alive and celebrated today and which is consigned to the ash heap of history–Unitarianism or Nazism?

Of course, we know that today’s celebration of standing firmly upon the earth yet seeking the highest is shaded by one horrible event or another: the latest police shooting, the latest march of a few hundred fascists.  The Power of Love may be overcome from time to time, as it was in Prague and throughout Europe.  We are realistic; we know it may be overwhelmed in the moment—but we have faith that the Power of Love will, in the end, always come through.  It may take a long time.  We may not live to see it, but love and—yes—flowers will always, always return in triumph.

May it be so.