This worship service was conducted by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the homily below is a reading text. The actual homily as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Homily copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.
This worship service included a child dedication ceremony for two children of the church.
Minister’s introduction to the child dedication
In just a moment, we’re going to celebrate the christening of two children. But before we do that, let me tell you a little bit about what a christening is, and how it differs from a child dedication.
You probably know that our church has Universalist roots — First Universalist merged with First Unitarian in 1930. The Universalists have long done child dedications instead of baptisms. By 1793, the celebrated Universalist minister John Murray was performing child-dedications rather than baptisms [Life of Murray, 1854 ed., pp. 243-244], since as a Universalist Murray did not believe in the necessity of washing away some mythical original sin through baptism.
Unitarians evolved somewhat differently. By the time I was christened in a Unitarian church, just before merger with the Universalists, a Unitarian christening welcomed the child into a church that recognized, as I was taught as a child, the spiritual leadership of Jesus. But in both ceremonies, the children were formally welcomed into the church family.
These days, during a child dedication we dedicate a child to the highest ideals of morality and ethics; while a Unitarian Universalist christening more specifically acknowledges our spiritual roots in the teachings of that great spiritual master, Jesus of Nazareth.
Gathering the flowers
83 years ago, Norbert and Maja Capek were ministers of a Unitarian congregation far away from here in Europe, in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Most members of their congregation had left other religions to become Unitarians, and many of these people did not want to be reminded of the religions they had left behind. So Norbert and Maja Capek decided to create a new ritual for their congregation — a Flower Celebration.
One Sunday in June, they asked everyone in the congregation to bring a flower to the worship service. When people arrived on Sunday morning, all the flowers were gathered together in vases, and Norbert Capek said a short blessing over the flowers. Thus the flowers became symbols of what it means to be a human being: every flower was different, every flower was beautiful in its own way. And at the end of the worship service, everyone went up and took a flower, a different flower from the one that they had brought, took that flower home with them as a symbol of their connection to everyone else in the congregation.
We are going to have our own Flower Celebration, or Flower Communion, right here in our own congregation. In just a moment, we will all have a chance to come forward and place a flower in the vases on the table here. If you forgot to bring a flower with you this morning, or if you didn’t know that you were supposed to bring a flower, you will find extra flowers on the table over there, and you can come up, pick a flower you like, and place it in one of the vases here.
Because we value our children highly — for our children represent new beginnings and new possibilities — I am going to let the children be the first ones to bring their flowers forward. I invite the children to come forward now, and you may bring an adult along if you wish….
[Children come forward]
And now I invite everyone to come forward and place a flower in the vase here.
[All come forward]
This short blessing was written by Norbert Capek:
“Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask your blessing on these [flowers], your messengers of fellowship and love. May they remind us, amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and in devotion to your will. May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike. May we cherish friendship as one of your most precious gifts. May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do your work in this world.”
Not long before he was put to death by the Nazis, Dr. Capek wrote this prayer:
It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for sacred ideals.
Oh blow ye evil winds into my body’s fire; my soul you’ll never unravel.
Even though disappointed a thousand times or fallen in the fight and everything would worthless seem,
I have lived amidst eternity.
Be grateful, my soul,
My life was worth living.
He who was pressed from all sides but remained victorious in spirit is welcomed into the choir of heroes.
He who overcame the fetters giving wing to the mind is entering into the golden age of the victorious.
The second reading comes from the book Norbert Fabian Capek: A Spiritual Journey, by Richard Henry. Henry quotes Maja Capek, Norbert’s husband, as saying:
“During all his years in America Capek never had an interest in finding out more about the Unitarian church. Why should he be interested in a church that had no missionary spirit, was not willing to give a hand to a groping soul?”
Homily — “Giving a Hand to a Groping Soul”
In June, 1914, a Baptist minister named Norbert Capek came to the United States from Bohemia and Moravia — what we now call the Czech Republic. In 1913, Austria had taken away Bohemia’s autonomy, and by April, 1914, the outspoken Capek was on a police blacklist. Nor was he any more welcome within the Baptist church; a friend told him politely that he sounded like a Unitarian, while others less politely called him a heretic. So he left his homeland with his family and came to New York.
Once in America, he served as minister to Slovak Baptist churches, though with increasing discomfort on his part. His new wife, Maja — his wife Marie had died not long after arriving in America — Maja encouraged his doubts, encouraged him to rethink his spiritual position. After the Baptists tried him for heresy twice, he finally resigned his ministry in 1919.
So there he was, without a church, without a denomination. And at the same time, he and Maja watched avidly as the new country, Czechoslovakia, was born. They wanted to go back and be part of their homeland’s liberation. Specifically, they wanted to be a part of their homeland’s spiritual liberation. What we now know as the Czech Republic had been a Protestant country until 1620 when the Hapsburg monarchy began oppressing Protestants, eventually forcing all Protestants to convert to Catholicism. After World War One, when the Hapsburg monarchy ended, Czechs began leaving the Catholic church by the thousands. Maja and Norbert Capek wanted to be in Czechoslovakia to found a liberal church for those thousands of people. But where could they get support for such a liberal church?
Ten years earlier, Norbert had approached the American Unitarian Association, asking them if they would support an earlier effort to found a liberal church in Czechoslovakia. But the American Unitarian Association had simply ignored Capek. It was as if someone came to our church, told us how they agreed with our religious values, felt in harmony with us — and in response we just ignored them and walked away. I feel ashamed at the way those Unitarians back in 1910 treated Norbert Capek. And so it was that Maja Capek later remembered, as we heard in the second reading: “During all his years in America Capek never had an interest in finding out more about the Unitarian church. Why should he be interested in a church that had no missionary spirit, was not willing to give a hand to a groping soul?”
However… by 1920 the Capek children wanted to go to Sunday school. The Capek family was living in East Orange, New Jersey then. One Sunday, the children went off to Sunday school at one church. When they came back, their father and mother quizzed them about what they had learned; but that church was teaching their children the old repressive dogmas, and Norbert said that he wished the children would go to a different Sunday school the next week.
Well, this went on for a few weeks. The children would go off to Sunday school, and their parents would quiz them when they got home. When Norbert and Maja heard the same old orthodox Christian doctrines, they asked their children if they would please try a new church the next week.
Until one Sunday, when things were different. Years later, Maja Capek recalled:
“One Sunday they came home and Capek was very much pleased with the lessons they had learned. He encouraged them to keep going there. And the, being curious about what this church had for adults, Capek and I went one Sunday. It was a small church, and we wanted to slip out unnoticed. But we could not get by the minister who stood at the entrance shaking hands and talking with everyone present. When our turn came, he said to us, ‘I believe you are new here. I have never seen you before.’ We said we were and then we confessed that we were the parents of three children in his Sunday school. And we told him how much we liked what the children were learning there.”
Do I need to tell you that it was the Unitarian church in East Orange that Maja and Norbert Capek liked so much? Even though the American Unitarian Association had ignored Norbert ten years earlier, the local Unitarian church held out a hand to him and to Maja. The minister of that church, Walter Reid Hunt, arranged to introduce the Capeks to the president of the American Unitarian Association, Samuel A. Eliot. And once Eliot actually met Norbert, he realized that this was an experienced, capable minister who deserved the full financial and moral support of the American Unitarian Association.
With that moral and financial backing, Norbert and Maja went back to Czechoslovakia. Before he left, on June 5, 1921, Norbert gave a farewell talk to his friends in the Unitarian church in East Orange New Jersey. He told them how they had restored his faith in Unitarians, after having been snubbed earlier. He told them what he liked about that Unitarian church:
“…I found not only clear heads but warm hearts, too. I liked the deep and inspiring sermons of Mr. Hunt, I enjoyed the sweet music of Mr. Decker, I loved to join in the bouyant, light-winged singing of the congregation, and especially I was enthusiastic about my [children], what they told me about their Sunday school and their teachers. It is certainly the best Sunday school I ever saw.
“But above all I liked what is so difficult to describe, what is more than a friendly smile, more than a kind word of greeting — it is that personal touch of a soul that has vision, it is the heart of religion in the heart of this congregation.”
My friends, Norbert Capek could have been describing this very congregation, First Unitarian in New Bedford. I cannot claim to preach deep and inspiring sermons, but at least they’re religiously liberal. But Randy’s sweet music, the good singing of this congregation (when you like the hymns you are asked to sing, that is), the non-dogmatic teaching of our Sunday school, the friendly smiles, the kind words of greeting — we here have that personal touch of a soul that has vision. That is the heart of religion, which is the heart of this congregation.
Not that we make a big deal out of ourselves. We are not like the hypocrites who have those television shows, the ones praying and wailing and asking for money, and putting on a grand show. That’s all you get from them, a grand show, but there’s no real religion at the heart of all that preaching and praying and weeping and wailing. We are quieter, and not so showy. But when you head out to social hour and start talking with the members and friends of this church, you realize that these are souls with vision.
For many of us, our souls have visions of an earth made fair with all her people free; that is to say, we will not rest until we have instituted heaven here on earth. For others of us, our souls have intellectual and spiritual and artistic visions that extend beyond mere transient dogmas to that which is permanent in religion. Our souls have visions of personal integrity, where we try to treat each person as having that of the divine within. Our souls have visions of a universe in which love is the most powerful force. Go out into social hour, and in those ordinary-looking people I see souls of vision. Go out into social hour, and underneath the ordinary conversations, I hear souls with depth and intensity sounding forth.
Each member and friend of this church is on his or her own spiritual journey, and most of us — maybe even all of us — take this pretty seriously. And I see individuals in this church reaching out to each other, and reaching out to visitors and newcomers, extending a hand to a groping soul. So it is that the strength of this church lies in the individual characters of each of us, its members and friends.
Let me get back to Norbert and Maja Capek before I end. By 1922, they had begun a new liberal congregation in Prague. Soon, they realized the need for new religious ceremonies, and so on June 24, 1923, Norbert Capek organized the first flower celebration. He described that first flower celebration to Samuel Eliot:
“…in my sermon I put emphasis on the individual character of each ‘member-flower,’ on our liberty as a foundation of our fellowship. Then I emphasized our common cause, our belonging together as one spiritual community…. And when we go home, each takes one flower just as it comes without making any distinction where it came from and who it represents, to confess that we accept each other as brothers and sisters without regard to race, class, or other distinction, acknowledging everybody is our friend who is a human and who wants to be good.”
So it is that in just a moment, we will come forward and take a flower from the communal vase, take a flower without regard to race, class, or any other distinction. So it is that we recognize that we are all connected to one another, all humanity is connected, and in that connection lies whatever salvation we shall find. How could it be otherwise? –for whenever we extend our hand to a groping soul, to another human being — whenever we take a hand that has been extended to us — there is hope; there is true salvation; there is the power of love.
The exchange of flowers
The poet William Blake wrote:
To see a World in a grain of Sand
And a heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Please come forward now, and take one flower, a flower different from the one you put into the vase, without regard to where it came from, without regard to the race, class, sexual orientation, age, gender, or national origin of the person who put it there.
[All come forward to take flower.]
We have each taken a flower, a blossom unique and like no other. So we affirm that we are all brothers and sisters. This flower in your hand may fade, but every spring flowers bloom; nor will they ever stop. Everett Hoagland sent me a poem by the poet Bassho that tells us why:
the temple bell stops
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers
— trans. Robert Bly