This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.
Story — The Flower Celebration
86 years ago, Norbert and Maja Capek were the ministers of a Unitarian congregation 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. There were more than two thousand people in the church, so the church rented a big concert hall for their worship services. When people arrived on Sunday morning, all the flowers were gathered together in vases — hundreds of colorful flowers all over the front of the church. Norbert Capek told the congregation that the flowers were 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.
Iva Fiserova grew up in the Prague Unitarian church, and she shared some of her memories of the Flower Celebration:
“Sunny morning… a granny walking holds a grandchild’s hand… carrying the most beautiful flowers from the garden, entire families enter a big house… there are floods of flowers on the stage of one of the biggest concert halls in the city… a vivid community sharing the mutual happiness of the gathering… thousands of people giving each other friendly greetings… a warm and festive atmosphere… the personal joy of belonging to this community… These are tiny fragments of childhood memories that influenced my life deeply and that have been treasured since those days.”
That’s how Isa Fiserova remembers the Flowers Celebration from when she was a little girl.
Our church has a special connection to the Flower Celebration. Maja Capek, one of the ministers of the Prague Unitarian Church, came to New Bedford during the Second World War, and was the minister of the North Unitarian Church. A few of our church members still remember Maja Capek from when they were children. While she was here in New Bedford, she conducted the Flower Celebration each spring. And so we still have a Flower Celebration each year, partly to keep alive the memory of Maja Capek.
The first reading was a prayer by Norbert Capek, written while he was imprisoned by the Nazis:
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.
[Second reading not included.]
Each year, we hold a Flower Celebration in the second week of June. I would like to speak to you this morning about the religious symbolism of the Flower Celebration. This is the last time I will preach to you as your settled minister, and the religious symbolism of the Flower Celebration offers me a perfect chance to sum up the main theological notions about which I have been preaching for the past four years.
The Flower Celebration as we know it today had its origins in a post-Christian religious ritual developed in the 1920s by Norbert and Maja Capek for the Unitarian church in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Most North American Unitarian Universalists call this religious ritual a “Flower Communion,” but I consider that name to be misleading; the Capeks wanted a ritual that was not based on old Christian rituals, and I feel calling this ritual “communion” when it has nothing to do with the Christian ritual of the eucharist is incorrect.
The Flower Celebration begins before the worship service, and outside the church building. Individuals and families find flowers to bring to church. Those who have gardens might pick flowers from their gardens; others might buy flowers from a florist; and others might find flowers growing by the side of the road or growing in a field. Then everyone brings their flowers to the church, each individual carrying a flower that looks like no other flower in the world. At the beginning of the Flower Celebration, everyone in the congregation brings their flowers to the front of the church, and places them in one of the vases there. The vases of flowers remain at the front of the church until the end of the worship service, the massed flowers serving as bright spots of color that enliven the worship space. Then at the end of the worship service, each person takes a flower home; not the flower they brought, but a flower that someone else brought.
First Unitarian Church has a special connection to the Flower Celebration. In 1939, as the Second World War was heating up, Maja Capek came to the United States to promote relief efforts in central Europe. She was unable to return to Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia, and spent the remainder of the war in this country. From 1940 to 1943, she served as the minister of one of our antecedent congregations, North Unitarian Church. So it was Maja Capek herself who introduced this ritual to us Unitarians here in New Bedford.
The Flower Celebration is a simple ritual. It is also a powerful ritual with several layers of meaning.
Most obviously, the Flower Celebration is a ritual that celebrates the connections between the individuals who make up the congregation. You come in to the Flower Celebration with one flower, and you leave carrying a flower that someone else brought. You may not know who that other person was, yet when you leave the worship service your life has been touched by him or her. Perhaps the person who brought your flower is one of the people who has been one of your spiritual guides or mentors in the church. For all you know, that other person is one of the people in the church whom you happen to dislike; yet your dislike of that person means nothing in the face of the transcendent meaning and beauty of the flower you carry. Equally likely, your flower was brought by someone whom you don’t know. Every person in a congregation is connected by the transcendent meaning and beauty of the religious community, which is made up of individuals who are each physical manifestations of transcendent human beauty. We may not always see the transcendent beauty that is in each individual, but the Flower Celebration reminds us that it is there, in each and every one of us. The Flower Celebration also reminds us that we are connected each to all through that transcendence.
This leads us to another meaning of the Flower Celebration. During the Flower Celebration, each flower is of value; there is no flower that will be discarded, or ignored, or rejected. Each flower is unique, each flower is different, yet all the flowers are welcome. This is an obvious metaphor for how we hope to treat each other as human beings. We aim to see the value in each human being. We try to live our lives so that no human being is discarded, or ignored, or discriminated against, or rejected. We also know perfectly well that it seems impossible to live our lives in that way. As an extreme example, while in a theoretical way we might be able to see the human value of a convicted child molester who is at great risk of being a repeat offender, in actual practice we don’t particularly want that person to be a member of our church. In real life, our highest values are sometimes brought down by unpleasant realities. Yet we want to hold on to those highest values, even if sometimes we can only hold on to them theoretically. So each year we have a Flower Celebration to remind us that one of our highest values is that each individual human being has all the beauty and value of a perfect flower.
Here in the United States, the Flower Celebration takes on a special meaning due to the history of our country. In the United States, we are still living with the moral problem of discrimination based on skin color. Racial discrimination, left over from the days of legal slavery, remains one of our most nettlesome moral problems. In the Flower Celebration, flowers of every color are valued equally, and here in the United States we almost can’t help but make the leap from flower color to skin color. The Flower Celebration reminds us, in this not-so-subtle way, that each individual human being has value and beauty regardless of skin color.
Another nettlesome moral problem that we face in today’s world is the problem of ecological sustainability, and here again the Flower Celebration reminds us of this vast moral problem. The flowers that we bring to a Flower Celebration are so fragile; they are easily crushed, they will wilt if we don’t care for them by keeping them in water. The very presence of flowers in the church reminds us of the fragility of the ecosystem. We also become aware that many different species of flowers are present during the Flower Celebration, and of course we value each different species equally. This serves to remind us that the ecosystem consists of many different species of plants and animals, each of which is equally valuable. Thus the Flower Celebration helps us to remember the importance of working towards an ecologically sustainable world.
And for me, the Flower Celebration illustrates one final theological point. Flowers come into bloom, fade, go to seed, and the seeds may germinate next spring while the flower itself with wither and rot and turn into compost that will nurture next year’s plants. The world is an endless cycle of change and transformation. This reminds me of the tenets of process theology: that nothing stays the same, and that we must be constantly ready to allow growth and change within ourselves, and constantly ready to transform ourselves in response to an always changing world. Stasis means death. Change means life, and growth, and hope. At the same time, change is never easy; to transform ourselves can require great courage. When I look at the flowers gathered for the Flower Celebration, I cannot help but think that they will all be faded and gone within a week or two; we cannot freeze these flowers so that they bloom forever. So these flowers will fade, but I also know that during next year’s Flower Celebration, people will bring flowers of equal beauty. Thus, change isn’t something to be avoided, it’s something to be embraced because change is the way of life; and for us human beings, change inevitably leads to growth and transformation.
So the Flower Celebration becomes a ritual which brings to a deeper awareness of our theology and of our moral values. The transience of flowers reminds us that change and transformation are the only things that will lead us to growth. The fragility of the flowers reminds us of the fragility of the ecosystem, and our moral responsibility to create an ecologically sustainable world. The uniqueness of each flower and the diversity of all the flowers reminds us of the uniqueness and diversity of human beings, and of our moral responsibility to end all forms of discrimination and racism. The exchange of flowers reminds us that each individual in this religious community is connected to every other individual, reminds us that we are not alone and that we cannot exist without community.
And assuming the Flower Celebration does bring us to a deeper awareness of our theology and of our moral values, may we then in turn continue to live out our theologies and our moral values in our day-to-day lives. We come to church each week to restore our connection to each other, to ourselves, and to something which is large than our selves; and having been restored, we go back out into the world, nurturing growth, embracing change, ever moving toward a world that will be transformed into a heaven on earth.