Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 8 June 2014
When we end our service today with our annual flower communion, we’ll be honouring the legacy of Rev. Norbert Čapek and his wife, Rev. Maja Oktavec Čapek, whose story you heard earlier. Together they founded the Unitarian movement in what was then Czechoslovakia. The church they established in Prague became one of the largest in Unitarian history. Maja was in the U.S. raising funds for the church when her husband was arrested by the Gestapo.
Biographer Richard Henry writes that Norbert Čapek had a “sun-drenched, pre-Holocaust faith.” It was a faith “that sustained thousands of his compatriots during the darkness of Nazi occupation ... .” Survivors who had known him in the concentration camp in Dachau said that Čapek’s faith enabled him to endure his own martyrdom with equanimity and courage. In their eyes, he was a hero.
In 1941, in Dresden Prison, Čapek wrote:
It is worthwhile to live
and fight courageously
for sacred ideals.
O blow ye evil winds
into my body's fire
my soul you'll never unravel.
Shortly after composing these words, he was transferred to Dachau. There he died in October of 1942, holding onto a faith that had inspired the flower communion, a simple exchange of fragile blossoms, as a ritual to unify a congregation of Catholics, Protestants and Jews in a very polarized time.
We have often commemorated that time in other ways, but this morning is the first time that I remember stopping to commemorate D-Day, the day the Allies invaded Normandy towards the end of World War II. Today we took a moment to light a candle of remembrance, thanks to a friend who was in France on that very day, a 16-year old girl who had survived the trauma of war and still remembers the relief and gratitude she felt. We stop, we take the time to say to each other “never again”, and yet we know that “again” keeps happening in so many places around the world. There is much action to be taken to make peace a reality, and we live with so much confusion about what actions can really make a difference. It is hard not to be cautiously negative or passionately angry.
In these post-Holocaust, post-911 days of cynicism, nihilism, and narcissism, couldn’t a sun-drenched faith that can withstand the darkest despair be just what we need? Maybe, just maybe, on this day, we can allow ourselves to let in a little bit of sunlight to warm our hearts.
Every year, on the day we celebrate our flower communion, I always feel a little anxious as I prepare for the service. What if this year is the year when we don’t have enough flowers to go around? What if everyone forgets that today is our flower communion? I usually stop at the market on the way to church to pick up a large bouquet of flowers, just in case. And of course, every year there are more than enough flowers to go around and my bouquet is unnecessary. A single flower would have been enough. Each year we share in this moment of abundance together, and I realize that I too should allow myself a little more “sun-drenched faith.” There is always enough.
As I think of this ritual we share together, Anne Pitkin’s poem, “Blue Morning Glory”, comes to mind. I love this hazy story of a tenacious flower, perhaps really a weed that you wouldn’t want to stand beside your roses or to invade your vegetable garden. Yet there it grows, hogging “all the sky it can get, knowing as it does what enormous thirst is satisfied by blue.”
“Follow the God of abundance,” says Father Michael, the voice of wisdom in the poem. Perhaps he’s the one observing the morning glory’s voracious appetite for sun and sky. He says, “we hurry away from the moment’s wealth for fear it will be taken.”
There are the questions that his words imply. Do we shy away from what is so abundantly given, because we cannot imagine that it will be ours to keep forever? Are we afraid to love and be loved? Would we rather believe in scarcity, fearing to take risks or to reach out, convincing ourselves that we will only be met with rejection?
“the morning glory has been blossoming for so long
without permission that in some gardens it is no longer censored.
What does that tell you? See how it opens its tender throats
to a world that can sting it, how, without apology for its excess,
it blooms and blooms, though even yet
it seems surprised.”
This day we bring flowers for each other, each flower unique, each one of us unique. There may be elegant greenhouse roses and common daisies, perhaps even a morning glory. I think of that first flower communion in Prague, back in 1923, and I imagine that it must have been a surprise and a revelation to the Čapek’s congregation. Norbert and Maja must have been inspired by something that went beyond the diversity of theology, beyond Catholics, Protestants and Jews coming together under a Unitarian umbrella. Like any other religious community, there would have been the roses, the daisies and the morning glories. There would have been the upright individuals who lived by rules and the wild and tenacious individuals who opened their tender throats to a stinging world without apology for their excess.
How complex we are, we human beings. How complex we have always been. Belief is but a gauzy veil that gets dropped over the varied and blooming bouquet of who we are. I sometimes think we like to retreat into the mind, because to delve into the place of the heart is to take a frightening risk to be vulnerable – and to witness the vulnerability of someone else can leave us feeling even more inadequate. Aren’t we supposed to fix everything? Aren’t we supposed to have wise and soothing words to say? What if we find that we lack empathy; that the abundance that we hope to find within ourselves just isn’t there?
Exactly a year ago, we celebrated our flower communion in the morning, had a quick lunch, and then held a memorial service for a beloved member of this community. If you didn’t know Ruth, well, she was something special. She was a small round woman, a Raging Granny and an activist at heart. She was someone who could make you laugh and she would have been the first to say that she could also try your patience.
I remember coming across this morning glory poem as I was preparing for the celebration of Ruth’s life. She was the morning glory to me, fragile and beautiful, voracious, tenacious, hogging all the sky she could get, living with the stings of the world, and still blooming and blooming in total surprise. If you go into the kitchen this morning, you’ll see the new stove that was just installed as a gift from Ruth’s family. Ruth was often found in our kitchen, chopping fruit or carrots, asking daring questions, and telling her favourite cheerfully inappropriate jokes.
Ruth taught me an important lesson about abundance and love. She taught me that I could sometimes be too quick to pass by the simple things, rushing on my way to what I thought were more important and bigger things. She caught me in my own impatience, and she taught me that what we all need—no matter what we cry out for—what we all need is love. What we all need is someone who will stop and notice just how beautifully unique we are, no matter what kind of blossom we may be.
I wonder if Čapek in his wisdom and courage knew that this was what was needed at the heart of a Unitarian faith; that we needed a day each year to call ourselves back to loving each other’s uniqueness no matter how intensely the world around us might swirl or how caught up we might get in the business of church. He and Maja may have spoken of bridging theological differences, but they must have known that this was simply a guise for something deeper. Life gets complicated, not so much by big ideas, but by how we live together, how we lose our way, our clarity, our compassion and our patience, how we can let anger and insecurity fill our hearts. That’s when we need to be called back into the sun, into abundance, into appreciation and thanks.
In light of the history that followed, in light of the tragic end to Norbert Čapek’s life, it would be easy to say that he and his wife were foolish and naïve to think that they could change the world by exchanging flowers. Maybe the world hasn’t changed that much, and maybe in the end all we can really change is ourselves. But that, for me, is a good enough place to start.
Here’s to tenacious morning glories, to sunlight that can warm our hearts and to a sun-drenched faith that can withstand the darkest despair.