Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Reflections on Flowers and Weeds

This is the text of the reflection I offered at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, April 22nd 2018.  It being Earth Day, this was the perfect Sunday to celebrate Flower Communion.  Especially in light of the discontent and disquiet current being felt in the congregation, it was the right time to remember the beauty of our community and how each of us contributes to it.

I want to tell you the story of the Flower Communion we’re celebrating today, and which many, many Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate each year.  It’s one of the few uniquely Unitarian Universalist rituals our movement has.  For some, it’s right up there with the In-Gathering Water Ceremony.
Norbert Čapek was born in 1870.  His family was Catholic, and as a young boy he wanted to grow up to be a priest.  As he got older, Catholicism lost its luster for him, yet the urge toward ordained ministry continued.  At the age of 18 he joined the Baptists, and was ordained a Baptist minister.
So the Flower Communion was created by an ex-Catholic turned Baptist?  Hold on.  His search for truth and meaning isn’t done yet.
Čapek became an itinerant preacher, and evangelist who travelled widely, spreading the Good News.  Along the way he came into contact with the free Christian movement in Moravia.  The Moravian Church has its own fascinating history.  Jan Hus disagreed with some of the ways of the dominant Catholic Church.  Among other things:  he wanted the liturgy to be celebrated in Czech, rather than Latin, and wanted lay people to be able to receive both the bread and the wine during the Eucharist (at the time only priests were permitted to drink the wine).  As to priests, he thought they ought to be allowed to get married.  And he thought the practice of granting indulgences – which supposedly reduced the punishment for a person’s sins – and the concept of purgatory were wrong.  Naturally, he was charged with heresy – this was the 1400s after all.  Hus was declared guilty, and burned at the stake.
During his travels Čapek – remember Čapek?  This is a story about Norbert Čapek – became increasingly liberal in his views and anti-clerical.  He wrote and edited a number of religious journals, writing articles about everything from psychology to politics.  He, too, drew the negative attention of The Powers That Be, and he and his wife fled to the United States, along with their eight children.  This was 1914.
While he and his family were in the United States, the Baptists in his homeland brought up on charges in two heresy trials (Hus only got one!).  You might say that Čapek agreed with the charges, although didn’t see them as heresy, and he resigned as a Baptist clergy person.  That same year he discovered the teachings of Unitarianism, and he and his wife joined the First Unitarian Church of Essex County in Orange, New Jersey.  They were so moved by the teachings of what would become our own Unitarian Universalist faith, that they decided they had to go back to their homeland, and returned to Prague that same year.
Čapek formed the Liberal Religious Fellowship – an awfully good name, don’t you think? – and this fledgling Unitarian church grew, soon able to buy their own building, which they called “Unitaria.”  (Eventually they were able to purchase a medieval palace, which they renovated into their church building.  In 1926, the Czech government formally recognized the Unitarian Church of Czechoslovakia as a legitimate religion.
In those early years, not everyone who attended a service would have immediately recognized them as a religion.  The minister didn’t wear robes, there were no elaborate rituals, they didn’t sing hymns, and there were no formal prayers.  The services consisted largely of lectures.  And while all of that was appealing, some members of the congregation felt that there was a lack of a spiritual dimension, so Čapek begin to write hymns, and other liturgical elements.
Wanting to have a ritual that would embody the community as a community, yet not wanting to try to replicate the Eucharist, Čapek invited the members to bring with them one morning a flower.  It could be something from their own gardens, or something they found growing along the way.  When they entered the church, there was a large vase in the vestibule, with two children in charge.  People were asked to place their flower in the vase.  Having placed it there themselves was a reminder that it was their own free choice to enter into this community, and together that vase of flowers represented the beauty of their church.
During the service, the vase was brought up to the front of the church, and Čapek said a prayer and then consecrated the flowers.  The children then took the bouquet back to the vestibule, and people were asked to take a flower on their way out at the end of the service.  They were asked to take a flower other than the one they’d brought, as a way of symbolizing that the members of the community carried one another even when not at church together. 
When WWII broke out, the Čapeks were invited to return to the United States, but Norbert wanted to stay in Europe, continuing to serve the faith that had given him so much.  His wife did go back to the US to raise funds for relief efforts in Czechoslovakia.  She also served as minister in the North Unitarian Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts during this time.  Back in their homeland, Norbert and his daughter were arrested by the Gestapo.  They were charged with the capital offense of “listening to foreign broadcasts.”  They were eventually taken to Dachau, where he was tortured and, eventually, murdered.
His wife Maja had shared their Flower Ceremony with the church in New Bedford, and its practice spread – in part, because of its beauty, and also as a way of honoring this Unitarian martyr.
And we celebrate it this morning.  We have created a bouquet of flowers, each contributing its own beauty, just as we create a bouquet of people, each adding their own unique gifts and spirit to the whole.  Each Sunday I say that if any one of us were not here, it would be a different Sunday, just as if any one of those flowers was not there, it would be a different sight.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (whom some call “Saint Ralph” – okay, only I call him that) famously wrote (and it’s famous because it’s in the back of our hymnal):
These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time for them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.
But I’ll admit that I’m not so interested in roses – with apologies to those of you who may have brought one this morning.  Roses are so … quintessentially “flower.”  One of my favorite flowers is the dandelion.  Oh, I know that folks spend a lot of time trying to rid their lawns of them.  I can’t calculate the number of hours I spent on my knees, under the watchful eye of my mother, doing my best to remove each and every one, digging down with one of those garden tools with the “v” shaped top, trying to get them out by the roots so that they wouldn’t come back.  (She’s she’s not here to hear it, I’ll confess that I didn’t always make the full effort and would just pull off the obvious bit above ground.)
And maybe it’s because of what I’d call my “misspent youth” that I love dandelions so much, but I can tell you that a field of those compact little balls of sunshine is as beautiful to me as any of those enormous tulip fields Holland has to offer.
And maybe I love them because dandelions are often classified by people as a weed – as opposed to those stately roses.  On those few occasions when I watch televised sporting events, I rarely root for the team everyone else does.  I always root for the underdog, even if that means changing my allegiance during a game.  And with apologies to Ruth Douglas and others who know a lot more than I do about the perils of invasive species, I root for the weeds.  And after all, as a leader of a homestead camp I attended in my youth like to say, “Even a rose is a weed if it’s in a tomato patch.”
My mother once bought a product called Meadow in a Can.  In that can were the seeds of nearly 150 varieties of flower, and it was meant to be spread over an area of about 500 square feet.  My mother apparently didn’t read the fine print, because she poured out that can in one of her 5 x 8 beds, a total of only 40 feet.  That summer she really had a patch of wild flowers.  And my mother, being my mother, and I, being my mother’s son, loved that little area of beauty run wild more than any of her well-ordered, traditionally planted beds.  Up close it was … well … it was a mess.  But step back a bit, or look at it from above, and it was a chaos of color. A profusion of joy.  Beauty run wild. 
My friends, for all the tumult and turmoil roiling in our congregation at this time, I look out at you and see here – and among those not here this morning – just such a wild patch of beauty.  Roses and dandelions.  Spring ephemerals like bluebells, Dutchman’s breeches, and bloodroot (which blooms for only a few days), as well as long-blooming plants such as lavender, coneflower, and Russian sage.  We are that Meadow in a Can, we are those 150 varieties blooming together, we are a field of wildflowers.  And while it is human nature when times are hard to identify some as “flowers” and others as “weeds,” the soil and the sun make no such distinction. 
It is my hope, it is my prayer, that we can remember this truth about ourselves.  That we can take that view from above and see our abiding loveliness.  Let us look on one another in love.  Let us be mindful, always, of our beauty.

 Pax tecum,

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

How Do You Want to Bloom Here?

This is the text of the reflection I offered to the congregation I serve on Sunday, April 25th, 2018.  (If you prefer, you can listen to it.

I want to thank those of you – both here and not here this morning – who have taken the step of formalizing your membership in this community.  The two things I like to say to new members are:  congratulations (because you’ve joined a wonderful congregation), and thank you (because by your joining, and by bringing the gifts and spirit only you have, you are making it more wonderful still).  So, congratulations and thank you.
I must say, though, that you’ve picked an … interesting … time to take this step.  There’s supposedly an ancient Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” said not as a blessing, but a curse.  “May you live in … interesting … times.”  It turns out that it isn’t a bit of ancient Chinese philosophy, yet we certainly can understand using the word “interesting” as an ironic euphemism for … well … for the kind of times we’re living in.  And while I could be talking about “the times we’re living in” in relation to this time in our nation, or this time in our city, this morning I’m most interested in the … interesting … times we find ourselves in here in our congregation.
This is a time when many people are questioning whether or not this is the right congregation for them, or who don’t know if they want to, or even if they can, go with it in the direction it seems to be going.  This is a time when people are even wondering about whether Unitarian Universalism, as a faith tradition, is what they’d thought it was, and whether they can honestly and with integrity continue to call themselves UUs.  As I said, this is very much an … interesting … time to be joining TJMC.  You’re joining just as a lot of people are wondering about, and fearing for, the future of the congregation.  There are those who are saying that we’re in a time of crisis.
Not me.  Not me.  I believe firmly that his disconcerting disquiet and disequilibrium we’re experiencing right now is not a problem.  I think it’s a good thing, something to lean into it. I see it as an opportunity. 
My Mother-in-Law, herself a retired Methodist minister (and well versed in the ways of congregational life), asked me just the other day if what has been happening at our church had “calmed down” at all.  I told her that I certainly hope things haven’t calmed down too much.  I reminded her of the Rev. Dr. King saying that there are some things to which we all should be “maladjusted.”
I want to be clear that I don’t think being uncomfortable just for the sake of feeling uncomfortable is a good thing.  Nor have I forgotten that while the famous description of religion’s purpose is about “afflicting the comfortable,” it also says that our work as a faith community is about “comforting the afflicted.”  I know that; I do.  Yet don’t we all know how easy it is to move from comfort to complacency?  And sometimes it can be hard to keep track of who, in our culture, needs comforting and who’s in need of some afflicting.  This isn’t another sermon about our racial justice work, or even about the current controversies surrounding us.  I’m really talking this morning about how our faith invites us to live our lives, you and me.
Unitarian Universalist unequivocally calls us to reject complacency in all its forms.  At its best, and perhaps more than any other of the organized religious responses to life we humans have developed, it calls on us to refuse to be too settled, too satisfied.  It calls on us to question … everything … and to keep on questioning.  As one of our hymns puts it, we believe that, “to question is the answer,” or as an old bumper stick said, “Unitarian Universalism – leaving no answer unquestioned.”  We are famously not bound by creed or dogma; we are charged with searching for truth and meaning – on our own and in community – and understand this to be a life-long search.
One of my favorite spiritual teachers is the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  (If you’ve never seen the video of him giving a talk that’s usually described as “the greatest sermon ever,” it’s well worth Googling when you get home.)  He has said that for a real scientist is kind of disappointing if an experiment proves their hypothesis, because then it’s all over and done with.  The excitement comes when an experiment doesn’t prove your hypothesis and opens up a whole new host of questions.  According to Tyson, it’s the questions, not the answers, which drive the scientific enterprise; scientists are much more interested in exploring the currently-still-mysterious, rather than simply creating a catalogue of the known.
I love this so much because I think that it’s the purpose of our Unitarian Universalist faith as well.  When we’re at our best, it’s the enterprise our congregations exist to help each of us, and all of us, engage.  We are not supposed to be satisfied with the answers we found ten years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, or even, necessarily, last year.  We believe in evolution not just in biology, but in our understanding as well.
Years ago, while serving another congregation, I had a sign on the board in front of the church for several months.  It said: “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you still have one?”  The Christian theologian, and Catholic Saint, Augustine of Hippo said way back in the 5th century, si comprehendis non est Deus.  (One of the few bits of Latin I remember.) That translates as, “If you understand it, it’s not God.”  And I’d say that whatever terms or images we use to describe Ultimate Reality, that Spirit of Life we sing about most Sundays, our faith calls us to have that same awareness and attitude:  if we understand it, it’s not … It.  That’s why we’re called to the search for truth and meaning, and not to the celebratory party for truth and meaning discovered.
But this is hard.  It is hard to keep questioning our answers.  It’s hard to keep looking for new ways of seeing, listening for new ways of hearing, finding new ways of being in the world – especially when the laundry’s been piling up, and the fridge is getting a little empty.  With so much … chaos … swirling around us it would be nice to have something solid to hold on to.  Yet just as comfort can change to complacency, something solid can easily become something stagnant.
This is why I think that this … interesting … time of disquiet and discomfort is not a crisis but an opportunity.  It is an opportunity, for us as individuals and as a congregation, to really wrestle with – or, as I prefer to say – to dance with our principles, our values, and our understandings of things.  It’s an opportunity to re-examine what we really believe, something our faith doesn’t dictate to us but, rather, invites us to discover for ourselves.  It is an opportunity to ask questions:  What does it mean to be truly welcoming if in welcoming some people we unavoidably exclude others?  What does it mean to be committed to being a truly safe place for people who have historically been, and are being still, marginalized if it means things we’re accustomed to have to change?  What does it mean to disagree with others, risky though that might feel, yet still be one community?  (Can we trust each other enough to do that?  What does it mean if we can’t?)  What does my “belonging” to this community mean?  What expectations can I reasonably have, and what can be expected of me?  Do my wants, my perceived needs, my desires, my preferences have to be met for me to say that things are “going well”?  (What is the measure of the “success,” if you will, of our mutual ministry?)  What are the limits – or are there limits – to my commitment to this place and these people?  Do I really belong here? 
These are the kinds of questions people say that they’re dancing with these days precisely because of the … interesting … times in which we find ourselves.  Yet the truth is, these are the kind of questions we ought to be dancing with all the time!
Mickey ScottBey Jones, an anti-racist organizer, has written about real, deep, transformative relationships with perhaps a surprising metaphor.  Deep, transformative relationships are the kind I hope we’d agree we ought to be striving to create here, and we might think of them as cool and comforting, soothing and supportive.  Yet Mickey ScottBey Jones wrote:
[R]elationship is the sandpaper that wears away our resistance to change. Relationship is the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward … it smooths the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw.
Relationship is the sandpaper of life.
We are being offered an opportunity – again, as individuals and as a community – to ask ourselves deep and fundamental questions about our faith tradition, our own faith, the purpose of this community (and others like it), and about the meaning of our membership in it.  At its best, a faith community offers us an opportunity to discover the way into our fullness, an opportunity to truly bloom.  In our faith tradition we are challenged to discover that way for ourselves, and to keep discovering new dimensions of that “way,” so that our blooming can become ever more beautiful and fragrant. 
For me, the most important question in all of this is whether we will make good use of this opportunity.  The question to that is something that only you, and all of us together, can answer.

[The Parting Words were the well-known quotation about question by Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet.  They are well worth remembering in just about any times, be they ... interesting ... or not.]

Pax tecum,