as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, June 4, 2023
Beauty. Beauty. Beauty. The beauty of the flowers. The beauty of their stems. The beauty of the leaves. The beauty of this one, next to that one, beside this other one, across from still another.
The unasked for, undeserved, abundant beauty of the flowers. The physical incarantion of grace. Not wine into blood, not bread into body, but the true gift of what is given, without metaphorical or theological transubtantiation, from earth and sky, soil and sun, to each member of the great family of all souls.
If you are new to Unitarian Universalism, you might not know that our congregation, like many in our tradition, celebrates the start and end of the summer session with two distinctive rituals. Each year, as the school year ends and we gather for our annual congregational meeting, we hold a flower celebration. It is a unique ceremony in which we each give and receive the gift of a beautiful flower. It is followed in late August by the water celebration. On that day we will each bring water to mingle in the sanctuary. The mixing of the water symbolizes the way in which we come together in community.
These two celebrations are expressions of how Unitarian Universalists understand the sacred and the nature of religious community. Flowers and water are ordinary, necessary, and astonishing.
They are ordinary in the truest sense of that word. They belong to the regular order of things. As this morning’s rains might have reminded you, it is almost impossible to pass a day without encountering water. It is ubiquitous. It makes up the mass of our bodies. It covers the bulk of our planet.
Flowers, too, are everywhere. Sure, we might not notice them, but they are there in the grocery store: matured into the fruits we eat, the fractural white buds from vines transmute into grapes; before the apple, the blossom; and that artichoke, itself a flower. They bloom so that we might eat. Much of the year, they bloom for their own fecund business: sparking the seed that carries one generation of life to the next.
But flowers and water are not just ordinary, they are necessary. We cannot exist without them. Water sustains us, is us. Flowers feed us. Without these two things there is no bread–the loaf begins in wheat’s flower–and there is no wine.
The elements of the Christian communion rely upon human industry for their existence. Ours do not. They are precursor, an expression of our understanding that any particular religion is somehow connected to the universal. Each culture will have its own fruit of the vine, make its own bread, but all necessitate water and flower for their sustenance.
Ordinary, necessary, astonishing, ever present as they are, there is something awe inspiring about water and flowers. Listen to a rain storm. Hear terrestial music as the drops drum the ground. Gaze at petals, catch the scent of lemon blossoms–with their soft hints of jasmine–and be reminded, again, that the beauty of the Earth is ever existing.
Ordinary, necessary, astonishing, we Unitarian Universalists understand that revelation is not sealed. Each and every moment, each and every object, each and every flower, contains the possibility of some new truth or some fresh experience. It is like our great sage Ralph Waldo Emerson said, we can each have “an original relation to the universe.” That relation can be found in this flower or that, in this vase of water or that.
This leads us to proclaim what James Luther Adams named “the prophethood of all believers.” While many of our congregations have ministers, there is no requirement that a Unitarian Universalist community be led by clergy. Ministers are not understood to have any relation to the divine that is unavailable to the laity. Instead, it is hoped that through the act of preaching–which Emerson defined as “life passed through the fire of thought”–we might offer you something of use.
The reverse is true. I am constantly experiencing new revelations, discovering new ways of understanding and coming to new truths, through my relationship with you. Sometimes this happens through the practice of dialogue and discussion that is such a habit within our community. In my conversations with you about the Eighth Principle, to offer one example, I have deepened my own thinking about the work of dismantling white supremacy and other kinds of oppression.
It means one thing, I have learned, to make a commitment to anti-racism in the North and another to make one here, in the neo-Confederate South. Here we find ourselves beset with the question of living our faith in the face of the politics of cruelty. How can we act, we are called to ask, to dismantle oppressions when the cruel whom govern the state are assaulting so much that we value. LGBTQ communities–particular those whose members are transgender–are targeted. The White controlled state government is wresting power and resources from Black and Brown led cities like Houston. The Governor has on his desk a bill that will strip local elected officials of the ability to set labor standards, ensure civil rights, protect the vulnerable, or address the climate crisis. It is very different, here, to make a commitment to the work of collective liberation than it is in California or Massachusetts.
There are other teachers besides words. Only a couple of weeks ago a member of the congregation brought us a lesson in flowers. Maybe you were not here. Maybe you did not notice. But we recently had a most unusual arrangement: garden flowers. Well, not garden flowers exactly. Good garden things organized into a bouquet: arugula going to seed, kale, mustards, red chard (with its ruby veins), and purple spiked chive blossoms. To me it was a subtle reminder of the many things that can be woven into beauty. It prompted me to look a little differently at my own garden. Perhaps the bean blossoms or the corn husks should be reimagined.
Blossoms, boquets, we are holding our flower celebration as the rains arrive, the heat and humidity oppressively return, and Texas commits ever further to the politics of cruelty. In such a season of discontent, it must be recalled that the flower celebration is not just an expression of our Unitarian Universalist commitment to democracy–a commitment we will reaffirm this afternoon during our annual meeting when we collectively make a decision about a statement of our shared values. It is also a celebration of anti-fascism.
Anti-fascism, it has become a much maligned word. But anti-fascist is what Norbert Čapek was. He conceived of the flower celebration the year after Mussolini came to power. He imagined into being the same year that the Nazis launched their failed Beer Hall Putsch. He thought of it as a ritual expression of a commitment to building a society where the beauty of each individual is celebrated. That is a core commitment of both anti-fascism and Unitarian Universalism. It is a statement that everyone is beautiful in their own way. Just as every flower offers beauty. Each person–no matter sexual orientation, religious belief, gender expression, race, age or economic class–contains beauty as well.
Čapek celebrated his first flower celebration on June 4th, 1923. It helped him build the Unitarian Church in Prague into one of the largest of our congregations in the world. Before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia more than 3,000 people would gather with him to observe it and make a religious commitment to democracy and ritually honor the beauty of each person and the gathered community. When the Nazis took power in Prague, they decided that he was “too dangerous to the Reich for him to be allowed to live.” And so, he was murdered at Dachau.
But not before he held one last flower celebration in the death camp. There he gathered with his fellow prisoners flowers found amongst the weeds–beauty amid the horror–and offered a testimony of the power of beauty to endure. Today, at the start of Pride month, when almost everyone–the LGBTQ community, women, people of color, political dissenters, and so many others are targets of the cruel–it is an important testimony to remember.
… and cherry blossoms!
A camellia falls …
or clouds on that mountain ridge?
Blossoms at dusk…
a scented blossom and see the white…
Who can be grim
in the face of such abundance?
There is nothing to compare,
no need for beauty to compete.
Beauty, the prophethood of all believers, revelation is not sealed, this morning, this hundredth anniversary of the flower celebration, let us give thanks for Norbert Čapek’s ceremony and the democratic vision of our faith. But more than that, let us give thanks for the beauty within and around us. It is found in the flowers, yes. But it is also within you and you and you and you and each of us who commits together to build a more beautiful world. May that beauty grow ever more present amongst us. That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.