as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, June 5, 2022
Last weekend, in response to the horrible mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, our congregation did its best to offer a public ministry. We took out an advertisement in the Houston Chronicle calling on the city to never again rent to the NRA. Around two dozen of us gathered on Discovery Green to protest the NRA’s convention. And Rev. Scott offered a powerful sermon challenging us to reimagine Memorial Day.
He asked us to imagine the holiday as time when we might celebrate, “no more deaths due to war to memorialize. No more need to mourn soldiers who have died. No more graves to decorate with flowers.”
But, mostly, he responded to the recent shootings by calling us to shift our thinking about the world from having rights to having obligations. Rather than a right to bear arms, an obligation to keep children safe from gun violence. Rather than a right to own an AR-15, an obligation to create a country where mass shootings never occur.
Right now, it seems hard to imagine such a world. There have been at least twenty-six mass shootings since the one in Uvalde. Five people dead in Tulsa. Two people dead in Ames, Iowa. On Monday, two dead in Philadelphia. On Friday, another three. Last Sunday, here in Houston, four injured. The list goes on.
The ongoing violence is as heartbreaking as it is terrifying. And I know, many of you who joined us last Sunday, and who are joining us today, were looking for, and are looking for, a bit of comfort, hope, and solace in the midst of what I can only describe as madness.
We are like a field of … of wild flowers … unpollinated … swaying against the wind …
Today, of course, is flower communion. A Unitarian tradition for close to a hundred years, in Prague where it originated, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts where it was first celebrated in the United States, it is a service that marks the transition from spring to summer.
Dew sparkling … buds bursting … we await the drying day …
The service itself might be thought of as a religious, collective, objection to a world gone mad. We do not talk about it all that much, but twentieth-century Unitarianism was profoundly shaped by struggles against mass and political violence. The Unitarian, now Unitarian Universalist, Service Committee began operations as an effort to save Leftist political refugees who were fleeing the fascist regime in Spain. As Rev. Scott recounted earlier, the symbol it adopted in its efforts to save people from Nazism and fascism, the flaming chalice has become the symbol of our faith tradition.
The flower communion also came from this milieu. The first service in Prague was celebrated only a few months after the assassination of Czechoslovakia’s Minister of Finance. In the wake of his death, a law was passed that greatly restricted press freedom and the freedom of association. In such a context, Norbert Capek organized the communion to ritually symbolize, in his words, “our liberty as a foundation of our fellowship.”
Seventeen years later, Capek’s wife Maja found herself stuck in Massachusetts as war broke out across Europe. Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Nazis. It was difficult to get news from her husband Norbert or their congregation. Starting in February 1940, the Germans began withholding correspondence to and from Czechs who were abroad.
As spring began to turn to summer, Maja was worshipping with the First Parish Cambridge. And there, in the congregation’s magnificent nineteenth-century meeting house, with its wooden white walls, ancient oak glossed pews, and soft velvet cushions, she arranged for the first flower communion in the United States. It was a way to honor her husband, their congregation, and connect Unitarians on this side of the Atlantic with those who were struggling against the madness of Nazism and fascism on the other side of the ocean.
Flower no flower
mist no mist
Like the Capeks, the members of their Prague congregation, and the members of the First Parish Cambridge, we too are living at a time when political violence and totalitarianism are on the rise. Those of you who have been attending this congregation for awhile–or having been joining us online–will know that the resurgence of totalitarianism in the world, and the rejuvenation of white supremacist terror in this country, is something we have been decrying from this pulpit for some time.
You might remember that in the wake of the white supremacist and antisemitic massacre that took place in Pittsburgh, at the Tree of Life Congregation, I offered you a sermon linking gun violence to totalitarianism. I drew our attention to the wisdom of the philosopher Hannah Arendt. She understood totalitarianism to be the quest for global domination and subjugation for all in the service of the powerful. And I reminded you that mechanisms of terror are central to the creation of such unfree societies.
A little than four years ago, I submitted to you these reflections:
In a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. The threat of arbitrary violence haunts every waking. People who live under a totalitarian regime never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that regardless of who they are or what they have done they may meet a terrible end. Arendt tells us, in totalitarian regime, “nobody… can ever be free of fear.” “Terror,” she warns, “strikes without any preliminary provocation… its victims… objectively innocent… chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” As I offer you those words, I want you to think about this country’s epidemic of gun violence.
In a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. Flower communion is an intergenerational service. Earlier we held a child dedication and honored our Coming of Age class and recent graduates. As I was working on this homily, I seriously wondered whether I should tack to such serious subjects as gun violence and the rise of totalitarianism in my remarks this morning.
I am a parent myself and, personally, I prefer intergenerational services that are simple celebrations of community and collective rites of passage than those marked by heavier fare. However, the more I thought about my homily, the more I realized that concerns about gun violence are ever present. It is the leading cause of death amongst children and teenagers. They must undergo active shooter trainings in school.
I believe that Unitarian Universalism is called to be a relevant religion. The reason why we gather, in-person or online, week after week, is to help each other make sense of this beautiful messy thing we call life and accompany each other on life’s journey. And that effort at meaning making and act of accompaniment is not something that we should just extend to adults. It should include everyone.
Which is why, today, at this difficult time, when we are surrounded by madness, with the children present, I think it is important for us to talk about what is wrong with the world and what we can do to set it right. Now, I am not going to offer a list of policy solutions to end gun violence. Like so many other of contemporary crises, we already know what to do to end it. The United States is the only country in the world fraught by such a plague. Numerous other countries have figured out how to stop it.
Instead, I want to suggest, rather simply, that in a time like this we remind each other–adults and children–of the importance of our communion. We have this spiritual community so that in the difficulties of the hours none of us might be alone. Totalitarian societies are built by atomizing everyone into individuals, by tricking us into thinking that we suffer alone. They are deconstructed when we remember that we are not just individuals, we are social creatures. We are born blessed with the power to act together and to care for each other.
The public narrative around gun violence is so often that of lone actors. But the truth is no one who pulls the trigger of a gun ever actually acts alone. They use weapons that were sold to them. They use weapons that were manufactured for them. They use weapons that the gun lobby worked to ensure would be available to them. In actuality, when someone places a bullet in a gun’s chamber they are being aided by thousands–nay millions–in their actions.
Gun violence should always be understood as a communal act. And the purpose of the flower communion–this ritual that we do year-after-year–is to remind us that we can construct a different sort of community and another kind of society. And it is help us remember that we each have a gift to give in that act of construction.
In the face of the horrors of the twentieth-century, Norbert and Maja Capek asked their congregations–one in Prague and one in Cambridge–to bring flowers to church on a fine spring morning. Like them, we bring our unique gifts, our flowers, and unite them–symbolically in the vases before us and truly in our gathering–so that we might remember that we are not alone. When we come together, like the flowers in our vases, we can make a more beautiful world. We hold the flower communion to remind ourselves of that truth. It is the truth that reminds us that people came together and defeated the totalitarian plagues that haunted Europe in the twentieth-century. And is the truth, I pray, that we will remember so that we might–each bringing our gifts–unite with others to end the horrors of this century.
Let me put it in simpler terms. If you are lonely, if you are afraid, if you are struggling, there is a place for you here. When you come you bring the beauty of yourself. And when we gather you unite that beauty with others. So gathered, like a bouquet of flowers, we are gifted with the power–no matter how challenging the day–to make the world a little bit more beautiful. One flower is beautiful. Two flowers are beautiful. A bouquet of flowers is even more beautiful.