May The Flowers Remind Us
May the flowers remind us. Certainly one of the things we are reminded of is how beautiful Atlanta is in the spring. One UUCA member puts it this way: "The dogwoods, azaleas, forsythia, and Bradford pear blossoms that pop open in March and April take one's breath away." (Not just because of all the pollen in the air, I hope!) And you may agree with her when she goes on to say that, in this rebirth of nature all around us, we have the true and deep meaning of Easter: "that which was dead has come back to life!"
May the flowers remind us. Another UUCA member told me that, when she was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, as well as Yad Vashem and Dachau, and she witnessed the hatred and destruction that humans had inflicted on each other during World War II and continue to inflict on each other, she thought about our Flower Communion. She thought about how its message of finding life and beauty in the midst of destruction is so very, very special.
May the flowers remind us. For myself, the flowers remind me of the great religious prophet from Nazareth-his radically inclusive social and spiritual vision. Luke Chapter 5 illustrates this in the following way. The passage reads, "Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.' So Levi left everything, and rose and followed him. Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them. But the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?' And Jesus answered them, saying, ‘Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."
What's happening in this passage is truly amazing, but to see it, we need some background information. One of the several religious groups in Jesus' time was the Pharisees, and the religion of the Pharisees and their scribes revolved around purity laws covering every aspect of life, great and small. Break a purity law, and not only did this make you a sinner and put you at odds with the community, it put you at odds with God. Break a religious rule, and you became impure. Belong to a certain kind of social group, and you were by definition impure. The thing to remember here, above all, which is going to sound strange to our ears today, is that back then you just didn't automatically equate being a morally bad person with being a sinner. You could be a morally good person, but if you broke a religious rule-like you took too long a walk on the Sabbath, or you didn't observe the ritual washings before eating, or you touched the sick or the dead, or you shared a meal with the wrong kind of people-you became impure, you became a sinner. Same thing happened if you were a tax collector or a shepherd or a homosexual or a woman-you could be a morally good person, but because you belonged to the "wrong" kind of social group, you were impure, you were a sinner. There it was. And it was the duty of all religiously faithful people to stay away from them. Don't consort with sinners. Don't share a meal with them. Stay away.
But Jesus did not agree. Jesus thought this was dead wrong. "Go and learn," he says in the gospel story, "what this means: ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice.'" Now, in the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke, the word "compassion" brings to mind the image of being like a mother' womb-being life-giving, welcoming, all-embracing, all-inclusive. So what Jesus was telling the Pharisees and their scribes was this: that the God he knew affirms loving action that brings life to human relationships and to the world. That the God he knew wants to heal all the estrangements that humans manufacture with their artificial purity laws and codes-all the estrangements dividing people and leading to fearfulness, lead to misunderstanding, leading to hatred and acts of destruction. That's what the God Jesus knew is like. A God that wants people to grow into the fullness of their best selves. A God of compassion and welcome and of the beloved, beloved community.
So Jesus would not stay away from the impure. Jesus would not stay away from sinners. When Jesus saw the tax collector Levi, Jesus said, "Come follow me." How could he not say this? Jesus would eat with this man, and he would eat with others who were judged by the purity laws of the day to be sinners and impure. We see Jesus doing this again and again in the Christian gospels. The Jesus of history, spreading a welcome table that was all-embracing and all-inclusive, because he believed that if heaven was ever going to come to earth, that's what it would look like. People in all diversity and difference, gathered by a spirit of love to sit at the beloved community of the welcome table. It is just as the apostle Paul would say years later, in Galatians Chapter 3: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" before God. I would also add this: that there is neither black nor white nor brown. There is neither gay nor straight. There is neither Democrat nor Republican. There is neither Christian nor Buddhist. There is neither atheist nor theist. Each and every one belongs to the welcome table. Each and every one is precious and belongs.
And I wish I could say that people got the message. I wish I could say that. But purity laws of one kind or another still operate among us, dividing us from each other, creating resentments and estrangements between different religions and different races, different classes and different sexual orientations and so many other differences…..
So we need reminding. We need to be reminded that there is a better way.
So may the flowers remind us. Not just about the rebirth of nature in springtime. Not just about the beauty and grace of this world even as we face the injustices of the past and of the present. But also about welcome table vision of radical hospitality and inclusivity which Jesus of Nazareth preached so long ago and gave his life to. A vision which the creator of our Unitarian Universalist Flower Communion gave his life to as well: Norbert Capek. Let me say a little about his story.
Born 1870 in Eastern Europe, Capek grew up Roman Catholic, but in time he found himself outgrowing his Catholicism and ended up affiliating with the Baptist faith. As a Baptist, Capek experienced tremendous personal and professional growth. He became a bible salesman and missionary preacher, and his success as a preacher was so great that the Baptists sent him off to the United States as an evangelist. He ended up moving to New Jersey.
But this external move only reflected the continuing internal movement of his soul. He began to ask the kinds of questions that his Baptist faith could not accommodate, and he realized that he needed to find another spiritual home. He began looking around for something else. It just so happened that one of his friends in America told him about a Unitarian church nearby, in East Orange, New Jersey. And that's where he was introduced into the Unitarian faith and grew to love its gospel affirmation of a spiritual community united by love and not creed, empowering people to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Our version of Jesus' welcome table vision. Our take on it.
Now by this time, World War I had ended, and the new country of Czechoslovakia had been born. Its first president turned out to be none other than the friend who had introduced Capek to Unitarianism, and this, together with Capek's growing desire to return to Europe to preach the welcome table gospel, led him to urge the American Unitarian Association to sponsor him, which they did. Capek returned home, and almost immediately, he was drawing standing-room only crowds. People were hungry to hear about the gospel of the welcome table. And in time, this gospel he held in his heart flowered forth into a celebration, perhaps in much the same way as Zoe and Lydia's celebrations which we heard about a moment ago. It blossomed into the Flower Communion we continue to observe today. "From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and from this we live."
But soon came the 1930s and a world wide economic depression. It was also a time that saw the emergence of a German politician named Adolf Hitler. In 1939, the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, and Capek was from that time on a marked man. The Nazis hounded him because he dared to preach about radical inclusivity; he dared to refuse the order of the day, which was to demonize differences; he dared to proclaim the ancient vision of the welcome table-gospel ideas that simply could not co-exist with Nazism. So the Nazis were just looking for an excuse to arrest him, and they found it when they learned he had been listening to forbidden British radio broadcasts. Eventually, in June of 1942, Norbert Capek was sent to the death camp in Dachau. The Nazis killed him by poison, an agonizing death, in its own right a kind of crucifixion.
But as with Jesus' vision and ideals, there was a resurrection. Yes there was. Death was not the last word and never is when we are talking about the truth. The truth will win out. Resurrection. The kind we can all believe in, and work to make happen in every day and in every moment of our lives. Believe in the welcome table, and build it, and keep on building it. Love each other. Pull together and not apart. Defy the forces of hate. Don't let the resentments simmer-heal them. Forgive. Understand. Cherish each other. Build beloved community. Build it. The flowers remind us. That's what they do.