“Burning Symbols”  by Mark W. Harris

 January 13, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship – (Responsive)   #437  “Let Us Worship” by Kenneth Patton


Let us worship with our eyes and ears and fingertips;

Let us love the world through heart and mind and body.

We feed our eyes upon the mystery and revelation

in the faces of our brothers and sisters.

We seek to know the wistfulness of the very young

and the very old, the wistfulness of people in all times of life.

We seek to understand the shyness behind arrogance,

the fear behind pride, the tenderness behind clumsy strength, the anguish behind cruelty.

All life flows into a great common life, 
if we will only open our eyes to our companions.

Let us worship, not in bowing down, 
not with closed eyes and stopped ears.

Let us worship with the opening of all the windows of our beings, 
with the full outstretching of our spirits.

Life comes with singing and laughter, 
with tears and confiding, 
with a rising wave too great to be held in the mind 
and heart and body, 
to those who have fallen in love with life.

Let us worship, and let us learn to love.


Reading – from “This Blessed House” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies)


Sermon –  “Burning Symbols”  by Mark W. Harris


We are going to begin today with a quiz.”   My high school math teacher used to say that at the beginning of class sometimes.  It always produced a ripple of panic among the sleepy throng of students:  “No, not a pop quiz.”  Our panic was exacerbated if we had not paid attention to yesterday’s lesson or failed to do the homework.  Now, we, in fact, are going to begin with a quiz today, but there is no need to panic, and no wrong answers. Your one question is: What does the flaming chalice mean to you?  (symbol of UUism, light of hope, etc.)

In the last generation a flaming chalice has become the accepted symbol of Unitarian Universalism world wide.  The newsletter of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists is called “The Global Chalice.”  Typically speaking some kind of candle or oil lamp that sits in a holder or vessel that is shaped like a cup or chalice will be lighted.  Words will be spoken in the context of that chalice lighting that may represent something of the faith journey of the individual who lights the chalice that he or she wants to share with the community, or perhaps there is a unison reading from the larger liberal religious tradition that binds our congregation with others around the world.  Like the lighting of candles for joys and sorrows this lighting of the chalice and speaking represents a recent liturgical change for most Unitarian Universalists.  The idea of such ritual enactments or symbolic representations of faith have little history in our tradition, but I believe the longing to fulfill certain religious needs is now bearing fruit in these elements of our worship services. So we begin with two questions, why have we not had such rituals, and where does this ritual come from?  This sermon represents the second in a series on the elements of our worship service.  We began with joys and sorrows as a representation of the prayers of the people, and we will continue next month with the meaning of the offering. Our worship committee has also been reflecting upon these liturgical elements, and has recently developed guidelines for chalice lighting.

Many of us grew up in traditional religious communities, and so we may remember different manifestations of the cross above the altar, or communion services, Stations of the Cross, or even the Star of David, or the Ark of the Covenant. The cross may represent many Christian developments through the ages – a Catholic cross that has the bloody and dying Jesus affixed to it representing suffering and sacrifice, or the Protestant cross that has no body upon it because it represents a risen Christ, the symbol of triumph and glory.  In Judaism that star may represent a kind of messianic hope and joy, but also the pain and degradation of a long history of oppression and prejudice.   For many of our churches there is a Puritan Protestant traditions which eschews all symbolic representations of God or the holy, partly in reaction to the Anglican traditions of too much symbolism, but also because the Puritans believed that trying to embody or picture the ineffable is idolatry.  We can only experience the holy, they might have said, we cannot picture it or symbolize it in earthly artistic or objectified representations, and thus Puritan meetinghouses had no stained glass and no crosses.

Unitarian Universalists usually continued this kind of rejection of symbolic representations of the divine or the religious, but for somewhat different reasons than our Puritan ancestors.   We have often felt like Sanjeev in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House.”  When his wife Twinkle began to find these old Christian icons representing the faith of the people who used to live in the house they bought, he said, “get rid of them.”  This is not us.  We don’t believe in or follow these practices.  Those who grew up in Christian traditions have often said that those symbolic representations of the faith that they grew up with must be thrown out because the faith has been rejected or left behind for something new.  We are not Christian anymore.  We do not celebrate communion.  The cross means nothing to me except the sin and guilt that my former religion imparted to me growing up.  Many of our churches in their efforts to embrace traditions from all the world’s religions either had no symbolic representations of faith or tried to include them all, even as they maintained a tenuous connection to Protestant and Christian forms and traditions.

For decades some Unitarian Universalists considered rituals such as communion, and even taking an offering as outmoded elements of a faith they longer found meaning in, but rather than thinking about what symbols or actions could embody the new faith in corporate worship experiences, the liberal religious ethos tended to reject rituals or symbols outright.  I would suggest that there is a human need to reenact our greater religious truths, so for instance, a communion may be rejected because it reminds us of Jesus’ body and blood, but it may also symbolically represent that we human beings are part of one another in spirit, and in life, and in heritage, and sharing the common fruits of the earth represents that we are connected in a bodily way that words cannot express or show. So one might ask what symbol evokes the plurality of our Unitarian Universalist faith? The answer increasingly has been the flaming chalice because it seems to capture that plurality, and somehow ties together both free and universal thinking, a history of both heresy and service, an openness to new truths, and a magnificent heritage.

Many of you have heard me tell the two stories that capture this heritage. One is about the Bohemian priest Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church a century before the Reformation began.  Hus’ church in Prague was a typical Catholic church of the time – The service was recited in Latin only, so the common person could not understand what was being said.  When it came time for the Eucharist, the communion chalice, the cup of salvation was not offered to the laity, but was only drunk by the priests.  Hus believed that everyone should be able to understand the word of God, and so he began to say the liturgy in the Czech language.  Hus also believed that everyone should be able receive the cup.  There should be no special class of people, but the opportunity for access to the divine should extend to everyone.  This radical inclusiveness resulted in Hus being martyred for his heresy, because he sought a more universal understanding of truth.  After his death, it is said his followers began to wear robes with flaming chalices emblazoned on the back.  The Hussites, forerunners of the Reformation, said we much be open to new truths. They embodied our current free search for truth by teaching that everyone should have equal access to the possibility of spiritual growth.

That is one historic tradition we stand in.  The other is mentioned on your order of service covers near the symbol of the chalice.  Now if you look at the 4-th-6th grade Religious Education lesson for today you will see they are learning the story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp.  In 1939 the Sharps traveled to Czechoslovakia to begin a dangerous, yet courageous effort to rescue Jews and others from war torn Europe.  Eventually hundreds of children were saved from concentration camps, where most would have died.  Out of this humanitarian effort, the Unitarian Service Committee was born.  Wanting to develop a symbol to represent their work, Charles Joy, the USC director, commissioned an artist to represent their mission of faithful service to others while giving hope that tomorrow’s world would be more peaceful and just. Not wanting to use a cross, the flaming chalice became an appropriate sign of service to others, but also reminding people of the search for truth, or in the Greek tradition, of the lamp of knowledge. Finally, it was the light of hope that one generation tries to impart to those who follow.  So despite our history of shunning religious symbolism, in the last generation we have embraced a symbol that has become the focal point of worship, and a visual representation on stationary and clothes and even, bumper stickers, that reflects what our common faith is.  Our longing for symbols and for ritual is fulfilled in this cup – offering universal love and service to all, while lighting a flame of truth and hope, an eternal flame if you will, that we are committed to bring love to this world in place of hate, service in place of selfishness, peace in place of war.  The designer of the chalice, Hans Deutsch said that even a Godless fellow like him could say a wholehearted yes, to this religion, that was not rote magic, but rather an active faith, a lived faith that found embodiment in the world.   In effect, the symbol is us.  As Abraham Heschel once said, “what is necessary is not to have a symbol, but to be a symbol.”

Have we then adopted a symbol that embodies the way we live our lives?  Does the chalice say the following to you, once its flame is burning: I feel a kind of wordless wonder that the use of reason and knowledge sends me on a religious voyage of  understanding and discovery of many truths; and then I also embrace hope because of its faith in human abilities and innate worth; and finally I embrace human freedom in its determination to seek justice and equality, in its service to those who are denied their rights.  These three – the light of truth, the beacon of hope, in service to love – are these what the chalice evokes in you when you see its light?

I think each of us whether we were born in this faith, or came in from Christian or Jewish backgrounds or no tradition at all has a story that makes the light in the chalice burn more brightly.  We may be inspired by a story from our heritage that continues to speak to us.  We may feel the heat of the flames that consumed Hus because we would not lie about the truth of freedom and equality that burns in our hearts, whether it is about priests and laity, men and women, gay or straight, rich or poor.  We may feel compassion for others who are losing their livelihood, their homes, and their right to work and be free like the Sharps did because we cannot be silent about the oppression we see in the world– for immigrants, the poor, felons, persons of color, those with mental illness.  Maybe it was you who were brought up in a religious community that made you feel like an outcast or a sinner, and you needed a new community that embraces freedom and the search for truth.  Or perhaps maybe it was the beauty and affirmation of a liberal religious community that you knew as a child, and you long to keep that tradition strong and vital for all the years to come.  You know a liberal tradition that affirmed your search, and you know how others would feel the comfort of a supportive community, if they could be embraced here as well.

Unitarian Universalists have a long tradition of hearing the word because the emphasis in our services is on the spoken word.  Yet the clear message of the tradition is that the words matter less than the actions.  The chalice in its modern form was developed to represent our service to others; how our faith is lived in the world; how we become symbols ourselves.  Thus it is a ritual that requires action, you must get out of your seat and come up and light the flame. We need this in our lives.  We light candles in the darkness.  We look to the sky. There is something in us that longs to connect to the earth from whence we came, to the people with whom we share the life spirit.  Church services can embody an acting out of us trying to see and feel the ways we articulate the Mystery within us reaching out to a mystery beyond – the cup of life giving blood, and the light that shines in the darkness.  Kenneth Patton reminds us n the opening words that we worship with our whole being.

I am a collector. Some might say I have an inclination to hoarding, but I do like little trinkets, reminders of places I have been, symbolic representation of things that are important to me.  In my office I have a toy Jesus, and a laughing big bellied Buddha, an incense burner, and at home, an old wooden dreidel, a Universalist collection box, a rosary ring, little Hindu Gods,  a chalice from England, and a box from Transylvanian Unitarians.  There is memorabilia from trips, religious pilgrimages in some cases, and lots of shrines to the church of baseball.  Each thing represents a person I loved, a culture I learned from, and a tradition that informed my spirit.   Every year, I love going to the Museum of Fine Arts to bring home the ancient First Parish communion silver, if only for a day. To some this may seem monetarily valuable, but a meaningless old and outmoded tradition.  They may say, this represents a former faith that we no longer follow, and prevents us from living for today.  We could sell the pieces and use the money for a current program. Yet destroying or rejecting the tradition gives us no heritage to build upon.  We inherited a faith tradition, and now our task is to find ways to represent it in our worship, and in handing it on to those who follow.  Just as those pieces of memorabilia represent my life pieces, I think all the chalices of our worldwide faith represent the pieces of our faith.  Our story today about the African village that wants to celebrate the New Year brings the communion silver back to our every life. Wine is the special liquid that not only represents Jesus in the traditional communion, but it is what was served at special meals, the last supper, Passover, the African New Year. What if you are asked to bring wine to life’s celebration and you bring water?  Maybe you can hide the lie if everyone else is telling the truth, but what if everyone lives by a lie.  Think of those times in your life when you could have given wine, and instead gave water?  Who were you cheating?  If you wish to know God, then you must teach that God is available to all. If you wish to know liberty and freedom, then you must offer it to others.  If you wish to enjoy the bounty, then you must offer it to others as well.  As Hus taught, the cup must be for all.

Our reading today begs the question, what makes a house blessed, what gives us a blessed faith?  The story moves on a couple of levels.  It is the story of a new, somewhat arranged marriage where the couple does not know each other very well.  When Twinkle discovers these Christian icons, she is excited and wants to keep them and display them, but Santeev says they are not part of what they believe in, as Hindus, and he wants to destroy them.  This is also true of a bottle of malt vinegar left in the house.  Later Twinkle makes a delicious stew out of the vinegar he wanted to destroy. Although these icons and the left over vinegar are irritating to Sanjeev, Twinkle says they show the house is blessed.  The story culminates when they have a house warming party, and all the guests end up on a treasure hunt to search the attic for more of the treasures that the guests have seen on display in the house, much to Sanjeev’s dismay. During this time Sanjeev fantasizes locking the party in the attic and having the house to himself, but seeing Twinkle’s discarded shoes reminds him of the anticipation of being with her.  In the attic the party discovers a silver bust of Jesus that seems to actually be worth something. While the couple comes to some communication understanding in the end, what is more significant is how he sees what love is.  He was locked in his own tradition, and wanted to destroy anything that produced something new to wonder at and explore.  He called the icons childish, or trash to be destroyed.  He indicates that the pieces will make him look bad.  But for Twinkle they are a sign of discovery, almost as in “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are” Discovering the new is a treasure hunt that produces wonderful results.  The rejected vinegar is used to miraculously produce an delicious stew, even though Twinkle uses no recipe, and has shown no ability to cook.  The chalice is the symbol of our free faith stew that blesses us, gives us our faith, and makes of this house, a home of the free spirit, and the compassionate soul.  May we remember the power of religious symbols. Like David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, may we see in the chalice our free heritage of religious wonder and discovery.

Closing Words – from Lucien Price (adapted)


We mortals stumble forward over uneven ground,

Each carrying a golden vessel of the sacred fire,

Each in constant peril of falling and spilling it,

The fire grows more precious for every mile that is marched.

What is this fire?  We do not know.

It has warmth, can comfort others by its glow.

It has light; some flames can illumine the darkness

From horizon to horizon and, like stars, go on shining

For ages after their candles have been blown out.