Anyone bring marshmallows?
How many of you have ever been camping?
I went camping every summer as a kid. It was the only kind of vacation my family could afford. Don’t feel sorry for me, though, because we spent two weeks every July in Yosemite Valley. Those massive granite cliffs, the pine trees, and the green waters of the Merced of that sacred valley are sacred to me. John Muir referred to the Sierra Nevada’s as a “Blessed Ring of Light.”
We also took our own three children camping every year while they were growing up. We went to Yosemite of course, but also Zion, Yellowstone, the Canadian Rockies, Cape Cod, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and a lot of other national and state parks.
One of my favorite things was to build a campfire. The kids always fought over who could start it, but as often as I could I did it myself. We’d sit around the fire, maybe roast marshmallows, and sing a few songs. I actually sing a better now than I did then, if you can believe it, but we sang anyway. Puff the Magic Dragon was one of our favorites.
Mornings were the best campfires though. I’d try and get up at least an hour before Anne and the kids woke up. I start to Coleman first to heat water for coffee and then I would build a fire.
We humans have a fascination with fire. It can be dangerous. We have only to smell the air today to remember how devastating forest fires can be. Fire can burn. Fires can kill. But they also provide warmth, heat, light, and security by keeping at least some dangerous animals away.
Staring into the flames of a campfire sparks the imagination. So many of our sacred stories were created around campfires. Almost all scripture existed in an oral tradition before it was written down. Wandering tribes shared their stories when they met and shared a fire. As they continued their travels, they repeated those stories as well as they could remember them. The stories grew, were embellished, things that made no sense were forgotten. We know this happened because when the written records were eventually created there were variations. There are two creation stories in the Bible and a somewhat different one in the Quran. There are at least four versions of the resurrection story in the New Testament, and a fifth is in the Quran.
Campfires. Mystery. It is where we come from.
Every week we light our chalice. We also light it when we gather in smaller groups, in classes, in meetings, and even at some social occasions. Other Unitarian Universalist congregations around the world also light chalices.
Where our flaming chalice came from is not a mystery, however. It is fairly recent and well documented. Much of what I will share with you comes from our national website, uua.org.
“The chalice and the flame were brought together as a Unitarian symbol by an Austrian artist, Hans Deutsch, in 1941. Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew critical cartoons of Adolf Hitler. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, he abandoned all he had and fled … into Portugal.
There, he met the Reverend Charles Joy, executive director of the Unitarian Service Committee (USC). The Service Committee was new, founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as well as Jews, who needed to escape Nazi persecution. From his Lisbon headquarters, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents.
Deutsch was most impressed and soon was working for the USC. He later wrote to Joy:
There is something that urges me to tell you… how much I admire your utter self denial [and] readiness to serve, to sacrifice all, your time, your health, your well being, to help, help, help.
I am not what you may actually call a believer. But if your kind of life is the profession of your faith—as it is, I feel sure—then religion, ceasing to be magic and mysticism, becomes confession to practical philosophy and—what is more—to active, really useful social work. And this religion—with or without a heading—is one to which even a ‘godless’ fellow like myself can say wholeheartedly, Yes!”
Sound familiar, anyone? What this faith inspires people to do, has always been the most important thing. It is the energy of action.
“The USC was an unknown organization in 1941. This was a special handicap in the cloak-and-dagger world, where establishing trust quickly across barriers of language, nationality, and faith could mean life instead of death. Disguises, signs and countersigns, and midnight runs across guarded borders were the means of freedom in those days. Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for their papers “to make them look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize the spirit of our work…. When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”
Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to … Unitarian Universalism. With pencil and ink he drew a chalice with a flame. It was, Joy wrote his board in Boston,
“a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice…. This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”
That was back in the day when both the Unitarians and Universalist were largely Christian. Today we are no longer exclusively Christian – or pagan, or humanist.
“When Deutsch designed the flaming chalice, he had never seen a Unitarian or Universalist church or heard a sermon. What he had seen was faith in action—people who were willing to risk all for others in a time of urgent need.”
Two people who were doing that during WWII were
Martha and Waitstill Sharp. Let me tell you their story.
“In September of 1938, the Munich Pact ceded the the border regions of Czechoslovakia, to the Nazis in exchange for a promise of peace. The flow of refugees to Prague’s Unitarian church increased as Jews, political dissidents, intellectuals, and others targeted by the Nazis fled following the Nazi annexation. The American Unitarian Association asked Rev. Waitstill Sharp to visit Czechoslovakia and coordinate relief work there. The Sharps left for Europe in February 1939. When they accepted that mission they did not know what lay ahead.
At first, the Sharps’ work in Prague included setting up a network of volunteers to obtain visas, passage, education, and employment for refugees. However, the situation for refugees rapidly deteriorated. When it became clear that the Nazis were approaching, the Sharps, instead of returning home, burned their records and vowed to continue their work. The following day, the Nazis marched into Prague.
That same day, Martha guided a top resistance leader to asylum at the British embassy.
Stopped by Nazi guards three times, Martha used her American passport to get both of them safely through each checkpoint. A few days later, Waitstill arranged for a member of the Czech parliament to be smuggled from a hospital morgue in a body bag.
The Gestapo would not allow the work of people like the Sharps to continue. In July their office was closed and the furniture thrown into the street. Still they stayed on in Prague. In August, Waitstill attended a conference in Switzerland and was not allowed to re-enter occupied Czechoslovakia. Under threat of imminent arrest by the Gestapo, Martha fled Prague alone. The Sharps reunited in Paris, and sailed for home.
In May of 1940, Frederick May Eliot, president of the American Unitarian association, asked the Sharps to return to Europe as representatives of the newly formed Unitarian Service Committee (USC). With much of Europe now under Nazi occupation they worked from Marseilles in Free France and in Lisbon, Portugal.
Among those helped were Nobel laureate physicist Otto Meyerhof and writers Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, and Lion Feuchtwanger. Smuggling Feuchtwanger out of Europe posed particular problems as he was on the Nazi’s “most wanted” list. Dressed as a French peasant woman, Martha accompanied Feuchtwanger by train from Marseilles to the Spanish border where she distracted the guards so they would not discover him. When no extra tickets were available, Martha gave up her own ticket so that Feuchtwanger and his wife could sail to New York.
But not all of those the Sharps helped were famous. Martha worked tirelessly to find ways to break through the anti-Semitic United States immigration bureaucracy to allow Jewish children to come to the United States. In 1940, Marianne Scheckler was 12 years old, one of triplet sisters who had fled Vienna with their parents just steps ahead of the Nazis. Now a resident of Laguna Hills, California, Marianne Scheckler-Feder still remembers that day and Martha Sharp: “I remember a figure. She was a very, very elegant lady. Kind of serious and very concerned. You looked up to her… What she did for us was outstanding. It will never be forgotten.”
“What Martha Sharp did, she did for many, but she did not do it alone. The Sharps worked with others from the Unitarian Service Committee and other agencies. One of their closest associates was Varian Fry from the Emergency Rescue Committee. Varian Fry was the first American to be honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem (“Hand of God,” the state Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority) as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a list that includes Oskar Schindler, made famous by the movie Schindler’s List. Martha and Waitstill Sharp are the second and third Americans so honored.”
“More importantly, their work is recognized by more than 2,000 adults and children that the Unitarian Service Committee helped rescue from Nazi persecution.”
(From Jackie Clement Alison Cornish- Tapestry of Faith as amended uua.org)
That story moves me. It moves me greatly. Think of it sometimes as we light our chalice in worship. It is where we come from. It is also where we are going as we continue, in this faith, to stand on the side of love.
Amen and nameste.