“The Book of Genesis,” Kei Miller

Suppose there was a book full only of the word,
let – from whose clipped sound all things began: fir
and firmament, feather, the first whale — and suppose
we could scroll through its pages every day
to find and pronounce a Let meant only for us —
we would stumble through the streets with open books,
eyes crossed from too much reading; we would speak
in auto-rhyme, the world would echo itself — and still
we’d continue in rounds, saying let and let and let
until even silent dreams had been allowed.

 

“Revelation is Not Sealed”

Many of you know that in my previous life I was a bit of a theater-geek. I was about 19 when I got really serious about it. And after several years of acting classes and small theater productions in my hometown, I auditioned at several theater conservatories and ended up going to The Goodman School of Drama in Chicago.

And I loved my time there. But what I really loved was being introduced to Comedic Improvisation, I think we took a whole year to study and practice it.  Have any of you ever been to shows put on by improv groups? Not stand-up, improv. Where they elicit things from the audience like, name an animal, name a place, and then they jump in and see what happens? There was a show on TV called “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” that was all this. Okay, so you have a basic sense.

Here’s what I love about comedic improvisation. There is ONE cardinal rule to it. It’s sacrilege to deviate from this rule. Know what it is? YES AND.

What this means is that when you are in the middle of a scene with someone, you never, ever, ever say or convey NO to what is called the ‘playable action.’ Let’s say one improviser walks on stage and says that their hair is on fire. The second improviser, no matter what, agrees with this reality. That’s the yes part.

But there’s more.

The second improviser needs to then add some new information to the scene. This is the ‘AND’ part. She could roast a marshmallow on the head fire or say that her “hair is also on fire, it’s the new look,” or tell her acting partner that she’s “the phoenix who has just risen from the hair-fire flames.” The “And” part of “Yes, And” is just new playable information that keeps the scene moving forward.

This is what would happen if the “Yes, And” improv rule is broken. Improviser 1 takes the stage and says their hair is on fire. Then, Improviser 2 says, “No, your hair is not on fire. What fire?” Uhhhhhh, what happens now? Improviser 1 could say, “Yes it is. You’re wrong.” But then we’ve moved from our playable realm into an energy-sucking debate. Oh. I’ve seen this happen. I’ve done it! It’s painful and for sure not funny.

You see, the playable realm–the YES AND–this is a place of possibility, of shape shifting, of magic-making. Change happens swiftly with every AND, and when you get it right and find yourself synchronized in the thing: you’re and the audience’s thinking, rational mind ceases to get in the way and you are in the unlimited, co-creative, wide-open place. Last week Charlyn shared a story about a lesson with her oboe student where she brilliantly said to her: “Get out of your comfort zone and leave your limits behind!” THIS is YES, AND. Leave your limits behind.

It’s not a huge leap that I started off in this world–the world of comedic improv–and have ended up here. Both vocations, the way I see it, are a call to the playable realm. The YES, AND orientation to life, and, in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, faith. Seeking. Revelation. That’s the playable realm. The wide-open place. The leave your limits behind place.

The title of my sermon today is Revelation is Not Sealed, and this is an affirmation that has long been cherished in Unitarian Universalism. It shaped some of our principles and has inspired our sources, which we look to as guides to how we live our principles. These are as close to creeds as we get in this religion.

‘Revelation is not sealed’ simply means that we are open, awake to the unexpected, and willing to be changed by it. In all matters.

And the history of this tenet: revelation is not sealed, is one whose roots really took hold during the time of the Great Awakening here in the states–a huge span of time, from the 17th-19th centuries–where a growing wrestling, and rejection of sealed, prescribed belief and closed biblical interpretation began to spread. I’m simplifying here. I don’t have time this morning to trace my finger over the whole history of our faith–there were so many seeds laid over hundreds and hundreds of years that laid the groundwork to how we arrived at our current principles and this tenet. But I point to the Great Awakening, where Unitarianism and Universalism blossomed to help contextualize this a bit. Suddenly, people began to question the sealed nature of revelation, which had been how the New Testament had been interpreted up until this point. The Apostle’s Creed or bust: “I believe, I believe, I believe. Amen.” Period, end stop.

Can you imagine what a time this was? To only know prescribed, sealed creeds and doctrine, and to then be sitting, for example, in a Baltimore pew in 1819 and this 39-year old kid of a preacher, William Ellery Channing, shows up and preaches that (I am paraphrasing here) the bible’s language is “. . . . glowing, bold, and figurative,” that “it demands more frequent departures from the literal sense . . . that it demands more continu[ous] exercise of judgment…that we feel it our duty…to look beyond the letter to the spirit…and to make use of what is known . . .for discovering new truths…” 1819!

Channing is really well-known for his vision of children’s religious education as being one of “not…stamp[ing] our minds upon the young, but…stir[ring] them up. Helping them to stir up their own minds…”

And please, Channing wasn’t the only one. He was one among many of our faith’s sculptures. Many diverse, often un-recorded voices, that were stirring us up.

Stir up, discover new truths, look beyond, bold and continuous, frequent departures…

This is why we call ourselves a Free Faith. A Living Tradition. A religion where Revelation is Not Sealed. We sing songs about being pilgrims casting questions into the deep, and welcoming in wanderers, and lovers of leaving. We speak affirmations of faith that bind us to seeking truth freely for ourselves. The only stipulation being that our truths and seeking are rooted in love.

OKAY. But here’s where we’ve gotten a bit…stuck. And before I go on, please remember, that our tradition, while spanning hundreds and hundreds of years, is really in its adolescence. It was only in the 1960’s that Unitarians and Universalists merged and boldly proclaimed that we aren’t just Christian anymore, and that there are a myriad of ways to name and access the Divine in this faith and life. So, 1960’s–we are still trying to figure out how to do this: be this big tent of belief and non-belief and all the while seeking and inconveniently loving.

There has been a sizeable swath of time where UU churches have become a safe haven for those fleeing from their churches and faiths of origin. We still are this place, and this is wonderful! But we have also walked the dangerous line of being revelation sealers, stopped seeking, choosing not to live in the playable spiritual realm-the YES AND place. Many of us, I fear, have become experts at NO. And are far better able to articulate what we don’t believe than what we do. What has not worked for us, then what might work for us. Me included. I say this a lot to you–I do not preach from a pulpit on high.

And in the public square, sadly, UU’s have become known as the religion where you can casually believe whatever you want. Or not believe anything at all. And this loosey-goosey myth so gets under my skin. It is just not true!! It never was true.

Our faith has requirements. To become a Unitarian Universalist, you make no doctrinal promises, but you are required to do a lot. You are required to discover your own beliefs — you promise to use your reason and your experience and the dictates of your conscience to decide upon your own theology, and then you are asked to actually live by that theology. You are asked to take your faith seriously. AND you are asked to commit yourself to a life of seeking and growing…changing, enhancing, revisiting! So that your revelation from 1995, or 1975, has not cordoned you off from the ever-changing and growing spiritual life available here and now and tomorrow.

And listen, we are at such an exciting moment in our teenaged religion. What a wonderful experiment Unitarian Universalism is! I believe we are paving the way for the future and survival of organized religion and church. Truly!

Literally, right now, our larger faith is re-examining our faiths’ seven principles. This is the Article II Revision and has been called “the juiciest part of what is going on in our faith.” Rev. Bill Sinkford, our previous UUA president and a titan in our faith, recently said about this revision that: “answers that served us yesterday have to be tested against the needs of a new day!” He has asked us to consider “What the world needs us to be in the 21st century?” Rev. Bill knows, acutely, that questions and endeavors like this are at the heart of who we are and what we believe. What is required of us.

Revelation is not sealed.

And we can apply this to our own journeys of faith. For they are journeys, without final destinations. Ask yourself if answers that served you yesterday might need to be tested against the needs of a new day? Have you sealed revelation decades ago and are just kind of casually riding it out? This is personal faith question that I am asking you and it’s a question that should guide us in all our affairs here: governance, committee structures, how we live welcome, what we call our ‘history,’ and how we tell it, how we do church, what we say our mission is. I could go on and on. Have we sealed revelation decades ago and are just kind of casually riding it out?

This is no time for a casual faith, my friends. These are our UUA president Rev. Susan Frederick Gray’s words. They are on our wayside pulpit out front this month­. The Path of Change, that’s our month’s theme, Revelation, a Living Tradition, a Free Faith, these things can’t be if we are casual, or worse, resolved.

So we try to live in the playable realm here. We are trying.

And this is why I love Kei Miller’s poem “The Book of Genesis.” He took inspiration from the Hebrew Bible’s Creation Story–a stunning piece of prose whose every line begins with “Let there be…” “Let there be…” “Let there be…” And that word LET… It’s a possibility word. A YES, AND word. Personally, I think it sums up our faith pretty well. “Let.” “Let there be…”

Let’s listen to Miller’s words again:

Suppose there was a book full only of the word,
let – from whose clipped sound all things began: fir
and firmament, feather, the first whale — and suppose
we could scroll through its pages every day
to find and pronounce a Let meant only for us —
we would stumble through the streets with open books,
eyes crossed from too much reading; we would speak
in auto-rhyme, the world would echo itself — and still
we’d continue in rounds, saying let and let and let
until even silent dreams had been allowed.

My spiritual companions. Let us not rest on our laurels or become casual or resolved in our seeking. For every “I don’t believe,” consider what you do believe. For every “NO, BUT” consider the YES, AND. And then, write this stuff down. Take it seriously. Ask yourself when and what and WHY, and whether it still holds up. Read books that challenge you! Throw your hands up from time to time and boldly proclaim “I don’t know!” There’s a bold and needed practice in our world! Talk about it with one another–do it today at social hour! Ask someone what they believe. And why! And be open! Yes and, yes and, yes and! Let and let and let…In the words of  the great UU theologian and humanist, James Luther Adams, whose birthday was yesterday, “The church of the Spirit is a pilgrim church on adventure.”

The church of the Spirit is a pilgrim church on adventure.

May it be so for us all. AMEN.

Let’s sing a hymn of YES! Won’t you now rise in body and spirit and sing… #6 Just As Long as I Have Breath

Reverend Sophia Lyons
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Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.