A wise teacher, really a governess of some fame, once offered this famous suggestion: “Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.” And as it turns out, the beginning is also a pretty interesting place to start, too.
As it is told, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” These are the first two verses of the first chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures. The wording “a wind from God” has been translated in other ways. Some translate that text as “And the breath of God was hovering over the waters.” That is a beautiful, a poetic way of thinking about the beginning of creation, about the more literal “a wind from God.”
I don’t have to be too far removed from that child, endlessly being sent to the principal’s office in Sunday school, to know what kind of awful jokes I might make, were I indeed armed with the imagination of a second-grade class clown, and the verse, “A wind from God” that was sweeping over the newly created earth. Blessedly, translations of the Hebrew Scriptures were not part of my second-grade Sunday school curriculum. Well, I can’t be entirely sure of that. I suppose I would have had to be there to know for sure.
Now, I know someone here is thinking, “Ok, that is just a little too irreverent for me.” I would fully accept someone saying, “It’s a bit too early in the day for jokes about God breaking wind, isn’t it Reverend?” And I get that. But today we are talking about something so intimate, so close to each one of us here, that I suggest we pocket just a little bit of that politeness and get a little earthy. Because today we are talking about bodies.
That’s right, these churning, burping, sleeping, running, walking, talking, bodies each of us is riding around in. Now, in this first account, you have sort of a distant, otherworldly or other dimensional concept of God. And most translations of that chapter actually refer to God as a he, yes. But also in the plural. Did you know that? One of the pronouns used for God in this creation account is “us.” So, this first account of creation, I like to think of, as creation by committee. Of course, here at First Unitarian, maybe “creation by Team” or “creation by Task Force” might have been more appropriate. For those of you new among us for visiting, we are not so fond of the word “committee.” Though you might attend a Team meeting or a Task Force meeting, and it might look a lot like a committee meeting, have no fear. We have called it something totally different?
But having new, different, or alternate ways of talking about things is something any community comes by honestly. After all, if we flip a few pages past this first creation by committee account in the Hebrew Scriptures, we come to something very interesting: a second account of creation. And this one is a lot different. Same idea: creation. But talked about entirely differently. This account is the more earthy, worldly account, where God literally uses the earth, or the hummus, to fashion the body of a human. And in this case of the Hebrew Scriptures, a man was created first. In Hebrew the word adam, simply means man.]
Then what does God do? God breathes life in to this creation’s nostrils. That’s an image right? It is this breath of life God shares with this adam that sets the rest of the story in motion. But that’s just the beginning of the story, right? Later, those bodies are gonna get those wacky kids in some trouble, am I right?
But in this story, this version so concerned with bodies, the name for the creator is not actually God. In the original Hebrew writing of this account the name of the creator is spelled simply Y-H-W-H. Now, we like to pronounce this as Yahweh today. That is the best guess we have about how the vocalization of Y-H-W-H would sound. But what is essential about this name to Hebrew scholars is not what it does or what it names. No. What is essential is what this name does not do.
To pronounce Y-H-W-H, or Yahweh, the body does not close off or constrict the exiting breath in any way. Think about that. Or better yet, say it with me: Yahweh. The body doesn’t close the mouth to make a consonant sound. The throat or the epiglottis doesn’t get involved to make a glottal stop sound a “guh” sound for God. Nope. What is the name for God in this story then when the writing is put into action? That’s right. It is only breath.
Of course, the lips, the tongue, the throat, all push and shape the breath coming out. But it is not restricted or stopped. The body doesn’t get in the way. Yahweh.
Now I’ve gone and done it, haven’t I? I start by making borderline irreligious jokes about God’s gas. And now, I am asking an entire Unitarian Universalist congregation to say together just one name for God. When the Unitarian Universalist Association opens all the letters you’re going to send to them to tell on me, they’re going to be so, so confused. But also, probably a little delighted.
Because what we are doing together right now is taking a look at one of the six sources of our Living Tradition, those lessons of the Hebrew Scriptures that teach us to love one another as ourselves. And we’re looking at that source alongside another of the sources of our Living Tradition, the very first source. This is a source of our tradition that I think is so beautiful that I want to read it in full and out loud.
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
To me that is just so beautiful. Openness to the forces which create and uphold life. In just this time together, we have marveled at the two different ways some of our ancestors marveled together at these forces. Right in the very foundational document, at the very beginning, a very good place to start, reside side by side, two different stories about how breath took a central place in the foundation of creation.
We see in these stories how the bodies these ancestors knew, those bodies they imagined were shaped and enlivened by their concept of a deity, we see how in the same way these stories formed a foundation for further faiths of our ancestors, those bodies formed the foundation of some of the first stories of faith in something beyond our personal comprehension.
Of course, stories told and written long before these stories also featured ways that people understood the world around them through their bodies. Any historian or maybe any psychologist will tell you it’s inescapable, because so much of our entire reality is mediated through our bodies, right? Our eyes, our ears, our other senses—they provide us with the information we use to construct what we think we know of the world. But our bodies are not only collectors of sensor inputs. They are also communicators themselves. Some say that for those who communicate with spoken language, less than half of the total communicated information comes from the spoken language. The rest comes from physical cues our body gives the listener. And if this isn’t news to you, you might be saying, [act out, “duh.”] See that was 100% physical and you knew exactly what I meant.
What we do with our bodies tells others something. In fact, one of my favorite pieces of life advice comes from a quote attributed often to Maya Angelou. She advises us all, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them…the first time.” I remember sharing this quote with someone who thought they were parroting back the quote. He said, “Yeah, yeah, when someone tells you who they are, believe them….” And I interrupted, “No, when someone shows you who they are.”
Something tells me that she is offering this valuable insight from her own life experience, like our very own first source suggests. The deep wisdom, the deep understanding of what others might be or do, can be understood, perhaps, should be understood, according more to how they show themselves to be, than all the talk someone makes about themselves.
See, one of the most important defining characteristics of a life in Unitarian Universalism is that this is a faith life that does not require adherence to, acceptance of, or even knowledge of, a creed of any kind. For so many of us, before we made a home for ourselves in Unitarian Universalism, we found a lot of what the religious people we knew said, did not match when they did. And perhaps a challenge some of us faced was this observation: what the religious texts so many claimed to follow actually say or don’t say, often did not match what those who professed to follow those texts did.
And these experiences might have been why a saying came to be in the circles of our faith communities that makes clear where many Unitarian Universalists stand on action and on talk: “Deeds, not creeds.” And that idea, my friends, is what led our shared faith from a sort of liberal Christian denomination, to one that expressly embraces more and more sources for the wisdom we seek together.
Among our sources are the “words and deeds of prophetic persons throughout time.” We also look to the religions of the world for the beauty and truth that they hold for our shared existence, our experiment in radical love and acceptance. We embrace the deep, old and binding truth of the earth-centered faiths and beliefs, beliefs that we must all acknowledge pre-date, if not inform, any faith of humankind today. And we embrace as well, the teachings and vital insights that humanism offers to all of us, the sense that from this one, single experience of existence we each have to share in the world, there is a great deal we might accomplish together. We are a church that radically embraced new ideas, new viewpoints, and new ways of seeing.
In England, in Winchester, there sits a church, a cathedral, really. And in that cathedral, there are a lot of stained glass windows. Some of them date back centuries. But one of them, one of the largest of the stained glass windows, is not like the others. In the 1600s, during a civil war in England the forces of Joseph Cromwell lay siege to the cathedral. They broke all of the stained glass that could be reached. The broken shards lay on the cathedral floor. And when the monarchy was restored in England, so were the windows. But they were not restored as they were. No.
The artists working on the window had gathered up the pieces on the floor of the cathedral, and I think we know, it was probably a committee…or a team…or a task force, right, and they put the pieces back together into the windows in a completely random way. Shards that used to make up something idyllic, something highly conceived, were now set for centuries along side shards that had seemed to have no relationship to one another.
But the light still gets through.
Scenes, saints, and scripture were shattered for a time.
But the light still gets through.
Jagged, splintered, dangerous leavings of a pretty portrait of one faith came crashing down.
But the light still gets through.
It passes through the space first adorned by the hands of artists with scenes of reverence and adoration.
It passes through the space left bare by the rage of a people hurling rocks from their hands to show an institution what they thought of it.
It passes through the space where hands, maybe bloodied by bare glass edges, labored to preserve and give new life, new imagination, new purpose, to every, tiny, fragile, broken piece of what once was.
Hands of praise, hands of rage, hands of care, offer together the gift that so many who pass through that place receive. The stunning demonstration of the true beauty of non-uniformity. The exquisiteness of non-conformity. The tiniest pieces coming together, a piece at a time, into enormity.
For many, at its most commonly understood, Unitarian Universalism really functions in many lives as a philosophy. It is an experiment in how we hold the pieces of belief we’ve collected in our lives together in a way that lets the light through.
For some, it is more comfortable to think of Unitarian Universalism as a kind of sanctuary, that this is the place where we are safe to practice our beliefs outside of the conflicting beliefs or clunky structures that chased us from the faiths of our upbringing, or landed us week after week in the principal’s office at Sunday school.
And for some, this is really a faith, or a belief, or a religion. We bring bodies, our minds, our hearts here into community, to worship, to serve, to move into the light of ages past and to glimpse the bright future we see. For it is in the light of our chalice, a flame that here in this place stands amid the fragile shards and pieces of our own window, that we see each other.
See, my personal philosophy of the body, is that if you want to be close to someone, be close to someone. Come into a space with them for a while. Share some music together. Listen to a message of hope together. Then if you like it, if you think that what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen, what you’ve felt, is something that you think other people should know about, then maybe it’s time to say something to the world about that. Because as so, so many of us know, what we say is great, but it’s only part of what we are telling the world. What we do, where we put our bodies on a weekly, for some of you here, it may seem like a daily, basis, but where you plant yourself matters to you. It matters for those people close to you. And you may think this is a stretch, but I’d be in the wrong line of work if I didn’t think it matters to the world.
Being a Unitarian Universalist says to the world a lot. It says things like “I am OK with there being conflicting viewpoints, even if those conflicts lie in the foundational documents of someone’s faith, or even of my own faith. Being a Unitarian Universalist says that you’re OK with jokes about God breaking wind. But being a member of a Unitarian Universalist church, says something more. It says that you just might think it’s important to pick up those pieces, and to care for that place where those pieces, shattered like someone’s faith or believing might be, might be put back together again.
I am in awe of so many of you, really, all of you. Because I am always, always in awe of a people, who in a time of tenuous relationships straining to find love and understanding, in a time when voices tell us that religion is on the decline, when we are watching more and more isolation grip the hearts of those around us, I am always in awe of a people who wake up and take their bodies to a place, to this place, and say to the world,
This place here is where we will sit,
This place here is where we will take a stand,
This place here is where we will let the light shine in again,
This place here is where we belong.
You don’t have to be a member of this body to belong here in this place. We want everyone who has found a seat, found a group, found some good coffee, to feel right at home. But being a member of this community, lending the breath of your body given so long ago, to your voice here, bringing your body fully into community here when you raise your hand to vote or take a place on a committee, a team, a task force, all that requires is a beginning, which is a very good place to start. After all, when you show us who you are, we will believe you…the first time.
And may it ever be so.
 Gen. 1:1-2 (NRSV).