The Vote As Sacrament

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 05/17/2015

Video: – beginning to 1:29
We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Today is the date of our annual congregational meeting, which is a boring name for something foundational to Unitarian Universalism: The Vote.

Sure, the vote allows us to get things done. It allows decisions to be made. It allows us to move forward as a congregation, hearing as many voices as choose to come to the meeting.

But did you know that beyond all that, beyond all that functionality, The Vote in Unitarian Universalism is actually … a sacrament? A Unitarian Universalist sacrament, meaning, the outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace?

Or so we are taught by none other than SCUU guru, and Board of Trustees President, Adam Styles, who has given me permission to quote him extensively today.

Adam has been talking about the vote as Unitarian Universalist sacrament for a while now. He proved he meant it, I think, when I asked him for more reflection on the topic, and he responded that he liked the idea of voting with edible ballot paper that we would eat like a communion wafer. So he’s serious, and I’m not sure what this all means for today’s meeting, but it could be even more interesting than usual, so you’ll have to come and see for yourself, today starting at noon.

So what might Adam mean when he says that voting is a Unitarian Universalist sacrament, an outward sign of an inward divinity, so much so that he wishes we could eat the vote?

It might be easiest to reflect on this if we compare the Unitarian Universalist vote to another kind of vote – let’s say an American vote in a national election, like for President of the United States, or for Congress.

You don’t have to be paying a huge amount of attention to national politics in order to see what happens to this country when we vote for our elected officials. The United States is certainly polarized and divided. We have terribly close elections, after which the losing side, often nearly half of us, not only feels like they lost, which is never a great feeling, but also like they are actually about to be endangered by the winning side.

After our elections, we don’t feel like one country that had a tough decision to make and ended up with a resolution. We feel like a country divided against itself, a country where a lot of us are at war with the rest of us. We don’t trust the winners to look out for the losers, not really. And that feeling of distrust gives us Americans a sort of permission to treat losing like a call to battle. Losing isn’t just unfortunate, doesn’t just mean that you aren’t going to get your way. Nowadays in American life losing feels like a threat.

Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Daniel Harper blogged about an engineer at his church who was talking to their church about how they made decisions at her for-profit company. She said that they used to have a saying at her company that went like this: [either] Agree and commit; Disagree and commit; or, Get out of the way.

Agree and commit; Disagree and commit; or, Get out of the way.

And Rev. Harper noted that “in congregational life, as in the for-profit world, there’s [also] usually a fourth option: Disagree and sabotage.”

Rev. Harper says, about some congregations, “A decision is made by a duly constituted authority, or through an established democratic process, and a small group of people who disagree with the decision start to sabotage it.”

“And why wouldn’t we behave in this way?” Rev. Harper writes. “That’s the way democracy in America works.”

“That’s the way democracy in America works,” Harper writes. “[O]nce a decision is made, many politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) go out of their way to sabotage the implementation of the decision. Ordinary citizens like us unconsciously follow their example.”

Ordinary citizens like us unconsciously follow their example. Most of us don’t know any alternative.

Rev. Harper says that he thinks our congregations should be countercultural. No sabotage, even when we disagree.

And I say, they already are countercultural.

Voting in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is already different than voting in American democracy in general. It’s ironic because both of those ways of voting were born in the exact same place – the small but pervasive congregational churches of New England in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries.

There are lots of ways that UU churches of today might differ or even be unrecognizable to our pilgrim grandparents. We don’t wear black all the time or have hats with buckles, for example. But there is one place that any pilgrim might feel right at home in their UU church descendant of today, and that is at our annual congregational meeting. Our worship theme this month is What Does it Mean to be a People of Tradition. Part of what it means for us UUs to be a people of tradition is that we vote, because voting is a sacred tradition in Unitarian Universalism going back for centuries. A sacrament.

A few months ago I talked a bit about the Cambridge Platform, written in 1649 by our religious ancestors commonly known as the pilgrims, the ones with the buckles. This is the soup into which both Unitarianism and Universalism was born. In that service in January I pointed out that the Cambridge Platform in 1649 calls for congregations to be free and distinct from each other, and be allowed to manage their own affairs for the most part without interference from each other. That was quite a big deal for a people thrown out of their country by the powers that were because of what they believed. This system of free and independent churches is still what UUs do today. I prefer it when we’re interdependent, not completely independent, but you get what I’m saying.

The Cambridge Platform of 1649 also says that the members of the church can elect their own officers –we’ll be doing just that today – and can ordain their own clergy by a laying on of hands. That’s a big deal for a religion used to being sent clergy trained by who knows what and beholden to who knows who. In UU churches today, each church still hires their own clergy according to their own assessment of their particular needs. Tradition!

And, the Cambridge Platform says, all the way back in 1649, that the members of the church should be bound together by a covenant of behavior, because, quote, “we see not otherwise how members can have church power over one another mutually.” We, like many UU churches, still have our covenant which we use regularly and will vote to reaffirm today. It, too, helps us remember how we want to be with each other in this community. That is still, indeed, church power, the only kind we really have.

After Adam said that voting with edible paper appealed to him, he wrote this to me:

“My main thought is that you can't have a democratic process without a covenant and by-laws. With by-laws we establish a democratic process. With a covenant there is trust that we seek consensus and that the majority will respect the minority and the minority will have faith in the majority. This faith in each other allows us to live by majority rule. The vote is a communion of our faith. The vote is an outward and visible sign of our faith in each other. And with faith there is hope, peace and love.”

That’s different, isn’t it, from how we do things on the national level. The two systems, American and UU congregational, were both born from the Cambridge Platform in 1649. These days the national democratic system allows for resistance and sabotage and fear, more often than not. But at the Unitarian Universalist congregational level, our level, majority rule voting is upheld by our faith in each other. It is upheld by our relationships with each other. Because we know – here’s Adam talking again – that “[i]mplicit in the statement "This faith in each other allows us to live by majority rule" is the fact that each of us will at some time or another find ourselves in the minority …. hopefully without fear or worry ...”

Being in the minority hopefully without fear or worry. Knowing your story was heard, you are important, even though the vote didn’t go your way. Having faith in the majority, even when you don’t agree. Maybe even choosing the path of “Disagree, but commit”, because you believe the vote is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of our inward grace, and if the vote didn’t go your way, and the majority won, then that fact deserves your respect. You know your church still needs and wants and values you.

That is the work to be done after the vote by the losing side, to generate the faith in your fellows that is needed to live by majority rule when you are not in the majority. That is a certain sort of work to do, when we lose.

And there is also work to be done by the winning side before the vote.

What does that mean? There is work to be done, in congregational life, by the winning side before the vote. Even when the winning side is not yet identified, because the vote has not yet occurred. What could that possibly mean?

Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff, offers an example of a vote over what color to paint the fellowship hall. Such a typical thing to vote on at a Unitarian Universalist annual congregational meeting, right? She writes, “If you have 50% that wants to paint the fellowship hall yellow, and 50% that wants it painted blue and you put it to a vote, what do you think will happen?

Maybe by some strange happenstance you get a winner by a vote or two, but there will still be many members with very hurt feelings who are left feeling unheard. Yes, you might have a resolution, but no relationship. As I am known to repeat often, it’s all about our relationships!

How will you reestablish communication between those two groups? How could this issue have been rectified before coming to this division of people who love each other?

A few conversations around why the yellow paint people are so passionate about their choice of color might have been a good start. And what about the blue paint people? Why are they so passionate about their choice of color?

There is a chance that the blue walls might make the yellow paint people feel closed in. Or maybe the yellow walls cause a glare that hurt the blue paint people’s eyes with the florescent lights in the room.

I’m willing to bet there is a solution here that doesn’t involve a vote! Changing out the light bulbs to a softer tone might help the blue paint people adjust their eyes better to the yellow walls, or changing the shade of blue would make the room feel bigger to the yellow paint people. You will never know that if all you do is put it to a vote.”

So, as I say, there is work to be done before the vote. Let’s watch the rest of the occupy video to see what that work might look like. Keep an eye out for commonalities between what these folks are doing, and what we UUs do, or will do, today.

Video:, 1:29 to end
There’s plenty of voting, in this system of direct democracy. And there’s plenty of listening, and plenty of talking. There is the quest for consensus. There is a sense of being in it together. And here, at church, we want to have all that too.

If this is a new style of American democracy, maybe our UU churches aren’t so far removed from it after all.

Voting may indeed be a UU sacrament. But if all you do is put decisions to votes, without maintaining the relationships that make voting the visible outward sign of our faith in each other, then you have missed your opportunity to build a community of the whole, a community that is able to live by majority rule.

You’ve missed your opportunity to have those deep conversations, those new connections that lead to creative solutions.

Real listening always brings people closer together. Even when they passionately disagree. And this is what I mean about the work that we do before the vote. The work is, we listen. We connect.

In church, we amplify each other’s voices so that we can hear one another.
There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
You don’t fear people whose story you know.
We vote as the outward sign of our inward faith in each other.
We choose, and we commit, and we rely on human goodness, and we assume good intentions, and we stay together, one unit made up of an sea of sub-units, one tapestry made up of a million different threads, one church made up of a hundred different us-es.
So may it be, today and tomorrow and in our future days. Amen.