Hear Me? Then Do What I Say!

Welcome Words by Colleen Good. Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rita Capezzi


Today we are talking about democracy and while, I pondered this – my neurodiverse beautiful mind drew a connection to dreams and dreaming. Did anyone have a dream last night that is still with you?  Anyone remember the dreams of your youth? Dreams that inspired you to begin the journey of the work of your life?

I realized this week that while I dreamt a lot in my teens and early 20s – of finding the perfect partner that was just like me but better; of ending poverty through small loans for women-run micro enterprises; of saving the environment through reducing reusing and recycling.

The truth is I have been so distracted by the activities of daily living, running a household and raising children. I really haven’t dreamt in a while.  I have remained connected to values of serving and partnering others and find my work meaningful, but I haven’t taken time to muse creatively about dreams to move forward towards.

I want to dream more and I want to dream alongside this community.

One of my dreams is about community, communication, compassion, and commitment and I realize today that democracy involves all of that and more and it’s hard and it hurts sometimes, and we must hold each other with care and curiosity across differences and perhaps because of differences.

My earlier dreams involved a group think and a lot of self righteous anger – there was a Right and a Wrong-a Yes  and a No. I judged others even before truly hearing or seeing them. and of course, experienced the boomerang of self-judgement when I didn’t live up to my own expectations.

However, that isn’t how I want to live. It’s othering – just from a different perspective. This is not the wild, wild West where you must die for me to live. There’s room for everyone in this space. To me democracy isn’t just a process of voting. It is a commitment to dialogue; to listening; to understanding context; to see our common humanity; and to dreaming of a better world.

I also believe our democracy is grounded in UCM values and principles and covenant which calls us to hold each other accountable, bring our whole selves, and speak so we can all learn from each other and change the world.

It is a commitment to reflection, internally, intra personally and globally, environmentally and it is hard work, and I have been inspired by this UCM community because we keep coming back to each other to listen, lean in, learn from and love each other. And I believe that our community will be stronger, despite and perhaps because of our differences. If you're interested in dreams, Let’s talk about yours over coffee after the service.


Hear Me? Then Do What I Say!

When I was a teenager, my neighbor across the street used to pay me to distribute campaign literature for one of the major US political parties. This was my introduction to politics. I never did more than stuff pamphlets in screen doors, never actually canvassed by engaging in conversations with voters, but it was a start. And I do remember asking my father whom he voted for in the 1972 Presidential Election, when Richard Nixon won. He didn’t tell me. He said the privacy of the election box was important. But he told me that he voted his conscience. He voted for the person he thought was best suited to run the country.

That was an important lesson for me when I voted in 1980 for my first Presidential candidate. I was a sophomore in college, and proudly decorated my dorm room door with proclamations of my conscience. I don’t really remember actually voting, probably because my candidate lost, and I was shocked. I was angry and disappointed. But after that disappointment, I continued to vote my conscience, exercising my right to vote for the Green Party and the Working Families and Socialist candidate. In my voting life, I did not pick a winner until 2008, my conscience intact. Over all those years, I had learned the lesson. Often disappointed, but never disengaged. I exercised my conscience. I did my civic duty. I, willingly and earnestly, participated in the democratic process, regardless of the outcomes.

In the words of W. E. B. DuBois: “[Democracy] is not merely majority rule based on the fact that the majority has the physical force to prevail [. . .]. It rests upon the fact that, when we have proven knowledge interpreted through the experience of a large number of individuals, it is possible through this pooled knowledge and experience to come to decisions much more fundamental and much more far-reaching than can be had in any other way [. . .].” It is disappointing, even terrifying to not be in the majority, to know that more people than not have staked their values and beliefs on a candidate whom I find less than worthy, sometimes a lot less than worthy. I know this is a bit different for Canadians than for Americans, since we have really only the two-party system, but I think you feel what I mean. Still, so-called “losing a Presidential election” is much less fraught than, say, a local one for school board or council member or mayor. Because it is harder to stay engaged in local politics, even when you might be immediately impacted by a decision to fund schools or resist the building of an environmentally-unsound highway.

It is easier to stay engaged even when the questions are bigger, like when mining for the minerals required for building electric cars infringes on First Nation sovereignty or when social housing is proposed within the Green Belt.

There really is no better way to come to decisions fundamental and far-reaching than the collective wisdom of engaged voters. And it really is the engagement, the commitment, that makes for the wisdom. Informed, thoughtful participants. Participants with an active conscience, who are self-aware. As DuBois goes on to say, “The people participating effectively in this pool of democracy must be alive and well, they must know the world which they are interpreting, and they must know themselves.” He is talking about proven knowledge and experience of all varieties as relevant and necessary to democratic decision-making. He is talking about thoughtful engagement, considered engagement, informed engagement. Differences of opinion asserted and considered. New ideas emergent from discussion and debate. He is talking about civil democracy, specifically of the right of Black men to vote in a Jim Crow America. But he could be talking about voting in church, where all voices ought to be voiced freely. Where, in our small pool of shared wisdom and experience, all voices must be heard. So it would seem.

Our 5th Principle calls us to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” We are a people who expect our voices to be heard. We are free to express our conscience, even to dissent. How are we heard, how do we listen, and how do we decide when we do not all agree? As the Rev. Parisa Parsa says, “it is easier to trust in the democratic process in the large-scale realm of our society as a whole, in which we can make abstract assumptions about the will of the largest number of people.” However, she continues, “When it comes to church—where the democratic process and the development of my own conscience become religious acts—the stakes are higher, and my heart and mind grow more troubled at the challenge.”

I wonder, have you thought of voting, of our 5th Principle, as a religious act? What could that mean, voting as a religious act.

Here is how Rev. Parsa comes to this conclusion: “Will I act as if I am connected to something greater, and therefore as if my life and actions are significant, or will I act as if I am completely separate and isolated from others, and therefore as if my life and actions are of little consequence?” Rev. Parsa call us to that part of us yearning “to move toward greater insight and wholeness.” The part of us that connects to the “more” of our existence, whatever you call it—Brahman, Buddha-nature, Spirit of Life, Universe, God—“an undeniable part of humanity, something deeply hidden, other times sorely stifled, but always there to be recognized and cultivated, that place that affirms life and love, thriving and flourishing of self and community.” To act within this notion is to act religiously. And all of us are called to it.

As is so often the case with our Unitarian Universalist principles, it is instructive to consider one in relation to another, in this case the 1 st Principle. Rev. Parsa provides this guidance: “In our religious lives, the democratic process requires trust in the development of each individual conscience—a belief that such development is possible for each of us, as well as a commitment to cultivate our own conscience. We could call it a commitment to the value of each person.” She calls us to trust that each of us has a right to voice our thoughts and fears, our firmly held convictions. And Rev. Parsa goes on to quote one of our great 19 th Century theologians, the Rev. Theodore Parker, who said ‘Democracy means not “I am as good as you are,” but [rather it means] “You are as good as I am.”’ Democratic process requires that I am, that each of us is, willingness to see everyone of us as worthy to be participating in the discussion and the decision-making.

In Rev. Parsa’s words: “My connection with the sacred is only as precious as my willingness to acknowledge the same connection in others.”

Thus, it is in congregational life where the democratic process is most precious—“Here, every decision has a name and a face and people who deeply depend on one another. And each disagreement, when it is genuinely born of a free exercise of conscience, is a gift.” Democratic process is holy work. The Annual General Meeting is an important as worship. In Rev. Parsa’s words, “Voting, as the shorthand for taking interest in and ownership of the process by which we as community live our faith and choose to use our collective power to shape our world in accordance with that faith, is a sacrament.”

But being heard does not mean being obeyed. Because I have spoken doesn’t mean I simply get my way. And everything isn’t up for discussion or debate. Some responsibilities fall into the responsibilities of leaders and ministers, by training and by the norms through which we govern ourselves as a congregation. Which brings us to the 7 th Principle as well. “Everyone who has lived with other people knows that we can commit to community and then find ourselves at odds with the community’s decisions. The ego is tempted to rail against the community and even to stomp away in anger. Ego freedom lets us walk away in a huff. But freedom of conscience, having already committed to a life of accountability to this community, demands fidelity even in disagreement. A community to whom we have connected ourselves must be offered the same respect we demand of the community—the opportunity to hear our objection, fear, or pain and to respond to it according to the dictates of communal bonds. In a healthy community, each individual among us should occasionally be in the minority. The experience promotes spiritual growth, maturity, and a deepened understanding of the costs and rewards of community.”

So, when we find ourselves, losing the election, losing the debate, what do we do? I hope we do what Rev. Parsa names as the vitality of congregational life and the role of each within it:

“This greater demand of religious community means that the people who stick around are truly remarkable. They are the people I would like to be, the people I want to be my people—the ones who have compassion for the ways in which others have failed them, who have learned from the ways in which they have failed other, and who stay to pick up the pieces and deepen their understanding of their own journey and the community’s rewards. They are the salt of the earth, and being religious community has let them keep their saltiness—and has added other spices as well.”

This house, this community, this church, this congregation, it is a cradle for our dreams, the workshop of our common endeavor, our own uniquely spiced stew. This is where we say our piece, speak our truths, and listen, really listen to the piece and the truth of each other. This is where we vote and respect the majority, even when the outcome is not the one we hoped for. For this is a house of truth-seeking, where scientists and mystics, where artists and handi-people, where teachers and social workers, where counselors and engineers, where academics and business owners and ministers can declare our full and undivided opinions. Where, guarding the dignity and worth of each person, we struggle together to find a common path, aware of the web of relationship and our impacts on one another.

For we choose to be in each other’s company. We have things to say to each other. We seek to be met with loving kindness, to enact loving kindness, to extend loving kindness, the loving kindness that is all too often absent in our everyday lives. Find the silence among us, all of us, and listen to it all. This is how we create a community of free thinkers who respect the inherent worth and dignity of each and live fully with the complexity of being within the web, on this blue boat, our only home, together.

I know how challenging this call to individuality within community can be. You may have noticed that I am not an optimist. I do not pretend that conflict and trouble do not dog our human ways.

But as I am not an optimist, so I am also not a pessimist. Bolstered by the path offered by our Principles, by our shared values and commitments, I live in hope. In the words of the poet Seamus Healey, “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well.” Hope is “something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.” Let us work together, even when we disagree. And so, in the words of the Rev. Jim Wickman, as “our time together ends,” and, “In the days before we come together again, may our actions match our words, may our thoughts be filled with love, and may we truly make a difference in a troubled world.” May it ever be so.

Parsa, Parisa. “The Fifth Principle” in The Seven Principles in Word and Worship. Ed. Ellen
Brandenburg. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2007. 69-86.


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