“Much Too Much” a sermon by Mark W. Harris, February 25, 2007

“Much Too Much” A sermon by Mark W. Harris

February 25, 2007 – First Parish of Watertown, MA

Opening Words – from C. P. Cavafy

To certain people there comes a day
When they must say the great Yes or
the great No
They who have the Yes ready within
Reveal themselves at once, and saying
it they cross over
To the path of honor and their own

Sermon – “Much Too Much”

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind says, “Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing? Come, sister, you shall be the priest and marry us. Give me your hand, Orlando.” As a child I never knew the origin of that phrase about desiring too much of a good thing. I thought it was the everyday sage advice of my mother. Whenever I began to scoop out that second dish of chocolate ice cream, or assembled a giant sandwich, which she always called a Dagwood with cheese and lettuce and tomatoes, and several kinds of meat and pickles and onions and hot peppers making it wider than my mouth could ever stretch, she would look at me and say “ you are having too much of a good thing.” This of course translated into too much of a good thing is bad. Too much of this food or that will make you fat or give you heart disease, so don’t eat it. My mother had years of practice cajoling my father who like to indulge in all kinds of enjoyable things. He indulged his desires for food and drink, just as many people we know indulge their desires for clothes or books, electronic devices or games; the consumption of everything in sight that they want, including sex. Unfortunately my mother’s goal of stemming my father’s desires for consuming too much of a good thing often fell on deaf ears.
Moderating our desires is difficult. But to answer Rosalind’s question, we can say
that all humans seem to have desires for what they experience as too much of a good thing, and many of us are in a constant battle to stem those desires. Today’s sermon begins a new series on The Seven Virtues, not to be confused with the more well known seven deadly sins. The theological or spiritual virtues may be more obvious to you; they are faith, hope and love. But these are joined by the four cardinal virtues; prudence, courage, justice and temperance, the last being our topic for today. Frances Willard once said: “Temperance is moderation in the things that are good and total abstinence from the things that are foul.”.
This general definition that does not fit our own stereotype. What do you think of when you hear the word temperance? (alcohol or drinking). That’s right. Our minds may go back to the Roaring 20’s when abstinence from alcohol ruled the land because prohibition had been enacted into law. We associate temperance with the moralistic, fundamentalists like Aimee Semple MacPherson who said that drinking in any amount leads to immoral behavior, with the likelihood of addiction, followed by job loss and the ruin of the family. While many of us know that there is much truth in how various addictions from alcohol to drugs to gambling destroy lives and families, we also know that legislating morality has never worked. Yet alcohol was seen as a foul thing, and so abstinence was called for. The response was the creation of bathtub gin and hidden clubs called speakeasies. It was the era of Babe Ruth, who personified the voracious appetites and indulgences of a culture reacting to such total restriction. Liberals today might argue that each person must develop the self-discipline to decide for themselves whether to drink or not. We must make good choices about all that we consume, and be moderate in all things. But this is not an accurate view of the temperance movement in our history.
One of the most famous stories of a Unitarian minister being forced from his pulpit centered around alcohol. During the 19th century many Unitarian and Universalists reformers backed the temperance movement, which joined hand in hand with other reform efforts like women’s rights and abolition. They did so because they could see that the consumption of alcohol led to the disastrous results I cited before. Just as slaves were bound by chains of oppression and women by sexist laws and assumptions, many families and people were held captive by demon rum, and reformers saw a correlation between the drinking and poverty and prison . There was also some class prejudice related to this movement, as the newly arriving Catholic immigrants, especially those from Ireland, carried the stereotype of drunkards.
One of the prominent preachers of temperance was John Pierpont, who went far beyond suggesting to his Boston parishioners that they were indulging too much, he actually said that alcohol was a killing force in the society. Pierpont was no Puritan killjoy. His son James later wrote Jingle Bells, so we can assume his father took him on fun-filled sleigh rides. They just didn’t take warming beverages along. Appearing before a temperance convention in Boston, the elder Pierpont advocated for the passage of a law to stop liquor trafficking by imploring the crowd to see that allowing his fellow humans to drink alcohol from a cup was like letting them drink death. They might as well use a pistol or a cord he said, or be given a bowl of hemlock as imbibe a glass of spirits. (p. 316, Tyler). In 1838 Pierpont began to help draft petitions and to speak out for this law that would have prohibited liquors sales except for the very largest quantities. It was about this same time that parishioners began to complain of his failures as a pastor, even though he had been there 20 years. Four of his opponents were distillers, and eight more dealt in West Indian trade, meaning sugar and rum, and there was one glassmaker, too. There were even barrels of rum stored in the church basement. Furthermore voting power was determined by the number of pews that were owned, and so these opponents began to buy up the vacant pews. The handwriting was on the wall, even as Pierpont preached that gain is not godliness, his parishioners felt the threat against their means of livelihood. It took until 1845, and after they withheld his salary, Pierpont resigned. The morality of temperance was secondary to the morality of money in this battle. Here was a blatant example of the use of money to buy power.
One of the issues for modern day liberals is that the idea of temperance in this context carries with it the notion of telling someone else to give up something entirely. We see temperance as being about restricting someone else’s freedom. Don’t do that, are words that seem entirely too moralistic to many of us. Perhaps the idea of acceptance of others knows no limits for some UUs, and therefore they become supportive of issues such as polyamory, which teaches that it is possible to love two people or more at the same time, and therefore they may eschew fidelity in marriage. If Unitarian Universalism is about moral freedom for all, then we simply advocate different strokes for different folks and leave it go at that. Is there then no issue for which a liberal would teach temperance in a completely restrictive way? Most alcoholics would say that they must not drink. Wouldn’t we agree with that, especially with the knowledge that such behavior might more likely lead to renewed abuse. Is this not also true of other addictions as well? A totally restrictive temperance may be the right thing in certain circumstances for any of us who simply cannot control certain behaviors. I happen to believe that the human species is best conditioned to love one person at a time. While a liberal like me is not likely to attack the morality of another, it does not mean we have to affirm another’s advocacy of certain behaviors. I have my right to say that I don’t believe that healthy relationships are achieved by loving more than one person at a time. I believe in temperance in relationships.
This past week my family went down to New York City for a few days. Part of our trip itinerary was seeing the Statue of Liberty. I had been to the statue many years ago, but security around the monument has changed drastically since September 11. For a number of year no one could go inside the statue at all, but in the past two years people could climb to the top of the pedestal, but not go in the statue itself. We were subjected to two security checks on our visit. The first was even more stringent than what happens when you fly. They even searched my son Dana with an electronic wand. This was for the privilege of riding the Ferry to Liberty Island, and then once you are there, there is a second security check, similar to the first of electronic devices, air puffs, belt removals and the like, in order to go inside the statue. Being in New York, and seeing Ground Zero for the first time reminded me of the need for such security, but it also made me cognizant of the kind of contradictions we frequently experience in our culture that are almost schizophrenic in nature. The moderation of temperance gets lost as we sometimes swing from extreme to extreme with no middle to hold us steady.
I see this swinging pendulum of behavior in many aspects of our lives. We tell our children to be true to themselves and follow the bliss of their own individual natures and inclinations. Yet while we exalt the individual we are all captured in by the conforming dance of consumerism so that those same children who strive to be individuals are asking for the right pants, the right games, and eventually the right car or the right house to go with the right every other product. Which is it, consumer conformity or individual path? We tend to promote excess either way. Even in our social program for the reform of the world we advocate for feminism, as we believe in the equal rights and opportunities for women, but do we? Does freedom for women mean jobs or does it mean face lifts, and implants and other means to beautify the body? Then I come back to that security vs. freedom of trying to see the Statue of Liberty. Do we want to be able to do what we want, or do we want to be protected? Do we want to left alone so that we have total privacy, or do we somehow become collectively obsessed with trivia, so that we know every last detail of the life of Anna Nicole Smith. Is it privacy we want, or are we all thirsting for that moment of fame of recognition for which we would all sacrifice our privacy?
I sometimes see us as living in a kind of binge and purge culture. We can’t simply live in moderate circumstances. The perfect example of this is those fundamentalistic TV preachers, like the stereotype of Elmer Gantry. There is this kind of extreme morality that advocates the binding of the soul and the body that goes along with it in extreme restriction. Don’t do anything that is bad for you. But there is this natural human inclination to indulge our appetites or desires for the new, the tasty, the provocative, the powerful or the beautiful. It is like hanging that apple before Adam and Eve. Eventually you are going to taste it. This is why I believe that parents who severely restrict their kids from watching TV or eating ice cream are inviting an extreme reaction. They are helping develop the TV and ice cream addicts of tomorrows. Extremism of any kind is going to lead the human species to want to break free of this restrictiveness; this temperance. Then with the preachers we see it time and again. The preacher who rails against homosexuality is having a gay affair. The preacher, like Gantry, who rails against infidelity is a philanderer. So I think UUs are right to be concerned about following any total kind of temperance because it leads to extremism. Our problem is that we often cannot seem to come up with any kind of restriction at all, which is why thinking about temperance might actually be good for us.
Any religion can harbor the tendency to go to its extreme. With liberal religion that extreme is a tendency to say that we tolerate all religious and moral positions. But what happens when you tolerate them all is the possibility that you can advocate for none. In religion we could become what Oscar Wilde describes about temperance: “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” What I know of excess is that while it may seem like fun for the moment, it usually means we have no discipline for controlling it. If it is alcohol we drink until we are wasted. If it is gambling we spend it all. We cannot enjoy a little bit of something because there is no monitor of the good or the enjoyable, we simply want to let it burn out, like Jack London said of life, until it extinguishes itself. The danger with our faith is that we will get lazy about our religious searching, and not take any religious disciplines or serious scholarly undertakings with any kind of controlled studiousness or continued practice. Our tendency is to go with the trend or what is new, and then we find we lack the discipline to really know something well or to stick with it. For some, the extreme of rejecting of our childhood faith, results in an ecstasy of freedom, and we may lose interest in building up any faith tradition. With respect to temperance I think a good approach for us would be to move from the extreme of laissez-faire religion and deeply subject ourselves to a an experience of one holy book, one faith, or one practice such as prayer or meditation.
The current issue of the New Yorker has a cartoon of a woman who is speaking to a man, whom we might presume is her husband. She announces to him: “I am going to give up Google for Lent.” While this is amusing, it also speaks a truth about the addictiveness of anything that we get drawn into in a protracted way. Most of us know it is very easy to google a subject of interest, and find eight gazillion references to it. What next? Where does one stop in trying to find the answer you are seeking. Finally, you have gone to so many links you tend to forget what you were looking for in the first place. And that leads to something else, and so on. Finally, hours have gone by, and the kids have torn each other from limb to limb, and I have forgotten what I was looking for. Like anything, google can be googled to extreme. It is a good thing, and like any good thing that we enjoy or gain knowledge from, we can be seduced into over using it to fill up time. And when it is used to extreme you lose yourself or you lose track of your children. Like our UU faith, the web can leave us wandering endlessly, and in that search we may forget what meaning we wanted to glean from this religion. Like anything, a little discipline means we will not get lazy, we will search in moderate amounts, and we will focus on that which is important.
This past Wednesday we entered Lent. As we wandered around New York, I was struck by how many people had the cross of ashes marked on their foreheads to remind them that this was Ash Wednesday, and they needed to reflect on the meaning of their lives, or what they might give up or sacrifice for Lent. I did not grow up in a tradition that celebrated Lent in any way, but the mark that day kept reminding me of that phrase that was used for the title of the Civil Rights history film that was done a few years ago, keep your Eyes on the Prize. Focus. Have discipline. Temperance reminds us of the need to focus on what is before us, and discipline ourselves not to be sucked into the extremes of our lives and our culture. We live in a world where it seems everybody can have everything, or at least we act that way. Nobody saves for anything, or waits for anything, they just go out and get it. Everybody like to have the trappings of a good life, and so we don’t moderate our desires very much.
Many of you know that I was a regular smoker some years ago, a pack and a half a day. I was able to give up more than a decade ago, thanks to the presence of a new family, and the hope that I would live to see them grow up. It was hard to give up smoking, and it took some discipline and some concentration. I had to keep telling myself this is bad for you, and bad for your family, and bad for the society. You don’t want one. You don’t need one. One thing that struck me in retrospect was how much time was wasted in smoking. Not just the money, but the time, just doing nothing. There was nothing productive or intellectual, and even the social was fading , too. Andrea said not too long ago that drinking can be like that too. It is a waste of time. Think of how much time you waste. This is why we need temperance as a virtue. If you drink too much or too often, all you are doing is wasting time, wasting life. Drinking too much is also physically debilitating so perhaps temperance is more crucial here, but there is a common thread about temperance. Too much Google. Too much of anything. Too much freedom destroys us. Anything in excess is addiction, even exercise, if you want to do it all the time. Levi even told me you could die from drinking too much water. Not much chance of that happening with me.
In all things we need discipline We need focus. It may mean abstinence, but more likely moderation. I have a son who does not like reading. But unless he reads, he will not learn. He will never achieve what he could achieve. He must develop the discipline of reading. Without temperance, one child might read too much, and not have any social life, not develop his/her body in any way. Without temperance, one child might not read at all, and never find knowledge or convictions or the basic ability to function in life. Everyone one of us needs temperance to balance our lives. We are all contemplating temperance all the time. How much more exercise, or more diet, or more organization would balance my life. Temperance asks me how I am utilizing my time that once went to smoking. Is there a balance of time with loved ones, with eating right, with exercising, with reflecting or meditating. When my life is more in balance I will have embraced the virtue of temperance. It is finding balance and moderation in all things, not wasting so much time surfing an empty net looking to fill up space, but casting your line in all directions with love and the fulfillment of the body with nourishment, the mind with stimulation and the heart with devotion.

Closing Words – “My Symphony” by William Henry Channing

To live content with small means,
to seek elegance rather than luxury,
and refinement rather than fashion;
to be worthy, not respectable and wealthy, not rich;
to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly;
to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages with open heart,
to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never;
in a word to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common;
this is to be my symphony.

Reverend Mark Harris
Minister | + posts

Mark was minister at First Parish from 1996 until he retired in 2019. Mark’s ministry was grounded in the importance of carrying on the traditions of the congregation and the UU faith. He loves congregations like First Parish where everyone ministers to one another, and the community is central. On his retirement in June 2019, Mark received the title Minister Emeritus.