“Never Ending Choices”  –  Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – January 9, 2011

Call to Worship – from Walt Whitman

Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me. Henceforth, I ask not good fortune – I myself am good fortune; strong and content, I travel the open road. I inhale great draughts of space; the east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.  All seems beautiful to me; I can repeat over to men and women, you have done such good to me, I would do the same to you. Whoever you are, come travel with me! However sweet these laid up stores – however convenient this dwelling, we cannot remain here; However sheltered this port, and however calm these waters, we must not anchor here; . . .  Onward! To that which is endless, as it was beginningless, to undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights, To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it.  To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you – to know the universe itself as a road – as many roads – as roads for traveling souls.

Readings:   I Kings 3: 16-27;  Luke 10: 38-42

1 Kings 3:16-27

16Then two harlots came to the king, and stood before him.

17The one woman said, O my lord, this woman and I dwell in the same house; and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house.

18Then on the third day after I was delivered, this woman also gave birth, and we were alone; there was no one else with us in the house, only we two were in the house.

19And this woman’s son died in the night; because she lay on it.

20 And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while your maidservant slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead son in my bosom.

21When I rose in the morning to nurse my child, behold, it was dead: but when I looked at it closely in the morning, behold, it was not the child, I had borne.

22 But the other woman said, No; the living child is my mine, and the dead child is yours. The first said, No, the dead child is yours, and the living child is my mine.” Thus they spoke before the king.

23Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my child that is alive, and your son is dead’: and the other says, ‘No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’ “

24And the king said, Bring me a sword. So a sword was brought before the king.

25And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.

26Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son,  O my lord, give her the living child, and by no means slay it. But the other said, It shall be neither mine nor yours, divide it.

27Then the king answered and said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means slay it: she is its mother.”

Luke 10:38-42

38Now as they went on their way, he entered a village: and a woman named Martha received him into her house.

39And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at Jesus’s feet, and listened to his teaching.

40But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she went to him, and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.

41But Jesus answered her, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things:

42one thing is needful: Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.

Sermon – “Never Ending Choices”

Mark W. Harris

Last Friday was the deadline for course grades to be submitted to the Andover Newton Theological School.  I express mailed my list of grades for the fall course in UU History to the registrar on Thursday afternoon. In some ways I mirrored the behavior of a few of my students.  Some submitted their final papers on the last day of classes, when they were officially due. Others received one or two week extensions from me, and submitted them on the last possible date, some using express mail, with others driving to Watertown to slip the paper through the mail slot at church. One sent me three evolving versions on the last possible day via email.  Others may never submit the final project.  A few months ago a term paper appeared out of the blue.  The student was more than a year late, and sheepishly wondered if he could still finish a course I taught two summers ago.  This was against school policy. It will be an incomplete forever.  Why do some of us make these kinds of choices? Is it because modern culture bombards us with a million things to do, and we are overwhelmed with pressure? Why do we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot?

Different people make different choices about how they respond to deadlines.  In college and graduate school, I mostly finished my papers at the due date, but usually I did so at the last minute sometimes requiring an all nighter. I suppose you would call me a moderate procrastinator.  I used to write my sermons on Saturday night, but more than seventeen years ago, my new spouse informed me that I was not going to devote every weekend to writing, or else the marriage would not last. I responded to the pressure. Sermons are now done on Fridays. Mostly. There are those people who can research and write weeks in advance, and are always well prepared to meet deadlines.  They do not procrastinate at all.  We would call them obsessive compulsive.  But some people are worse than me.  Some ministers get up at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to write, and others rely on extemporaneous styles.  They wing it. Unlike them, I prefer to be prepared, just not way in advance.

The Boston Globe recently had an article on people who cannot bring themselves to return Christmas purchases or gifts they do not want.  Now sometimes we convince ourselves that we will eventually use an item, such as a carbon monoxide tester, or perhaps we don’t want a relative to feel they have purchased something we dislike, so we smile through our tears at the lovely crock pot.  But this article went beyond this.  People deliberately made the choice not to return items because they felt it was a hassle, or that it didn’t cost them much money anyway, but I must admit I found it hard to comprehend why it is so hard to go to the post office or stand in line at the store when some of these places have pretty liberal return policies. I suppose some of us anticipate an argument, and want to avoid any kind of confrontation. Does it make people feel as though we are admitting a mistake? Do we convince ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow? Are our lives really that busy?

Take the twenty odd term papers I needed to grade.  There was no way with several church services, and holiday celebrating that I was going grade papers during school vacation week. We put off today what we can do tomorrow,  We mostly do not think about tomorrow with the choices we make today.  Why do so many people waste millions of dollars by not filing their tax returns on time? Are they too busy, or don’t have the proper paper work? Probably not.  They just don’t get around to doing it. They mostly choose not to.  And the problem is they are not doing what they actually think they should be doing, but still don’t. They could have written the papers sooner. Some people say that we are divided selves.  Part of us just wants to goof off – skip work or have fun.  So we often end up doing mundane, distracted little things like sorting papers or cleaning when we should be writing up that tax return.  We opt for short term interests to avoid long term necessities. But it is more than that.  Sometimes we can’t choose to act because we are afraid of the results, or fear the results won’t be good enough.  When I was on the board of the UU Historical Society some years ago, several members said a comprehensive history of Unitarianism could not be written because not enough preliminary studies had been done.  Of course this kind of delaying tactic could be invoked forever, and as a result, a book like my dictionary would never have been written.    So we may not choose to act because we are unrealistic about what needs to be done, or lack confidence in our own abilities.

In my own life, I always find imposed limits very helpful to the choices I need to make.  Sometimes too many choices are overwhelming.  Andrea has a relative who always has this problem when she goes shopping. There are so many different options when she goes to the store that she ends up not buying anything.  It leads to confusion, or inability to discern what you really want, or fear that you will buy the wrong thing.  This especially happens to me when it comes to electronics. I just want to listen to music or take pictures, and so when the camera shop starts to talk about megapixels and resolution my eyes start to glaze over.  Just sell me a camera already!  The point is we become confused with so many options.  My new pension fund must offer 40 different options for investment. How do I know what I want? No human being is ever available to talk with, so I opt for a plan that they choose for me based on a retirement date. Employees are often better off if an employer gives them a fixed plan, rather than 100 options that they never get around to choosing from because it is too confusing or seems overwhelming.

Most of us say we want to be in control of our lives.  We say we want to be able to choose our doctors and make decisions about out health care. Yet we may find in practice, as I did recently, that our doctor or dentist gives us options but not opinions, and we feel frustrated with what to do about the choices. I know I often want to say, You’re the expert here, why don’t you tell me what the best choice is. I tend to be brand loyal, and find my free will is better able to be reined in if I eat portioned amounts rather than be left to my own devices.  If I have a big bag of chips, I eat it all, but if I have a small serving size bag, I will eat that, and quit.  It’s wasteful packaging, but it does help control an unwieldy will.  In order to force himself to write, Victor Hugo used to instruct his valet to hide his clothes, so that he was unable to go outside when he was suppose to be writing. Sometimes limits on choices, and forced parameters are better for us. With too much choice in our free faith, we may end up not being able to choose at all. 

There used to be a pamphlet called “It’s Your Own Choice in UU.” Unitarian Universalism is a unique approach to the search for religious truth because it is grounded in choice, and not creeds or dogmas.  Choice in faith acknowledges that there are a variety of religious expressions from which to choose, but does not specifically state that one is better than another. Rather it places the power and authority to choose with the individual who is encouraged to use his/ her freedom to develop a personal theology.  The prevalence of choice is seen in some of the basic principles of our faith – freedom, tolerance, ongoing revelation and reason.  Freedom reminds us that there are many religious options to choose from. UUism is sometimes called a multi-religious faith, but it means that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other perspectives in various degrees of enmeshment offer options for religious sustenance.

Choices in faith not only means that there are many religious options, but there is also an underlying understanding that we need to tolerate and understand these different perspectives as having potential merit for each of us. Thus, there are not only many to choose from, but these choices are potentially good ones for us.  The third aspect of faith choices for us is that we believe that as humanity continues to evolve, there will be more revelations of truth.  In other words there is a never ending search for truth which will give us new choices in the days to come.   So there are many choices, there are good choices, and there will be more choices, too.  Central to the element of choice in UU is that we must use our critical thinking and feeling abilities to choose a faith that is right for us. We are grounded in reason and experience. At one time this meant the use of reason in interpreting scriptures. That is we would take into account human history and knowledge and science to find truth. Using our minds, we would make a personal choice.  Who is Jesus? Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? Choices – many choices, good choices, new choices, and finally, my choice and yours.

Yet this may seem scary, and might lead to religious procrastination. To us it might seem like there are too many choices.  Can’t you tell me what is the right one for me?   We might have some problems with the merits of certain faiths. There are too many gods or they seem misogynist to me.

And finally, is it really up to me?  How do I know what I want or what is true?  All these choices seem to lead to more questions and more choices. Is it good to have so many religious options, or does it frustrate and confuse us so that we can’t figure out what is important?   When do more and choices end up being less? We may feel like there are simply too many choices, and we can’t make up our minds.  But this is not a religious banquet where we have to consume everything.  Remember, I said that portion control was a good thing for me?   There are two things we need to recall about using freedom to choose our faith.  This freedom is not the freedom to escape from choosing, but instead it is using freedom for learning and discipline and reason to make a choice.  So it is freedom for, and not freedom from.  So perhaps it is good to impose limits and have discipline about our choice of faith. UUs are increasingly exploring western Buddhism because it is non-theistic. Morality is a way of harmony in the universe with all creatures. And “wisdom is what emerges out of practices of presence and harmony.”  This perspective affirms interdependence as a core value, and so ecological concerns and justice issues are central. So out of many choices, we build a faith that has meaning to us.

Second, choices have consequences.  There are moral and spiritual ramifications of the choices we make, but if we procrastinate, we will never make those crucial decisions that lead to understanding more about the meaning of life. A good way to understand this is to think about what pro-choice on abortion means. Generally speaking Unitarian Universalists have been supportive of abortion rights over the years. We believe a woman should have the right to choose to have an abortion if such an action seems morally justified for her.  Notice, I said if it seems morally justified, or necessary for her physical and mental health. Making the decision to have an abortion is not just about freedom to control your own body, it is the freedom to choose a morally weighted act.  Choice has consequences, and we need to bear the moral weight of those consequences. So it is not pure freedom.  It is using freedom to acknowledge our own limitations and failures, but also to recognize that greater potential for love and understanding may emerge from a difficult circumstance.  Life limits our choices, and they are not always easy or even good choices, but they become the best choices we can make under trying circumstances.  Choices may require forgiveness and compassion to ease the pain that life brings.

I think our two scriptural readings today help with understanding the dilemmas that choice brings to human freedom, but also the potential for religious renewal that may emerge from the choices we make.  In the story of Martha and Mary, Mary chooses to listen to Jesus rather than help her sister to serve dinner.  Sometimes life brings mundane choices that may not be enriching, but nevertheless are part of the fabric of life. What Martha does is important, but this cannot become our entire lives. Every person must make the choice to emulate Mary, and take the time to discipline ourselves to listen to religious teachings. There is also a measure of equality in the story, as a woman who would normally only serve in this culture, becomes the student. Of course we might wish that they had all done the serving together, and then concentrated on spiritual pursuits.  Ultimately, it is a lesson in choosing to let the busyness of life slide, so that we learn something of the deeper religious choices before us, and that we do it incommunity. So the first lesson of spiritual choice is not to treat it as a religious smorgasbord where we are overwhelmed by the amount of food, but rather to drink in the depth so that you can find a meaningful faith.

Second, we have the equally famous story about King Solomon.  Just a few verses prior to the story about the child, Solomon tells of his fear of inadequacy before God, who has chosen him to lead this special people.  He says, “ I do not know how to go out or come in.” He wonders how he can ever govern , and he prays that God might grant him an understanding mind that he might make good choices to be able to discern between good and evil. Like us, he wonders if he can make good choices. But then comes the story of the baby.  When I was in Sunday School, no story affected me more than this one.  Perhaps it was the illustrated Bible picture that showed Solomon holding up a baby ready to split it in half with a sword. We see the choice of sacrifice the one mother is willing to make that her child might live, and we see the perpetuation of pain that the other mother is willing to extend to another. Which are we? Where do our choices lead? – to a greater love or selfishness?  Solomon knows what the compassionate choice is, and makes it to find and preserve the truth.  The life choices we all make are fraught with complexities and difficulty, and yet procrastination about making a choice, or making a choice to choose freedom without regard to consequences are not choices that help us understand deeper, spiritual truths about ourselves or others.  Each one of us has responsibilities to live up to, or term papers to complete.  The busyness of life, the anxiety of what we have to choose to do, and even the inclination to put finishing a task off are all present, but each of us can limit our choices and discipline ourselves to focus on what is important. While UUism seems to offer many choices the undergirding truth, is that the choice is limited.  Most of those choices cloud our thinking or are not that important, for the fundamental choice for us is not about the content of religion, but whether we choose to live a religious life.  Do we choose the simple faith that UUism has always articulated: to love God or love life, and thy neighbor as thyself. The choice is that simple: Do you choose that greater love?  All we can do is try to make good choices with our lives. Choices of compassion.  Choices for justice. Choices that lead to greater love.

Closing Words – from Franz Kafka (Diaries)

If we knew we were on the right road, having to leave it would mean endless despair.  But we are on a road that only leads to a second one and then to a third one and so forth. And the real highway will not be sighted for a long, long time, perhaps never. So we drift in doubt. But also in an unbelievable beautiful diversity. Thus the accomplishment of hope remains an always unexpected miracle. But in compensation, the miracle remains forever possible.


Great mystery,

We gather in this church fellowship searching for meaning in our lives and in all of life. Larger truths seem hidden from us, and we can only construct fragments of meaning from the days of our lives. From the relationships we share and the communities we build together, we try to make choices that will bring to our hearts and minds a vision of what a beloved community might be:

Compassion for those who live in fear

Warmth for those who need shelter from the storm

Energy for those who are tried from all the trials of life,

Love for those who feel threatened or alone.

May our continuing choices be to create a home, a haven a habitat here for all those who need compassion, warmth, energy and love, and are committed to finding that together.  Amen