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temperance


by Rev.  Mark J.T. Caggiano, January 17, 2010

1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

When I announced that I would be presenting a series of sermons on the seven virtues, I premised it with a confession that I might have to shoehorn some virtue into the readings. Today we heard the familiar story of Jesus turning water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. Strangely enough, I use this occasion to discuss the meaning of Temperance.

Yet, it is not too much of a stretch. We simply must think more deeply than our modern misconceptions about temperance. This Biblical account is particularly interesting because temperance is often equated with drinking nothing. But this was certainly not true at a wedding in Jesus’ time. From the scriptures we are told, “ Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." There had been wine, but it had run out. We also understand that there was not only a celebration, but that the guests would indeed become drunk.

One might joke that some things never change, even two thousand years later. But there are some rather significant differences. Jewish wedding celebrations of the time lasted seven days – compare this with a few hours even with an open bar. It was an expensive matter to keep friends and family inebriated for a week. And given this duration, there was always the possibility that the thirst might outlast the supply.

Jesus sounds a bit reluctant to step in. When asked by Mary about the wine, Jesus said, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” But even our Great Teacher knew well enough to listen to his mother. So , in his first miracle, Jesus took water from large stone vessels, used for washing, and turned it into wine. He created wine for guests who had been feasting and drinking for days, who in all likelihood had be intoxicated for much of that time. What should we make of this? Would Jesus knowingly contribute to non-virtuous conduct?

Temperance became a by-word for abstinence from drinking through the 19th and 20th century Temperance movement. This movement must be placed into context. Historically, early Americans drank quite frequently. One did not simply drink water because bad water presented bad consequences. Some drinks were served hot, as with tea. But many were alcoholic which Europeans knew would keep away certain ailments.

During my research, I came across of few scholars who took obvious pleasure in providing detailed accounts of this colonial preoccupation with drink. Colonists had some colorful names for their alcoholic beverages, such as Flip, Toddy, Sling, Rattle-Skull, Blackstrap, Bombo, Mimbo, and Whistle Belly. Benjamin Franklin catalogued more than 200 terms for drunkenness, including addled, biggy, boozy, busky, buzzey, cherubimical, cracked, and, my personal favorite, "halfway to Concord."

Some tried to ban it, like James Oglethorpe, one of the founders of Georgia. Our Puritan ancestors railed against drunkenness, but could not achieve, or conceive of, its prohibition. Most if not all Americans drank alcohol, but it was not its consumption that created social disorder, but its abuse. As on scholar described it, "Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was a personal indiscretion."

Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence and devout Christian, developed very modern medical theories about alcohol, including the possibility that its abuse was more than merely a lack of will and was in fact a form of disease. Yet even he advocated for moderation except for problem drinkers. His approach is quite similar to a modern American view.

At first, the temperance movement tried to instill a sense of moderation in drinking, but this did not catch on. The temperance effort at first stumbled, and was effectively forgotten with the advent of the Civil War. After the war, however, the need for temperance seemed even more urgent. Imagine thousands of soldiers returning from years of rough and tumble living to the streets of Boston, New York and Philadelphia, to working in the mines, on the farms and in the factories.

One of the peculiar ironies of the temperance movement was that its supporters were not always known for tempering their actions. Carrie Nation, a well know and strident member of the Temperance Movement, would frequently enter a drinking establishment wielding a hatchet to destroy barrels, bottles and the bar itself. Many saloons put signs up at their doors proclaiming that all nations were welcome, except Carrie.

I think we all know what happened next. In 1919, thirty-six of the then forty-eight states adopted the 18 th amendment. This amendment stated that, “ the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, [or] the importation thereof into [the United States was] prohibited.” It is interesting to note that the tex t does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol. It also was oddly interpreted as permitting the manufacture of alcohol, such as wine but not beer, for personal use.

There was a religious split amongst Christian groups over temperance. Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and others supported the ban, and were referred to as the “dries”. These were opposed by the “wets”, mostly consisting of Lutherans, Episcopalians and Catholics. Most Unitarians seem to have taken up the dry side. Where First Church and its members stood on this issue would be an interesting research project.

Prohibition led to smuggling and bootlegging. Prohibition led to organized crime controlling smuggling and bootlegging. One interesting side note is that Prohibition also led directly to the creation of NASCAR racing. The early drivers were in fact rumrunners who became adept at outfitting their cars to outrun the police. These men started racing competitively and established the modern social phenomenon.

Prohibition was repealed by the 21 st Amendment in 1933.

Were the people in the temperance movement misguided? There was and still is a great social cost to alcohol. Not long ago, I served as a hospital chaplain to a man in his young fifties who was dying of alcohol abuse while simultaneously counseling another alcoholic man in his young twenties who nearly died of alcohol induced seizures. And it is not just alcohol. There are efforts to decriminalize marijuana in many states. Massachusetts imposes a $100 fine for minor possession rather than imprisonment. Filling our prisons with users of marijuana is not a great social goal, but what about the larger picture?

Then there is the lottery, street corner gambling unimaginable a few decades ago. And what of slot machines and casinos? What of all the other drugs and addictions and social excesses? What should we do? Are we awash with sin?

It might help to return to the word temperance. Its first dictionary meaning has little to do with the movement. Temperance means moderation in action, thought or feeling. It can also mean moderation or abstinence from drinking, but that has been its modern turn, not its historic use. The word temper has many seemingly contradictory meanings: to strengthen, to lessen, to toughen, to moderate. It derives from a French verb temprer, originally meaning to mix.

What a mess, but yet it is an understandable mess. Tempering has all of these meanings because it is an ancient word for an ancient idea. When we mix hot and cold items, they cool down. When we mix others, they are diluted. When making steel, one blends iron with carbon to make a stronger alloy through heating. These all start with the idea of mixing things together. Purity is the weakness of iron and purity in the form of moral extremism can be the weakness of a society. There is strength in mixing as there is value in moderation. One might therefore say there is strength in moderation.

The virtue of temperance is exactly that. It leads us away from excesses and absolutes. We must train ourselves in the habit of refraining from extremes. This is the rational impulse that modulates our lives; the reasonable thought that hopeful keeps us from doing anything rash. We often see depicted people talking to little angels and devils perched upon their shoulders. The joke is often when these good and bad influences trade perspectives in the conversation. But in many ways, the more classic resolution of this moral debate in our minds is to take the middle road.

Barry Goldwater once famously stated that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. No offense to any Goldwater Republicans out there, but this is not true. We have seen that extremism in defense of American democracy can undermine the meaning of liberty. And this is not the sole province of politics, for it can happen in religious circles. Pat Robertson recently suggested that the Haitian catastrophe of this week was the inevitable result of a deal made with the devil two hundred years ago. Robertson may have believed this story to be true, but out of a sense of human decency, he should never have exercised his right to make a fool out of himself on television while bodies were still being pulled from the wreckage. I will leave aside any further observations about this comment as an effort of personal moderation.

On both the liberal and conservative sides of the ledger, are people have the perfectly legal right to speak their minds. Yet, we as a culture would be far better off if we learned to temper that right with a little decency and a lot of common sense.

I even once heard an argument over the term common sense in which one person suggested that common sense was a meaningless term that simply reinforced whatever conservative or patriarchal impulse inspired its use. I do not think this is true. I think common sense is our sense of the common good, in which our personal perspectives sometimes need to be considered within the larger society.

In terms of virtue, common sense is pretty much temperance, perhaps blended in with a little prudence. When we live a life of extremes, whether in our habits or our speech or our attitudes, we have no common sense and are clearly living intemperately. Common sense is by this definition a rather unique trait in our ever individualistic society.

As Americans we are free, but freedom without limits is chaos. Conversely, security without limits is not democracy. Our society is an inevitable mixture of freedom and security and we must be ever vigilant to be certain that this blending remains in balance. For freedom without security is soon lost, and security with freedom is soon intolerable.

Now some of you may be thinking, with all this history and social commentary, is this minister ever going to get back to the Bible? Yes, and thank you for you concern. Recall the words of the scriptures: Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.

Modern Americans are some of the most religious people on the planet, but they are often the most pagan, or bacchanalian, when it comes to their personal habits. We drink too much, we eat too much. We are addicted to electronic toys and invisible worlds of information. We are alcoholics and workaholics and “sexaholics.” Our athletes are dependent upon steroids, while our entertainment industry is dependent upon silicone and botulism toxin. We are an intemperate people.

Even our responses to these problems are extreme. We use pills to lift us up, to bring us down and to keep us in the middle. There is a blessing to medication but there is curse to overmedication. We are a culture of extremes, one that does not like to hear the word, “No.” Yet, our response to social problems is often “Just Say No.” We are a binge culture, both in our sins and in our self-righteousness.

We cannot easily solve drug and alcohol abuse by merely denying access – we tried that and it did not work. Conversely, our response should not be to throw open the floodgates, for that would be no more moderate of a response. As a society, we need to be better about helping people through these difficulties. Everything in moderation is the starting point for discussion, but it can never be the end point for action. As we know, preaching can only get you so far. The great looming failure of modern America culture is not its excesses but rather the fractured nature of society in which people have become ever more isolated. This social brittleness feeds the cycle of need as Americans try to make up for their loneliness with self-indulgent behavior.

I realize it is as old as Noah’s ark to be proclaiming the wickedness of human beings. I understand it is like Sodom and Gomorrah to be critical of the social failings of others. But unlike these Biblical excesses, I do not advocate a purging flood or cleansing fire. We cannot lurch from extreme to extreme without risking the scything pendulum of change destroying all in its pathway. We reap what we sow, so therefore we need to be more careful about what we plant.

Temperance is the first step to all virtue. Prudence is the sister of temperance. Justice is temperance’s finest application. Courage is meaningless without temperance, resulting in cowardice or recklessness without such bounding limit. Even faith, hope and love must be controlled. Faith without some reason is hazardous and hope without some limits is foolish. Love must also be practiced with care not because we should be stingy with it but because we can become victims of it. Charity without restraint impoverishes us without enriching the wide society. All virtue bows before the throne of temperance at one time or another.

But we should never mistake temperance for dithering. Indecisiveness is the mortal weakness of temperance. We can become caught up in paralyzed thinking, unable to make a decision for fear of making a mistake. This is the moment in which temperance must bow in turn to the others, for these seven virtues are a set for a reason. They give us tools as well as fuel to live a worthy life. Faith, hope and love lift us up beyond our depression and anxiety. The need for justice calls us to move toward fairness. Prudence keeps us prepared to face such challenges. And most of all, we must have the courage of our convictions even while we temper our responses through well applied reason. Temperance provides us with the caution to keep us afloat, while courage gives us the presence to sail into uncharted waters. All of these we need, now more so than ever.

In closing, I would be remiss in my role as minister if I did not make a plea this morning for the poor people of Haiti. Some of you may already have donated money to this tragic situation but I would like to suggest most strongly that we all contribute in some way to alleviating this unbelievable tragedy. Temperance will lead us to the right method and amount of support, but love for our poor neighbors to the south must guide us. Many charities are calling for funds such as the Red Cross and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Please do what you can and please do it soon. It would be a sign of virtue, to be sure.

Our sermon is ended.