Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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PLEASURE WITHOUT CONSCIENCE

Sermon given by Rev. Dick Dutton on 5/22/2011

at Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

According to the classic story, four clergymen were out on the golf course for an afternoon of friendly, spirited competition.  But their excitement at being out on a beautiful summer day was tempered a bit  when things got serious.  These four men decided to be painfully honest and confess their biggest sins to each other.  The first said, “as a Methodist, you can imagine how serious drinking is for me.  I have taken the pledge, but from time to time I just have to have several good glasses of brandy.”  The second, a Catholic priest, said, “You know my vows of celibacy, but I must tell you that my temptation to have an affair is, from time to time, overwhelming.”  The third was the Rabbi, who said, “Gentlemen, I must confess that given a very inadequate salary I have succumbed to the temptation of sticky fingers in our Sabbath offerings.”

Now there were several minutes of uneasy silence.   The Baptist minister was apparently deep in thought.  Finally, at the next tee, as the Methodist pastor brought his club head back, the Baptist minister said, “Well, I don’t have those major sins you’ve mentioned, but I love to gossip and I can hardly wait to get back home!”

Well, the last couple of months we have been spending a little time on sins...what Gandhi identified as the “SEVEN DEADLY SOCIAL  SINS.”  Here they are:

                                ‘Politics Without Principal’
                                ‘Wealth Without Work’
                                ‘Commerce Without Morality”
                                ‘Education Without Character’
                                ‘Science Without Humanity’
                                ‘Worship Without Sacrifice’

And this morning, ‘Pleasure Without Conscience’.

Now pleasure is a good thing, right?  I could never understand religious or spiritual life having any attraction at all, if the focus of the religious experience was the denial of pleasure.    Religious people, spiritual people, at their best, are simply men and women inundated by pleasure, overwhelmed by pleasure, reeking with pleasure, obnoxious with all their pleasure.  Where did we ever get the idea that pleasure was sinful?  The Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Torah, the New Testament; not one of them suggests that pleasure is a sin.  So relax and stop feeling guilty!

However, ‘Pleasure Without Conscience’ is something else!  I thought I’d look up those two familiar words.   You know how many different words, definitions and connotations there are for pleasure?

Great words like intoxication, glee, euphoria, rapture, ecstasy, gratification, enchantment, elation, happiness, thrill, bliss....and you can think of a bunch more.  These are not words describing sin.

Here’s a terrific, comprehensive definition of conscience:  “the sense of awareness of moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct intentions or character, together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good.”  And I thought conscience was ‘Little Jiminy Cricket’... or something to make you feel bad.

Sexual pleasure without conscience is making the front pages these days, with national and international faces; from Senator Ensign, to Governor Schwarzenegger, to IMF Director Strauss-Kahn, to Berlusconi, to men and women everywhere without shame.

Sexual pleasure was considered at one time to be a sacred act of commitment, within marriage.  No longer ...not at all.

According to the Center for Disease Control relying on data from 2009, nearly ½ of high school students across the country have had sexual intercourse and the authoritative Guttmacher Institute reports that 9 out of 10 of the present generation of Americans have had sex before marriage.  In fact, according to Mark Regnerus  and Jeremy Uecher, in their book Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying, the very institution of marriage is experiencing a radical shift.  They state that ‘emerging adults’ as they name them think “sex is for the young and single and marriage is for the old.”  Most sexual relationships, or ‘hooking up’ among emerging adults neither begin with marital intentions nor end in marriage or co-habitation; ‘they just begin and end.’

“Nearly all young women and men (93% - 96%) say they would like to get married some day...but just not now.”

“The majority of young adults in America not only think they should explore different sexual relationships, they believe it may be foolish and wrong not to...”  better now than when married.

The reality for us here this morning is that we are not going to push the youth culture back to ‘the good old days,’ whatever that may have been.  We are living in a totally different sexual climate.

Are there guidelines or basic tenets that we can suggest that might profoundly shape a return to pleasure with conscience?  And since pleasure is far more than sexual pleasure, can these tenets be broadly relevant?  Here are three that I believe could describe pleasure with conscience, for all of us.

First:  this pleasure demands a sense of responsibility;
Second:  this pleasure demands personal sacrifice;
Third:  this pleasure demands giving it away.

All three are ingredients for pleasure with conscience.

First, pleasure demands a sense of responsibility.  Zacchaeus is my kind of guy.  First of all he was short, vertically challenged; he was a bit of a rebel, an outlier; but he was also enemy #1 in Jerusalem.  He was a ‘dirty’ tax collector, the poor guy had no friends.  Even Mrs. Zacchaeus really didn’t enjoy being seen with him.

But he was also a very cool dude.  He not only decided on his own what people should be paying in taxes, but then he charged the innocent folks many times over what the market called for.  He was ‘living it up,’ lovin’ the good life.  Mr. ‘Pleasure without Conscience.’

Then something crazy happened.  He heard one day that this itinerant preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, was stopping off in Jerusalem.  Zacchaeus simply had to see him.

As I said, Zacchaeus was short, so he climbed up into a sycamore tree.  Jesus saw him hanging between the branches and called to him: “Zacchaeus, come down from that tree, I’m coming to your house, today!”  Well, all hell broke loose.  Not to the home of the mayor of the village, nor the Chief of Police, nor the wealthy Widow Rosenfeld, but to the home of the hated tax-collector, Mr. and Mrs. Zachaeus.

And guess what Zachaeus discovered; a real shocker, he was turned upside down, he found incomprehensible new pleasure.   Zachaeus was so impressed by Jesus of Nazareth that he agreed to pay back all those he had cheated...3 or 4 times what he had cheated them.  He suddenly discovered the profound reality that pleasure, true pleasure, lasting pleasure, deep, pure, vitalpleasure calls for a sense of responsibility, acted upon.  “doggone, this is all right!”

Whether sexual pleasure where two people accept responsibility for their relationship; whether pleasure derived from physical activity; or intellectual pursuits; or dedication to a job; or the joy of travel and study; whatever brings us pleasure, the most important component is a sense of responsibility!  To see pleasure as part of responsibility to self and to others, even to the community!

But pleasure with conscience demands not only a sense of responsibility; it demands personal sacrifice.  In fact there are some who will say that real pleasure is not possible without an element of sacrifice...of giving up, or giving over, or giving in, or simply giving.

In the children’s story, The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein recounts a delightful story about a tree and a boy.  The tree gives absolutely everything it has to the boy, and this giving brings the tree true happiness, true pleasure.  Anne Deatly summarizes the story.

The relationship begins when the boy is very young.  The boy uses the tree’s leaves to make a crown and the boy becomes the king of the forest.  The boy climbs the trunk, swings from its branches, and eats the tree’s apples.  When the boy tuckers out, he naps in the shade of the tree. 

When the boy grows up, he asks the tree for money.  Not having money, the tree offers its apples to sell to make the boy happy.  The boy gathers its apples – and the tree is happy.  The boy grows into a man and asks the tree for a house.  The tree offers its branches to build a house, so the boy would be happy.   The boy cuts off the branches of the tree, and the tree is happy.  When he grows even older, the boy asks the tree for a boat.  The tree offers its trunk to build a boat, so the boy could sail away and be happy.  When the boy cuts the tree down to a stump, the tree is happy.

When the boy becomes a very old man, he returns to the tree.  The tree is sad that it has nothing left to give the boy.  Tree has already given its apples, branches and even its trunk.  However, the tree discovers that it can give this old man a place to sit and rest.  The man sits down and the tree is happy.

Even when the tree is literally cut down to nothing, it finds a new way to give.  Of the two, it is the tree that finds the key to pleasure, not the boy.  This is joyful giving; it is giving from the heart...and serious sacrifice!

Whenever I counsel a couple about to be married we discuss the three Greek words used for love...eros, filios, and agape.  Eros, from which we get the word erotic, refers to narcissism, self-love, self-centered need for love, a superficial type of love that demands nothing – certainly not sacrifice; that expects no commitment, nothing beyond the moment!

Filios and agape can be the basis for a long term, deeper relationship, because both require sacrifice and mutual commitment.

Filios is essentially deep friendship, respect and responsibility, and brotherly-type love.  Agape adds a love...not because of certain gifts, traits and positions; but agape is a love that is unconditional, lasting forever, a love not merely ‘because of’ but even ‘in spite of.’  Wow...talk about sacrifice!  But wow, talk about pleasure...talk about intense pleasure, talk about sacrificial pleasure...a pleasure with conscience.

So pleasure with conscience demands ‘a sense of responsibility’.  This pleasure demands personal sacrifice. Finally, this pleasure demands ‘passing it on’.

We all know about the idea of passing on to someone else the good things that have come to us.  It’s one of the real markers of pleasure.  In fact ‘happiness experts’, and all happiness data from around the world all agree that we are the happiest when we are sharing with  others; it’s kind of a pleasure with conscience, and Gandhi  I’m sure would approve.

You will probably never meet Burnice but this is her story, told by her pastor.  Burnice is a single mother who’d dropped out of school when her first baby came along.  A series of men battered her, just as her alcoholic father had done.  She sought relief in beer and crack and ended up selling her body to get more.  She moved to the Bronx to escape an abusive husband, but she couldn’t get away from drugs.

One day after dropping off her children at school Burnice came by my office.  She’d heard that we give out Christmas gifts to children.  Burnice’s plan was to pick up presents for her children and then sell the presents to buy enough drugs for an overdose.  She told me later that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired.  On Christmas morning, she came to get the gifts and met our intern, Janell.  Janell saw something in Burnice’s face that made her stop and invite conversation, listening, and prayer.  When I noticed them they were sitting in a wordless, tearful embrace.  Burnice later said Janell’s tears opened her heart.

She asked if she could detox by sleeping in the church and we agreed.  She slept on the rug by the altar and made it through that first week, clean.  By Easter, she was baptized.

Burnice began to help other women, reaching out to addicts as they hit bottom and listening and counceling them into detox and rehab programs. 

Her own relationship struggles continued.  One man she’d been with broke her ribs.  She went through training and found a part-time job as an HIV/AIDS outreach worker and met her future husband.  But before long he began using crack.  Later she found that he’d infected her with the HIV virus.

Still, Burnice did not give up.  She began working on a GED in preparation for a full-time job.  She now serves as the president of her congregation.  “From crackhead to council president,” she likes to say, “the community has made a transformation in me.”

On Sunday’s she stands before the altar holding out bread to share with all who come to receive it from her hands.  We come to take the bread of life from Burnice...from her hands...hands that nurture life and witness to the superabundance of God’s grace.  It’s all about being blessed and blessing others, isn’t it!

It’s all about passing it on!

It’s all about real pleasure.

 

 

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