June 15, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

1 Corinthians 10:23-33

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience- I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.

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Sermon: New Anti-Saloon Songs

All kids think their fathers are great, but sometimes they don’t quite understand what they do for a living: I heard the story that three little girls were in the school yard bragging about their fathers. The first girl said: "My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper; he calls it a poem and they give him $50." The second girl said, "That's nothing. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a song, and they give him $100." Then the third girl said: "I’ve got you both beat. My Dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper, he calls it a sermon, and it takes eight people to collect all the money!"

We made a policy decision here to collect the money before the sermon, so my daughters would never share that confusion, nor would the congregation get the chance to be critics with the collection!

Not that this is a highly critical congregation - this church has a history of being kind to clergy. I think only one pastor has been formally dismissed and that goes way back to Heman Rood in the 1830s. There’s no record of the exact reason he was asked to leave, but there is a clue in Orcutt’s history of New Milford.

There are two mentions of Rood in that book - one because he was the pastor when the church moved to this location and the other because he was active in The American Temperance Society.

The American Temperance Society was founded in 1826 in Boston to restrain and prevent the intemperate use of intoxicating liquors. Apparently the movement had two factions fairly early on - one that asked for abstinence from liquor but allowed wine and beer, and one that called for complete abstinence, meaning no wine, no beer, no malt beverage.

When the Litchfield County branch of the Temperance Society met in New Milford in 1834, Rev. Rood was one of the leaders who succeeded in getting the total abstinence position adopted by the local group. My guess is that while the citizens of New Milford may have been tolerant of temperance when it came to whiskey, the thought of someone taking away their beer was too much. They decided, instead, to terminate the temperance leadership.

Liquor had an early acceptance in New Milford - there is even a record of distilled spirits being part of the expenses of the entertainment committee at the ordination of our first minister in 1716.

The temperance movement might have suffered a setback with the departure of Rev. Rood, but after the Civil War the banner was taken up again and in 1874 a Women’s Temperance Crusade was initiated here and brought the question of licensed liquor sales to town meeting. The town went back and forth for several years between allowing sales or being legally dry. But in practice the sale of liquor never stopped and it was the arrest and jailing of those who sold it illegally that eventually convinced the town to grant liquor licenses.

Along with the Women’s Temperance Crusade there emerged over the years a Young People’s Temperance Society, a Colored People’s Temperance Union, a Citizen’s Club, which ran a temperance reading room on the Green, and a regular Sunday afternoon temperance prayer meeting.

In my office I’ve found a book published in 1905 - “New Anti Saloon Songs” with such catchy titles as “Down the Licensed Saloon,” “Prohibition is the Only Certain Way,” “Vote As You Pray,” and “Grapple With the Evil.”

Here’s one verse from the now forgotten favorite: Water Just Suits Me

Oh, you need not offer brewer’s liquid bitterness to me,

I will buy no unclean lager when a better drink is free.

Pure cold water just suits me,

I will buy no baneful poisons when cold water is so free.

There is something so antique, so quaint about the sentiments. Even the word “Temperance” seems like something of an age gone by, something that has about as much relevance to our society today as a Model T Ford.

And yet, at the risk of following the footsteps of Rev. Rood, I’d like to suggest that maybe we have a problem we have failed to face squarely and that temperance is a concept worth another look.

I have to issue a disclaimer here. I can’t speak to temperance out of my own experience. I come from a drinking family living in a drinking culture. Drinking is mixed in with celebration, sadness, and little rituals that mark the end of the day or the end of the week or any number of “special” occasions like St. Patty’s Day or Memorial Day or today. Many here are in the same boat, and this might make it difficult for us to take a fresh look at the bigger picture.

It’s not that easy to get a grasp on the role alcohol plays in our culture. If I were to ask you how much money you think is spent in a year in New Milford on alcoholic beverages, what would you think? How many would think it is over half a million dollar? How about over a million? How about over $2 million, $4 million, $8 million, $16 million.

Well the answer is that there is no exact figure available, but some of the pieces of what would make up the whole picture are known. The Connecticut department of revenue services does not separate alcohol from food sold in bars and restaurants, nor do they have a separate figure for beer sold in supermarkets. But the package goods stores in New Milford - which must be 99% liquor sales - the package good stores did $14.3 million dollars in business last year.

Now think of that figure in comparison, say, to the cost of a town pool, which was voted down a little over a year ago as too expensive. I don’t remember the exact price of the pool, but I bet we spend enough on alcohol in just a single year to pay for its construction, fill it with Beefeater gin, and give every resident of the town an olive and a swizzle stick to boot!

Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, and it really is a separate, although related, question. What makes this a timely issue for me is the coming together of Father’s Day and high school graduation and the issue of taking parental responsibility for creating a safe celebration for our students.

You probably know that some adults have put considerable time into providing a non-alcoholic all night graduation party for our seniors next Saturday night. The chair of the grad party this year is Elaine Bock and I know many from our congregation will be helping beforehand and throughout the night. But that will not be the only party in town, and you know that there will also be homes where kegs of beer will be provided by parents for graduates and their friends.

Some of the thinking behind providing beer at a graduation party is that the parents can then exercise control over the situation and keep the kids off the road. Whether this actually works or is a good trade off considering the mixed messages it gives is a question up for debate. This is not a sermon that will end with an easy solution - it’s really more an encouragement for all us to take a clear headed look at the situation and engage in a broad discussion about the place of alcohol in our personal lives, our families, our culture, and as a featured guest at our celebrations.

If we engage in this kind of conversation and self examination, our faith can help us put the issue of temperance into a useful perspective - and the words of St. Paul that we read this morning give us good guidance. Paul wrote: all things are lawful, but all things are not beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other - do not seek your own advantage, but that of the many, so they may be saved.

With a genuine motive of salvation and to improve their society the temperance folks issued this book of new anti saloon songs in 1905. How would we have to change our tune around these issues to make a safer environment and set a healthier example for our children? What would be truly beneficial, what would build up, what would save lives and set our society on a better path?
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