Keeping Ethical Actions Front and Center

Motivation is the desire or willingness of someone to do something. We often have the best of intent, and yet find ourselves distracted. Join Rev. Sue Browning as we reflect what motivates us to follow through, especially when the ethical stakes are high? The choir will sing.



Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning

Keeping Ethical Actions Front and Center: What Motivates Us to Do Good?

Most here are no longer students: In 1st grade for a year, the summer off, then poof – 2nd grade.

Some here are teachers, still actively moving with students in the Sept to June cycle. Many here have been teachers or school administrators or school nurses and have this cycle embedded in your bones.

Many of the rest of us share in the calendar of Sept-June programming – from choral groups, to adult learning, to festivals – and yes, in the life of a congregation’s church year. We’re in ‘Wrap-it-up’ time of the year with graduations, year-end celebrations, year-end reporting, and transitions of leadership. We are anticipation of a summer break.

Mid-May, so we are not quite there, but so close.

It’s a chance to reflect. Think back to September, or January. Maybe goals were set. Lists. Reminders to be our better selves; to focus on what matters to us most.

Now is a chance to ask, where have my heart and energy, and the realities of life, actually taken me over this past year? At our annual meeting following the service we’ll have a chance to ask, where did the heart and energy, and realities of life, take this congregation over this past year?

My guess is the answer for both will be tied to what we were truly motivated to do.

So our question this morning:

What motivates us to do ‘good’ or ‘right’ things with consistency?

The definition of motivation is ‘the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.” Motivation is the desire or willingness of someone to do something. It’s less about what we do – what’s on the list – and more about the ‘why.’  

Motivation is apparent Fairy Tales. The stories are simple. The characters tend to wear their motivation on their sleeve.

We are each not motivated the same way. We’re not all wired the same way. And this is often hard to remember when we can’t get another to see something our way.

Some of us were inspired by grades in school. We were motivated enough stay up late to get a 90 rather than an 80. External stuff. Motivated by recognition or advancement. By compensation. By a trophy. Where are we each pulled from the outside?

We can also feel times we’re motivated from the inside. Our actions are driven by our yearning to feel productive, or creative, or deeply connected. We desire a sense of satisfaction.

What are the whys for your actions?…what pulls you? pushes you?

As we wind down the year, it’s a chance for honesty about motivation. Beyond the most basic of basics – paying bills, buying groceries – what happened? Why?

On our lists of plans as we start – to eat healthily, or read more, or walk more, or to send more birthday cards, or to organize those photos. We want these to be priorities – we commit. I want this, really. And then, we’re on the couch watching Netflix, munching a few cheese and crackers, wondering what happened to the day that we didn’t seem to buy the birthday cards. Just saying. It could happen.

Motivation moves us toward a goal, or desire, or value. Counterforces push us away.

There is some unseen force that seems to move us to the couch. Maybe a competing desire to be comfortable, and to relax. Motivation of sorts. Subconscious motivation. Humans are emotional beings, not rational logic machines.

It’s also to take stock of what we avoid. We are pulled by our fears of not being liked, or of not having all the information, or our fear of not being right, or our fear of chaos – disorder.

If we want to follow through on what we’ve declared a priority, what makes the action reality? What puts us in the right frame of mine? What are your tricks to stay motivated?

To get in the sermon writing frame, I need coffee, a charged computer, and few bright colored fine point sharpies. And hopefully a few clear hours to make a serious start. I was even given a shirt for the work.

We motivate, and set-up and gear-up for our goals – our plan for the day. Sometimes putting on gym clothes gets me out the door – and sometimes it means just hanging out in gym clothes for the day. We go to Staples, and buy folders, and labels – to get organized.

And the plan can be to do less. To relax well. What motivates you to do that? We’re not all wired the same way. Trainers at the gym know this – goals vary, styles vary, distractibility varies.

What keeps our energy where we want it?

As your minister I’m wondering if something if a recurring goal on your list is omething like,  “I plan to live ethically by doing (fill in the blank)…”

If not exactly in that form, it’s likely implicitly on your action lists.

Was it hard to stay motivated to follow ethical goals? Do we consistently do right vs. wrong?

Is it easy to figure out what is right vs. wrong? It’s not all that clear cut.

… If someone tells an offensive joke, is it my responsibility to speak up about it?

… If I get extra food in my drive through order, do I return to the place?

… Do I cut the line at a crowded exit ramp because I’m late for an appointment?

Possibly complex, yet we most often can figure out our sense of right and wrong.

We have a view on what the rules should be in society. We may differ on our sense of authority, and what is holy, and optimal. But one way or another we can get to ‘right.’

To stay the course, and choose ‘right’ over ‘wrong’ consistently acting well means we need to stay motivated to behave the ethical way. That’s hard.

We need to be convinced that our ethical actions matter.

… The ethical choice needs to matter to us.

… The ethical choice needs to matter to those we love.

… We need to believe our ethical actions matter to the community.


The Rock Ethics Institution considers, “If our motivations for acting aren’t in line with what we decide it is best to do, OR if our motivations aren’t strong enough to withstand outside pressures…, we won’t make consistently good use of the conclusions we draw by making use of the other elements of moral literacy.”

We won’t consistently follow the ethical path if we aren’t motivated.

What helps? The institute offers recommendations on ethical motivation:

First, it helps to have thought ahead about what we think is ethical.

In part it is having ethical guidelines. What makes something ethical for you? Some follow rules – legal statutes to the Ten Commandments. Some trust more in leaders – guidance from the life of Jesus, or Budda, Ghandi, or MLK? Where do you turn? If it’s a matter of justice – of fairness, whose shoes do you stand in to assess what is fair?

To think ahead – Am I ever willing to break a law? To accept the consequences? What do you do when ethical choices compete?

As we wrap-up the year, before making new lists, this is a time of reflection. Were you prepared for taking difficult ethical actions? In what situations?

And beyond guidelines, there is thinking ahead on specifics. What is your sense of right and wrong on immigration, trade, or free speech – issues which can be complex beyond initial reactivity. If we shy from the complexity, might we retreat from ethical actions and stand back?

This week ethical matters on abortion have been brought to the forefront by decisions in states to criminalize abortion, and to put in limitations which in effect are in practical terms ban on abortion. Do you think sustaining abortion should be a legal option? Why?

I’ve been reflecting this week on the ‘why’ on my own sense that abortion needs to be safe and legal. While my hope is that abortion is rare, I trust those facing decisions to make choices which make decisions which make sense for them. I ask the ethical questions on abortion from the stance of the poor, and of the young, and of those faced with heart-wrenching choices. Who will have funds to fly to where there is sensible access to abortion? Who is precluded from safe, legal options?

My colleague Rev. Debra Haffner has been a voice for access to abortion for over 30 years. She notes, “…we have a moral imperative to ensure access to abortion services. The ability to choose an abortion should not be compromised by a woman’s economic, educational, class or marital status, her age, her race, her geographic location or her lack of adequate information. Current or proposed measures that limit women’s access to abortion services – by denying public funds for low-income women; coercing minors to obtain parental consent and notification instead of providing resources for parental and adolescent counseling; denying international family planning assistance to agencies in developing countries that offer women information about pregnancy options; and banning certain medical procedures – are harmful to women’s lives and wellbeing.”

Beyond having a clear position in our own minds, we need to be in the habit of talking about ethics. Staying ethically motivated has an element of courage; what the institute (Rock Ethics Institute) calls moral courage. Actions speak. We know our kids do what we do, not what we talk about. Interaction by interaction we are impacting the whole. As UUs we see all is interconnected, even when we can’t quite see how – even when the impact feels unknown. This is true for the smallest ethical choice, to the public sphere.

Ethics are relational. They impact others. And finding our voice helps items slip from the list. Whether it’s a white lie choice, or a personal dilemma, or public position, there is a ripple effect.

Talking about ethics helps us stay aware, and intentional. We don’t often notice our moment of truth on an ethical action. We’re open to distraction and we miss the time to choose. We more avoid ethical actions. We don’t label it unethical, yet there we are on the couch watching Netflix.

What ethics issues have you discussed this year? Are there times you wished you had spoken up?

A closely related third step of ethical motivation is being held accountable to stay on track. Maybe through your own practices of reflection, and I hope in community.

We often turn from ethical action in the face fear, or if not fear, anxiety. For our ethical fitness, we need to listen to our bodies. Start with awareness, not scolding. What took you off course? How did you feel?

What is your plan to work through some discomfort? Like working out at the gym, ethical consistency needs this same encouragement.

We share ideas and create opportunities to be our best selves. When ethics feel tricky, reach out. Use resources. Reach up to a sense of what is divine. To your sense of God, and sources beyond yourself. Find quiet time, and reflect. Motivation needs to be nurtured.

In our wrap-up of this year, how did we do as a congregation to act with an ethical heart? From our outreach collections, to range of speakers, to the rainbow flag on Route 50 – evidence if staying ethically motivated.

As the budget is passed at the annual meeting today, think of our RE program and its support of ethics for children. This is a chance to see ethical action with follow through. What are we saying when we support staff? Recognize volunteers?

Our motivation to consistently act ethically is contagious. And we help each other. We create our sense of accountability – right here each Sunday.

Our routines hold us true to values. If we’re motivated, we are our best – our energy takes us to where we dream of being. We do good things. We care for one another. We make time for rest, and renewal. Step by step – list by list we do our part to create a more ethical world, and that is a more hopeful world – a hopeful path toward change.


Do our day-to-day ethical actions still matter? You know they do. When and where we’re motivated to act, the ethical follow through will happen.


May It Be So




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