I sometimes say, in jest of course, that I need coffee to get me started and beer to slow me down. In truth, while there is at least one cup of coffee every morning, usually two, the single evening drink might well be wine, or might be skipped entirely. Still, I love good coffee and good beer. And just as one man was responsible for America’s contemporary coffee culture, one man was responsible for today’s beer culture. His name was Bert Grant, a Scot, who opened the first independent brewery since Prohibition in Yakima, Washington in 1982.
Since then, the beer world has changed. You can still find beer that is mass-produced, watery and flavorless, but you can also find hundreds of other choices, beers in every traditional style and even a few completely new styles, though Cave Creek Chili Beer, with a whole chili pepper in every bottle, is a stretch even for me.
I’m not sure what Bert Grant would have made of today’s hipsters, drinking their PBR’s (that’s Pabst Blue Ribbon for folks that are either too young or too old to know) wearing their flannel shirts with their bushy beards, Milwaukee truck drivers cast as Brooklyn techies… They yearn for the retro, the simple, and are anything but…
You don’t need to add anything to beer to produce a tremendous variety of flavors. I know the words “German” and “purity” in the same sentence can be unsettling, but brewers have used the words together for centuries. The best known Reinheitsgebot, or German Beer purity law, was adopted in Bavaria around 1516. These rules require that a beer have only four ingredients, water, malt, hops and yeast, and stipulate that if the malt contains anything other than barley, it must be top fermented.
With just these four ingredients, brewers have produced a tremendous variety of beer styles, from the light lager you enjoy during the summer to that heavy stout you drink next to the fire. The variations are regional and seasonal, adjusting the roast of the barley, the type and amount of hops, the type of yeast, the temperature of fermentation. Historians tell us that beer was being brewed 5000 years ago, and some biblical scholars suggest that the bread offering brought to the Temple was actually a beer offering. We’ve got churches that still claim that the wine at Cana was unfermented grape juice, absurd of course, and it turns out God liked a good beer the whole time.
Things do not need to be complicated to be good.
Take today’s reading, the Micah passage that is the foundation of my entire faith. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. It isn’t about how many bulls you kill and burn at the Temple. It isn’t about six hundred plus laws and a bureaucracy of priests. Which pairs rather nicely with what Jesus reminds us is the greatest commandment: Love God more than anything else, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Who is my neighbor, Jesus? Absolutely everyone.
The passage is not framed as a negative. The commandments, much of the Law, all negative… Thou shalt not. The passage in Micah is not a negative, because the traits it seeks, the simple ingredients of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, the simple ingredients for following Jesus, are positives.
Which is to say, really following Jesus is not about avoiding sin. It is about a proactive engagement with the world. Do justice, not avoid injustice. Love kindness, not “don’t be a jerk.” Love your God, walk humbly with your God, love your neighbor, not “don’t kill your neighbor.” Because while killing your neighbor is definitely not loving, neither is ignoring them.
Remember, this entire line of thinking derives from one encounter, one parable, and the example of those who do not love in the story of the Good Samaritan are not just the robber, blindingly obvious. The sinners that are in Jesus’ sights are those that ignored the man in the ditch. Love is going down into the ditch. Do justice. Love kindness. You can be clean up there on the road, pretending you don’t see, or you can do justice, love kindness, and climb down into the ditch.
Following Jesus is not about what you avoid, the focus of far to many preachers, it is not about what you will receive, the good news preached by false prophets and charlatans, it is about what you do. In another parable, the stewards who avoid risk are condemned, while the one that was bold is called a “good and faithful servant.”
Our faith is built on simple ingredients. The ordering of love from the Great Commandment, the call for justice, kindness, humility, these are all forms of agape, an outwardness, a “for-the-other”-ness. Great if you get home at the end of the day and say “Well, I didn’t kill anyone today.” I know. Some days that’s a win. “I didn’t steal anything today. In fact, I didn’t do anything to harm anyone else.”
For many who call themselves Christian, that is enough, but it is not gospel. Gospel requires proactive love. What did you do today to actively love someone who was an other? Not your family… scripture tells us that loving your family earns you no merit in heaven.
It’s like that traditional prayer of confession, not just what I have done, but also what I have failed to do.
A simple and proactive agape. Got it. All the other rules and practices should come back to that, should support that, for to me, Christian isn’t an ethnicity or an identity, it is a behavior.
And it would be great if it stopped there, which might work if we all lived in little self-contained villages. Edward’s ox gored Mimi. How do we do justice in that situation? Turn to scripture for case law, and if it isn’t spelled out exactly, and in this case it is, but if it isn’t, the rabbis will interpret the law to do justice.
Except that it doesn’t stop there. Even in the Hebrew law there is an understanding that the world is bigger than a single village. In fact, scripture specifically sets up sanctuary cities. I realize this is a term being thrown about like a grenade at the moment, but it comes from scripture. You should look it up.
Even by the time of Jesus the world was connected and complex. The Hebrew religion contained elements of Midianite, Canaanite and Babylonian culture, they spoke Greek, were occupied by Rome, had relatives and tribe members in Rome, Alexandria, Babylon, Corinth. Saul of Tarsus, Latin name Paul, spread the radical and simple message of Jesus across cultural barriers using Roman roads.
A simple faith in a complex world, a world that is getting more complex every day. But even in the complex world of competing Jewish sects and foreign occupation, we see Jesus drawing in the dust saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Is it loving? Is it agape?
A complex world, but complexity is maybe not always a bad thing.
I first learned about complexity science and the Santa Fe Institute 25 years ago with the publication of a book by W. Mitchell Waldrop. At a time when many were focused on the nihilism of chaos theory, a growing body of scientists and mathematicians across disciplines were noticing that at a critical juncture in almost every biological and social process there is a tipping point where something new is created, something more than the sum of the parts. Nature is self-ordering, and we humans are just animals with clothes, so our behavior follows these same patterns. Which turns out to be good, since this self-ordering more-than-the-sum in nature is why we exist at all. The Santa Fe Institute, founded in the 1970s, studies complexity in all types of systems, from cells to the stock market.
Country musician Brad Paisley sings about an “American Saturday Night,” in the 2009 album of that name. “She’s got Brazilian leather boots on the pedal of her German car,” he sings. “Listening to the Beatles singing ‘Back in the USSR.’” He later adds a french kiss, Italian ice, Spanish Moss, Canadian bacon on a pizza pie, cold Coronas and Amstel Light, both, I’m afraid, the aforementioned watery and flavorless beers.
We are connected, have always been connected, follow the Way of Jesus, a multilingual religious reformer from a conquered people who was executed 2000 years ago because we are connected, because ideas and products don’t respect borders, because Jewish refugees, facing hardships and violence, spread themselves throughout the known world, and those small Jewish communities became the first points of contact for the growing Christian faith.
The world is complex, so our outwardness, our agape, in our own circle isn’t going to cut it, and that is where it gets really tricky. We can deal with the intensely personal and local, can struggle with how to do justice for Mimi’s family, though half the town still isn’t speaking to Edward. But we have a harder time wrapping our heads around the complexity of political and economic systems, for they are almost always too big to see the whole system, all of the connections, and almost always, as complexity science tells us, something different than the sum of the parts.
It is great that we can pay for a tank full of heating oil, but the need for that tank of oil is driven by the policies of brutal dictators half a world away, by decisions made about healthcare in Augusta. It can paralyze you.
But if the problems are more than the sum of the parts, so too is the solution, for our simple faith, our “for-the-other”-ness, combined together, becomes a complex self-organizing system that is more than the sum of the parts too.
More complex problems in a 1+1=3 world, but we are ourselves a 1+1=3 sort of community that can proactively pour agape, justice and kindness, into complex systems. Even the purest beer governed by the Reinheitsgebot is more than the sum of the parts, for it is not simply the presence of water, malt, hops and yeast held in stasis. Beer is transformation. When those ingredients come together in the right way for the right amount of time, heat is generated, powerful and complex chemicals and flavors develop. Beer is a 1+1=3 sort of beverage. In fact, everything in life really is, even these human bodies.
Imagine our simple proactive outwardness, bringing agape, bringing the question of right-ordered love into every single encounter, every single question, pouring it into every single complex system, non-stop, the yeast in the loaf. Never “what do I want” but always “how does this do love? How does this do justice? How does this do the Way of Jesus in the world? How can we make a 1+1=3 solution?”
Simple and complex. Like each and every one of us. Christ tells is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” May we be blessed, may we hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice, for kindness, for agape. Stay thirsty my friends.