After last week’s sermon, in which I spoke about beer, one worshipper wondered if I might have pushed an alcoholic off of the wagon. Were I only that influential! While I did mention that I enjoy beer, I don’t think my descriptions were particularly florid… Madison Avenue I’m not. The point was that four simple ingredients produce a transformation and a tremendous variety of flavors, much in the same way that our faith, which is simple according to both the prophet Micah and Jesus, has the capacity to transform lives, comes in many variations.
Then I got home and opened my Sunday New York Times, where on page 22 of the Magazine I found an article extolling the virtues of Pedialyte. It was not, however, by a parent who had used the product to treat a child with an illness. Instead, it was by a man who describes purchasing a supply of Pedialyte before a night of heavy drinking. Now there, I thought, is a real alcoholic, someone who knows that a product designed for sick children is also effective for hangovers. Fortunately, he also describes using the product after sessions of hot yoga, and catalogs the effects of excess, so not exactly a ringing endorsement of boozing it up. And just wait… the author is still under 40. Try that nonsense when you are 50 and you pay for a week.
Of course, Pedialyte works because it quickly and effectively replenishes sodium and potassium, essential ingredients in the recipe of life. I had quite the opposite problem as a child. When I was ten, my gerbil bit me on the finger, I rubbed my nose, and staphylococcus went flooding through my blood, resulting in nephritis, a kidney disease. The medical professionals in the room are correcting me in their heads right now, for it must have been post-strep, not post-staph, but I am afraid they are wrong on this one.
After ten days in the hospital, from the day after Christmas through the start of the new year, I was allowed to go home, but with strict instructions to avoid salt. For a year I was not allowed to use any added salt, had to avoid salty foods. Try scrambled eggs without salt sometime. Even now it is hard to control your salt intake, and in that era before good nutrition labels and at the height of the age of processed foods, it was nearly impossible, never mind that like many ten year-olds, I thrived on a diet of french fries and potato chips. It is a miracle I am alive. Dad had high blood pressure, Mom still does, so I can look forward to returning to my salt-free days in the near future.
But not salt-free really, for as mentioned, salt is essential for life itself. Like most things in life, salt is not a binary. It is a continuum. Too much and you die. Too little and you die.
Saltiness is one of the five basic tastes that combine to create all of the flavors we know, joining sweetness, sourness, bitterness and umami, a savory or brothy taste. Amazing complexity from the interplay, but a single flavor alone doesn’t cut it.
Today’s scripture tells us to be salt, to not lose our saltiness. But then there are those high blood pressure pills, and old expressions like “salt in the wound” and “salting the earth,” the folklore that suggested a conqueror might spread this essential substance across the fields of the enemy to damage agricultural production. There is actually no evidence that anyone every possessed, much less had the means to transport, salt in that quantity.
The right thing in the right amount at the right time. Back to the beer… put the yeast in while the wort, or boiled malt, water and hops, is too hot, and the yeast all dies and you don’t get beer. A little salt goes a long way when you are making bread, but you need a lot to work as a preservative. When Christ tells us to be salt, we are left to determine how much salt at what time. Some would have us go salt free, death to our body when it is physical, death to our soul when it is spiritual.
With an apology to vegetarians and vegans, an old friend taught me many years ago that wisdom is knowing to chew up the meat and spit out the bones, knowing what we can take in, what nourishes us, and what to spit out, for it will only choke us. We’d like to think that was easy, but not so much… I know that Brussels sprouts are really good for you and candy bars aren’t, but I’d still rather have the Snickers, or one of those sea-salted caramels, the perfect combination of sweet, sour, and a little umami. Each of us must decide for ourselves how much to take in, what nourishes, what chokes.
Life is this balancing act, always perched on a razor’s edge. We are called to be in community, but Jesus models having time alone. We are called to drop everything, to risk everything, to change the world, but oh, by the way, don’t forget to take sabbath.
Can you imagine? “Abandon everything,” he says, “follow me.” I’m glad some did, for I need his word in my life, and if everyone had said “I’ll see when I can fit it in,” there would be no church. He offered healing and hope, but he also demanded changed lives, told us that the Way would come at a high cost, but was like “totally worth it, dude.”
Some today seek a no-cost, no-commitment gospel, a cheap grace. They seek spiritual porridge and pretty music, write the odd check to the church or some charity, and if the gospel demands more, they aren’t interested. In this consumer Christianity, devoid of Christ, the call to life change is the choking bone.
In “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church,” Kenda Creasy Dean looks at extensive studies of youth and religion, and places squarely in her sights what scholars have labeled “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a hodge-podge on banal, self-serving, feel good beliefs that dominate consumer Christianity. There will always be those who want a self-serving, feel good Christianity that has little to do with either the historic faith or the actual Jesus, for Jesus tells us that we are sinners, but that God loves us anyways, demands that we repent, change our hearts, pick-up a cross as we sacrifice everything, but promises us that this is the way to God. Those who want a watered down faith see our demands for discomfort, sacrifice, our engagement with the real world as foolish, but we know from history what happens when Christians pretend not to see. The church should only be engaged in the spiritual, some say, as if Jesus hadn’t fed, healed, challenged those with authority and rampaged through the Temple. We all need some rest, some reassurance, but we must remain engaged in real life, and sometimes that is costly.
But to the foolish who are redeemed, that call to costly grace, to risk and sacrifice, is the source of life and hope. Attend to your own spiritual development, but be prepared for the ways that studying scripture and spending time in prayer will turn you outward, for the Way of Jesus is not self-centered, it is radically other-centered. You are not called to come to church. You are called to be the church.
How much? How much salt? How much sweet? How much challenge? How much comfort? I don’t know the answer. I’m muddling along the best I can, praying, listening for the Spirit, reading the word of God. How do we balance challenge and comfort, for a church that is all challenge is short of praise and sabbath, but a church without challenge exists without Christ, without the Cross.
How much tradition and how much adaptation before either is too much, leads to spiritual death? That’s like asking what should be the balance between old hymns and new hymns. You’d be amazed how many pastors have died in that particular ditch.
How much do we allow the cult of secular nationalism to creep into our worship life, the idolatry of the nation and its symbols, narrowing our frame so much that we no longer see all people as belonging to God, but only seeing those that bear the same marks of identity as us as being people of God? God Bless America? Is it okay if God blesses Mozambique too?
How wide can we expand our focus and stay sane, before the weight of the world is too much. For sometimes it feels like too much.
How much salt? How much light?
I’ve had to stop looking at Facebook after dinner, for if I do, I am going to see a news item that will upset me. I am a disabled Army veteran and have received services from VA Medical Centers for almost thirty years, but just before bed on Monday I learned of a policy that, when implemented, will allow VA medical staff to refuse me care because it violated their religious belief. I didn’t sleep knowing I could lose access to the doctors who have managed my disability for so decades. Will you look away and pretend not to see, just as German Christians once did?
How much is too much? I have no children or grandchildren, so why should I care about public education? I care because you care. Because you have children and grandchildren, and I made a commitment to love you and walk with you. But how much sleep can I lose over educational policy before it cripples me?
Few know that my surname is Ashkenazi Jewish in origin, so why should I care about rising anti-Semitism, why lose sleep? Because some of you are in interfaith marriages, have sons and daughters and grandchildren in interfaith marriages. But how much should I care? When do I say “enough” and hibernate for awhile? How much salt must go into the recipe of life for there to be life?
Why should I care that there are ten mentally ill individuals in a prison bed for every available treatment bed? Never mind the financial stupidity involved in such a system, I care because someone sitting near you in the pews this morning has a loved one struggling with mental illness, has a broken heart, and you have said you will love them and walk with them, and I have said I will love them and walk with them.
Because these issues are not abstract and remote. They are personal and here, in this room. Who is my neighbor, Jesus. And he told a story. “Once there was a man who was robbed and badly beaten…”
As Progressive Christians, we must reject the narratives of fear and scarcity and offer instead possibility, hope, and God’s abundance. We must cry out like a voice in the wilderness, not only a cry of true repentance but also a cry that says we believe humans are better than this, that creation is better than this, and that God is with us. Who better to create narratives of hope than this community of artists, musicians, writers, and scholars?
I have said I will love you and walk with you, even when you are cranky… yeah, about that… Sometimes that journey together will be breaking bread and sharing a cup with laughter and joy, and sometimes that will be a cross. Sometimes I will carry my own cross, and sometimes I will carry yours, like Simon the Cyrene, who carried the cross of Jesus for awhile. Sometimes you will be asked to help me with mine.
I care deeply about things that do not directly effect me because they effect you. Because my neighbor that the gospel demands I serve is your brown-skinned friend or family member, because the woman’s body that won’t receive a breast cancer screening is here in this room, is your neighbor, waits on you when you go out to eat, receives assistance from the Dolly Fisher Fund. Is that political? Feed the hungry? Do justice? Love the immigrant? Pay a fair wage? If so, then the Bible is political, and what are we if we have stripped our faith of the Bible and of the Cross?
We choose not to be partisan because that is divisive and we try to live out that motto “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, diversity. In all things, love.” But there are essentials. And there must be love.
The Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara famously said “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” And for us, when I say feed the hungry, they say I am being religious, but when I ask why Goldman Sachs is allowed to manipulate crop futures in a way that creates shortages, hunger and food riots, they call me too political.
How much? Comfort, comfort, O my people. Let us sing the old time hymns and tell the ancient story, because sometimes we need hope, need to be reminded that God is good and love wins. Sometimes we need Good Friday, sometimes to be Eastered, sometimes to be called to repentance. Sometimes we need Job and sometimes we need to hear about a hard working immigrant woman who marries a guy named Boaz and who becomes a part of Christ’s family tree.
I could easily put my head down and serve myself, take no risks, offer you a vapid Christianity that is all comfort and never challenge. I could tell you all that you are just swell the way you are, no need to grow, no need to change, but it would be a lie, and it would come at the cost of your soul and mine. It would come at the cost of this church’s future, for civic denominationalism is dead. Consumer Christianity is selling a lie. At least on this, I am in agreement with the Fundamentalists. We humans know inherently that anything worth having comes at a cost, and a Christianity that asks nothing gets nothing. A Christianity that provides comfort without challenge, that has no cross, is worthless, which is one reason so many churches are empty and closing.
The church is not a purveyor of religious goods and services. We are called to be agents of transformation, in our own lives and in the world around us. To be salt. To be yeast. To be a light that shines and shows us the way forward. The only question is how can we best bring out the gifts in one another and in the community around us to make this world a better place.
How much salt? The loaf will not rise with too much salt. The wort will not ferment without sugars. It cannot be all one and never the other, but must be a constant mix of joy and celebration and grief. That is how the world works and it is how our faith works. Institutional Christianity has failed largely because it valued the institution more than it valued Christ, because Christ is hard and demanding, and many prefer a false feel-good faith.
How much? Will we be salt? Will we balance self-care, joy and hope with the costs of an engaged faith that seeks, as we pray “Thy kingdom come”?
What does it profit a person to gain peace but lose their soul?
Be salt and don’t lose your saltiness, but keep it in proportion. Be a light in a dark time, don’t hide it under a bushel basket… but switch off the light sometimes, just for a short time, and take a nap. Let us be a city on the hill, a model of Christ’s radically open table of love. Pick up your cross, and follow. But take some time off to cook some fresh fish over a campfire by the shore, to pass around the cup of whatever beverage, to remind one another that God is good, that God is love. Then get up and do it all again, as we walk together in courage and in love.