No More Bland Faith

There are a seemingly endless array of specialized kitchen appliances out there, entire devices that makes only one thing that you rarely actually make. You’ve got your waffle irons and pasta makers, sure, but I’m really talking about things like hot dog makers, which have slots for a single hot dog and bun to cook together. I’m talking about countertop Egg McMuffin makers and mini-donut factories, for people who want to start their day off with poor choices but not have to drive to McDonald’s or Wawa to do it.

But I haven’t seen anything that beats the Indoor S’mores Maker. Now, I didn’t know such a thing even existed until my father gave us one for Christmas a few years ago. And we were living in a New York City apartment, so my first instinct was, “we have no room for something like this!” But now I need to confess: I didn’t know what I was saying, because I hadn’t thought through the actual implications of being able to make s’mores for dessert, anytime of year, especially when living in a New York City apartment with no outdoor space for fires or grills at all.

So the next day, we went to the grocery store and picked up marshmallows and Hershey’s chocolate bars and graham crackers, and that evening we had s’mores complete with real toasted marshmallows in a New York City apartment, not from a Christmas miracle, but from good old fashioned U.S. ingenuity, which is always on the cutting edge of making it more convenient to eat unhealthy things.

Which is actually pretty ironic, given one of the main ingredients of s’mores. It’s not clear who actually invented s’mores, though apparently the first recipe appeared in a Girl Scouts publication in 1927, so even though this is Boy Scout Sunday at First Presbyterian we can thank the Girl Scouts for that. But you can’t have s’mores without graham crackers, and they were directly inspired in the 19th century by Sylvester Graham, who was a Presbyterian minister! But before we start patting ourselves on the back for being part of the creation of s’mores, I should probably point out that Graham would be absolutely horrified that his name and life’s work are associated with s’mores.

To Graham, s’mores would be not just unhealthy, but an immoral abomination. Graham had an evangelical conviction that diet was closely linked to morality, and specifically to the sins of gluttony, lust, envy, and greed. So, not only was he a staunch supporter of the teetotaler wing of the temperance movement against alcohol, but he argued for the virtues of an intentionally bland diet devoid of all “stimulants,” which meant no caffeine, sugar, salt, pepper, and any other kind of spice.

Instead, people should eat vegetables cooked to the point of mushiness (apparently even a crispy carrot was too much stimulation) and plain homemade bread made of coarsely ground whole-grain flour; he was very particular about that. Grahamism, as it became known, grew into one of the very first diet trends in U.S. history; it became so popular that Oberlin College required its students and staff to follow it and even fired a professor for the sin of getting caught with a pepper shaker in the dining hall.

As Grahamism spread, its followers invented graham flour specifically as a bland, whole-grain alternative to white flour. And it is from that that graham crackers are made. The whole essence of a graham cracker is to be simple and bland to the point of near-tastelessness, the better to calm your nerves and extinguish the flames of your base impulses. So you could imagine what Graham and his followers would think about the creation and popularity of s’mores, in all their sugary indulgent glory, because they were trying to create a national movement that represented the exact opposite of all of that.

I wonder what Graham the Presbyterian crusader against the sin of spices and for the virtues of blandness, then, made of Jesus calling his followers “the salt of the earth.” It sounds like Jesus meant it as a compliment and/or an aspiration when he’s talking to the crowd in the Sermon on the Mount: “you are the salt of the earth,” he tells them, in parallel with calling them “the light of the world,” which is clearly an affirmation.

But Graham hated salt as much as he hated sugar, condemning it as “wholly innutrious,” arguing that “it affords no nourishment to any structure or substance of the human body.” Now that, biologically speaking, is simply wrong; while the typical resident of the U.S. consumes far more salt than is necessary or even healthy, human beings do actually need a certain level of salt intake on a daily basis for healthy bodily functioning.

But like many advocates of extreme diets after him, Graham had trouble distinguishing between scientific fact and moral conviction, and he was convinced that salt led to both physical and moral disease. And, in part because we over-consume far too much salt in the United States, we often talk about salt in moral terms ourselves: we don’t say that too much salt is unhealthy, we say salt is “bad for you.” We talk about indulging in salty treats only half-jokingly as “being bad;” sugary treats clearly hold the top prize for sinful indulgence, but salty ones are still in the game. So being called “salt of the earth” by Jesus can be hard for us to understand as an affirmation.

And yet the phrase is significant enough to have become a cultural idiom; people who have no idea it comes from the Bible, much less directly from Jesus, use “salt of the earth” as a compliment to mean someone who is a solid, good person; simple, honest and hardworking; without any pretension or artifice. This probably comes from the use of salt as a preservative.

Until the advent of refrigeration in the 20th century, salting meat was a common way of preserving it because the salt dries out the meat and keeps bacteria from forming, so it lasts much longer than raw or even cooked meat. So that might have some of the connotations of being reliable and honest, even good, because, far from being bad in itself, salt actually keeps the meat from “going bad,” or becoming rotten. And so it follows that Jesus’ disciples, as the salt of the earth, are supposed to go out into the world and preserve its moral goodness; keep the world from going bad or becoming rotten.

But salt is clearly not simply a preservative; it’s also a seasoning. Our friend Rev. Graham wasn’t the sworn enemy of salt because it was a preservative, but because of its “stimulating” nature as a seasoning. Even a little bit of it adds spark to the blandest food, but not by simply making it more salty. When you eat salted meat, where the salt has been added primarily as a preservative, the primary taste is the salt itself. But not with cooked or fresh food; when you add a little salt there, it actually brings out the inherent flavor of the food, especially if it’s mild or bland.

If you add a little salt to roasted squash, the natural flavors of the squash come out; without it, the squash tastes…well, bland. Additionally and counter-intuitively, salt enhances our ability to taste natural sweetness, which is why some people add it to watermelon. And it also suppresses bitterness, which is why it’s a much better topping for grapefruit; a sprinkle of salt is more effective than a pile of sugar if grapefruit is too bitter for you. And, believe it or not, sea salt, which would have been common in Judea in Jesus’ day with the Mediterranean Sea and Dead Sea nearby, is an effective fertilizer of soil for plants and has been used that way since ancient times; it is literally the salt of the earth.

I think this is actually really important for Jesus’ disciples, then and now, to understand when he talks about us being the salt of the earth and warns us not to lose our saltiness. Because too much of Christianity for far too long has assumed that the only thing that can keep the world from going completely rotten is if the church salts it down with itself, preserving it by overwhelming it and permeating it completely.

And, paradoxically, we’ve often confused that with promoting the supposed virtues of blandness, boiling things down to a flavorless sameness: from the early Christian monks in the desert whose self-denial made Sylvester Graham look like a hedonist, to the notorious conformity of the Puritans, to Christians today who believe that anyone who doesn’t look, think, talk, or live the exact same way they do, is not only different, but dangerous; even other Christians.

But Jesus doesn’t call us to bland faith any more than he does to blind faith. Jesus calls his disciples the salt of the earth, and blandness is the last thing that salt can be, unless it loses its very essence, its saltiness. Which is exactly the point Jesus makes when he asks the rhetorical question about whether salt that has lost its taste can be restored; he’s telling the disciples that as the “salt of the earth” they cannot have a bland faith without giving up the essence of who they are called to be.

Now here at First Presbyterian, we’ve actually articulated our essence, our saltiness, as disciples of Christ in this place and time: we’ve identified four core values of this congregation that define who we are and guide what we do and why we do it. Those values are that we are a congregation that is Christ-centered, welcoming to all, encourages an inquiring faith, and lives out an active faith.

And when we embody those values, we as Christ’s disciples really are the salt of the earth. And as the salt of the earth, we don’t simply help keep the world from going rotten. We help season this world, to bring out the flavors that are deep within it but are hard to taste without some help, flavors that God imbued it with from the very beginning but so often get boiled away by careless cooks: the rich and nourishing flavors of faith, hope, justice, generosity, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, and above all love.

We help enhance the sweetness of this world and suppress its bitterness. And we help enrich the earth so that new life can take root and blossom, offering sustenance and shelter and beauty. That is our essence; that is our calling; that is our hope and promise in and through Jesus Christ. And in fulfilling it, we too will taste the sweetness of God’s grace and know that it is good.

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