Sweetness or Substance
“Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Lk.12:32)
Millions of years ago, nature equipped us through the process of evolution with certain qualities necessary for survival. One of the gifts we were given was a craving for sweetness. Built deep within us is a desire of things that are sweet. One can imagine the evolutionary significance of this craving. It drove our ancestors to look for sweet fruits and berries, which contained not only valuable nutrients, but quick energy needed to meet tough physical demands and to keep warm.
But something terrible occurred. As has so often happened in human history, we were too smart for our own good (intelligence without wisdom); we learned to refine sugar. At this point our craving for sweetness became a liability, for we now could fulfil this natural and necessary craving anytime we wanted without much effort. We no longer had to wait until we found honey in a hollow tree or searched for berries or waited until fruits were in season. We can refine sugar from a number of substances and have sweetness anytime we please.
You know the results: obesity, rotted teeth, diabetes, and a number of other health problems; all the result of a perfectly good craving, fulfilled too easily and too readily through refined sugar. Let this situation be a metaphor for dilemmas within today’s society, for we are able immediately, without much effort, i.e., far too easily, to fulfil many of our cravings. When we people became hooked on refined sugar, which came without much effort, they began to neglect more substantial nourishment. So, too, when other things come with an easy option: it is tempting to take the short cut instead of putting in the effort to go after the real substance.
For example, much has been reported about the amount of money involved in gambling in this country, and the deleterious effects it has on many people in our society. What is this gambling epidemic but a public seeking to feed upon the sweet sugary lure of instant wealth: instant gratification without any long-term effort. Australia, with its relatively tiny population, has 2.6% of all the poker machines in the word, and ranks first in the number of machines per capita and in the amount of money gambled per person.
The money lost by Australians to gambling is two and a half time that of the next worst country (Italy), 3 times that of New Zealanders, 7.5 times that of Brits, and 10 times the per capita losses of Americans. Why have we allowed the problem to grow so large.? The negative effects upon society are well-known. You would think any government with any sense at all, would act to reduce this blight upon the social fabric of the nation.
But governments make billions of dollars from gambling. They, too, have been sucked into the desire for something for nothing. While people gamble away billions on the chance that they will be the lucky ones who will have the good life without expending any effort, governments give thanks that they can reap easy income without having to resort to the politically difficult choice of raising taxes.
Speaking of governments, election campaigns typify the problem. When it comes to sweetness or substance, there is lots of the former and little of the latter. The major political parties spend most of their time taking aim at the suckers in the electorate who are naive enough to believe good things can be had for nothing. Instead of in-depth policy descriptions, we get sound bites and slogans. We hear of election promise after election promise, each one coming with the rider that, miraculously, it will be funded without raising taxes. You might confuse our leaders with Santa Claus at Christmas, promising goodies to all the girls and boys. We hear little or nothing of the hard yards needed to deal with the major challenges facing us, such as climate change, water shortages, food insecurity, inadequate infrastructure and all the rest. It’s all ‘bread and circuses’.
We readily elect politicians who lie to us, telling us that all will be well; that we can have great education, cradle to grave health care, financial and physical security all without additional taxes, and we in the electorate fall for it. Once in office they set in motion only those programs that will payoff prior to the next election, because they know that voters prefer sweetness to substance.
Back in the 19th century, the U.S. planned, financed and built the Panama Canal. The project took over ten years to complete. Remember, U.S. representatives in Congress serve only two-year terms, which means that there were many, perhaps most, legislators who voted for the expenditure for the canal who would not be office when it was completed. Indeed, it took 5 congressional terms to see out the project or, in the Australian context, 3 or 4 governments. Can you imagine politicians today taking such a long term view, risking their careers on a project for which they would never reap the benefits?
Although planning is a bit more long term in the best of the corporate world, still there is too often the search for the quick payoff. Corporations seek ‘instant gratification’ through mergers and acquisitions, rather than investing in research and product development, all to satisfy the expectations of the shareholders for a fast-expanding profit, because the investors, too, want return without work: sweetness without substance.
And the ultimate symbol of sweetness over substance in our society is the credit card. Whilst politicians loudly talk about the national debt, the national debt is trivial compared to household debt with respect to its danger to the economic well being of the country. Yet you don’t see politicians clamping down on credit cards. Why? Because they want to allow people instant gratification and thereby keep the people contented and the economy going. Who cares if the bill can’t be paid when it arrives, as long as our longings are satisfied without effort?
Recently the chief of police in a large city, commenting on the problem of crime among urban youth, said, “These young adults hanging around on street corners are not thinking about marriage, not dreaming of owning a home in the future, of having a good job. They are cynical, disillusioned and fatalistic. They believe the future is closed to them, and they will have short lives, so why make the effort? Instead, they sell and take drugs. Life is short, the future is unpromising, so why not grab all you can for today/”
This is a reasonably analysis, but it’s not only about the young adults standing around on street corners. It applies to executives of major corporations, political leaders, and many of us. Many people are fatalists, so certain are they of what tomorrow holds. Thus they seek momentary pleasures, instant gratification, sugar without substance.
Folks, it is killing us and our society. I can remember an interview with a person who was involved in the continuing education of teachers. He said, “ A good teacher has got to be in love with the process of planting a seed, but not need to be around for the harvest.” There are many occupations like that, not the least of which is ministry.
Of course, the instant gratification malaise is also found in the church. How often I have heard (and cringed), “Accept the Lord Jesus into your life and you will be saved,” as though it could be that simple. Paul tried to deal with this particular heresy amongst the Corinthians, but he could not stop it. The message of cheap grace still abounds: a religion where sweetness has replaced substance continues to grow in many places, but it’s not the way of Jesus.
Today’s epistle reading from the Hebrews is a beautiful passage that speaks of our forbears in the faith. The writer reminds us that these people served God without receiving any immediate reward. When they looked to the future, they had their eyes fixed upon a city, but not a city in the present; rather, a city in the future. This is faith, says the writer to the Hebrews. Faith is the opposite of fatalism. Faith is that which enables us to forego the momentary gratification of instant sweetness in order to get to the substance.
Anything worth doing takes time, effort, long-term commitment, struggle, correction and steadfastness. This applies also to the journey with Jesus. Today’s gospel tells us of Jesus instructions to his followers. He warns us to be dressed for action, to have our lamps lit, to be ready to march at a moment’s notice, to be ever vigilant, watchful.
Here is a faith that is not available to us as a $25 debit on our credit card and a free weekend. I imagine – I hope – that there are people in this congregation in their eighties and nineties who still can confess to be being surprised on a Sunday, who still lament that they’ve been working at this ‘faith’ thing for a lifetime and still don’t have it down pat. Christianity is nobody’s quick fix.
But you are here. Today. You’re not lounging in front of a TV hoping to get your faith through osmosis. You have made an effort to be here. You’ve not arrived, nor do you expect to any time soon, but you are on the way on the journey of faith.
Today’s service may be a blessing for you, or it may not. This may be your Sunday to gain some clarity and surety in your faith, but it may not be. Things take time here, and you have taken the time. At least for a moment, you have forsaken the world of the quick fix, the sweetness without substance, and have come here to ponder some ancient texts, to sing the old hymns (and the occasional new one), to gather around a mystery than cannot be comprehended in a moment.
Rejoice, keep at it, take your time. It is the pleasure of the Divine Presence to give you the kingdom. Halleluia!