It’s the quintessential condiment found in nearly every American refrigerator. We put it on everything from eggs to fries to hot dogs and hamburgers, to chicken nuggets— and the thicker the better. It takes some well-placed whacks or a healthy squeeze to get it moving from bottle to plate, but, as the old commercial jingle said, “Anticipation makes it worth the wait.”
I’m talking about ketchup, of course, which I suppose isn’t something that is normally preached about on a Sunday morning. In fact, we rarely talk about it at all, even when we’re pouring it on a burger. It’s just something we take for granted—it’s always there, it’s good, and we love it. The history of ketchup, however, reveals a story worth knowing. More than a century and a half ago putting ketchup on anything was the equivalent of pouring toxic waste on your food.
In 1856 ketchup was, according to cookbook author Pierre Blot, “Filthy, decomposed and putrid.” A short tomato growing season, coupled with carelessness, lack of clean storage, generally unsanitary conditions, and the addition of highly flammable coal tar to enhance the red color, all combined to make ketchup a potentially lethal concoction.
In an 1875 study, 90 percent of commercial ketchups were found to contain “injurious ingredients that could lead to death.” And you thought that double cheese burger with extra bacon was bad for your heart!
But…enter Henry J. Heinz. Heinz was a morally strong man who believed that “heart power is better than horsepower,” and worked hard at developing a safe environment and process to produce ketchup in a way that was pure, safe, enjoyable and transparent. And in 1876, the Pittsburgh visionary bottled his first batch of ketchup. His factory was spotless. His workers were encouraged to be meticulous about cleanliness, and Heinz rewarded them with fresh uniforms, free laundry, free life insurance and health care, athletic facilities that included a swimming pool, and even an in-house manicurist to make sure that every worker’s nails were immaculate. The result was a perfect environment for making a ketchup that would not only not kill you, it was so good that it became a staple on American dinner tables! Heinz was so focused on purity and transparency that he refused to bottle his ketchup in the opaque brown bottles that were common at the time, choosing instead to use clear glass bottles as a way of demonstrating the product’s purity to the public. Heinz once wrote, “It’s always safe to buy the products of an establishment that keeps its doors open” so he opened his factory to the public, and would welcome 30,000 visitors a year so they could see that the company had nothing to hide. By 1906, Heinz was selling five million bottles of preservative-free ketchup every year.
Henry Heinz built a lasting legacy based on transparency, earning the trust of consumers because he focused on purity and quality and hid nothing from them. The transparent character of Heinz is still reflected in every one of his products, even after his death in 1919. That clear, quality bottle of ketchup, whether it’s the traditional glass design or the squeeze bottle, is still something that people trust well enough to take for granted.
Now Heinz may have made ketchup, but he was even more concerned about making the world a better place through quality, integrity, hard work, transparency, care and consideration, doing what is right, going the extra mile. He was, as Peter says, “eager to do good.” Which means Peter and Henry Heinz can offer us some entrepreneurial advice on how to live the Christian life in such a way that everyone who sees us will know exactly what’s inside.
Peter is writing to churches in Asia Minor who are undergoing a great period of distress and persecution for their faith. Their environment stinks worse than filthy, decomposed, putrid coal tar condiments, and they’re suffering in a world where the hidden agendas and filthy tactics of their opponents are “injurious ingredients that could lead to death.” But rather than retaliate or turn up their noses at this situation, Peter encourages the churches to live lives of purity in the midst of suffering, “keeping a clear conscience so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” Going further, Peter says, “even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed”
These are words of encouragement for Christians then, and today, because the real test of the Christian life is the ability to stay faithful and transparent, even when others are trying to dump the spiritual equivalent of toxic coal tar into your life or even into the Church.
There are a lot of Christians, and there are a lot of Churches. And just like those who made ketchup without transparency and integrity, there are Christians and churches who do the same, resulting in a perception of the Church that has caused people to turn away from an institution that was once taken for granted. Because some have chosen to take a road of faithlessness, of personal agenda, of judgment, of hate, of politics, of fleecing, the Church today is often seen as a filthy, decomposed, putrid organization made of people who are the same. Which means it’s up to us and churches like this one to change that perception
In the film “When God Left the Building” the documentary that is a focal point of our Lenten season, a young man, Nathan Matz, a police officer in Reading, Pennsylvania, and a Christian, talks about his faith and how we tries to live out his faith each day but most especially when he as a cop is dealing with people, who are, “Generally at their lowest point in thier life.” He goes onto explain that he asks the people he is dealing with if they have a church, if they go to church, which is when he typically learns that people don’t go to church anymore because they had an experience that was so negative—so filthy, decomposed, and putrid—that they have vowed to never return.
It’s in Nathan’s account that he then speaks a very simply statement, yet so profound. It’s a truth that we all know, but would do well to be mindful of—especially as followers of Christ. He says, “People don’t listen, they watch. They’ll watch to see if you are a person of integrity.”
This is true for individuals as well as organizations. This is true for Christians, as well as Churches—People don’t listen to what we say, they watch what we do.” Which is why today’s faithful Christians, and today’s faithful churches need to give the un-churched and nominally churched something different to watch. Something with quality, integrity, hard work, transparency, care and consideration, doing what is right, going the extra mile. Something that is visible, and tangibly reflects, what Peter is calling for—those eager to do good.
In reading through the New Testament it’s clear that God somehow uses (but not causes) suffering to produce something in us.
In Romans 5:3, for example, Paul says that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope. In Matthew, Jesus said that we should rejoice when we suffer, because it means that we’re representing him and we’re coming closer to the kingdom.
It seems then, that somehow, in a counterintuitive way, suffering can wind up producing the best in us. We only need to look at a ketchup bottle to be reminded of this.
The classic glass Heinz bottle doesn’t make it easy to pour out the ketchup. The thick tomato mixture is strengthened with xanthan gum, which makes ketchup a “non-Newtonian fluid,”—a liquid that changes its viscosity, or flow rate, under stress. This is why it’s a struggle to get this delicious stuff to come out. It works best if you do it a certain way. Pounding on the bottom of the bottle only causes the non-Newtonian mix at the mouth of the bottle to get thicker, thus restricting the flow (and making that hot dog a little less hot because of the wait). Instead, every Pittsburgher knows that the way you get the ketchup to transform into sheer thinning fluid, or non-non-Newtonian fluid, is to tap on the top of the bottle or, more specifically, tap two fingers on the “57” label on the bottle’s neck. That’s the force that produces the good stuff. Not relentless pounding. Gentle, simply taps. Small moves that move the unmovable.
The pounding of persecution and suffering can produce the same effect in us as individual Christians and us as a church. It can either cause us to stiffen, or it can trigger a flow of the fruit of the Spirit in us that can season and bring rich flavor to the world.
Peter says that this is exactly what happened with Jesus, who suffered for our sins on the cross and yet produced the effect of bringing people to God.
The church today is in a tough spot. Because of the faithlessness of a few, the Church is perceived by many to be a place that contains, “injurious ingredients that could lead to death.”
When we “sanctify Christ as Lord” in our hearts and respond to such misconceptions and misrepresentations, by giving an account of the hope in Christ that is within us with “gentleness and reverence,” then we will produce the kind of fruit that is transparently clear in conscience, and pure in heart, life and motive. As Jesus said, in the Gospel of Matthew, the true people of God will be “known by their fruits.”
So then… as we continue to move through this wilderness wandering season of introspection that is Lent, let us ask ourselves, are we, as individual Christians, and as a church… Are we “eager to do good,” as Peter puts it? Are we living lives that are transparent, “doing what is right” no matter what it might cost us? Are we presenting ourselves to the world as an opaque bottle of rotten fish guts, full of hatred, sin and revenge? Or, are we pure, considerate, and trustworthy, “keeping our doors open” and inviting the world to see the vision of the one who loves us, cares for us, forgives, us, redeems us, and calls us?
Let us always be asking ourselves: What are we showing the world? After all…“People don’t listen, they watch.” Amen.
Holy and Gracious God, to you, the one of prodigal grace, we give thanks for the gift of life and for the blessings of family and friends, but most of all, for love abundant. Truly your grace is prodigal and your love is abundant, even in the midst of such brokenness that we see in our world, in our church, in ourselves. We see the brokenness of unfaithfulness, of judgment, of hate, of exclusion, of politics, of socioeconomic status and on and on. All of it is trials of suffering, sorrowful challenges, and immense struggle that leaves us tired and in despair. So it is our prayer Holy God, that you lead us, as individuals and as a church, through the trials, the suffering and sorrowful challenges, the immense struggles, the tired times, the despair and bleak places—lead us through them and back to you, and your prodigal grace and love abundant, where healing and wholeness becomes our new way of life.
God of Life, we pray you be with those who weep or cannot sleep, those who have no peace, who seek release—comfort them with love abundant. We pray that you will fill us, and all your children, with hope, sustained in your mercy, teeming with patience and stamina, all upheld by your prodigal grace. For we know that such a blessing can and will transform us and all our broken ways, making us whole. For we know, as well, that when such wholeness is found, we become the hands and heart of Christ. We become those who can show up in the worst moments of someone’s life and be a voice, a presence, a hand of prodigal grace and love abundant. For that is the call and the role of the follower of Christ, and that is the call and the role of the Church, and we long to be just that for you and for all.
So may it be made possible in us and through us through this Lenten season. May we become again, branches of your Son who bear good fruit, more fruit, better fruit than we ever thoughts could come from our lives.
We ask that you would listen now to the prayers deep from within our souls, offered in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”