and the people cheered
To help pay my way through seminary I worked at this bar in Toronto. I secretly think the only reason I got the job was because I was going to be a United Church minister.
See, the bar was called “The Saint.” It was named after this United Church that had burned down. The church was nicknamed of 'the Saint of Ossington' because of all the good work it had done feeding people during the Depression.
One night I was talking with a regular who knew I was going to be a minister, and he said, “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask this for a long time … but, “why? a minister?! what is it about Jesus that made you want to do this?”
He wasn’t being mean, he was being curious. I cant remember what I told him. I just remember his question because it’s such. a. good. question.
I mean, out of all the ways to live out there, out of all the paths that can lead us deeper into the Divine, out of everything else we could be doing with our time and energy … Why Jesus? Why do this?
Anyone ever wonder that before?
It's ok to admit it. There’s no shame there. Even Jesus was all ‘ummm why am I doing this again?” We should all ask it. It’s a healthy question to ask. Not so much because we need an answer to it, like it’ll be on the final exam kind of way, but because it reminds us just why we do do this, why we are here, and why this does matters. Asking it helps us refocus and realign, and find the energy to keep going, exploring, and moving deeper into this way of life Jesus opens up for us.
So, knowing it’s good to ask big questions and that doubt and curiosity are holy, let’s go there and ask it: “Why? Why Jesus?”
So today, we talk about: tomato sauce & the most important person you’ve never heard of; that a story in the Bible, and then 3 answers to our question.
The hope is that we can leave here feeling excited and energized, or maybe just with more questions, which sometimes, is just as good.
If you go to your big grocery store and head to the pasta aisle, any guesses on how many different tomato sauces you’ll find?
On average, you’ll find 36 different varieties. There’s traditional, there’s chunky, there’s extra chunky, there’s garden, there’s spicy, and then all kinds of different off-shoots of those. 36 different choices of what to bring home for dinner. Now rewind 30 years ago to the 70s, and take a guess on how many kinds of tomato sauce there were.
Plain. One choice of what to bring home for dinner.
So what happened? How did we go from 1 to 36?
The answer is Howard Moskowitz and he is the most important person you’ve never heard of. Howard Moskowitz was an American pyschophysicist and you can make the case, as Malcolm Gladwell does, that he's done more to make people happy in the last 20 years than anyone else. He did that through his revolutionary idea that when it comes to human preferences, there are no universals, that one thing won’t work for everyone.
Take tomato sauce, for example. Before Howard the dominant idea was that there was such a thing as the perfect sauce that everyone would enjoy. Companies like Ragu and Prego built their entire companies around this. They each had one sauce they each thought was perfect and they went head to head for everybody’s money.
Now in the 70s and 80s, Prego was the more popular product, but despite that, their sales were slumping so they hired Howard to tell them how to fix it. Here’s what Howard told them: “There’s no such thing as a perfect tomato sauce, only perfect tomato sauces.” Prego didn’t believe him. That just didn’t jive with conventional wisdom. "Not one perfect sauce? That’s bananas. Look, millions of people buy our sauce.” What Howard said back is brilliant and the engine of his revolutionary idea. He said; “But that doesnt mean they like it.”
So Howard went to work. He made 45 different kinds of tomato sauce, each one with a slightly different recipe, and he got 1000s of people to eat them and rate what they liked about them. And here’s why he is so brilliant: Instead of giving Prego the recipe that the most people liked, essentially saying, “Here’s the more perfect recipe. This one will be more universally liked,” Howard went a different direction. He analyzed all the data and he clustered it together based on the patterns he saw.
What he saw was that people don't universally like 1 kind of sauce. People actually like 3 kinds of sauces: plain, spicy, and chunky. When it comes to tomato sauce, there isn’t a perfect sauce, there are just perfect sauces.
Now this blew Prego’s mind because that meant that despite what it looked like, 1/3rd of Americans preferred chunky sauce over plain. They immediately started making it, and in 10 years they banked $600 million off of chunky alone. 600 million! So seeing that there was that much money to be made, every other company hired Howard and followed suit. Soon there were 4 different kinds of everything - mustards, pickles, olive oils, and vinegars - each one of them moving to people's specific tastes, instead of having the people move to them.
Howard Moskowitz is the most important person you’ve never heard of because he completely revolutionized not only how we think about human choice and preference, but also how we shop, what our grocery stores look like, and how companies market to us.
Why are there 36 kinds of tomato sauce? Because Howard Moskowitz changed the game.
So what do tomato sauce and Jesus have to do with each other?
There’s a ancient story that’s in the Bible.
The story takes place on the Sabbath, that holy day of the week when people would get together to rest, practice delight, and be in God’s presence.
As the story begins, all kinds of people are gathering to do just that. Everyone is sitting up front in the nice and comfortable seats, right up close to where the action is, but there, way in the back, past the watered down coffee and dusty furniture they cant get rid of because someone donated it, standing all alone in a dark dusty corner of the room, is a woman.
Now we don’t know much about her other than she’s “bent over and crooked with pain.” Some versions of the story say she’s got a spirit within her, other’s say she’s got arthritis, other’s just say she’s bent and twisted. Which is to really say we don’t know what’s going on with her. It could be mental, emotional, spiritual, or physical, or perhaps it’s all of those things. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that she’s been this way for 18 years. 18 years of pain, despair, and shame. 18 years of being defined and seen as her affliction. 18 years of being known as the ‘The Bent and Crooked Woman.’
Now, nobody else in the room seems to notice her. They are all up front while she is hiding in the back, listening to Jesus talk. And as she listens, she feels the place begin to hum with reverence, she feels the air being rearranged, and suddenly she realized he’s stopped talking. The woman looks up and sees that Jesus is no longer up at the front with everyone else, but he’s right in front of her, all the way in the back, looking directly at her, touching her, saying just loud enough for everyone to hear: “woman, you’re free.” Suddenly she feels something release within her. She feels the past 18 years wash off of her. She’s able to straighten up and stand up tall, and her whole life and world changes. No longer is she ‘The Bent and Crooked Woman.’ Freed from her corner, we’re told how she began to give thanks to God for this miracle.
But the religious leaders watching all this go down, they freak out, yelling at people to settle down, telling the woman to be stop, saying that this can’t be from God because clearly thats not the kind of God we have. “Its the Sabbath,” they say, “and nobody works on the Sabbath, not even God! This is breaking the rules.” But Jesus, not having any of it, gets angry at the leaders: “Really?! That’s what you think God is like?! That’s how you think this works?! You frauds! If your cows or donkeys needed water on the Sabbath you’d untie them and lead them to water wouldn’t you? If God’s okay with that, don’t you think God would much rather I untie a woman, a human being, and lead her into new life on the Sabbath?” Then, pointing at the woman, he said, “Thisis the kind of God we have.”
And watching all of this go down, we’re told how all the people were delighted and started to cheer.
Just like Howard Moskowitz and tomato sauce, Jesus is doing something huge here, something that shows why he matters and why we do this:
He’s completely changing the game. He’s completely flipping upside down not only how we think about God, but how we think about faith and what it means to be human.
I think we can this happening in three different places.
Jesus changes the game by changing how we think about movement.
One of the things to pay attention to in these stories is the movement because more often than not, there’s a whole lot of meaning there.
So what’s the movement in this story?
Jesus moves towards the woman.
He goes from where everyone else is, where its nice and comfortable, where everyone has it all together, and he moves to the back, away from them and towards that woman. And not just any woman, but a woman who would be considered sinful, to be avoided, someone who wasn't even worth having a name.
This is scandalous. This is a big deal. This matters.
It matters because not only does it tell us that we have a God who moves towards us - that the Universe, that Source, that Spirit is lovingly bent towards connection and relationship. It also, and perhaps even more importantly, reminds us of what our own movements need to look like.
So often we want to live our lives up front, don’t we? We want to live in the centre. We want to be where everyone else is, where it’s respectable nice and comfortable. That’s where we want to call ‘home.’ We buy homes in the nice suburbs, we send kids to respectable schools, we go to the fancy restaurants, we play in the nice parks. Those are the places we go to find and have our lives.
But what Jesus' movement shows us here is that to find and have our lives, to find that sense of home and place, we can’t do it from the centre. We do it through a movement towards the margins.
Take a sec to let that sink in. That means we can’t ever be at home in the centre. It means always being on the look out for who has been kicked out, pushed aside, and forgotten, and instead of waiting for them to move to back to us, beginning the work of moving towards them, of being in relationship with them, of building our homes with them there in the margin.
Jesus matters because he redefines what our world should look like by redefining where we call home. We can never be at home - we can never feel nice and comfortable - until we have moved to make sure everyone belongs.
So some questions for us to rumble with: Who do you need to move toward? Whose not allowed in your circle? How can you learn to see those who have been kicked out?
Jesus matters because he completely changes how we think about faith.
What we see in this story is a pretty common understanding of faith: it’s about believing certain things or doing certain things. To be faithful is to follow the rules, believe certain things, and do behave in certain ways.
I’m sure we’ve all, in some way, been taught that kind of faith. Sometimes its pretty obvious like when you need to agree to a set of very specific behaviours and doctrines. Other times it’s more subtle, like when one way of worshipping and connecting with God is said to be the only way. Both are giving a very fixed understanding of what faith is.
But what we see Jesus doing here is calling that out and offering us a totally different understanding of faith. Faith, Jesus is saying, isn’t about obedience. Faith, as Rabbi Ward-Lev puts it, is about dialogue.
Cause here’s the thing: if God is a God who moves, speaks, and touches, and faith is all about communing with this God, then faith can’t be fixed, because once it’s fixed, what happens? It closes up. It boxes in. It shuts off. And the problem with that is that is stops us from seeing, hearing, and feeling the one thing faith is meant to help us see, hear, and feel: that God who moves, speaks, and touches. A fixed faith takes us out of life, not into it.
What Jesus does here is change the game by offering us an ancient and beautiful understanding of what faith actually is: It’s openness. It’s listening. It’s dialogue. It’s dynamic.
Faith is this ever widening posture of openness to the movements of the Divine around us.
So some questions for you: Is your faith open? What gets in the way of having that ever widening posture? What would happen if we actually listened to God?
And third …
Too often, way too often, just like in this story, God is used to threaten, hurt and control people.
Too often we get the impression that if we dont do this or that, if we dont believe this or act like that, well, God isn’t going to like it and look out, cause God will get you. Maybe this this life, but definitely in the next. So not wanting to risk that, we do this or do that by hiding who we are, saying things we dont believe, by putting up with abuse, and by remaining in unhealthy relationships and in toxic churches, because it’s what God would want and who can argue with God?!
Anyone know what Im talking about?
We all probably do. In some way, we’ve all been given that idea of God. In some way, we all feel a lot like that woman, bent over and crooked under the weight of trying to do what we’ve been told God wants.
But here’s the thing, here’s why Jesus matters, here’s the liberating truth he gives us about God: If it doesnt lead you into life, it it doesn’t free and release you, if it doesn’t liberate and make, if it doesn’t feel, taste, or smell like love: it. is. not. from. God.
Jesus matters because he gives us a new barometer to measure what’s holy and of God. He matters because he reminds us that love is the way of the universe. That’s why he freaks out at the religious elite, calling them frauds - they’re not selling God, they’re selling a knock off.
So some questions for you: With that in mind, what lies have you been told about God? What beliefs, narratives, and labels do you need to be liberated from? And let’s flip that - what beliefs, narratives, and labels can you help others be liberated from?
Why does Jesus matter? Why do this? Why be here?
Because when it comes to being human, when it comes to connecting with God, when it comes to finding a life worth living, he completely changed the game. By showing us where to find our home, how to live a life of faith, and that God is a God of love, he changed everything. He totally rewrote the script. He changed everything.
No wonder the people cheered.