PROPER 12, A, 7/24/11
This Gospel reading has 6 parables in it, which is way too many to cover in one sermon. So I’m going to mainly talk about one. “The Kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Baking bread is almost as old and primal as rocking a baby. It’s something we’re all familiar with to one extent or another, although the women may be more familiar with the details. Also, almost everyone agrees that this is an authentic saying of Jesus.
Notice that I changed the Kingdom of heaven to the Kingdom of God. This was intentional because the term heaven implies to most of us, something or somewhere that only happens after death. As John Crossan says, Jesus is not talking about someday, somewhere up in the sky, but is talking about the Kingdom being here . . . now.
These parables reinforce this notion because Jesus uses everyday things to attempt to describe it. No talk of golden streets or choirs of angels, but rather leaven, mustard seed, pearls, and fish. If we are people of the incarnation then we can understand that the divine is embodied not only in Jesus, but also in all of us and in things like yeast and mustard seeds.
The Kingdom of God is like yeast. So what does yeast do? When mixed with a small amount of flour and liquid, it transforms a small piece of dough into a large lump of dough. It transforms something small and heavy into something large and light. Think of the difference between bread made with yeast and bread that isn’t.
My grandmother taught me how to make bread many years ago. She was married in 1899 and seldom used a cook book or recipes. She cooked by touch and feel and smell. I had to follow her around the kitchen with pen and paper in hand writing down what she put in and what she did with it. She didn’t even use measuring spoons, so I had to guess (and later checked my quantities against several cook books – because I had to have a recipe!).
At several stages in the process she’d say, “Now Lynn, put your hands in this. Feel what it’s like? That’s how it’s supposed to feel.” I’ll never forget the amazement I felt when I watched and felt a lump of sticky dough be transformed into something smooth and elastic just by being kneaded. Who discovered that? I still wonder. . . Or the amazement when she uncovered the bowl where we stashed a small piece of dough only to discover the bowl was full to the top. Or the fun of punching that dough down again and rolling it out or shaping it into loaves.
The action of yeast in this process is a kind of miracle. In the Kingdom of God such a miracle is commonplace. When we follow the teachings of Jesus, or even just try to follow them, amazing things begin to happen. We are transformed by the experience of trying to let go of ego, greed, and selfishness. When we try to live our lives in love and peace, when we try to work for justice and equality, we find our burdens lighter. We find ourselves happier and more joyful. We find ourselves more useful. We walk lighter upon the earth. That’s why the Kingdom of God is like yeast.
But there’s more to this parable than that. Did you know that in the time Jesus lived, leaven was not actually yeast? In order to make leavened bread, old bread was left to spoil. If it wasn’t left long enough it wouldn’t work. If it was left too long it could also ruin the bread and might even result in food poisoning. Leaven can be fatal and only a small amount is needed. The three measures of flour mentioned in the parable is enough to feed a wedding feast.
Because leaven was created from something spoiled, it was considered unclean, and even somehow evil. It was related to the way corruption bloats dead bodies. At Passover, Jewish homes were not only cleaned, but all leaven was thrown out. This was not just to remember the Exodus, when the Jews had no time to bake regular bread for their journey and so took unleavened bread. It was also because leaven was considered unclean.
What must the listeners to Jesus have thought of this parable then? The Kingdom of God is like leaven? Once again, Jesus is subverting the common understanding of things to make a point. This is true with the mustard seed as well, because mustard was a weed, and no farmer in his right mind would willingly sow it in a field. Any such plants would be pulled up and destroyed at first sight.
Like so many other instances, Jesus is turning the world around. He takes something considered unclean and uses it to describe a new concept. As one commentator says, “These parables elevate convention-subverting persons and items to describe discipleship in the empire of God. Whatever else they mean, these parables hint that God’s empire, and therefore good citizenship in God’s realm – is fundamentally different from Rome’s.”
In a society that reflects the values of the Kingdom of God, the church and the society would work together. However, if a society resembles the empire of Rome, “expressing in its policies and budget the values of social inequality and redemptive violence, then helping people to adjust to this sick society is not the work of the Gospel.” Warren Carter writes in commenting on the parable of the yeast, “if a person is well adjusted in a sick society, corrupting is the only path to wholeness.” In other words, people who are comfortable in a corrupt society need to be corrupted in order to access the Kingdom of God. So the leaven is seen as necessary to transform not just people but also the society in which they live. Jesus uses this image of corruption and impurity to suggest a new reality, and that is the possibility of new life in the Kingdom of God, an alternative to their old life in the Empire.
The tradition of the church as most of us received it, is to use unleavened bread for communion bread. I always understood that this was because it was also to remind us of the Exodus. In the church today, it is often maintained because unleavened bread is much more neat and tidy than leavened bread. Those tasty wafers do not make crumbs to fall on the floor or to fall into the wine.
Today, however, we will use leavened bread, to remind us of this parable. If crumbs fall on the ground it is OK because it will be food for the birds. Also it should taste more like bread – like what we imagine when we talk about the bread of life. I hope you will also think of all those generations who cooked by feel, who fed their families with bread from the oven, and all those generations who also harvested and ground the grain to make the bread. Remember your roots in the land and give thanks for the harvest.
There’s an old comment about “being the Gospel” in other people’s lives – or that your life may be the only Gospel some people get to read. As disciples in the Kingdom of God we are also called to be yeast, to be leaven, to transform not only ourselves but our communities. And we don’t have to be perfect to do that! Thanks be to God!
Lynn Naeckel +