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“God Works like Leavening in a Loaf”

a sermon based on Luke 11:53 - 12:2, and Luke 13:20-21

Jesus asks a question: “To what should I compare the Kingdom of God?” Hmm… It seems to me we’ve heard that one before! (Right?)

Just last Sunday, we heard Jesus answer that question with the image of a mustard seed… which a man took and planted in his garden. In time, it grew up to become a bigger bush than any of the other vegetables -- a veritable tree, in which birds could find shelter.

As I mentioned last week: Who would have thought that a small seed buried underground would contain the “potential” of that final glorious scene? -- in which the sun was shining and the birds were flying in & out of the protective shade of the mustard branches… and little birds twittered & chirped happily in their nests in the shrubbery.

From that lovely image of a farmer’s garden, Jesus immediately segued into today’s parable: the “leavening” in the loaf. Jesus draws spiritual meaning from a woman’s making (& baking) of bread.

Again, as I did two weeks ago with the parable of the fig tree, I went to George M. Lamsa, the Assyrian scholar, in his book Gospel Light (Comments on the Teachings of Jesus from Aramaic and Unchanged Eastern Customs, Philadelphia: A.J. Holman, 1936 reprint 1967, p.100) to learn something of the bread-baking process in ancient Israel.

“Before bread is baked,” he writes, “women set aside a handful of leaven [yeast] to be mixed with the next day’s supply.

“This is placed in a large wooden basin and hot water is poured over it,” he writes. “When it is dissolved, the flour is mixed with the solution. The leaven causes the dough to ferment, and while it is fermenting, it increases in bulk. Easterners believe that the increase is caused by sacred and hidden blessing in the family leaven. In their eyes, [it] is sacred.”

Lamsa goes on to point out that the family’s reputation in the community is spoken of by analogy as “leaven”: “One often hears: ‘Beware of him; he has grown up eating bread made of bad leaven.’ . . . In Turkey, Christians don’t eat bread baked by Jews . . . The Jews don’t eat cheese made by Christians or [Muslims] because the yeast that is used . . . is not kosher.”

We hear a hint of this negative use of the analogy in the first reading from Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus spoke of “leavening”...

As Jesus went away from there, the scribes and Pharisees began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say. In the meantime, when so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they trod upon one another, he began to say to his disciples: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 11:53 - 12:1)

Jesus used “yeast” as a metaphor signifying the attitudes or teachings of certain people when he says to the crowd: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees… which is hypocrisy. (Luke 12:1). Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.”

In Jesus’ day, yeast was thought of as an example of something that was spoiling! According to the kosher (purity-conscious) Jews, the yeast corrupted the flour. (!) “Leavening” (which is fermenting) was a well-known religious metaphor in the Bible connoting impurity!

At the time of the Passover (for example) -- the annual festival which recalled the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt under Moses -- the people of Israel were instructed to remove all leaven from their houses. This was symbolic of the way they were to cleanse all sins from their hearts. You see, the Jewish priests, scribes, and teachers of the Law equated yeast (leavening) with fermenting, which was seen as putrefying – spoiling -- decaying!

Even that great Christian Apostle, Paul (who had been raised as a Jew and trained as a Pharisee in the Jerusalem Temple), considered yeast a symbol of “bad influence” when he wrote to the Corinthians a warning about “the leaven of malice and evil” -- that needs to be cleaned out, in order that the Church can be a brand new lump of dough (so to speak). St. Paul asks the Corinthian Christians much the same thing as Jesus’ parable: “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole loaf?” (I Corinthians 5:8)

I’m sure that we are all aware of how “leavening” works in dough: living yeast, stimulated by warm water, multiplies and spreads, producing tiny pockets of carbon dioxide.

Whether it’s one of those handy bread machines (where the yeast and warm water is mixed by a paddle beneath the flour) or a real old-fashioned bread-baking Grandma -- who kneads the dough by hand, lets it rise on the kitchen counter, and then punches it down again -- we all know how yeast spreads through the dough: doubling it in size and making the final loaf airy and light... full of warm, carbon dioxide (much like our “breath”) which further expands when heated.

I’m sure that young Jesus would have seen his mother Mary set a little dough aside each time she baked bread -- kept-over like we do a friendship loaf or a sourdough starter. That way the family’s supply of yeast would linger longer. With each fermentation, the leavening would add character to the next batch of dough.

Maybe that’s what Jesus was thinking of when he taught his disciples to pray: “Give us this day, our daily bread.”

Patty and I once lived in an apartment over a bakery in Germany, and by 4:00 in the morning we’d smell yeast rising: bread & broetchen in the oven … a heavenly smell to wake up to!

“The Kingdom of God,” says Jesus in today’s parable, “is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” It’s kind of a funny hiding place, don’t you think?

I mean, if I were going to hide a tablespoon of yeast… I’d put it aside in a baggie; or I’d tuck it away in a can in the refrigerator. I wouldn’t think of hiding it under three cups of flour, like this woman did! I mean, sure, nobody would ever find the yeast once it was sifted into the flour – so it’s a great hiding place, so far as that goes. (!) But how would you ever get it back out again? Once it’s mixed in, it’s in for good! There is no sifter so fine as to separate the leavening out from the loaf.

Robert Farrer Capon, the Episcopal author of “The Parables of the Kingdom” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985, page 118), points out that the surrogate for God (the representation of God) in this parable is a woman! Father Capon uses this feminine analogy to poke a little fun at the “paternalistic traditionalists and inclusive-language gender-phobes” of his denomination. (!) God can be portrayed as doing a woman’s work -- like baking bread or sweeping the floor to locate a lost coin. Jesus did it! Re-imagining God in broader, more familial, “daily-life” kinds of ways was a big part of Jesus’ ministry.

If (last week) we heard Jesus say that God is like a man who sows seed in his field, it seems only appropriate that (this week) Jesus strikes a balance by saying God is like a woman baking bread in her home.

And this is not some fancy-schmanzy ball of brioche made from special flour with magical, spiritual ingredients, at the hand of a gourmet professional baker. No, it’s just plain dough -- unbaked flour, homemade bread dough -- indigestible in its present form… incapable of going anywhere or doing anything except swell & rise.

Father Capon points out that, in contrast to the parable of the mustard seed, which was buried by the man -- “Seeds may disappear into the ground; but if you are willing to take the trouble to hunt and peck for them, you can conceivably get every last one of them back up out of the field” (Ibid., page 119) -- when yeast disappears into the dough, it’s in there forever!

“Yeast enters into the dough by being dissolved in the very liquid that makes the dough become dough at all. Just as there is not a moment of the dough’s existence, from start to finish, in which it is unleavened . . . so this parable insists that the kingdom [of God] enters the world at its creation . . . There is not, and never has been, any unkingdomed humanity anywhere in the world. . . . The yeast that leaves not one scrap of this lump of a world unleavened has always been hidden in [God’s] creation.” (ibid.)

In other words, the leavening (which is the Spirit of God within us: active, dynamic, growing like yeast in a loaf) did not just start at Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, or get ushered in through his preaching in Galilee, or become mixed into the world through his bloodshed at the Cross. No, the leavening has been alive in the loaf from the very first moment God’s world began! (It’s just that it’s “hidden” from view.)

In the Big Bang of the scientist’s imagining (or the Genesis moment as recorded in Bible poetry), God’s Kingdom was on the move! God’s Realm is the active, yeasty, dynamic “ferment” which (though thoroughly dissolved and apparently disappeared within the substances and matter of this old world’s lump of dough) provides the energy and the light, the breath and the life, of the whole!

The Kingdom of God did not get started when Jesus began to preach about it. It’s already been active inside us! Robert Farrar Capon goes on to say:

“Just as the yeast, once it is in the dough, is so intimate a part of the lump as to be indistinguishable from it, undiscoverable in it, and irretrievable out of it, so is [God’s] kingdom in this world.

“Indeed, this image of the perpetual intimacy of yeast to dough leads to . . . the pervasiveness and actuality of the kingdom’s working in the world. It is tempting, after hearing the “seed” parables, to envision a time (namely, before the sowing) when the world was a world without God’s Kingdom in it. . . . But after hearing the parable of the Leaven, there is no choice: for every second of the time the dough is dough, the yeast is inseparable from it.

(I know, some of you want to tell me that it’s at least possible to make dough first and after that work the leaven into it. Don’t bother [writes Father Capon]. I’m a baker. Sure, it’s possible: I’ve done it. But it’s also dumb: nobody in his right mind would choose to make bread that way unless he’d made a mistake to start with. And since this parable is not about mistakes, I’m not about to allow them into my interpretation.)” (Ibid., pages 120-121)

The point is: so interconnected is the yeast to the entire lump of dough -- so immediate is the working of God’s Spirit in the world -- that there is no way on earth of getting at it to disrupt it, to uproot it, or to defeat it. (!) In fact, the kosher demand to sweep your house clean of every speck of yeast, in order to celebrate Passover with un-leavened bread, is contrary to the insight of this parable from Jesus.

If God’s Spirit is at work within us (in our world) like yeast-in-dough, I think we need to know (first) that “time is on our side.” You don’t rush the rising dough any more than you need to push a river. Living processes expand and mature and evolve at their own pace. We need a bit of patience until the time is right, or the job is done. Kairos-time, not Chronos-time: trusting God’s time is a key ingredient.

Lastly, since there is no way to get the yeast back out of the dough -- no way to uproot it or defeat it -- we can relax a bit even if we are being buffeted by life.

If the divine Woman Baker herself cannot remove the leaven from the loaf, neither can any enemy. (!) True to the image of bread-making, the dough needs kneading. That is, the lump needs to be punched down and folded over and rolled around a bit if the yeast is to become fully effective. Unless the dough is thoroughly kneaded (that’s “knead” with a “k”), the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast will not be entrapped in cells of gluten that can lighten the lump into a well-made loaf.

So, don’t let the “hard knocks” of life knock you out! The leaven of heaven is at work in you. The gummy, lumpy, undistinguished and intractable mass of misfortunes, mistakes, and missteps are being “worked together for good” by the Yeast of God which is in us, and by the loving hands of a Master Baker upon us. Just trust the process!

From Creation to the present and into all eternity, the leaven of God was … and is … and always will be rising in you. Praise God.


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