I imagine this was a week filled with bread making and baking for a few of you. At the very least, I suspect many of us ate bread at our Thanksgiving meal. Pumpkin bread, zucchini bread, cranberry bread, rolls of all different kinds. I ate just enough bread at Thanksgiving that I was tempted to tuck this morning’s parable away in the back of my mind and not look at it again until next Thanksgiving rolls around.
Nevertheless, I stuck with this story because it feels to me like it fits on this Sunday after Thanksgiving and before the start of Advent. Plus after hearing this morning’s story, I think we can draw some seasonally appropriate connections between baking bread and creating the kingdom of God.
One thing we can say for sure about today’s parable, especially after reading it, is that it’s short. But let us not make the mistake of equating brevity with simplicity. Because the parable of the Yeast or the parable of the Leaven, as it’s sometimes known, is among Jesus’s storytelling triumphs. It’s mysterious, complex, insightful, and wonderful. In the end, it is both short and sweet.
Before we go further, let’s try and sort out what’s going on in the parable and then we can move on and explore what Jesus is trying to tell us. We start by making note of the fact that the woman who bakes the bread in this narrative is the surrogate for God. The woman represents a divine figure and her baking work is meant to be seen as God’s divine activity. But in order to truly understand the parable, we have to appreciate the magnitude of the task the woman is performing.
In two short verses, the story indicates that the woman mixed yeast with three measures of flour to bake bread. Three entire measures of flour. Which would have been the ancient equivalent of one bushel of flour. Or in modern terms, sixteen five pound bags of flour.
By the time the bakerwoman finished mixing and stirring and kneading all the ingredients together, she would have had just over a hundred pounds of bread dough sitting in front of her. Not to mention a serious backache. What we’re talking about in this story is a professional baker…a woman who makes a staggering amount of bread. Perhaps as much bread as all of us in this sanctuary combined made in preparation for Thanksgiving.
Still, the symbolism in the story doesn’t end with the bakerwoman. The lump or the pile of dough the woman creates represents the world. There is nothing special about it, at least by what we’re told. The parable doesn’t talk about fancy flour or special ingredients or any specific instructions that might be required to make the bread. What we have is basic, sticky, unbaked bread dough. And there is an awful lot of it, meaning it’s not easy to handle or to get a handle on.
Sort of the way things going on in our world are hard to handle and it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on what we have to deal with in our daily lives.
In any case, the yeast in the parable represents the kingdom or the realm of God. But we misinterpret the story if we assume that the yeast and the dough are two separate entities. The story tells us that the realm of God is like the yeast incorporated into the dough or hidden in the dough.
As anyone knows who has baked bread, there is no way to separate the yeast from the dough and still make bread. The yeast works inside the dough to create bread. Even if it’s theoretically possible to create the dough and then add the yeast at the end, I can’t think of anyone who chooses to do it that way. The only plausible reason you would add yeast at the end of the baking process would be if you made a mistake and forgot to add the yeast in the first place. And trust me, Jesus was not in the habit of telling parables about mistakes.
So when we go back to the beginning of the parable we have a bakerwoman with one hundred and twenty-eight cups of flour in front of her. To that huge quantity of flour she added the yeast, which she dissolved in water, along with any other ingredients the bread might have required. Then the bakerwoman kneaded the bread until the yeast activated. She waited for the dough to rise. And finally she baked the bread.
From a practical perspective, there’s nothing unusual about the procedure the bakerwoman followed. But Jesus was interested in conveying a deeper message; God created the world like a lump of dough. And when God created the world, God mixed the realm of God into the world. There has never, ever been a time when God’s realm hasn’t been in the world. What’s more, God’s realm cannot ever be separated from the world.
Therefore, the realm of God is part of the world…it’s incorporated in the world. The only thing is the realm of God is buried in the world somewhere. It’s hidden from us. And your job and my job is to knead the world and fold the world and pound the world down and work with the world until the realm of God becomes active. Until the realm of God expands like yeast expanding inside the dough. Until the realm of God rises up and emerges from the dough, transforming the sticky, unbaked lump into a wonderful, bread sized, bread shaped loaf ready to bake.
If we understand the parable of the Leaven in practical terms. And we have an understanding of what Jesus meant when he told the parable to his followers. Then the only thing left to do is explore what the parable might mean for us at Wapping Community Church.
To that end, I offer two interpretations. To begin with, if the realm of God is hidden right here in this world, then it stands to reason the realm of God has to be hidden right here in Wapping Community Church as well. And that surely sounds right to me. Wapping Community Church is full of yeast…the kind of holy yeast that seems to me to bear uncanny resemblance to the realm of God.
Look, for example at the incredible generosity of this congregation during this holiday season alone. The undergarments we dedicated along with our weekly offerings last Sunday. Ken Johnson took four barrels full to the Manchester Area Conference of Churches on Monday. The tags we are taking from trees in the Community Room to provide gifts and a measure of Christmas joy to children in need identified by Covenant to Care and shut-ins from this congregation who are unable to make it worship on a weekly basis. The scarves we are collecting for our sisters and brothers at Foodshare. All the gifts we give to our sisters and brothers during this Thanksgiving and Christmas season are holy yeast, signs of the realm of God unfolding in our midst.
Think about all the people volunteering their time and serving in myriad ways during this holiday season here at the church. All the people who watch babies and toddlers in the nursery and teach children in Church School during pageant season and advise junior and senior high youth as they get ready to go caroling to shut-ins. The people who walked through the driving rain at the recent CROP walk over in Manchester, raising thousands of dollars for people who struggle to find enough food to eat on a daily basis. Consider the people who make beautiful Christmas music through the choir, the people who make our church grounds beautiful as we move into cold and wintry days, and the people in the Sacred Dance group who will create beautiful movement in Christmas Eve. The people who serve on boards and committees, making sure their holiday ministries happen joyously and effectively. The people who usher and host Coffee Hours and work behind the scenes to create Advent Fairs and Craft Fairs and Cookie Strolls. The people who continue to make phone calls and offer prayers and visits so that church members and friends feel supported and cared for as Christmas nears.
All the ways people at Wapping Community Church are using their God given gifts and talents to serve one another and this community and brothers and sisters outside our church walls. They are holy yeast...signs of the realm of God unfolding in our midst.
And the more we work at that holy yeast. The more we reach out to people in our congregation and our community and our state and our world, the more the yeast will activate. The more this church will grow and expand. And the more we’ll knead ourselves into a loaf of God’s realm right here in South Windsor, Connecticut.
But the other fantastic thing about holy yeast is this…and it brings me to my second point. The amazing thing about holy yeast is that God is working on the yeast even harder than we are. So hard in fact that it doesn’t matter if we occasionally get bogged down in church details or caught up in church politics. It doesn’t matter whether we get impatient or frustrated or discouraged once in a while.
It doesn’t matter because God created the world and this church with plenty of holy yeast in it for a reason. God isn’t about to let God’s realm stay hidden and buried in the dough. God’s going to keep kneading the world and shaping and working this church until God activates the realm of God among us. And on that day when the dough rises and the realm of God breaks forth in the form of a loaf of bread, we will have God to thank first. For God is the supreme baker.
Look around then and give thanks for the holy yeast among us. And if we keep on kneading and working and praying and giving and witnessing and telling our story and reaching out together, we’ll have bread to stagger the imagination. Bread enough for each of us to taste and see God’s realm in all its goodness. Amen.