LEAVENING THE WORLD
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 2, 2015; Non-lectionary sermon
Genesis 18:1-8; Matthew 13:33-35

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in
with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Matthew 13:33b

I suppose I ought to have a special “in” when it comes to understanding Jesus’ Parable of the Leaven. That’s because baking is in my genes. I never knew my paternal grandmother, but I remember my dad telling us how his mother’s baking skills got the family through the Great Depression.

My dad grew up in the Central Valley of California. His father had a small vineyard, growing grapes for raisins. When the agricultural economy tanked, he lost his land. A familiar story, in those Depression days.

That left the family on the edge of destitution. What’s a farmer to do when he no longer has a farm?

In this case, the farmer’s wife stepped up and saved the day. My grandmother started baking loaves of bread. As a kid, my dad rode his bike all over town, selling home-baked bread for 19 cents a loaf.

My grandmother was baking so much bread, she had to get a commercial oven for her kitchen. A local baker got wind of what she was doing. He complained to the town, charging my grandmother with running an unlicensed, uninspected bakery.

The town officials were merciful. “All we see is a woman trying to feed her family in hard times,” said the town officials. And that was that.

So, with that kind of background, I really ought to know something about kneading dough and baking bread. But I don’t. I’m not a baker.

Even so, there’s not that much you have to know about the action of yeast in order to understand Jesus’ simple parable.

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Back in biblical times, yeast didn’t come in a foil packet. You had to make it yourself, out of flour and water. You mixed them together and set the wet goo aside in a warm, dark place for a few days. Bacteria from the air would enter the mixture, causing it to ferment. You could then mix a little of the stuff into your batch of bread-dough and set it aside for an hour or so. That was long enough for the natural fermentation process to cause the dough to rise.

To people of biblical times, the action of yeast must have seemed like some kind of magic. They knew nothing of bacteria, nor the chemical process of fermentation. Bread must have seemed like some kind of gift from the heavens, an everyday miracle.

Then — as now, when you’re making sourdough bread — before you put the last of your bread-dough into the oven, you’d set a little lump of it aside for the next day. That saved you from going through the long process of making yeast every time. You could knead that leftover dough into your next batch. There was enough yeast already in it to begin the process all over again.

This was an absolutely commonplace occurrence in Jesus’ time. Everybody knew how to do it, because bread-baking was a daily task. Most often, the women of a village would bake their family’s bread in a mud-brick oven heated by firewood. These communal ovens were located outdoors, for fire-safety reasons. While the bread was baking, the women could catch up on the latest news.

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So, why does Jesus choose this metaphor of yeast for teaching about the kingdom of God? Several reasons…

First of all, yeast is invisible. That little lump of dough from yesterday’s baking you throw into today’s batch doesn’t look any different from the fresh dough — but if you forget to fold it in, your bread will never rise. We know, today, you can examine yeast under a microscope. You can watch the bacteria doing the work of fermentation. But, they had no microscopes in Jesus’ day. There was just something different about that lump of starter dough, something you couldn’t see.

Matthew passes on to us a very interesting word, a word Jesus himself probably used (if he ever told this parable in Greek, rather than Aramaic). The word is enkrypto, “to hide away.” Our English Bible translates it as “mixed in” — “yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour” — but the parable’s literally saying the woman hid the yeast in the flour.

Now, that word enkrypto sounds like our English “encrypted.” If you translate a message into secret code, you’re encrypting it. Look at the new piece of paper with its random sequence of letters, and the message has become invisible. It’s there, but you can no longer see it (not unless you have the code-breaking key).

When a person dies, in some traditions the body is laid in a “crypt.” It’s the same word. A crypt is where a body is hidden away for a time. We believe, by faith, that the person lives on, but that new existence is something we can no longer see, from our present vantage-point. The scriptures promise that those faithful ones who have been thus encrypted will be revealed once again, at the day of Christ’s coming. But for now, all we can do is believe.

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That leads us to a second characteristic of the kingdom of God. Jesus is teaching us that God’s kingdom is everywhere. It’s all mixed up in the world as we know it — though none of us can ever see the kingdom directly, with our eyes. We can only know it indirectly: by the effects the rule of God has on the world around us. In some miraculous way — as deeply mysterious as the leavening action of yeast — God’s love leavens the world.

There are some who hear those words in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come,” and imagine it as something like a spaceship, arriving from another world. They draw a sharp boundary-line between the fallen world we know and the world as it will be when Christ returns. But that isn’t what the Parable of the Leaven is saying. God’s kingdom is already folded into the stuff that makes up our world. The leavening process is already begun. Slowly, imperceptibly, God is reclaiming this fallen world. God’s kingdom is not so much the change that will suddenly come upon us, but the change already at work within us. Every time you or I do something to make the world a better place, we’re partnering with God in this leavening process.

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The third thing I think we can say about the leaven that is God’s kingdom is that it’s abundant. Here, I need to point you to a small detail in Jesus’ parable you might have missed.

Jesus says the woman takes her yeast and mixes it in “with three measures of flour.” Now, when you hear that expression “three measures,” you’re likely to picture it as something like three cups. That’s what I always thought, until I studied this parable closely. The Greek word, saton, is a unit of measure equivalent to about 13 liters. Multiply that by three, and you’ve got a whole lot more flour than any first-century Jewish woman would ever use to bake bread for her family.

That fact would have stood out, for Jesus’ listeners, in a way it doesn’t for us. When they heard him say the woman took her yeast and hid it away in three measures of flour, they would have thought to themselves, “That’s a lot of flour!” Amy-Jill Levine says it’s kind of like her husband phoning home to her and saying, “Honey, I’m bringing home a few guests for dinner. Can you bake 60 dozen biscuits?”

If Jesus’ original listeners knew their Hebrew Bible, they might have thought of something else as well. There’s a passage from the book of Genesis — our Old Testament lesson today — about Abraham encountering God in three mysterious visitors. Jewish tradition understands the three to be God accompanied by two angels. Later Christian tradition sees them as the Trinity. When Abraham looks up and sees these three outside his tent, he bows down to them, invites them to stay and says, “Let me bring you a little bread.” Then he calls out to his wife Sarah, saying “Hey Sarah, quick — take out three measures of flour and start baking!” Then Abraham goes and selects a choice calf from his herd, slaughters it and tells a servant to fire up the barbecue. “A little bread,” indeed! Abraham’s going way overboard in the food department. He’s laying out a handsome feast, because he knows these divine visitors deserve nothing but the best!

So, too, God’s kingdom is a kingdom of abundance. It’s a kingdom where no one is meant to go hungry. It’s a place of ample resources, and those resources are meant for sharing. The woman in Jesus’ parable isn’t just baking for her family. She hides her yeast away in enough bread-dough to feed a crowd at a wedding reception.

I wish more of you could step across the street someday, to the basement of St. Mary’s By-the-Sea, and take a look at the storerooms for St. Gregory’s Pantry. That’s our community food pantry, supported by all the churches of this community. You’d be astounded at how many cans and boxes of food are on the shelves, how many perishable goods are stored in the freezers. It’s a lot more like three biblical “measures” than three cups, that’s for sure!

The same is true of this church’s ministry with the Volunteer Village. Take a walk through our church kitchen, on a Sunday afternoon before a big group of volunteers comes in, and you’ll be amazed at how much food is sitting out on the counters and filling up the big commercial refrigerator. The fixings for the welcome meal, combined with breakfast and lunch provisions for more than 30 people for a week, begin to look a lot more like God’s abundant kingdom than anything any of us encounter in our own homes.

(Pay attention, a little later, when Peter Farwell gives a minute for mission about the need for more church members to answer God’s call to take leadership roles in the Volunteer Village. It sure would be a yeasty thing to do!)

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Finally, there’s one last thing Jesus’ listeners understood about his Parable of the Leaven. Hide a little yeast away in a batch of dough, and that little bit changes everything!

It doesn’t happen right away. Bread-baking is, and always has been, a time-consuming process. There’s a time of waiting, as the leavened dough sits in a mixing-bowl in a warm oven, covered by a piece of cheesecloth. This is the time of rising. This is the time when the dough undergoes its miraculous transformation.

One thing’s for certain about the act of breadmaking — something Jesus’ followers would have understood perfectly well: the dough can’t change itself. It needs the action of the yeast, hidden away within it. Only the yeast can change it.

Lots of people today want to bring about changes in their lives. Pull down any volume from the self-help section over at Barnes and Noble, and it will lay out positive steps you can take to bring about change in your life. But, do you know something? It very rarely happens that way — at least, not in a way that lasts. If every self-help book ever sold were completely successful in delivering on its many promises, why, we’d be living in a pretty fantastic world right now! All those millions of people who’ve bought those books wouldn’t need them anymore, because they would have followed the step-by-step instructions and made themselves into better people.

But, it can’t happen that way. You know it, and I know it. It can’t happen without a little leaven, a little bit of gracious influence from outside, a little bit of transforming power that comes only from the leaven supplied by God’s kingdom. Just a little leaven in the loaf makes the whole loaf begin to look a lot more like the sourdough starter itself.

The truth is, people can’t change themselves. They can’t do it because of sin. People can only be changed by the power of God’s Spirit, working its way into every part of their being, bubbling like yeast, sparking transformation from within.

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So you see, the Parable of the Leaven may be only one verse, but it has a whole lot to say to us about the kingdom of God. That kingdom is invisible; it’s everywhere; it’s abundant; and it changes everything.

Here on this table we will soon see a couple of loaves of bread appear. They’re leavened bread. And, because this sacrament is the sort of meal it is, the influence of that leavening goes beyond the physical nature of the bread itself. Take of it and eat. Take of it and start to become the sort of person God is yearning for you to be!

Copyright © 2015 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.