On Kneading God: A Sermon

Text: Matthew 13:33
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
September 9, 2009

Our Gospel Lesson this morning falls in a list of parables that Jesus is sharing with his disciples – first the parable of the sower and the seeds, the parable of weeds among wheat, the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus gives some explanation but often allows each parable to be deciphered by his hearers. Then Jesus shares this brief parable of the yeast. Let us listen to God’s word to us this morning:

He told them another parable: “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.”

My Grandfather was a bread baker. I remember thinking it was strange to see him in the kitchen. My grandparents were quite traditional – my Grandmother was a primary homemaker, cooking the meals and taking care of everyone’s needs. But every so often, my grandfather, a heavy set, gruff sort of man with a dry sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye, would venture into the kitchen to combine yeast and flour and water along with some other ingredients, kneading and pounding it, letting it rise, putting it in the oven and waiting while the whole house filled with the warm comforting yeasty aroma of fresh baking bread.

I have dabbled in bread baking as an adult – in the little time I have. While it seems a hobby better suited for someone with a little more time to spare, I still long to be a true bread baker. I admit that I am a purist – never interested in a bread making machine, but instead desiring to knead by hand – feeling the stickiness of the dough change into the elastic, springy stuff of bread dough, taking out the day’s stress in pushing and pounding and punching. It is a hobby that is so tactile – and the results so pure and wonderful – because even in the age of Atkins, who doesn’t love a piece of fresh-out-of-the-oven-bread slathered with a little butter?

When I was in high school, my Grandfather suffered a stroke, and he lost his ability to speak. Once a highly social man, who spent most of his retirement days with his buddies on the golf course, he was now struggling to find the words for the most basic things: bread, glass, daughter.

Grandpa gave up his hours on the golf course, a sport he loved. It wasn’t that he couldn’t play – it was just that it had been such a social activity, and he couldn’t go through that frustration anymore. But he never gave up baking bread. In fact, up until his last year, as he had done every Christmas before, he baked loaves and loaves of his German Stollen bread – and gave them as gifts to everyone he knew.

So I like to think that I have bread baking in my blood. But it may also be the theological connections that romanticize it so in my mind. The stories of loaves shared – some leavened some not, of “bread from heaven” in the wilderness and the “bread of life” that we spoke about during the month of August, and of course – that simple practice of sharing bread and wine in remembrance of the dying and rising of Jesus. Do this in remembrance of me…

Baking bread is pretty simple, actually. As one of our congregation said to me a few weeks ago as encouragement: “There’s nothing to it, really, just yeast and water and sugar and flour!” Lately I’ve taken to reading bread cookbooks in bed. And if you’ve ever looked at a recipe for baking bread – you might see just that simplicity at the heart of every recipe: One package of yeast is mixed with about 3 or 4 cups to make 2 decent sized loafs of bread. The variations upon that theme are incredible. Sometimes milk, sometimes honey, sometimes nuts or spices – either sweet or savory. Bread is the ordinary stuff of life, yes, but it can also be decadent and lavish.

Our text for this morning is one of those texts that lifts up not just the sharing and eating of bread but the making of it. In some ways it seems an easy and ordinary recipe: a woman takes yeast and flour and mixes them together. At first it seems an ordinary metaphor for the way our faith touches everything. Or perhaps a metaphor for the church, as the traditional church has interpreted the yeast as the gospel spreading throughout the world until every knee bows and every tongue confesses…

But, these understandings of this short parable seem to forsake the very surprise that Jesus was trying to convey.

Our first surprise is the idea that yeast is a good thing. Throughout the Old and New Testaments yeast is normally an image for corruption. It is the unleavened bread that is held up as worthy and good. Usually, yeast is a negative element that sneaks in and ruins things – as Paul mentions to the Corinthians and Galatians to beware the yeast of the Pharisees. But here – Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to this otherwise corrupting yeast. Twisting the negative into something hopeful.

Once we start to adjust to understanding yeast as good, then we are surprised again by his measurements. As every good breadbaker knows, the proportion of yeast to flour is a somewhat delicate one. It changes by about a half a cup or so, depending on the humidity or type of flour one uses. As you add flour to dough, you do so carefully, bit by bit, until just the right consistency is achieved.

But the woman in our parable throws in a little bit of yeast to three measures of flour. What you need to know is that 3 measures of flour is not a little bit of flour. In fact – what commentators say is that 3 measures of flour is equal to about 10 gallons of flour – or 144 cups. Not what we might call a delicate, careful measurement. As someone once said, this woman is either crazy or she is baking in the Kingdom bakery!

The other important part of our parable is that the Greek doesn’t come across quite right in our New Revised Standard Version. Our woman “mixed” the yeast in, but the word in Greek, “enekrupsen,” actually means “to hide or conceal.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like a certain woman who took a little bit of yeast, and hides it in 10 gallons of flour until all of it is leavened.”

It is the extravagance and the surprise that strikes me so much in this passage – and in this season of block parties and organized school schedules I wonder how God’s extravagant surprises might sneak up on us too – hidden inside of ten gallons of flour.

My Grandfather wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with. He was probably an alcoholic, although the culture of his generation where cocktailing was a way of life made it easy for him to deny it. He was a man of quick and easy judgments, causing those who knew him to feel they never quite lived up to the standards he set. As my sister once said shortly after his funeral, “I think Grandpa was a really great grandpa, but maybe a not so great father.”

My mom and her brother bore much of his judgment, and so the family pain seemed deep. All this I learned long after he died, as adulthood tends to bring our idealistic caricatures of our loved ones into full view. But, my mom remembers her father’s bread baking as one of his most beloved and open traits. And I like to imagine my mom and her younger brother sitting at the table in their house, sharing a piece of German Stollen fresh out of the oven, slathered in butter, with the man who sometimes was so hard to love.

Breaking bread together – it is an act that unifies us all. Because if there is one thing we have in common it is that we need nourishment to survive. And as we come together to satisfy that need, we find that other needs are satisfied too: the need for companionship, for forgiveness, for grace. We come together knowing that God kneads us together like dough – with people who do not share even one of our same beliefs or politics, with people who are as different from us as they could be, with people who judge and hurt, with people who betray and abandon, we are kneaded together not with just the good – but with all God’s people in spite of ourselves.

It is not easy. It can be difficult, even painful to let ourselves be brought in by those most unlike us, those most frustrating, most annoying, most challenging. But that’s what it is to be kneaded together with a little yeast and a whole lot of flour into the Kingdom of God. May it be so. Amen.


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