Matthew 13:31-34; 44-52Preached by The Rev. Dr. Jason M. Haddox
When Shannon and I lived in New Jersey, I baked bread every week. Six cups of flour made enough bread for the two of us weekly, plus (often) a loaf to give away. So I wondered about this parable of Jesus’: “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.” (Matt. 13:33) How much is “a measure”?
Three measures sounds like a relatively small amount. Three cups, maybe double that to make six. Enough dough for two good-sized loaves. Perhaps even double that again, to imagine a four-cup measure—that’s the biggest measuring cup in my kitchen. Four cups times three measures is twelve cups. That’s quite a lot of flour, right?
Except that’s not even close to Jesus’ bread recipe this morning. The word translated as “measure” of flour in the gospel this morning—a single “measure”—contained somewhere between fifteen and twenty pounds of flour.
You know those five pound bags of Lily White unbleached all-purpose flour they stock at Publix?
Imagine twelve of those five-pound bags lined up on the kitchen table, waiting to go into the mixing bowl.
Imagine the mixing bowl into which twelve five-pound bags of flour would fit.
Imagine the quantity of dough that would be made by such an undertaking.
Imagine the wooden spoon—as big as a kitchen broom—used to mix the yeast into the dough.
And about the yeast. Jesus isn’t talking about those tidy little red-and-yellow envelopes of Fleishmann’s dry yeast pellets on the shelf above the bags of flour. He’s talking about sourdough starter.
If you’ve worked with sourdough starter, you know that it is gooey and smelly and more than a bit temperamental. Added to flour and salt, it rises into bread dough. Added to wheat and hops and water, it creates beer (which Benjamin Franklin stated was proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, but that’s another sermon altogether.) Exactly how this weird smelly stuff works is mysterious. And when it’s mentioned in the Bible it is always used as a symbol of corruption and uncleanness. The bread of remembrance in the Passover meal is unleavened—perhaps a rejection of all that the children of Israel had suffered in Egypt, where both baking leavened bread and brewing beer were important industries. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells his hearers: “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5:6-8)
But here in this tiny parable, Jesus takes that symbol of yeast—smelly, gooey, strange, and highly suspect—and uses it to talk about something that is just as weird and mysterious. The Kingdom of God, to which Jesus has been pointing his hearers all along. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…which a woman took and mixed in with flour….”
Our English Bibles tell us that the woman “mixed in” the yeast. That’s good standard baking advice—one does want the leavening agent to be well distributed through the dough before the bread is baked—but it’s a lousy translation. What Jesus actually says is that the woman “HID” the leaven in the flour.
Think of that for a moment. The yeast—Jesus’ chosen symbol of the kingdom, in this parable—is hidden. Invisible from ordinary sight, yet slowly and steadily working its hidden magic in and through that whole enormous bowlful of dough. Sixty pounds of flour, plus the hidden yeast, aerating and lifting and swelling up to the edge of that enormous mixing bowl, over the edge, spilling out onto the kitchen table, onto the floor, filling the whole room. It cannot stay hidden for long, not like that.
My mother tells a story from her college days, where her dormitory on the edge of the campus sat just across the street from a large commercial bakery. Every morning at about 3:30 a.m. the ovens would be loaded for the first batch of the day, and the smell of fresh bread would drift—no, it would pour, cascade, flood out into the surrounding streets and homes for several blocks in every direction. There was no missing it, that fragrance entered every door and window in the vicinity.
What does the kingdom of God smell like?
What fragrance accompanies the presence of God?
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…which a woman took.”
Jesus uses a particularly feminine image in this parable, to talk about God’s activity in the world. It is not an image of great power in the usual triumphant sense, banners and parades and cheering crowds. It is, in a way, the very opposite of such power—this power is hidden in a bowl, on a kitchen table, measured and mixed, kneaded and rolled and baked by strong, flour-covered hands. The hands of a mother, a grandmother, an aunt…someone at once perfectly ordinary, and at the same time extraordinary. A worker of miracles. A magician, whose magic will bring forth miraculous food for many. Jesus, the Bread of Life, puts the work of God’s kingdom into a woman’s hands.
The day after tomorrow, the 29th of July, is the feast of Sts. Mary and Martha of Bethany. Two sisters, whose names we know, who ministered to Jesus, who were among his closest friends. It is also the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of eleven women, the first women to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church. It happened in Philadelphia, on a humid Monday morning in 1974, in the Church of the Advocate. Three retired bishops laid hands on eleven women deacons, conferring apostolic ordination upon them in the presence of two thousand witnesses. The service did not go unnoticed; there were more than a few objections in the days and months that followed. “Irregular,” the House of Bishops would say later. “Uncanonical.” And so two years later in Minneapolis, the General Convention rewrote canon law to admit that—in fact—the Holy Spirit was up to something new and transforming in the Episcopal Church. And we, my brothers and sisters, have been immeasurably blessed and enriched by that new thing. I have heard you tell stories of Sr. Elena here at St. Augustine’s, her love and leadership among you. Sister Ellen Frances and my dear Texas friend and colleague St. Miriam Elizabeth have blessed us in this parish, and gone in service to many in their work as ministers of the gospel.
Last Sunday the Rev. Julia Sierra Wilkinson Reyes of Christ Church, Savannah (whom Scott Benhase, the tenth bishop of Georgia, fondly refers to as “the twelfth bishop of Georgia”) welcomed the Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts-Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, into the pulpit of the mother church of Georgia. As of only a few days ago, women can be elected as bishops in the Church of England, even perhaps to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. Jesus’ image of a woman holding, handling, sharing the “stuff” of the Kin-dom of God is being made manifest in our own time. This is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…in the hands of a woman…hidden in an abundance of flour…until it was all leavened and raised and filled with life.”
The hidden, transforming, mysterious workings of God and God’s dominion
And they will move us—if we allow them—beyond our own places of comfort and security.
Where is the messy, mysterious, uncontrolled yeast of God working in your life just now?
Where is God, the baker-woman, kneading and stretching you,
beyond your usual places of comfort and safety this week?
Where are you called to be bread, abundant, fragrant, and delicious, for a hungry community today?