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Pentecost 8A Sermon
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
July
26, 2020

 

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Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
33 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.’
44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

This is the final week of hearing a number of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of Heaven. Almost like a fireworks display, we witnessed two major stories the last two weeks, splattering colorful images like bright blooms across the proverbial sky of God’s word. Today we heard the grand finale, the quick bursts of sparkles and shells and booms and flashes, like we all look forward to as those pyrotechnic displays come to an exciting conclusion. The Kingdom of God is like … a mustard seed, yeast, a pearl, treasure, a dragnet … until we are left with those images pasted into our minds. We understand some of them more than others – most have to do with God’s reign appearing small and/or hidden in the grand scheme of our lives, but being a most powerful or valuable force when it is experienced in its fullness. But even if we don’t totally understand them all, we have their poetic beauty with us to pray over as we consider what the Kingdom of Heaven is and how we experience it ourselves.

It makes more sense to me to focus in on one of these finale parables instead of trying to say a little about all of them. For reasons I will share a little later, I have decided to focus on the parable of the yeast: 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. Elsewhere in the scriptures yeast, or leaven, is likened to the presence of human corruption and sin, as both Mark and Matthew record Jesus’ warnings to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and of Herod. In these instances, yeast is compared to the teachings and influence of these people who will lead them totally astray of God’s rule in their lives.

So leaven can be either good or bad, and the point of using it as an illustration is that when it is mixed in with flour, it may seem practically invisible, but its influence completely invades that in which it has been mixed. It is also important to know that in this particular parable, the woman mixes in the yeast with three measures of flour. In today’s units that would be 16, five-pound bags, or 80 pounds of flour! This as not just a wife and mother making the daily bread for her family! This woman is a baker who would then throw in about 42 cups of water making a little over 100 pounds of dough! She is feeding a whole community here! If we take the parable to the logical allegorical end, the flour is the world without the kingdom of God in it, the yeast is the kingdom that she mixes in, and the dough is the world containing that same kingdom, mysteriously making its presence known as yeast naturally does. Aside from the fact that this is one of those times in scripture that God is likened to a woman, we marvel at the abundance of influence that is forever and intimately joined by the presence of these tiny living particles of yeast. I am not sure if the people of Jesus’ day realized that Yeast is a living organism that lives to eat sugar excretes carbon dioxide as part of the process. It is the presence of those released gasses getting trapped in the gluten barriers of the dough which makes bread rise, hence bringing an otherwise flat, boring lump of dough to life as wonderful, delicious, fluffy bread. That is the effect of the Kingdom of Heaven on our world today – that is the promise of God’s hidden but ever working presence on our lives: to bring joy to a joyless existence. Now to why I am focusing on this particular short parable today instead of the rest.
Back when this pandemic first hit and members of my family were staying home almost all of the time, I returned from the church office one day to discover a rather heavy box had been delivered to our door. I brought it inside, opened it up and discovered a 50-pound bag of bread flour. I was astounded!! I asked why on earth we bought such a huge amount of this when it usually takes us months to go through a five-pound bag of all-purpose flour! Well, I soon discovered that it was good to have that in our home, along with the box of yeast packets that had come a few days before. My wonderful daughter Hannah – the same one singing and reading with me today – has become a one-person bagel producing machine. I used some of that bread flour to make pizza crusts a few times, but the vast majority of this high-gluten flour has gone into making these wonderful, delicious bagels. As a matter of fact, this past week our second 50-pound bag of flour was delivered to the house, since that first one is now gone.

The process of making bagels is not an easy one. It takes time, patience, and some muscle. There is mixing and kneading, proving (or letting it rise), kneading again, proving again, weighing, shaping, boiling for 40 seconds a side and finally baking. There were lessons to be learned along the way about temperatures of water mixed in and amount of time for kneading, proving and boiling and those early batches were certainly not as good as the ones she has produced lately. But just look at this (hold up bagel) … made yesterday in our kitchen lovingly by a young woman mixing yeast into flour until all of it was leavened. She has made blueberry, cinnamon raisin, asiago cheese, and my favorite everything bagels. These have become to me a symbol of God’s love at work in the midst of the difficult times we are facing now.
There are two images that I want us to remember about this parable, likening the Kingdom of Heaven to yeast. One is the enduring presence of struggles in our world despite the presence of the Kingdom with us, and the other is the final agent which enacts itself upon the yeast-filled dough to make it rise and bake into this glorious food. First the struggles, which are present because there is still resistance to the presence of this kingdom in our midst, even by the most well-intentioned Christian. In his book, “The Parables of the Kingdom,” Robert Farrar Capon compares the struggles of humanity’s resistance to the kingdom with the kneading that must happen for this bread to rise correctly. He says, “Unless the dough is kneaded thoroughly – unless it resists and fights the baker enough to develop gluten and form effective barriers to the yeast’s working – then the gases produced by the yeast will not be entrapped in cells that can lighten the lump into a loaf. Who knows, therefore? Maybe even our foot-dragging and our back-sliding – maybe even the gummy, intractable mass of our sins – is just all in a day’s leavening to the Word who is the yeast who lightens our lumpishness.” Can I get an Amen?? And as Hannah will tell you, the process of baking bagels has become a real stress-reliever for her this summer with all of the ways that her life has taken crazy, unexpected turns from what she expected it to be. The promise is that this time has been part of changing all of our lumps into loaves!

And then there is that final agent which must act upon this yeast-filled lump, which is the hot air of the oven. As I have said many times, the Biblical word for air, wind, breath and spirit is the same. It is the warm breath of God, the Holy Spirit enacting upon that yeast-filled loaf that fills the tiny pockets in the gluten with carbon dioxide and expands the loaf or bagel or whatever it is becoming. Quoting Capon again, “Jesus breathes out the Spirit upon the disciples after his resurrection. After he is ascended, he sends that same Spirit upon the church as a rushing mighty wind. And finally, when the church goes forth to announce the leavening of the world by all this trinitarian heavy breathing, it is by yet more warm breath – even by hot air – that the proclamation is made, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our preaching to save those who believe.” No, none of us pastors should mind our preaching being likened to hot air, since it is necessary for the Kingdom of God to expand and transform this lump of lifeless dough into a Kingdom-filled loaf of love and joy.

The promise of the parable comparing the Kingdom of God to yeast is that God’s presence is everywhere in our lives, quietly, mysteriously doing its work. The struggles and battles in which we all participate are like the kneading that is necessary for this kingdom-filled world to grow. So, we can engage in these struggles, sharing the Holy Spirit along the way, confident that God’s love fills the pockets of our world with God’s own holy presence. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.