July 26, 2020 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Jul 26, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

July 26, 2020

At first it was toilet paper disappearing from shelves, leaving whole aisles empty. It was a little funny, and we all understood, since the alternative to having it is an unpleasant idea. Stores rapidly restocked. Then it was beans, canned goods, meat – and again it didn’t much surprise us. The one that did catch us and the suppliers unaware was yeast! The top increase in sales for a single product in March was yeast; up an astonishing 601% from last year! Even now we see only emptiness above the shelf tag, and sometimes a forlorn sign limiting the absent product to one per household, like toilet paper. Running out of yeast means people are baking, and soon the phrase ‘stress baking’ helped us understand it. Almost immediately came the Great Sourdough Surge. Because no one had yeast to sell, people found sourdough another a way of leaving bread. Is there anyone with us today who doesn’t know someone who’s recently tried making sourdough? Fortunately, Anita kindly shared a cup of hers with me. Sourdough is essentially just another kind of ‘leaven’ and it is very much like what was used at the time of this parable. No Instacart deliveries of little red packets or brown glass jars to tuck in the frig, they kept crocks or jars of the starter, ‘feeding’ it to replenish and renew it each time they baked.

With four parables today, we cannot do them justice, so we’ll stick with this most timely one. It is better translated, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman, taking, hid in three measures of flour until all was leavened.” Our bibles usually say she ‘mixed it’ into the flour, but the Greek word is ἐγκρύπτω (enkrypto) from the root word “hide.” Think cryptograms and cryptology, —the inspiration for Superman’s Kryptonite too. This parable is the only time enkrypto is used, as opposed to simply κρύπτω (krypto) which refers to something hidden but which should be found or recovered “a city on a hill cannot be hidden”, do not “hide your light under a bushel basket.” However, enkrypto is being hid in a way that suggests it will change the hosting substance, an integrated influence yet to be revealed. Once unhidden, the original will have transformed.

We also know that leaven was not always considered a good thing, even if essential for bread. For anyone who hasn’t made a sourdough, you are basically fermenting flour, water and mold spores into a ‘starter.’ Over a few days the enzymes decay, the starter bubbles and grows, and you can tell by smell when it’s ready. (Sadly, many people don’t think it has “a nice tangy smell” – to them it just smells rank or moldy.) You must leave it in a bowl or jar large enough for it to triple, cover it with a cloth and put it somewhere warm and dark with no breeze, like a turned-off oven. Another benefit of bread made from leaven of this fermenting/decomposing enzyme process is that the starter breaks down phytic acid, a natural substance found in wheat, which blocks our bodies from absorbing much of the wheat’s vitamins and minerals, (like potassium, magnesium, zinc, and folate). Once broken down by the active starter, our bodies can make use of sourdough’s goodness in ways we just can’t get from other breads. What might that say about the kingdom of heaven being like the leaven hidden in flour?

The leaven or yeast biblical metaphor was also used to connote something negative, even dangerous; “Watch out, and beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” Jesus warns in Matthew, Mark and Luke; their leaven is not the same as what Jesus offers. Paul writes, “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” Leaven occurs regularly in scripture and nearly always intimates something that is somehow ‘off’ or has negative effect. We begin to see this parable wasn’t just the cuddly aromatic image of fresh bread baking! It is going to force them, and us, to think and re-think.

Even with this negative connotation, the bread being made and such abundant flour also call to mind other scriptures; How God gave life-sustaining manna in the wilderness daily, Elijah and Elisha providing food in need, Jesus teaching us pray, “Give us this day our daily bread…”, Jesus tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread after 40 days of hunger, Jesus breaking five loaves of bread to feed many thousand, how he sits and eats even with known sinners, he compares his body to bread, and later breaks bread with the disciples at the Last Supper instructing followers to do this to remember him. Jesus is the “Bread of life” and the “living bread that came down from heaven.” All this rising up from the one who at his birth was first placed in a feeding trough.

“Three measures of flour” are not a random idea either, as a measure was around 50-60 pounds! No woman had a bowl that big or could hope to use three such measures. Jesus is speaking of the extravagance of what she is doing, pointing to great abundance. Now think back to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis. Theologian Amy-Jill Levine says Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day, “he’s hot, he’s had to deal with the difficulties between his wife Sarah and his other wife, Sarah’s slave Hagar, and he’s just completed not only his own circumcision, but also that of every male in his household. It’s been a long week!” (Short Stories by Jesus, Harper Collins, NY., 2014.) Yet even so, when he sees the three visitors he offers them hospitality. “Let me bring a little bread” he says, then tells Sarah to “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it and make cakes.” This is not “a little bread”! Here Jesus invites us to link the parable’s three measures with feeding those angelic visitors who promised them a miraculous pregnancy so unlikely that she laughed aloud! Those three measures evoke Hannah dedicating her son Samuel to divine service by offering, not only the customary bull and wine, but also that same amount of flour (an ephah is three measures). I hear Jesus’ parable evoking these stories and also illuminating how new life was and is inextricably linked with the coming of the Messiah. Historians say people of Abraham and Sarah’s time thought women’s part of having children was limited to being the nurturing ‘earthy’ body, planted with ‘seed’ for having babies, which came from men alone. Again from Levine, “By the time of Jesus the imagery had changed. Women’s bodies now were compared to ovens, as in that charming expression still heard today, ‘She’s got a bun in the oven.’” And, “Like hiding baby Jesus in a king cake for Mardi Gras, so the parable hides in its words an allusion to an ancient narrative.”

Where does this all take us? The woman’s ‘hidden’ leaven will soon be evident, once the transformation of abundance occurs. Bread which can feed and nourish many – literally and metaphorically—will lead to something great. Here, the yeast or leaven, usually utilitarian to us, finds us seeing it quite differently, more richly. I wonder what other pragmatic basics in life could we reconsider with greater depth of vision? It so happens I love making bread; mixing leavening and flour, kneading, baking – serving and eating – all of it. I find it calming, healing, connecting, and it always makes me imagine Christ’s hands taking up that bread. Perhaps an ordinary day can change just a bit, as we participate in the transformation of ingredients, like leaven, flour, water, like our stressed-out mindset, anticipatory worry, fear, or the painful sameness of days. No, they won’t go away, sadly. Instead we live with them, sit with them, and I hope, allow how they can be lovingly accompanied by the gift of she who hid leaven in three measures of flour. My prayer is that you are nourished and raised up, by an indwelling of Christ which might be otherwise hidden unseen.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks.

Just as the leaven cannot be separated out from bread, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick

View lectionary readings:

Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43