|Today’s scripture readings:||Sermon audio:
For the past two years I have been part of the Collegeville Institute Fellows Program, a continuing education opportunity for about a dozen younger clergy in the Twin Cities from a variety of Christian denominations. We met for a couple of days four times a year for two years, and our capstone retreat—the last of our eight meetings—took place just a couple weeks ago. The Collegeville Institute, which is based at St. John’s University, works at the intersection of religion and culture, exploring how people of faith are called to engage the wider world. The Fellows Program I was part of aims to help clergy in the beginning of their careers think about how we as leaders in the church are also civic leaders, and how we engage major issues impacting our society. During our time together we discussed business and the future of Minnesota’s economy; the criminal justice system; healthcare; education and the achievement gap; and poverty and homelessness. We heard from our state demographer and our state economist; from corporate executives and the leaders of labor unions; from teachers and school board members; from police chiefs and judges and ex-offenders; from insurance company executives and doctors. Each meeting provided an opportunity to dive deep into some of the most complicated issues impacting our state, with people on all sides of the issues who have been engaged in the work for decades.
Each meeting left me feeling both more informed and completely overwhelmed about the challenges we had been discussing. I began to see that ideologues on both the left and the right too often oversimplify these extremely complicated issues, and offer “solutions” that are more like poll-tested talking points—less about addressing the problems and more about scoring political wins. The various leaders who came to speak to our cohort about these issues had plenty of common-sense policy ideas that seemed likely to make a real impact, but politics, we learned, prevents most of these proposals from getting very far.
At our final retreat earlier this month, we sat around a table and reflected on what we had learned. And we asked ourselves: What are we taking away from the conversations we’ve had over the past two years about these most challenging issues impacting our state—about the economy, criminal justice, education, healthcare, and poverty? I’ll be honest: It was a pretty depressing conversation. We all agreed: These issues are so complex, so misunderstood, so oversimplified, and so hyper-politicized, that it’s difficult to imagine meaningful change coming any time soon. And it’s even more difficult to imagine how our congregations could move the needle on any of these most complicated, intractable problems.
Here’s a thought: Maybe the role of the church isn’t to solve these complex problems. Maybe the church’s job is to infiltrate the world with radical ideas—you know, like the idea that all people are created in the image of God, or the idea that we should love our neighbor, or the idea that everyone has a place at the table—to infiltrate the world with radical Christian ideas until society has been so thoroughly transformed by these Gospel notions that they become the norm. Could that be a job for us?
Today’s Gospel reading is a series of micro-parables, each of which is just a verse or two long. Before this, Jesus has told his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, and the disciples want to know, “What does that look like? Tell us about this Kingdom of Heaven.” Jesus replies with parables—short and seemingly simple stories that carry multiple layers of meaning. That’s what we have in the Gospel reading today—several of these parables back-to-back-to-back that Jesus tells in order to shed some light on what he means when he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven.
I was especially inspired this week by the parable in verse 33. Actually, pull out your bulletins and let’s look at this reading together. We’re going to do a little Bible study here, because there’s a lot packed into just this one little verse. “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.”
There are at least three things you need to know about this parable. The first is this: In Jesus’ time, yeast was often used as a symbol of corruption. A few chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.” You’ve heard that saying, “One bad apple spoils the barrel”? People in Jesus’ time thought of yeast sort of like that. To them, yeast was like a virus that spread everywhere and corrupted everything. And Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like that.
Here’s the second thing: The translation we have in front of us today says that the yeast was “mixed” in with the flour. But “mixed” isn’t really a very good translation of the word used in the original Greek. The Greek word means something more like “hide.” The woman in the parable doesn’t “mix” the yeast in with the flour; she “hides” it in the flour. That changes the meaning a little bit, don’t you think? Suddenly it’s not just a routine, innocent task; there’s something surreptitious about the woman’s act. She’s actually being a little bit sneaky with the yeast. Putting the yeast in with the flour is a covert action. And Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like that.
The third thing you need to know is that three measures of flour is a whole lot of flour. It amounts to somewhere around 80 pounds, or about 16 of those five-pound bags of flour most of us buy at the grocery store. The woman baking bread in this parable has a pretty big task on her hands. And Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like that.
This parable is only one sentence long but there’s a lot to unpack. So what does all of this mean? The preacher Tom Long puts it this way: “The parable of the yeast pictures the kingdom as a hidden force, working silently to ‘corrupt’ the world—that is, to corrupt the corruption.” I love that idea, that the kingdom is at work like a virus spreading through the world, “corrupting” our corrupt status quo with something that has the power to transform the whole works into something new.
If you’re feeling as exhausted as I am with the state of the world as it is today, maybe you join me in hearing some good news in this parable. I find hope in the idea that God is at work “corrupting the corruption” of our world, calling us to be the yeast that infects the world with a different set of values and ideas and transforms our society into something entirely new.
I don’t know about you but I feel completely overwhelmed by the 24-hour reality show of our nation’s politics and all the manufactured drama that is eroding our democracy. And I’m disturbed that a startlingly large number of people actually like what they see. Renewing our democracy and restoring civility seems like such an enormous task that I don’t even know where we’re supposed to begin.
Maybe the role of the church isn’t to solve these problems. Maybe our job is to surreptitiously infiltrate the world with our radical ideas about love and justice; to model compassion, forgiveness, and, for goodness’ sake, basic human decency; to corrupt the world as it is like yeast hidden in a huge batch of flour, until fermentation is accomplished and something new and better has been created.
A couple weeks ago Pastor Bradley encouraged us to go out from this place and “love when it doesn’t make sense to love,” to “forgive even those who stand against us, to “speak of our neighbors, or even our political opponents, in the best and most charitable ways,” to “heal and tend, act with compassion, and do the work of justice.” What if we did that again today? And again tomorrow. And again day after day, and week after week, until it started to take hold and others followed our lead—like a little bit of yeast hidden in the flour that eventually leavens the whole works. Yeast that turns our bushels of lousy flour into bread that feeds the whole world.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like that.
Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).