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The Kingdom is Like Leaven
Theodore J. Wardlaw
October 17, 2010
I am thinking this morning about boundaries. Boundaries are those lines we draw between one another, the ways in which we create our space that is differentiated from somebody else’s space; and boundaries are not bad things. Not always.
All over this city, there are yards and houses with walls or fences around them. Sometimes these walls and fences are downright beautiful. Their primary purpose, of course, is to keep intruders out; and it’s important, in many cases, that boundaries do just that.
We have boundaries in our Presbyterian church. We have scripture and creeds and confessional statements and liturgies and traditions; and these boundaries are important. They matter! They help define who we are, and who we are not.
But sometimes there is something sadly premature about our boundaries.
I will never forget a story I read in the newspaper about a decade or so ago. It was about a little boy from Northern Ireland who had won an award for an architectural design he had drawn. A little kid winning an award like that! It was the design of a playground—swings and sliding-boards and monkey bars and all the other things that a good playground has. What made this design so remarkable—there in Northern Ireland, remember—was that the little boy had included a neutral zone where, if they wished, Protestant children and Catholic children could play peacefully in the same space. On maybe the same swings and sliding-boards and monkey bars. It was a bold experiment about boundaries—a mixing place for what, in that context, doesn’t easily mix.
We don’t always mix well, after all. It’s often the case that we people of God have had a notorious history of drawing lines pretty tightly at times—lines that separate us from other faiths, even from other Christian faiths; from other neighborhoods; from other races; from other sexual orientations; from other political parties. There’s no end to the lines we have often drawn.
In the church I served on Long Island—a church that celebrated its 350th anniversary just this past summer—the place just dripped with history and tradition and memory. It was surrounded by a colonial cemetery, it sat on a village green, the new building was built in 1811—beautiful Federal-style meetinghouse. And just next door was another church, an Episcopal church, that was also built well before the American Revolution; and, in fact, there was a famous revolutionary battle fought in that community. The British soldiers were holed up (guess where?!) in the Episcopal church and the patriots were holed up in the Presbyterian church, and they shot at each other for several days. But in time, everybody got over all of that—or so I thought.
Once, on Pentecost Sunday, we had a big picnic on the green after church, and somebody had thought to decorate all the tables with big bundles of red balloons—red, for Pentecost. A little wind blew up during the picnic, and some of those balloons got loose and began drifting toward the Episcopal side of the green. One of my long-term parishioners came up to me, and gleefully said, “I hope all those red balloons get stuck way up there in those Episcopal trees… those damned Tories!”
There’s no end to the lines we have often drawn. And, in spite of all of that, there has also been no end to the voice of God whispering in our ear from time to time—urging us beyond our boundaries, toward, if you will, a playground where we can all play together in peace and safety.
I think I hear that voice of God in this tiny little parable, which is our text for today. I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve never heard this text before. It’s not the most popular text for preaching. There’s not much scholarship on it, frankly. Even the best commentaries on the parables of Jesus often overlook this little parable, and nowhere in my research on this text was I able to find one sermon on it—not one. It just sits there, quietly, occupying a sentence or two of scripture, almost completely forgotten by the church, almost totally obscure.
Jesus said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
In Luke’s gospel, it just hides there—behind the coat-tails of the parable that comes ahead of it, the Parable of the Mustard Seed. If scholars even notice it at all, they often decide that maybe the themes of these two parables are similar. Small acts have large consequences. A man puts a mustard seed in his garden, a woman puts leaven in flour; a seed becomes a tree, the dough becomes a loaf; just as the seed and the leaven carry their futures with them, so the kingdom grows in spite of the opposition. It’s just a domestic little image of growth, they say.
But no: I have come to believe that there is more to this parable. In fact, I think this parable is a little dangerous. And I’m starting to believe that it is as obscure as it is because the church, over the centuries, has not wanted to touch it with a ten-foot pole. And I’ve decided that that’s because this parable is loaded and dangerous, and it challenges all of our boundaries.
And do you know what is most dangerous about this parable? It’s that word leaven. “The kingdom of God… is like leaven that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour.”
Now we hear that word leaven and we think immediately of the word yeast—that nicely-packaged stuff that you can pick up at the grocery store and add to flour and make it all rise. But the word leaven falling on the ears of the first-century church would have conjured up images of something unclean and dirty and forbidden. Leaven, after all, didn’t come in nice little packages on the grocery shelf. Instead, it was a piece of fermented dough reserved from a previous batch, and it was added to a new lump of dough to produce the process of fermentation. Fermentation was that internal process of bubbling and fizzing by which a disturbing chemical change was taking place that would bring about the mixing of what doesn’t easily mix. Leaven had to do with things that were sour and unclean; and when it was used in a figurative sense, it meant something that had the power to debase and corrupt and change.
Almost everywhere you see the word leaven in scripture, you see it used negatively.
When the Jews ate unleavened bread in the Passover celebration, they were reminded by that unleavened bread not only of the hurried nature of the exodus from Egypt, in which there wasn’t enough time to bake bread properly; but also of the so-called unleavened life which service to God required. They ate that unleavened bread, and thought about what it meant to live free of the leaven of corrupting influences.
And in Matthew, there’s this curious story of an occasion in which Jesus and his disciples got away to a certain spot, but forgot to bring bread. Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” The disciples thought that he was just telling them what kind of bread to buy when he sent them back into town to the nearest H.E.B. So Jesus put it more plainly. He said, “How could you fail to perceive that I was not talking about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees!” And just to make sure that they got it, Matthew ends the story with these words: “Then they understood that he had not told them to beware the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” It was the leaven of false teaching that got inside people just like it got inside a lump of dough, and it wasn’t finished with them until it corrupted them from the inside out.
St. Paul had something to say about leaven, too. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he wrote: ìYour boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened… The point was that, since they were unleavened, they were new people; so they had to live, as Paul put it, “not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
Leaven was sneaky. It was hard to keep an eye on leaven, because, beneath all the bubbles, something radical was happening deep down. It had a way of penetrating things and changing them from the inside out. It could take something clean and turn it into something unclean. It could enable the mixing of what wasn’t easily mixed, and most of all, at the end of the day, it had a way of radically re-orienting the way something looked. Leaven was sneaky and dangerous.
So, imagine the shock of his listeners when Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like leaven. Because, right off the top, what that meant was that the kingdom of God was being compared to something unclean—something unlikely, unexpected, maybe even inappropriate—and that taking part in this kingdom had to do, somehow, with letting it get inside of you, like leaven, until a whole series of internal transformations succeeded in turning you, and the world even, inside out. That would have been shocking news for anybody who had ever had to defend a boundary. For here was a man coming onto the scene and advancing the idea that boundaries were being overturned by the inbreaking of God’s kingdom; and, before it was all over, every conventional definition of clean and dirty would be redefined. The kingdom, he said, is like leaven.
And there that observation just sits in the gospel of Luke, and inside the mind of Luke—this barely noticeable, obscure little parable—like leaven itself!
Why do you suppose Luke follows on the heels of this parable with another one about how, in the kingdom of God, all the conventional boundaries around who may eat with one another are thrown out and replaced? After all, there was no boundary more important in that time than the one that was drawn around who should and should not sit down with you at table. Someone starts the conversation by saying, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” and then off Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. It’s not the folks who are “good people”, in the worst sense of the word, who get into the banquet, he said; it’s the people from far away—from east and west and from north and south. “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The point is that you can’t discern the kingdom by drawing boundaries around it. It’s not self-evident, in the Kingdom of God, who’s in and who’s out. Because the kingdom is like—there’s that word again—leaven.
It just sits there, that little parable, in the mind of Luke—kind of hidden, like leaven itself.
In Luke’s second book, the book of Acts, the leaven just keeps on working as the vision of the church gets larger and larger. There’s that story in Acts, for example, about Peter falling into a trance when he was hungry. Now Peter was one who believed in boundaries. He knew what to eat and what not to eat, he understood with whom to eat and with whom not to eat. He knew that boundaries were there for a good reason. But when he fell into that trance, he had a vision of a large sheet coming down from Heaven, and on it were all kinds of creatures and reptiles and birds. And the voice of God said, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Shrimp and pork and sushi, guacamole and fish tacos and pulled pork barbeque, the works! “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter said, “I’m not eating that, I know about the boundaries!” The voice came back and said, “Get up! What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”
The kingdom of God is like leaven, taking conventional definitions of clean and unclean and turning them upside down. Taking our logic about what makes sense and what does not make sense, and turning it upside down.
It just sits there, that parable, in the mind of Luke. And in the mind of the church. You don’t always see what is happening beneath the surface, beneath the bubbles. But hidden down deep in there somewhere, something, by the grace of God, is always being radically transformed from what we have in mind to what God has in mind.
Some time ago now, back when apartheid was still very strong in South Africa and there weren’t many outward signs that it was going to end any time soon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from the Diocese of Cape Town, said this curious thing. You’ve heard it many times, I’m sure. He’s said it a lot recently, actually. He said, “when the white people first came to South Africa, we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray,’ and we closed our eyes, and when we opened them again, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better deal,” he said. The kingdom is like leaven—bubbling and fizzing beneath the surface even when, above the surface, things don’t look that different for a long, long time.
That’s the way leaven works, until the boundaries we embrace are God’s boundaries, and not just ours.
I read recently of a man who had been on the outs with the church ever since his adolescent days. The church, he said, was too concerned about rules and drawing lines and always determining who’s in and who’s out. He’d left the church as a kid, finished with it, he said. But his father didn’t give up on him. He worked on him; he begged him to give the church—any church—another chance; and finally the young man agreed that he would. One Sunday, he got up the nerve, and he wandered randomly into a church. People in the narthex were nice to him, so he went on in and he sat down. They were in the middle of the Prayer of Confession. It was one of the classics; I bet you know it. “We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and there is no health in us…”
The man listened to, and heard, that prayer. And he smiled to himself and said, “Good! This sounds like my kind of crowd.”
It was, after all, a crowd—like this crowd—that was being changed and redeemed from the inside out. A crowd coming to a table like that one, and imagining that table to be big enough to welcome everybody.
Jesus said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it—ALL of it—was leavened.”