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Wild at Heart

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

September 13, 2020
Matthew 13:31-33

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it 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.” 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.”

I’ve always sort of wanted to have a cool sourdough starter like Julia’s. I’ve been a kind of recreational bread-maker for a long time, but I never got around to making the starter. It seemed like a lot of commitment. It seemed like a lot of responsibility, like I don’t want to remember to have to feed something inherited from my ancestors, what if you forget? But then COVID hit. And as you know, if you went to a grocery store in March or April or May, things got a little weird. And alongside the Clorox wipes and the toilet paper and the aluminum cans and the fresh beef and rice and pasta and beans and half a dozen other normal H-E-B staples that were very hard to find, one of the things that disappeared off the shelves was yeast. They just didn’t have any. For a long time. And my recreational bread-making began to look a little dicey, because my stash of yeast was growing a little thin. And so out of necessity I did the thing that I had always been a little afraid to do. I set out some flour and some water in a jar. I fed it for a week. And it did that thing where it attracted wild yeast from the air and began fermenting. That still feels like a very strange thing to say. And now I, too, have my very own sourdough starter. He lives in the fridge. Mine’s name is Arthur.

Now, I am, at best, a mediocre parent of my sourdough starter, and a mediocre creator of the bread that comes from it. But the ritual of it does make this passage resonate in new ways. Because of course, the yeast in this story would not be Fleischman’s Quick-Rise in the little two-and-a-quarter-teaspoon pouches. The yeast in this story would be the same wild stuff, gathered from the air, fermenting and burbling and alive and free. And then Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like when you take that wild yeast and you put it inside three measures of flour. The more I read this verse the more I think that the keyword in the whole thing is “measures.” Because of course, for as wild and free as the yeast has been, the flour is the result of structure and work and planning and technology. The flour has been cultivated, and grown, farmed from fields of wheat, and then harvested and ground and parceled and measured. Even in Jesus’s time, there is no way to achieve three measures of flour except by commitment to the process and the machinery and industrialization of its time. And so, by the time it gets measured, flour has come a long way from the land it grew in, and the seeds that sowed it. And so, the kingdom of heaven is this carefully crafted, carefully organized, carefully planned, carefully measured and cultivated amount of flour. With something wild and natural and free inside it.

Some years ago on vacation Sarah and I spent an afternoon at a winery estate — we had signed up for some winery tour, which in most of our expectations usually involves standing at a tasting bar and sampling some wines, but this one was more elaborate, they actually wanted to show us around. And so, we went walking through the vineyard. And it was exquisite, it was picture-postcard-perfect, the rolling green fertile hills, the vines crawling up towards the sun, all in these perfectly aligned grids, all perfectly parceled against the landscape, the dream of the sower whose fields have come to fruit. There is something about a farm. About a cultivated field. There is something about the geometry of it that I find so deeply satisfying, like someone has brought the most simple and lovely order to the chaotic nature underneath it. We walked along the rows, row after row after row. And some part of me that would like to be just a little bit more organized than I am felt very satisfied.

And then we crested a hillside and we found something quite different. Because this vineyard was intentionally biodynamic — instead of using artificial fertilizers or insect repellants, they had committed themselves to using natural processes, which involved, as you walked the landscape, these islands of total and utter natural chaos, maybe a hundred square feet in the middle of rows of grapes, an outbreak of natural greenery. Trees and bushes and shrubs that looked like nobody had given them a haircut in a hundred years. It looked like somebody had just forgotten to finish the vineyard every once in a while. And then our tour guide explained what those of you who garden better than I do have already figured out, which is that those little oases of chaos were for the bugs. It was habitat for the bugs. They were growing this chaotic mess to attract the bugs they needed to attract so that those bugs would keep away the bugs that eat grapevines so the whole system would work in harmony with itself. Because this lovely, and cultivated, and luscious, and beautifully measured, picture-postcard vineyard wouldn’t work at all. Without this wilderness at the heart of it. The kingdom of heaven is like that, Jesus says. Just imagine what can grow.

But then, I wouldn’t want to go to that vineyard today. It was just north of Sonoma, just north of San Francisco. And while I checked the maps and I don’t think that particular acreage is on fire this weekend, I’m sure they can see the smoke. I’m sure they can feel the flames. I’m sure they’re living and breathing the nightmarish pictures we saw all week of climate fires running rampant through the west coast. I can only imagine what it would be to wake up to that blood-red sky, to have it linger through the week like some sinister omen. I can barely access what it would be like to smell the smoke in the air, lingering and blanketing and suffocating. I can barely stomach picturing that valley, that perfect Eden, just overcome with fire, these fires, these fires that seem to spread faster and burn hotter than anyone can measure. They are almost beyond measure. They, too, run wild and free. In fact, it would be hard to conjure anything from the week more wild and free than the fires that haunt our headlines and our imaginations. So, it’s one thing to talk about the wild and free natural kingdom of God when it means an oasis of ladybugs in the middle of a vineyard. But this week wild and free means something else. It means fire. And death.

But of course, it didn’t always used to be that way. A couple of years ago, the CBC published a remembrance of Annie Kruger, one of the last generations of fire-keepers among the native tribes of the Okanagan in British Columbia. Annie died in 2003, but the grandchildren remember well, her lighting a cigarette, throwing on her jacket, and heading out into the forest to start fires — because it was her job to do it, the job of the fire-keepers who had gone before her for centuries — it was her job to use fire to help the land stay healthy and safe. It was her job to know which bushes and which trees needed tending. It was her job to know the underbrush and to read the health of the wood. It was her job to put her hands in the soil and speak the language of the natural cycles. It was her job to use the fire, and set fire, and spread fire, and keep fire, because the tribes knew that the land needed fire. That fire was part of the whole story. Until settlers and colonists came, the Europeans came and thought that we knew better. Annie’s people knew that fire was part of death but also that fire was part of life and that the whole thing was bound together.

If we would have listened, she would have told us. “People don’t understand fire anymore,” her grandson says.” The problem isn’t that we’ve had too much fire. The problem in some ways is that we haven’t had nearly enough. Because of course, wildfire has always been part of the natural cycle of order in the western part of the continent. A couple of weeks ago ProPublica reported on the backlog of unburned fuel lying in the forests around California, noting that researchers think that prehistoric California would probably have seen annual fire damage in the range of 5 to 10 million acres. In my lifetime, by contrast, that number hovers somewhere between 15 and 30 thousand every year. So, we haven’t burned enough, nearly enough, anywhere nearly enough, for a very long time. We didn’t listen to the people who told us to burn enough. We didn’t listen to the tribes who knew everything we needed to know about burning enough, and burning safely, and burning sustainably. And now those same researchers argue that in order to re-balance the forest systems in California, we probably needs to burn about 20 million new acres. That’s about the size of Maine.

You can do that safely, eventually, though not without some sacrifice. Or you can have the week we’ve just been having, which is not just a week of wildfire, but a week of climate fire. Because the scientists are also confident that the fires we’re seeing now aren’t just backlog. They move faster. They grow more quickly. They jump more rapidly. Like with everything else climate change touches, the fires too seem superpowered and unprecedented. I freely admit that I don’t preach much about climate, not because it’s not on my heart, but really because it weighs so heavily, and because it feels so massive, and because it feels so all-encompassing. It feels like something out of control. It feels like something more than I can speak to. It feels like something more than I can handle. It feels like something more than I can measure. And yet the kingdom of heaven isn’t just three measures of flour. You have to put something alive inside it. You have to put something free inside it. You have to put something breathing and growing and changing inside it. It has to be a little wild.

And I think, so do we, if we’re ever going to see a day a little greener than this one. We’re going to have to trust the yeast alive in the air. We’re going to have to plant the gardens that attract the bugs. We’re going to have to put our hands in the dirt and know the health of the underbrush. We’re going to have to remember something about fire. We’re going to have to let the kingdom of God be a little bit more alive, a little more natural, and a little more scary than our imaginations can regularly hold. We’re going to have to trust the beating heart of God’s good earth to run as wild and free as it was created to be.

Just one more thing. Remember how there wasn’t any yeast on the shelves? Well, it turns out, there was plenty of yeast. There was always plenty of yeast. You know what they ran out of? Packaging.

Thanks be to God.


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