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Leaven

Written by Pastor Aaron Decker. Posted in Sermons

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost (17-A) - Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

July is at a close, and for me, it’s been a weird month. I’ve been wapping things up and passing information on, having council retreats, personnel team conversations, an interview for the local paper, meeting about the bulletins and church website and youth ministry of these past years. Last shut-in visits, worship planning, ice cream with friends. The stress of the sad things I’ve been doing and the joyful things both has brought the disease of depression to the door after months of absence, but I’m coping. Today is my last Sunday preaching at Christ Lutheran, though I will of course be preaching twice in August at First Congregational in West Boylston, so it’s not really a last Sunday…? It’s been a weird month. And that was before I was summoned for jury duty.

Jury duty is like the opposite of gym class. You don’t want to be first. You want to be the last one, in the back, that nobody wants to pick—even if you, like me, think that serving on a jury is the solemn duty and privilege of every American, that the process of our government can be fascinating, and that of all the systems created in the history of the world, this jury-of-your-peers thing is probably the best, most ethical way to do it. I want to serve on a jury, I really do. Just… you know… not today, Your Honor.

It did not surprise me when I was, in fact, picked dead last in high school gym class, every single time. And so it also didn’t surprise me when the clerk of the court announced that I was to be referred to as “Juror Number Nine.” The judge thought the case would go over this weekend, until Tuesday, but we actually wrapped up quickly on Friday, which is nice, because that’s means I can talk about it—though I’ll still do so in a way that protects details and people’s identities, even though they’re now a matter of public record.

It was a sad little case. One man fell on the ice, breaking bones and requiring expensive medical work, and was suing another, at whose home he’d fallen. The sad part was that the men had once been good friends. Both were immigrants—from the same town in the land where they’d been born, though they didn’t know each other back there as children. They’d met as coworkers here in the US, at what sounds like a dead-end, minimum wage sort of job. For seven years, they had been extremely close friends. Within two weeks after the first man fell, they were in litigation. The guy was dirt poor, he could not afford the medical bills, and there was nothing he could do except to try and find some money elsewhere, from the friend who probably would have helped him without prompting if he wasn’t also dirt poor.

What these two men needed was a means of reconciliation, of healing their friendship, of rebuilding what had been lost. What our society offered them was a way of forcing money to destroy their relationship, and frankly, of turning a great and noble legal and judicial system into a means of breaking people’s hearts and souls instead of just their bones. (And again: I have greater respect for our courts now than ever before. The function they provided was necessary, and the way it was done was inspiring. And the results are kind of heartbreaking, even when they are fair and just.)

Most Christians know and love the parable of the mustard seed, but for me, I find the image of the little bit of leaven that leavens the whole batch much more helpful. In part, I think this is because I’ve never seen a fully grown mustard plant, so I don’t really have an image to go with what Jesus is saying in the first parable. But all of us have eaten bread, and you can buy yeast at the grocery store. These are the normal, solid, substantial, mundane things of life. We sometimes expect God to be great and glorious, the almighty and omnipotent and everlasting creator of universes. And so I can’t help but love that Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven in a bit of bread.

Leaven had a specific place in the culture of the first-century Jews. It connects with the Passover meal, when leaven is to be left out of bread, a representation of the first Passover, when there wasn’t enough time for the dough to rise. The ancient Hebrews had to eat and run, to get out of Egypt quickly before Pharaoh changed his mind again. There is some distance, though, between simply not waiting for the bread to rise before eating it, and the careful, ritualistic exclusion of leavening agents from any premises where eating might take place. There are a lot of things that can cause bread to rise—at least a little bit. I remember making matzoh a few years ago as part of the Lenten School of Theology the Lutherans used to have in Worcester each year. We used kosher ingredients and worked quickly, taking extra care to ensure that leavening agents couldn’t accidentally be taken into the dough before it was cooked. There are Rabbis whose entire religious calling is to bakeries or food manufacturers, who work hard to ensure that, in these kosher ingredients, nothing can possibly get in, no matter what. With their precautions, and with ours, we slid the disc of bread into the oven—and watched it rise, even if only a little.

Please don’t hear in this a criticism of Jewish religion or ritual. It is simply how things are, and we have our own rituals that could be considered strange or even extreme. But the important takeaway is that in first-century Judaism, leaven was understood to be something bad, a contaminant, an adulteration of what was ritually pure. As part of preparing for Passover, a family would thoroughly clean their home, trying to make sure that not even a speck of dust might waft past the dough and cause it to rise the smallest bit. Leaven was carefully avoided. And Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like that leaven.

It is worth noting, too, that active dry yeast wasn’t invented until the late 1800’s. If you were living in Roman times, you couldn’t just pick some up at the market in order to make your bread. Instead, a small piece of old bread would be set aside, and left to go bad, and this would be used as leaven for the next loaf. If it wasn’t old enough, it wouldn’t do anything. But if it was too old, the mold on it would do more than make your bread rise; it could give food poisoning and even death. And all you needed was just a little tiny bit…

So Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny little morsel of something poisonous, contaminating, infectious, that can ruin a vast quantity of what it is introduced into—and by doing so, transform it into something wonderful and life-giving. Bread of some kind is the most basic, staple nourishment in every society in the world. And without the leaven, well, a sandwich made on matzoh can be almost inedible. Even flatbreads and tortillas need some kind of leaven.

It’s interesting to me that, in these parables, Jesus doesn’t condemn the world, saying that we need to replace it with the Kingdom of Heaven. He just says the world is missing something. Which might be helpful news for us, as we live in a world and society that seems pretty messed up, no matter who you are or how you look at it. It’s not that Jesus is suggesting we take our entire way of life and throw it away, replacing it with something new built entirely from scratch. After all, the yeast doesn’t do you much good if you get rid of the flour. Instead, God promises to work something new in our world, to provide the leaven of the Kingdom of God that will work its way into our society and leaven the whole loaf. Those two men I talked about at the beginning of this sermon—how differently would their lives look if they, and their situation, their legal advisors, their employer, their landlord, their community, and their whole society were leavened with the Kingdom of the Gospel of Love, of LOVE, that radiates from the presence of Jesus Christ? Or perhaps from you, you who have been trained as a scribe for the kingdom of heaven, a master of the household who has this wonderful treasure to share with the world, and who brings out from your treasure both what is new and what is old?

The other weird experience I had was early in July, when I spent a week with the Benedictine monks in Weston, Vermont. It was an incredible week, filled with simple but wonderful food and prayer and music and quiet and beauty. Weston is in the middle of nowhere, and the Priory is maybe four miles north of the town, up on a low mountain. The ten men who live there have given up their whole lives for the sake of their faith, like a merchant who sells everything he has to purchase a single pearl that he loves. They farm, and they pray, and they create artwork, and they work for justice for others, particularly for the poor of Cuernavaca, Mexico, where I have been and can assure you there is poverty like nothing you might find even in the worst places of our nation. Ten quiet little unassuming men, singing songs to God on a hillside. What good is that? What kind of effect can that possibly have in such a messed-up world?

And why did I have to try for three years and book way in advance in order to get a spot there for the week? And why, when they celebrate Holy Communion, there in the middle of nowhere, in a New England society that has given up on religion, do they get a hundred and fifty people in attendance? How has their way of life and love and Jesus Christ managed to infect and contaminate so many? And how might we be Christ’s leaven for our community?