“Have you understood all this?” It’s a lot to understand. Yet we seek understanding. How do we find it? With so much in this gospel we just have to start somewhere, so I picked the shortest parable. (I start vacation tomorrow and don’t feel like going in depth on anything long.) “The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Three measures is about fifty pounds of flour. She “hid” leaven. Like, maybe it wasn’t supposed to be there. The woman and the leaven share a dubious distinction in Hebrew culture: they contaminate. The Bible makes this clear, but also contains the hint that it wasn’t always the case. With women, the story is familiar: God has tried to make a partner for Adam but nothing works out until God makes an equal, another human, the woman. Adam says, “Yes! Finally! You got it right, God!” Within a few minutes they’re eating forbidden fruit, God says, “What the hell!?” Adam says, “It was her idea!” Thus begins men saying women are unclean half the time and trying to corrupt men all the time.
Leaven is less familiar, but it follows a similar trajectory. Leaven is not yeast, but rather dough that has started to turn and grow, like sourdough starter. Originally, it seems that leavened bread could not be burned as a sacrifice just as blood could not: the Hebrews considered blood to be an animal’s life, and as leaven grew and made bread rise, it was considered alive. Leavened bread tastes delicious but God doesn’t want to eat things that are alive. It is part of God’s general ban on offering up living things as sacrifices. It was only as temple regulations got applied to daily living that leavening became off limits for people at certain times, and that the rabbis began using leaven to symbolize decay, evil, and corruption. We went from being respectful of something that made bread taste good to considering it wicked and frantically removing it from our homes lest it cause us to be unclean. We turned something good into something shameful.
Today, leaven is something that makes life good and that we’ve turned into something to be ashamed of. Leaven is something we have a good reason to protect, yet in protecting it we’ve come to disparage it. We lower it in our estimation, discuss it reluctantly and shamefacedly. When the ELCA tried to discuss human sexuality, a major obstacle was how sexuality is disparaged, discussed reluctantly and shamefacedly. That’s all on us. We’ve taken something good and turned it into wickedness. We do this with anything intimate to us, intimate in the full sense of the word and not just in its sexual connotations. We disparage intimacy.
Intimacy is leaven. It’s good, we’ve made it shameful. What do I mean by that? Some people like to have a lot of close friends. Some prefer only a few. We all need a circle of people who know what is up with us, whether that circle has one or a hundred people in it. One of the challenges I know I face is letting God be present through the people in that circle. I know God knows everything, but I still tell God what is going on because we’ve got this whole God-Child of God relationship. I’m tempted to disparage the notion of telling other people those things, and to disparage the notion that God may work through the people around me. Maybe it’s a matter of trust. Maybe I don’t want to bother folks. Maybe I don’t want folks to bother me. Under all of that, though, it all seems so… flesh-like, potentially enjoyable and therefore wrong, dirty matter when I want pure spirit. In our western thought world, God is pure, spiritual, not tied to flesh, to people. But Matthew says God was born to unwed parents in less than pristine surroundings, and that God died under physical torture. God is in the matter. God is in those things we disparage, like the leaven. We need those things. We need people.
I’ll give an example. Most of you know Diane Martin, former Trinity member, moved to Indy about a year ago. When my uncle committed suicide I told Betty and Barb so that if they walked in on me sobbing or staring at the floor they would know why, and told Audrey’s school because Audrey had been close to him. But that was all perfunctory. Checking boxes. A week later, Audrey was rehearsing with Joyful Noise and Diane poked her head in my office while Jane was playing with me and she asked how I was doing, and I finally let out what happened. That was the moment I could begin dealing with it, talking about it, feeling it in some way. Diane was crucial to my spirit. God worked through the leaven, through the woman who hid the leaven in the flour.
Diane was trained for Stephen Ministry, and Stephen Ministry here is part of our care giving team. I’ve never seen anything like it. Prior to coming here I had never known a congregation in my ten years ordained or my 26 years as a layperson where the congregation’s members actually wanted to care for each other. Usually the pastor is pleading: “Why are you asking me how she is? Talk to her if you want to know how she is doing!” Or else the pastor loves being needed and won’t share leadership. After nearly two years here, those have not been issues. Instead, we have caregivers waiting for care receivers. Lots of people eager to help, not so many eager to be helped. And I have to wonder if it is because it is such an intimate thing—we disparage receiving care, like First Century Hebrews disparaged leaven and the woman who hid it.
Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman hiding leaven in three measures of flour. When he says this, he is referring to a story in the book of Zechariah. Zechariah was a prophet shortly after the people of Judah returned from exile, and he had visions, through which an angel guided him. In the seventh vision, the angel asks him to look up and tell him what he sees coming out of the sky. Zechariah says, “It’s a three-measure basket!” The angel says, “This is their iniquity in the land.” Cryptic, but it doesn’t sound good. The basket comes all the way down, and the lid comes off, and there’s a woman sitting in the basket! The angel says, “This is Wickedness. Wickedness, Zechariah. Zechariah, Wickedness. All right, back in the basket!” He shoves the lid on. Then two women walk up and sprout stork’s wings. (It’s a vision, so I guess this is normal.) They pick up the basket and fly it to Babylon, where Judah had once been in Exile. Judah’s wickedness personified was taken to Babylon. That is the story Jesus references in his parable.
Jesus changes it, though. In Jesus’ parable, the woman in the basket has hidden leaven in the flour, and this is like the Kingdom of Heaven. In Jesus’ parable the gender we depict as wicked takes something good that we’ve come to disparage and she hides it in what is ordinary. Jesus says this is God at work. Where in Zechariah all this had to go to Babylon because it was wicked, in Jesus’ parable, the Kingdom of Heaven could be said to have gone to Babylon. The Exile destroys our mistaken ideas about the Kingdom. Jesus, there’s a woman! “Yeah? What, are you afraid of cooties, or something?” But, the bread is leavened. “I know; it’s delicious. Stop complaining.”
Today the woman hiding the leaven challenges our ideas about who God is and how God works. The woman and the leaven challenge our assumption that God is only spirit. They challenge our idea that we should be able to do this without other people. They challenge our idea that seeing God in others makes us weak, that trusting others is a failure to trust God. I got nothing against unleavened bread, but some bread is just better leavened, and the woman who hid the leaven in this flour is an expert baker. The life of faith is fuller when we share it in community, when it is leavened, when we venture to trust that God works through others if we just let it happen.
Have we understood all of this? May be. For Jesus doesn’t say the Kingdom is like ripping up a tree and taking it to paradise, but rather like a shrub that grows and grows here, where we bodily people live. Jesus doesn’t say the Kingdom is like finding the good and extracting them, but rather like God investing in the world. Jesus doesn’t say that we should simply add God to our list of friends, but rather that as the merchant lets the pearl be everything, we let God be present in everything and everyone. Heck, even the fishing one kinda makes sense, for God is present here in us, and has left any “sorting” of good and evil to the angels. What we have is community, a woman in the basket, leaven hidden in the flour, God present in each other.