5 Sep 2004 10:43 PM

The Yeast Factor

Sermon preached by Sue Mosher 5 Sept 2004

The kingdom of heaven is like this… the kingdom of heaven is like that. The kingdom of heaven is compared to many things: a pearl of great price, a buried treasure now discovered, a great catch of fish -- all things of tremendous value. Here is the core of the gospel, the “good news” – that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God is near at hand, calling us to that change of heart and mind that can bring us into true community with the divine.

I have just one problem with these wonderful metaphors: I really don’t understand what a kingdom is or what a powerful image the “kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God” might have held for the contemporaries of Jesus.

Sure, when I was very young, like most little girls, I had moments when I wanted to grow up to be a princess. But today I am a citizen of a republic, not the subject of a king. I can’t imagine what it would be like to inhabit the realm of Solomon or David or Arthur or – perhaps even more interesting to us today – the realm of Aragorn in Middle Earth. Upholder of the social order? Personification of justice? Defender of the oppressed? Sorry, but my practical 21st century mind can’t imagine a single person filling all those roles, much less the people putting all the responsibility for justice and social order into that one authority. The world has had too many bad or at best ineffective kings and queens. The emperor may be wearing clothes, but all too often he has clay feet.

Can even God bring about a utopian kingdom in which the blind see, the lame walk, and all tears are dried forever? Even in the face of Jesus’ wonderful parables, it’s still a leap for me to imagine what this kingdom of God might be like and how it might draw all power and knowledge and love and worship to a central point.

Maybe I’m just afraid that in it, I would be insignificant.

Could that ambiguity about our own place in the kingdom be one reason why the “kingdom of heaven” has often been construed by religious-minded people as something that we should be actively working to bring about here on earth: Maybe in the back of our minds, we don’t really trust that God can remake the world alone, so we feel obligated to give it a little shove with our checkbooks and our volunteerism and the occasional consciousness-raising sermon. We want to “do our bit” so that we can feel that we are a part of the kingdom of heaven. We hope that our good works will bring us that much closer to God.

On the other hand, there are many for whom communion with God preceded social action, not the other way around, and this seems to me the more authentic approach, the one Jesus might have had in mind. The Quaker philosopher Thomas R. Kelly, whom we heard from earlier, was one of many religious thinkers influenced by the Social Gospel reform movement in the early 20th century. Like our own John Van Schaick, for whom the church parlor is named, he was active in the war relief effort in Europe during World War I. To Kelly, the urge to help heal the world was a natural and passionate outgrowth of his relationship with God. He wrote:

“The straightest road to social gospel runs through profound mystical experience. The paradox of true mysticism is that individual experience leads to social passion, that the non-useful engender[s] the greatest utility. If we seek a social gospel, we must find it deeply rooted in the mystic way. Love of God and love of neighbor are not two commandments, but one.”

Those contemporaries of Kelly among our Universalist forebears took it upon themselves to rephrase the Universalist faith for a troubled and discouraged generation in the 1930s, when this church was still very new. The Social Gospel movement helped them envision a way toward Kingdom of God. They wrote a new Bond of Fellowship and Statement of Faith that came to be known as the Washington Avowal of 1935. It reads in part:

“The bond of fellowship in this [church] shall be a common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to co-operate in establishing the kingdom for which he lived and died. To that end, we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every personality, in the authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of men of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.”

Assisting a God of “all-conquering love” in overcoming all evil is surely a worthy task, congruent with the classical view of a king who seals his right to the throne with a martial victory over demented foes who threaten the well-being of his people.

If God is “all-conquering,” though, does he really need our help to establish the kingdom of heaven? Or is our role to prepare not the kingdom but ourselves, so that we can stand beside the road and shout “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” on that day when God sweeps aside the mystery and reveals the kingdom in truth? Or, is our path somewhere in between, along that “second half of the way” that Kelly referred to, in which we give our obedience to God and thus come to make his will our will, learning how we can indeed serve to help bring in that kingdom?

This takes us back to the essence of the kingdom parables. Jesus obviously meant them to appeal to ordinary people, not just to visionaries. Look at the everyday things he talks about – bread, fish, goats – not the usual heady stuff of theology. So rather than try to fathom kingdom and kingship, I want to take a cue from the simplicity of these stories and suggest that, in Kelly’s words, you might “begin where you are” – even if you have not managed to complete Kelly’s first step, that is, having a vision of the holy kingdom.

In fact, let’s begin with the mustard seed and the yeast. In these, Jesus equates the kingdom of heaven with things of small quantity that become great. The first is the mustard seed—a tiny seed that in and of itself becomes a huge plant. The second and much more dynamic image is that of a small amount of yeast that when mixed with flour “leavens” it… in other words, makes it rise and grow... changes the flour. This leavening process is an interesting one, because it combines biological, chemical, and physical reactions. Yeast is a living protein organism. When added to flour and water, it begins to consume certain elements of the flour and then grows and multiplies and releases gases. These gases expand the flour and water mixture and make it rise. The gases stretch and change the moist flour into what we call dough, full of tiny air pockets that expand when the dough is baked ... into the nooks and crannies that soak up the butter and jam and honey that, as we all know, are the real reason for having bread on our table.. A little yeast helps make life so sweet.

Have you ever done or said something that you thought was trivial but ended up being a very big deal? This is the kind of effect that yeast can have. I asked some of our young people that question a couple of years ago, and yeasty beasts that they are, they knew exactly what I was talking about. A kind word to a newcomer on the first day of school not only puts that person at ease but also could start a lasting friendship.

So here is something to consider as we begin where we are: If we are the yeast of the world, what type of yeast are we? What type of flour can we make rise?

One of the things we learn as we mature is where we have our greatest effect on the world. And one of the most fulfilling aspects of a spiritual community like ours is being able to share those discoveries and even our oft-times discomfort with them ... in a safe environment, where we can feel sustained and loved. For example, I was chatting recently with one church member who shared that they had become more sensitive to requests for help from strangers, partly as a result of their church life. Something in the yeasty mix of our community had inspired that person to see the world differently. Sharing that transformation set off a chain reaction, because I myself now need to take a harder look at my own interactions with strangers.

Begin where you are. When it comes to understanding what kind of yeast factor we each have, we may find guidance in the other parables that liken the kingdom of heaven to a wonderful treasure. What is your passion? On what topics can you speak with an enthusiasm that’s downright contagious? Here lies your treasure, the values that are closest to your heart. Here, too, may lie your yeast factor -- your particular key that may open a door or at least a window into the kingdom of heaven, both for you and for those who find encouragement in your passion.

Begin where you are. I want to speak, too, to those of you who may not feel a calling, who may not have a passion for a particular cause or activity, who move through life just taking what each day brings and marveling at the people and opportunities and events that come your way, for both good or for ill. Perhaps, you wonder what all the fuss is about – all that fuss about ambition and life goals. Perhaps you feel left out when friends and colleagues talk about attaining the goals they’ve had since high school. I want you to know that you, too, are blessed, because you are already capable of “living in the passive voice,” as Kelly puts it, and walking side-by-side with the will of God.

While I was living in Moscow for four years, I became acquainted with the work of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of the Russian Orthodox Church in England and Ireland from some articles excerpted in the newsletter for St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, where we worshipped. Metropolitan Anthony died last summer, and at his funeral, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, reinterpreted one of the treasure parables of the kingdom. He said that in Metropolitan Anthony’s heart “was the pearl of great price which is the stillness of gaze upon God's love and joy in God's love, which alone can transfigure the world.”

Begin where you are. If the prayers that Kelly suggested sound too submissive or too pious, let me offer one of Metropolitan Anthony’s that is so simple and direct that you might put it in your pocket and pull it out any time of the day: “Help me, O God, to put off all pretences and to find my true self.”

Help me, O God, to find my true self.

Help us, O God, to find our true yeast and to leaven the world and to feed your kingdom. Amen.

Readings

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
"Holy Obedience" by Quaker philospher Thomas R. Kelly

Benediction

God of love, you have created a magnificent world full of diverse beauty. At the same time, there is still so much potential for all of your creation, so much yet to be fulfilled. Use us as agents of change in the world. Use us as yeast to leaven the world and feed your kingdom. Bless our words and strengthen our actions so that we may affect more and more people with your love. Amen.

Posted by Sue Mosher at September 5, 2004 10:43 PM
Posted to Sermons