I preached this sermon at Union Theological Seminary on Monday, March 16, 2012.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.
There is a woman who lives in Brooklyn.
Her name is Clare.
She has a tiny daughter named Maeve.
And Clare makes delicious, delicious bread
at home, in her oven,
and because St. Lydia’s one staff person
is Maeve’s babysitter,
we get to eat Clare’s delicious bread at our table
I’m not sure that I mentioned that the bread is delicious.
It has this chewy, resistant crust,
and inside it’s speckled with a complex constellation of air bubbles,
and it tastes just a little bit sour.
we put it in the oven just before Dinner Church,
and when I lift up the bread and break it
as I sing the Eucharistic Prayer,
billows of steam roll out.
The bread is delicious.
So delicious that one of our congregants,
asked Clare if SHE could buy her bread,
and Clare said yes,
and then folks started saying that they wanted to learn to MAKE the bread.
And so last week at St. Lydia’s,
and taught us how to make her bread.
Clare’s bread it made from a starter,
a little lump of flour and water and sugar
that gains yeast from the air.
She told us that making bread from a starter
it a little like running a biology project.
The yeast is a microorganism,
eating up the sugars in the flour,
making the bread rise.
Clare had brought three different bowls full of dough
in different stages of the rising process.
Each one was puffier than the last.
She had us smell the bowls.
They all smelled different.
She had us touch the dough,
and it all felt different.
Clare could tell which stage of rising the dough was in
by smelling and touching.
As I listened to Clare talk about the bread,
I noticed something.
The way she spoke about it was kind of strange.
She kept talking about the bread as if it was, sort of alive.
Like a very quiet, very slow moving...pet.
She told us that we should keep our starter in the fridge,
and feed it once in a while.
“Sort of like a cat...” I thought, “...who lives in the fridge.”
When she mixed the flour and water and starter together with her fingers she said,
“Now, it’s it a little bit sticky right now,
but soon it will begin to find some structure.”
Later, she smelled another batch of dough, then looked at it, frowning.
“It needs a little bit more time, but soon it will want to be turned.”
Then, as she demonstrated how to form the bread into a round, she said,
“You need to look at it and see if you can find its face.
There’s usually a smooth surface that wants to be the top of the loaf,
and that’s called the face.”
She taught us how to tell when the bread was ready to go into oven.
“You need to feel the moment just before it’s getting ready to fall.
It takes a while to learn when that moment is coming,
but after a while you’ll be able to feel it.”
As I watched and listened,
I began to feel that there was a complex relationship that existed
between Clare and the bread.
One that involved watching and listening.
Waiting, and being attentive.
Responsiveness to a living thing that communicated its needs
in a silent language, unfamiliar to me, but understood by Clare.
Leaven is one a number of substances
used to make a dough rise
through a natural process of fermentation.
Yeast is a microorganism that releases carbon dioxide as a part of its life cycle
as it eats the sugars in the flour.
Clare harvests natural bacteria from the air when she makes bread.
In ancient Israel,
the heel of an old loaf of bread,
in a high state of fermentation
was used to leaven a new batch.
Often in the bible,
leaven is likened to negative seeping through a community,
corrupting everything around it.
But in the Gospel of Matthew,
Jesus turns that imagery on its head.
“The realm of heaven,”
“is like the leaven
that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour,
until all of it was leavened.”
Some of you are preparing to leave this place,
in a few months or a few years,
to serve congregations.
When I graduated from Divinity School
not so many years ago,
I was a little at a loss.
I felt like I had learned about five different languages
and I wasn’t sure which one I was supposed to be using.
I could speak a biblical studies language of exegesis and commentaries.
I could speak a pastoral care language of life cycles and family systems.
Later, I learned a CPE language, which felt a little bit like the pastoral care language,
but had a lot of more “I feel” statements.
My favorite language was a liturgical language,
and to be very honest,
that language, at that point in my life
employed the word “should” as a piece of primary vocabulary.
I felt that I knew what congregations SHOULD be doing in worship.
I felt unsure about all these different languages.
How to use them…but not use them like weapons.
On top of that,
my traditions had granted me with some different vocabulary words
regarding my possible roles as a religious leader.
“Rector,” was what some of my colleagues in the Episcopal Church
might one day be called.
Rector is a latin word that means “ruler.”
My Lutheran friends would one day be called “pastor,”
which means “shepherd.”
As I’ve continued down the path toward ordained leadership
with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,
I’ve befriended that word,
I’m attracted to its biblical resonance
and the model it provides me as a leader,
following along behind my people
and keeping my eye out for good pastures on the horizon,
as well as danger
as I guide them along,
making sure we don’t leave anybody behind along the way.
But as I listened to Clare talk about bread last Sunday,
talk about feeding the starter
and watching the dough as it finds a sense of structure,
waiting for that moment of readiness, of ripeness
to put it in the oven,
“this is how I want to do my job.”
She was listening to the bread.
Allowing the dough to form, to breathe,
creating a warm, fecund environment where it could rise and grow,
waiting, not on her time, but on ITS time,
for the vision of what it was becoming to emerge,
and acting when the moment was right.
My colleague Rachel is an artist
and has told me of that moment in the midst of making a piece,
when you realize that the materials are speaking to you,
and if you’re going to make something beautiful,
something strange and rich and lovely,
you must listen to them.
And let go.
Because whatever it is that you are making:
a loaf of bread,
a sculpture of wood,
a community of people,
it is speaking to you.
Telling you what it is trying to become.
And your job is to assist it to become what it wants to be.
God says, “let there be light,”
literally, “allow there to be light,”
“allow the waters to bring forth living creatures,”
“allow the earth to yield marvelous things,”
things the creator might never have imagined.
God’s creative power exists in the letting loose of the creative power
of the world itself.
Listening to the materials, who are telling you what they need.
Assisting the creation in becoming what it wants to be.
What it’s made to be.
There was this moment in the creation of a new community –
the church I've founded,
For a year or more, my colleague Rachel and I set the pace,
held out the vision again and again,
poured our energy into this new, growing thing.
it began to speak to us,
and we began to learn how to listen.
We're still learning how to listen.
There were times when, bending close
to hear the pulse of our community,
Rachel and I sensed what was needed.
They needed feeding.
Or time simply to rest and rise.
They needed a steady rhythm to develop structure.
A little turning, a little kneading to stir things up.
All the while reminding myself that I am not the leaven.
I am not the living, growing organism permeating three whole measures of flour.
I am merely the steward of a process that is active and alive.
I didn’t make the leaven,
but was called to create a warm and fecund place
where it could take hold and start a slow revolution
with its marvelous, unceasing corruption.
Listening to the bread,
listening to the body,
is the image,
the symbol I’ve found
to contain all those wonderful languages I learned in Divinity School.
For me, it’s a way of understanding my role
in this constantly unfolding mystery of what God is doing
in the gathered community of Christ.
I have experienced my role,
the steward of the bread,
the tender of the loaf,
as profoundly responsive
and fundamentally creative.
I try to attend to my small corner of the body of Christ
with all my senses,
listening and watching,
asking one question again and again:
“What do you need now?”