Monday, April 20th
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.
One of my favorite people is a man by the name of Harold Mixon, someone I would call a “Renaissance man.” As a student, he attended what is now Samford University, then went on to Southern Seminary and finally to Florida State where he earned a Ph.D. in classical rhetoric, southern oratory, and argumentation. Dr. Mixon is now a professor emeritus at LSU. He was a member of our congregation in Baton Rouge, which is where I got to know him and discovered that he had also taught Greek. I was intrigued by this, because although I had taken Greek years ago, I’d learned just enough to get by, and I’d always wanted to know more. With a bit of trepidation, I asked whether he might tutor me. He consented, and we began a journey together, each week translating the passage I was to use on Sunday. While I was re-learning the basics of Koine Greek, I discovered a most talented man. I learned that he was a theater aficionado, the director of the LSU Debate Team, and a legendary baker, whose Christmas loaves were coveted gifts in the community each year. When I pressed him about his baking, I received yet another treasured tutorial, this one about sourdough bread, which he bakes using a starter he received as a gift decades ago from his wife. That particular starter dates back to the early 1700s. When we left Baton Rouge, Dr. Mixon gave Lisa and me a lesson in baking and a jar of the starter to begin our own baking adventures, which we’ve pursued with joy and gratitude.
A sourdough starter is actually a leavener, meant to make bread rise. Simply made from unbleached flour and water, the mixture captures yeast and bacteria from the grain and the air, ferments, and creates exhaust gasses that expand the dough, making it light and fluffy. The technique has been used by humans for over 5,000 years. Jesus, who surely observed the use of leaven in ovens on a nearly daily basis, uses the concept in one of his famous parables.
The parable seems simple enough – a little leaven makes a whole loaf, the familiar smallest-to-the-greatest theme that he used in his mustard seed tale. But the parable has further thought-provoking connotations, as well. For one thing, when used as a teaching technique in biblical times, “leaven” was customarily employed as a metaphor for corruption and evil. (In Luke 12:1 Jesus warns: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”) In this parable, however, Jesus tweaks the word to use it in a positive, yet provocative manner. One interpretation would be to see that leaven disrupts the dough in bread to make it rise, just as the Gospel story affects human beings. With this interpretation, you might say that Jesus is trying to get a rise out of his listeners! Pardon the pun, because I think Jesus wants us all to know that sharing the Good News is most often disrupting, changing the way things are, changing the way a person thinks or acts. In the first century, the early Christians were going to be persecuted for their disruptive message.
I think about that now, because the Gospel we share is often so mild-mannered that it hardly creates a stir, and that is because of our intent. We want people to like us, to join our ranks. Consequently, we make sure our message gets delivered in gracious, mannerly ways. We ministers may be the worst at this, because we deliver the Good News like a polished salesman, smiling and listing all that our church can do for someone. Realizing this makes me cringe, because I can easily identify with the eminent scholar N.T. Wright’s statement: “Wherever St. Paul went, there was a riot. Wherever I go, they serve tea.”
When I was on staff at 7th & James Baptist Church in Waco, our church had a ministry in a little house adjacent to the campus called The Adult Learning Center. The Center worked with folks who wanted to get their high school equivalency diploma, their G.E.D. One night the Center became populated with a number of African-American football players. It seems that Mike Singletary, Baylor’s All-American linebacker, one of the most intense competitors ever, had discovered that several of his teammates were having trouble with their classes, because they had been poorly prepared for college, often getting through school as a result of their athletic prowess. I’m told that Singletary rounded them up, marched them to the Adult Learning Center, and insisted that they enroll in the literacy classes, not just to be eligible for football, but to give them opportunities beyond football. My hunch is that Mr. Singletary disrupted their lives, but he did it for the good.
One other thing to note about this parable is Jesus’ use of “three measures.” This was not three cups. One measure would equal 144 cups. Jesus is talking about a lot of bread. Was he using hyperbole here? Or is it a call to feed the multitudes?
Years ago, a young mother in Birmingham, Alabama, Pat Pelham, was saying her morning prayers and suddenly felt called by God to help Africa. She had no idea how she could do that, but her minister suggested that she get involved in Bread for the World. She and several other people in her church connected with their member of Congress, a conservative Republican named Spencer Bachus. Many of the poorest countries in the world were at that time struggling with impossible debts. Bread for the World and other church groups were urging debt relief, and Spencer Bachus chaired the congressional committee that would need to approve U.S. participation in international debt relief. Pat and her friends travelled to Washington to meet with Representative Bachus, and she is said to have won him over by the first thing she said, that as a mother she was pained by the hunger of so many children around the world. “I have never been able to figure out a way to do anything about it,” she said, “but I think debt relief could lead to improvements in health and education for lots of children.” Spencer Bachus became a powerful advocate for debt relief legislation, and debt relief for poor countries with relatively good governments became a reality. By all accounts, it was a successful program. Most of the countries who received debt relief used the resources that it freed up to expand primary education. So, roughly 50 million more African children were able to go to school. A whole generation of African girls learned to read and write. Looking back, it was a turning point in African development. It would not have happened if Pat Pelham had not been attentive to what she heard during her morning prayers . . . leaven in her life and leaven for life . . . enough to change the world.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Can you remember a time when your life was disrupted, but for the good?
- Can you remember someone who cared enough about you to share words that he/she knew would be disruptive, but for your own good? Consider that; consider them; and share it with God.
- In this disruptive time in which we find ourselves, have you discovered some things that need the change that only the Gospel can bring? Ask God for guidance.
- Are there things in our world that you recognize need change? How do you become the leaven to make that happen?
A Prayer by Walter Brueggemann:
We try, as best we can, to live by bread alone,
or pie or cake or sweet rolls.
And then comes your word! In our hearing we are reminded that
we live by every word that proceeds from your mouth,
promise and gifts,
blessings and threats,
summons and commands,
assurances and requirements.
We thank you for bread, and for the many cakes, pies and sweet rolls
that inhabit our life of privilege. While we munch,
give us ears, make us better listeners,
give us patience with our odd utterances,
give us openness to your new utterances,
we vow to listen.
We pray in the name of your fleshed utterance become our bread.