guest post: the kingdom of god is like sourdough

by Lindsay Popper

Lindsay is a graduate of Boston University School of Theology and is a super hilarious chaplain/minister in the Boston area. Her fabulous barista skills kept me well-caffeinated through graduate school and her love for connecting cool people led me to Simple Church. This post came from a sermon she wrote two years ago.

A few years ago, I learned to bake bread while staying at my friend Beatrice's house.

 Her mother, Sharon, pulled a fist-size ball of dough out of the fridge. She mixed it with water and flour, and kneaded it briskly against the counter—fold-press-thwack, fold-press-thwack—and left it to rise.

The little fist of dough was a type of sourdough starter—a handful she'd pulled off from the loaf she made the previous week, just before she baked it. This lineage of bread—make a loaf, pull off a handful, make another loaf later—had started, by her best guess, before Beatrice was born. Bea was about to graduate from college.

 

Up until this lesson, what I knew of yeast came in neat foil pouches, an even two-and-a-quarter teaspoons pre-measured and hermetically sealed.

Following Sharon's recipe, I started with just water and flour, and I kneaded it and kneaded it, and while I did that kneading, the little particles of wild yeast—the ones that are always floating in the air, and living on counter tops, and colonized on our skin—those little cells of wild yeast worked their way into my dough.

I did not think it was going to work.

I saw no change for the first day—no frothiness or lightness or rising. I saw no change the second day. I began to think I had failed.

On the third day, I might have seen it get a little bigger, but maybe not. The recipe said more flour, more water, more kneading.

By the fifth day, I was finally tentatively willing to say that there was yeast in my dough.

 

In Luke 13:20-21, Jesus says, “to what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”

When Jesus was talking about yeast and bread, he was likely talking about a process fairly similar to what Sharon taught me: “yeast” back then meant a small, fist-sized hunk of dough from last week's loaf.

Thus, interpreting this scripture requires knowing something about baking. Jesus’ metaphor gets us out of the world of theory and into the world of lively, messy, embodied, delicious practice.

Some Christians—perhaps even some of us—have been taught to assume that every Scripture passage has one single key theme or meaning, and that this single theme is what the preacher must communicate. I believe that Jesus—with his consistent use of story, parable, and metaphor—constantly complicates such a straightforward approach.

Still, there is a tendency, reading this parable, to reduce the metaphor to this single meaning: something very small becomes very big. The kingdom begins tiny, but grows. Now, if Jesus had wanted to say something that simple, folks, I believe he would have said it.

But instead, Jesus was making a point about the kingdom of God that demands that we know something of the stuff of the world—it demands that we understand the organic, daily, household wisdom, because the kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a girl in her kitchen, who takes common flour, and common water, and works them and works them and works them, catching a little bit of the wild yeast that is always floating around in the air, and gives it a place to grow and flourish.

 

In Luke 17:21, Jesus will say, “the kingdom of God is in your midst—is within you, is in your hearts and all around you.”

Yeast—wild yeast—really is within us, and all around us.

So the yeast-like kingdom may be small, and it may be hardly perceptible sometimes, but my goodness is it pervasive.

And if the kingdom of God is like a woman taking yeast and baking bread from it, we have something to learn about the process: how does the kingdom of God come?

The kingdom of God is like yeast: you couldn't make yeast if you tried. It is not in the human power to do. It's like blood, or acorns, or any other beautiful, biological thing: yeast is a living, growing being that cannot be manufactured by people, no matter how crafty we are.

 

The bakers among us know that baking bread is always an act of faith. I am never quite sure it is going to work, because I am relying on a process that I really have no power over. The yeast will grow or it won't. The bread will rise, or it won't.

As a baker, I can provide the right conditions for the yeast—I can buy good flour, and get my measurements right. I can get the water warm enough but not too warm. I can remember the salt.

But at the end of the day—at the end of all of my mixing and kneading, at the end of all of that work—my job is to wait. My job is to wait because it is the yeast that makes bread, bread.

This truth—that it is the yeast—the wild, unmanufactured, omnipresent, only-barely controllable yeast—that makes flour and water and human work into bread—this truth carries an incredible bit of good news about the kingdom of God.

Just as the success of bread rests ultimately on the presence and action of yeast, the bringing and the building of the kingdom of God rests ultimately on God's action. God is the most active party.

Let's step back for a second.

 

In Luke's gospel, this parable comes directly after the story of a woman being healed from a crippling disability that has kept her out of community and the fullness of life. Jesus is chastised for healing her on the Sabbath. He reminds his crowd that the Sabbath has always been a time for remembering God's liberation.

And then he tells the congregation—this congregation gathered on the Sabbath—that the kingdom of God is like yeast. He tells them this to underscore the good news of the sabbath:

human work is not the basis of the universe—God's work, God's sustaining presence, God's healing and redemption is infinitely more powerful, more enduring, and more effective than the work of any one person, or even any one community.

 

God freed us from bondage in Egypt. God frees us from our bondage to the death-dealing systems of sin. God frees us from the lie that we must work endlessly, and from the lie that we could mess up in bringing the kingdom. God frees us from the lie that the kingdom could rise or fall on our efforts. And God frees us from our belief that we are the world's last best hope.

Because the kingdom is wild. The kingdom is all around us.

Jesus is the one who inaugurated and announced the now and coming kingdom, and Jesus is the one whose power and love and grace will bring that kingdom into fullness.

 

Now, friends, do not hear me saying that our job is to sit back eating bonbons and drinking martinis while Jesus brings the kingdom in.

In light of the fact that the kingdom of God is like yeast, we have real work to do.

Scholar NT Wright makes a helpful distinction between building the kingdom, and building for the kingdom. An individual stone mason does not build a cathedral; no single person has the knowledge, skill, foresight, power, ability, or time to build a cathedral himself or herself. But a stone mason can dedicate his life to building for the cathedral, knowing that what he makes will be used.

And so, in light of the good news that God is the builder and the bringer and the architect and the fulfiller of God's kingdom, what are we to do? What do we do in light of the knowledge that we are not builders of the kingdom, any more than a baker is the maker of yeast?

We work, we wait, we witness, and we wonder.

 

We work. A baker knows that yeast is all over in the air, but it will only turn into delicious bread if you follow the right steps. This work requires our whole selves.

Likewise, we must work with our whole selves to live in line with the kingdom of God. We must preach good news to the poor, proclaim release for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

 

We must do the work of justice Jesus has called us to: welcoming immigrants and refugees because that is what Scripture tells us to do. We must confront the prejudices and hatred that live inside our own hearts, and pray for the courage to change. We must confess our sins—the ways we have harmed others, and harmed ourselves—and learn how to do better.

Living in line with the kingdom means changing our ways, radically. It means being more concerned with God’s love than with our own preferences and habits. It means being brave enough to act in this world—in our neighborhoods, our nation, our families, even, yes, our political system—being brave enough to act here to make God’s love and justice visible in our world.

We must work with our whole selves to live in line with the kingdom of God.

NT Wright puts it this way: “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God's future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether...They are part of what we may call building for God's kingdom.”

We work.

 

We wait. The bread recipe I use takes about two and a half days. The kingdom of God may be all around us, but it is also not yet here, and so we wait for it. This requires stubbornness, and patience, and a certain persistent hope. We trust God, we trust that the kingdom will come here on earth as it is in heaven.

 

We witness.

We witness what God has already done—we witness the ways God is at work in our world. We keep our eyes open to what is happening, to where we see the kingdom breaking in on our tired and small lives. We look for places where the last are first and the first are last, we look for places where justice is being done, where love is being lived out in radical and surprising ways. We keep our eyes open for the times when the unwelcome are welcomed in, where the powerful are humbled and taught, where the dignity of all people is honored. We witness God’s kingdom coming all around us.

 

And we wonder.

Every single time I make bread, y'all, I am amazed. It always feels like a miracle.

The coming of the kingdom of God will always feel like a miracle.

Wonder keeps us alive to the knowledge that we are participating in something way bigger, way more beautiful, than anything we could imagine.

 

Hear the good news: the kingdom of God is present in the world. It is wild and persistent, it is surprising, it is growing, it is coming, the kingdom of God is rising like leavened dough and we are invited to work and to wonder at the stunning beauty of it.

 

Amen, and amen.