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Leaven

It’s a short story – only a verse in the Gospel of Matthew and two in the Gospel of Luke. 

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed [hid] in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Matthew 13:33 (NRSV)

And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Luke 13:20-21 (RSV)

In Matthew, it is prefaced by the parables of the sower and the weed; in Luke, by the call to repent or perish, the story of the barren fig tree, and a nasty confrontation with the Pharisees over the healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath. In both instances, immediately before this parable is another: the parable of the mustard seed – the smallest of all seeds which, when planted, grows into a large tree that offers shelter to the birds of the field.

In context then, perhaps this story is also about what increases the kingdom – a sense of the nearness of God’s justice and perfect peace – and what might get in the way of that understanding and experience.

As I read Scripture through a woman’s eyes, the first thing that I notice about this story of the kingdom is that it is a woman’s story – probably taking place in her kitchen in her home in among all of the other routine tasks of a woman’s day.

As she bakes bread for the household, she takes a little piece of dough left over from the last batch that has, by now, fermented and mixes it in with the three measures of flour until it is all leavened and begins to produce the gas that makes the loaf rise.

I also notice that the whole process depends completely on leftovers, on just a little bit that she’s been clever enough to keep aside. And I notice that it really is just a little bit in comparison to the rest of the ingredients – but without it the loaf would remain flat, unleavened. I notice that that little bit permeates the whole mixture – changing its nature from unleavened to leavened. I notice that the word used for mixing in is actually the same word for hiding something inside. I notice that in this whole process, there is a a necessary, hands-on action on the part of the woman but, also, a letting go time in which the leaven, once mixed in, does its own work. 

Finally, I note that there is another passage in Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus warned others to be wary of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees – and that, in this particular culture, at this particular time, there were many religious moments that involved unleavened bread, so leaven could be used metaphorically to describe a negative influence – and just a little would ruin the whole lot. 

Yet, in today’s story, a woman’s story, Jesus tells us that we discover what the kingdom of God is like …. I wonder what you notice and how it speaks to you of God’s perfect peace and justice growing in our churches, our households, our society. 

Perhaps the kingdom of God is about nothing going to waste.
About the smallest gift making a significant change. 
Perhaps it’s about how we divide and share our resources.
Perhaps it’s about planning ahead, and holding on to a little now, for something today or tomorrow or the next day.
Perhaps the kingdom of God is about those who normally don’t feature in our stories taking centre stage.
Perhaps it’s about finding God in the ordinary places of our homes and the ordinary routines of our work and our rest.
Perhaps it’s about what we hide away in ourselves that transforms us from the inside out. 
Perhaps it’s about knowing when to act – and when to just be part of an unfolding process that we cannot control.

Perhaps the kingdom of God is working unseen in us in this very moment.
Perhaps it’s about the peace and the justice that we long for contaminating our thoughts, our prayers, our language; 
fermenting in our gatherings, our studies of Scripture, our rituals, our planning; 
changing our mindsets, our prejudices, our grudges, our brokenness, our excuses; 
and rising, through the Spirit of God and not through any power of our own, to become bread for all at an open table …. 

It’s a simple story. A parable of the kingdom. May you break off a piece and hide it in your heart this day and see what increases in your life. 

The kingdom belongs to such as these

A reflection for a service of acknowledgment and lament on the anniversary of the national apology to survivors of institutionalised childhood sexual abuse

Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

Matthew 19:13-15 NRSV

At the age of 18, as a first year social work student who knew nothing really about the world, I was placed at a local children’s home to be a mentor and support person to a young girl who had been abused – mentally, physically, and sexually – over a prolonged period of time by her parents.

Well-schooled in the theory of what such an assault can do to the body and soul and innocence of such a small one, I was hopelessly unprepared for the sheer love and delight with which I was greeted each week – or the heart-wrenching sobs and sheer strength of her little hands as she clung to me when it was time for me to leave. 

And so the scene from Luke’s Gospel, though brief, is for me a beautifully human and incredibly powerful one which challenges the traditional place that we as society assign to children.

In Biblical times, children had no rights, no status, and, therefore, no power whatsoever. 

As they are brought to Jesus for a blessing – and please make sure to note that they are brought to him and don’t just approach of their own freewill or accord – Jesus not only protects them from rejection and criticism and makes them feel welcome, but he also up-ends every single power relationship and perception of what eternity with God looks like when he proclaims that the kingdom of heaven belongs to these little ones more than it does to the people who have brought the children to him, more than the disciples who have followed him daily but haven’t seemed to grasp what grace is all about, and certainly more than the pharisees who have kept the letter of the law their whole lives long and use that law to nail Christ to a cross. 

“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these …”

I’ve read many commentaries and heard sermons where that line has been used to call us as adults into a more playful relationship with Christ, to innocence, to simplicity, to spontaneity, to wonder, to let go of grudges …. I’ve even preached a few of them myself but, as we talk honestly about the reality of the sexual abuse of children and of the place of the church in the midst of such pain, and as we read these words of Jesus in the light of little children being brought to Jesus for a blessing by one group of adults and turned away by another group of adults, perhaps we should hear a little more clearly that the kingdom of God belongs to: 

  • those who are taken where they don’t want to go,
  • those who are kept from blessing and safety and love, 
  • those who may have rights in this day and age but lack the power or resources to claim them,
  • those who are vulnerable, invisible, voiceless, 
  • those who in their search for God – both intentional and accidental – are turned away because it’s not a convenient time, because they offend our sense of what is right or proper, because church is a place for worship and not for justice ….

On this day, may we be deeply challenged to consider how our church belongs to children and to those like them who, in their vulnerability, are made most welcome in the loving, healing, freeing grace of God. 

How do we create a safe church together in which all can know that they are welcome, in which all can be protected, in which all are given voice?

Yours in Christ
Yvonne