There are so many images of the Kingdom of Heaven in this week's Gospel reading that it's hard to know where to begin. We are reminded of its similarity to a mustard seed, to the yeast that leavens a family's bread, to hidden treasure, to fine pearls, and to a net cast into the sea which brings in fish of every kind. Wow. One would do well, it seems to me, to spend a little time each day in the days to come, simply letting these images sink in. Indeed, there is almost too much before us now, which could just be a perfect match for our world which is literally dying for precisely this sort of Good News. Even so, I'm settling in on one:
I find myself remembering now Christmas Eve some seventeen years ago when one of the images of the Good News offered in this Gospel lesson came home to me in a vivid and memorable way.
My dad had died the January before. I was dreading this holiday as do so many who grieve. And yet, given my call as pastor, I could not avoid it. At the same time, I was desperate to keep my grief at bay so as December deepened I made some decisions. I asked family to stay away --- promising to catch up with them on Christmas Day. And I planned the day with great care. I planned it so I would stay busy and not have too much time to think, hoping that the losses of the past year would not have time or space to catch up with me.
The morning of the 24th was open though and so when I got up I decided to bake bread.
I am no stranger to baking bread. I learned the skill from my mother who learned it from her mother who, no doubt, learned it from hers. I hoped that the hands-on routine of measuring the flour, proofing the yeast, and sinking my hands deep into the dough to knead it would be a comfort. I knew the sight, the sounds, the texture, the smells would tie me to my own past in ways that promised to be a much needed gift.
And so I went to work. I was elbow deep in bread dough when my doorbell rang and I was called away. Quickly, I scraped the dough from beneath my fingernails, brushed the flour from my hair, and not knowing what else to do, I plopped the half-kneaded dough into a bowl, covered it, and shoved it into the refrigerator.
It was many hours later when I finally arrived home. I had a little time before our first service that night, so I changed back into my blue jeans and sweatshirt and with no hope at all, I opened the refrigerator door. And do you know, to my utter surprise, that dough had risen!
I was shocked. I had, even by then, worked with yeast for years and so I had first hand knowledge of how finicky it could be. Oh yes, I had 'killed yeast' plenty of times --- with liquid too warm or too cold -- or with rising conditions not quite right --- so that the bread would wind up a heavy, unpleasant, nearly inedible combination of flour and water which was entirely unappealing. But this time? Even when everything was working against it, that dough still rose. And that Christmas, the bread was somehow all the more wonderful for it having come to me in this way!
Jesus offers us today a brief one sentence comparison in this 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."Now I don't know if mine is a Christmas Story or an Easter Story or just an Ordinary Every Day Much Needed Story of the power of the Kingdom of Heaven. I do know that it is an image, a story which brings me hope in a world which needs it more than ever... where my news feed is overwhelmed by news of war being waged in the Middle East once again, where against all that we know is right and good and just we hear that people on their way to holiday or home to family are suddenly shot from the sky, where little children are risking their lives for the chance at any kind of life at all, where yet again this week-end children have been shot and killed by stray bullets in nearby Chicago, leaving loved ones to grieve entirely avoidable and inexplicable losses. I need this promise of 'the yeast' and the certainty that it can and does work even when I least expect it, even when everything is working against it. Without a doubt, the world needs it, too. For if it could happen in my refrigerator, Jesus would say it can happen anywhere: that hope beats despair and life prevails over death. Even here. Even now. Even in this. And perhaps, yes, much like ordinary yeast which makes our bread rise --- perhaps even through altogether ordinary 'us.' For like yeast can be a powerful thing, so are you and I who bear the news of this Kingdom which also rises in cold, dark, unlikely places.
- Jesus offers a number of marvelous images of the Kingdom of Heaven in this week's Gospel. Which one especially speaks to you? How have you seen it live in the world now?
- What are the circumstances in your life or in the life of the larger world which especially need the promise of the image you have chosen? How does it speak to that?
- Consider setting aside a little time on each day in the days to come to meditate on each of these marvelous every day images. Then think about 'writing your own parable.' How might you complete the sentence: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like..." ?