Re-Imagining Church Part 1
Like so many things in life…it’s easy to miss the meaning of this parable because we think we understand it.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.
And for most of us, we imagine that Jesus must be saying that the kingdom of God is something like yeast as we’ve come to know yeast. (hold up yeast).
We imagine Jesus is saying what we all know for a fact–that yeast is it’s own thing…separate from the flour, that the kingdom of God is wholly separate from this corrupted world we live in, and that as a baker needs to reach for the yeast container and add yeast to his dough, so God intends us Christians to be added to the world in order to do our work and build the kingdom from the inside out.
So we imagine that the kingdom of heaven must be some kind of ingredient, like flour but a little different…something that starts small, but when given the right conditions and enough time, it will work it’s way through a whole batch of dough, which is this world.
This is how we understand this verse because we’ve tasted lots of good bread that’s been made in that way. That’s the way of making bread that we’re most familiar with; that’s the form of yeast that we’re most familiar with.
We like to think of life as a giant cookbook…follow this recipe, add these ingredients, and you’ll get this result.
In our North American middle class cookbooks, the recipe usually goes something like this: ‘take one life, add to college, mix well…fold in a spouse and child…combine with a good job and church life until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean …enjoy’.
Have you tasted that recipe? It’s been passed around for generations. It’s a favorite among my friends and family, and it seems to get really good results for those who follow it.
But maybe that’s not the recipe or the image of yeast that Jesus was going for.
Did you know that yeast in this commercial form–this kind of yeast is only about 200 years old?
(hold up yeast)
When you talk about world history, pure yeast like this is still a spring chicken!
We’ve misunderstood the parable of the yeast exactly because yeast is so easy to come by these days, so easy to keep, use, and distribute.
(start mixing dough around here)…
At the time Jesus was telling these parables, the idea of isolating yeast from it’s host would have been absolutely unthinkable. Let me explain with a short story.
As many of you know, while Christine and I were in Seminary, one of the things I did in order to earn some money on the side was start a kind of bakery. I printed up some brochures with some order forms on them, offering a few different types of bread for sale on a subscription basis.
And then, one day a week, when I had very few classes, I would spend the day baking between 25 to 30 loaves of bread to pack up and take with me the next morning to school.
And so I became familiar with yeast as an ingredient, and I became familiar with the recipes that I used.
And then a good friend of mine who was also a customer, he wanted me to try to make him loaf of sourdough bread. I had never heard of sourdough before, but I was up for a challenge.
So what was Jesus talking about?
For most of human history, people understood that a simple mixture of flour and water was all that was needed to receive that wild yeast.
And so bakers learned how to do that. They would form what’s called a ‘starter’, a lump of dough that could receive that wild yeast from the air and host it. They would feed the starter, watch it, tend to it and care for it. It took time, and effort.
So, when Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like yeast…he’s not saying it’s an ingredient to be purchased and then added to a lump of dough like flour or sugar—he’s saying the kingdom of heaven is a living organism that’s all around us; in the very air that we breathe.
Don’t misunderstand me—it’s in the air…but it’s not easy to get.
The yeast Jesus was talking about–it needs a host. Without a host that gives it the right conditions for life, that yeast will die. So it is with the kingdom of Heaven. For too long, we in the U.S. have depended on a cheap grace and an easy salvation to fill the seats on Sunday mornings. This has fed a consumer mentality towards church that can be expressed in the idea that the kingdom is something like commercial yeast—easily available, predictable, easy to distribute to whoever doesn’t have it, and easy to isolate from its environment.
We’ve come to think of church as an ingredient, like pure yeast at the store…an ingredient to add to whatever recipe you’re following from that great North American cookbook.
But in reality, like wild yeast, a church without a host is an ineffective church that will die.
…Jesus never talks about building up, expanding, or advancing the kingdom of heaven.
These are concepts that make us feel better about the religious activities we’re involved in.
Instead, Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven as something you receive or enter.
It’s not our job to advance God’s kingdom or to build it or even to identify it.
It’s our job to simply receive it—and to help others to do the same.
That’s a lot easier said than done.
Wild yeast is much less predictable than commercial yeast you buy in a store. You have to really pay attention to it. You have to really know your other ingredients, and how they will or won’t interact with that wild yeast—whether they’ll accept it and nourish it or if they’ll be hostile to it and kill it.
And the end result has as much to do with the environment you’re in as it does with the yeast.
OK…so what, right? What does any of this have to do with church?
I learned in school that a couple of hundred years ago, something called the industrial revolution began to happen. People started realizing that machines and processes could produce things much more efficiently than individual craftsmen and women.
Factories soon displaced traditional craftsmen, and people were drawn to cities, many to work in these factories that were making their trades obsolete.
As part of that industrial revolution, someone somewhere identified that yeast could be isolated from its environment, it could be preserved in a pure form, and bakers could have a more predictable way of getting yeast into their dough.
The craft of baking fell victim to the industrial revolution.
Commercial yeast made it possible to mass produce bread in a very short period of time, and made it possible to bake a fairly good loaf with just a little skill in baking.
In the same way, churches fell victim to the industrial revolution. In spaces where once people milled around a central pulpit, pews were moved in. People were lined up in rows, facing the same direction. Orders of service were created…interchangeable parts to make a more efficient experience.
But in the same way you can’t mass produce a really good quality loaf of bread, neither can you mass produce religion…no matter how hard you try.
So what does it look like for the yeast of the kingdom to be received in Millersburg? Are we, here, like commercial yeast that’s been successfully isolated from its host for the purpose of higher predictability and increased shelf life?
Or are we more like a piece of starter dough, hosting this wild yeast of the kingdom and depending on our neighbors, friends, and community for our very survival?
Are we willing to be gracious guests, completely dependent on our host–on our environment not only for survival, but for the final product as well?
As always, the choice is up to you.
But I’d like you to do something. I’ve been working this dough up here…just a mixture of flour, water, and just a hint of honey.
But this is the starter that begins a process of fermentation that leads to the attraction of that wild yeast I’ve talked so much about this morning.
If you’d like some, I want to offer this to you this morning as you leave this place as a reminder that the kingdom of God is like yeast–not the commercial stuff, but the real deal, a living and active organism that’s in the very air that we breath, dependent on a host for its survival.
For the kingdom of Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.