Sourdough Starter, John Lewis and the Reign of God

I come to you in the name of the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us.


Good morning! 

We’ve spent the last few weeks hearing parables from the Gospel of Matthew –  parables about ordinary things – seeds, mustard seeds, pearls, and yeast. Today’s verses include five parables – all worthy of a sermon in and of themselves. But as a wise homiletics professor once said, “choose one, and stick with it.”

When we hear the parables, it’s so easy to listen to them through our 21st century ears, in our particular context and place.  We may hear them most often in church in which the reader, standing behind a podium, and dressed in liturgical garb might read the passage in that solemn, “I’m reading to you from the Bible” tone (we at All Saints are generally not guilty of the solemn tones!)

And when we hear with those ears, it’s so easy to miss the humor, the mischief, the subversiveness, and the real meaning of Jesus’s words.  In this 13th chapter, Jesus is sitting in a boat while a crowd stands on the beaches. 

And in this setting, Jesus begins to tell them many things in parables.  Biblical scholar, C.H. Dodd, offers a wonderful definition of New Testament parables.  “…the parable is a metaphor or simile, drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” (Donahue, John R, S.J., The Gospel in Parable, 1988)

Parables are meant to engage us, startle us, disorient us, leave us wondering, hmmm.

The most fundamental message of Jesus’ parables is that things are not as they seem, that we must be open to having our tidy vision of reality shattered.  (Donahue, John R, S.J., The Gospel in Parable, 1988)

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.”

Most references to yeast, to leaven in our scriptures, are NOT references to God’s reign.  Leaven is disdained as something corrupt.  But Jesus, who so often turns the meaning of things on their heads aligns yeast with God’s reign.  Not something that is corrupt but something that is transformative.

Now, up until the recent pandemic surge of sourdough starter devotees, most of us would hear the word yeast and think of this. [package of yeast]

This – these little freeze dried grains – are not what Jesus is talking about here.  Active dry yeast was not developed until after WWII. 

Leavened bread, however, has been in existence since the time of ancient Egypt whose people are credited with making the first risen bread. Perhaps a batch of dough was allowed to stand before it was baked. Wild yeast cells settled in and grew, producing tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide and making the dough rise. The bread was softer and more palatable, so it became the custom to let the dough stand for some time before baking. And because this technique of just waiting to see if the wind would drop in some suitable yeast was really hit or miss, a baker discovered that a little dough raised in this manner could be used as a starter for the next batch of bread. The portion of bread kept to start the next batch was called leaven; today, it’s what we would call sourdough starte.

Meet Matilda: She is several months old and I grew her myself.  What I have learned through this process is that cultivating sourdough starter and keeping it alive requires a number of things- patience, consistency, good flour, good humor, support of others, willingness to try again (and again).  And it can result in delicious, beautiful loaves of bread.

I can get giddy watching it get all bubbly in its container and even more so when bubbles emerge on the dough, seeing the dough rise over time.  Overtime it gets tangier and a portion is often shared with family and friends – passed down over the years with great pride and many stories.

God’s reign is like a bubbly, tangy, active sour dough starter that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened…

Three measures of flour – in our 21st century brain – we might hear three cups- about the amount needed for a single loaf of bread.

But no – The amount of flour is the most surprising part of this parable.  “Three measures” is actually a little over a bushel of flour (1.125 bushels to be exact) That’s a ridiculously large amount of flour—you’d need a 100-quart kitchenaid mixer with a dough hook as big as your leg to knead  it!  Translating into kitchen measures, 1.125 bushels is 144 cups of flour.  Presuming we used a common recipe for basic white bread that uses 5 ½ cups of flour for two loaves, 144 cups is enough to bake 52 loaves of basic bread – which translates to 832 slices – or 416 sandwiches.  You’d also need a lot of sour dough starter to make this many loaves.

So God’s reign is like 25+ cups of bubbly, tangy, active sour dough starter that a woman took and mixed in with 144 cups of flour until all of it was leavened.

And the combination of this sour dough starter with the flour, the mixing and the kneading, the tending as it rises, the watching and the steadfastness brings forth transformation into something new.   And the woman of our parable is feeding more than her family with the bread she is baking.  The kingdom announced by Jesus as he sits on the boat and tells stories to the people gathered on the shore is like using enough leaven to feed the village.  The reign of God is like a woman who wants to feed the world.

It’s a vision of life, it’s a vision of God’s justice, of God’s reign in which there is enough – enough for all.  In which all are welcome at the banquet- And it is a vision which God invites us to join.  It is a vision God invites us to share with others.  And God’s reign is not something that exists only on the other side of life, beyond the grave.  We pray for God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. 

I listened to a series of tributes to John Lewis the other morning and was struck by historian Jon Meacham’s powerful words.  John Lewis, he said, “believed in the efficacy and possibility of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. And it’s a remarkably radical and optimistic vision of life.  And It’s not one that is widely shared. …John Lewis believed if we got our hearts and minds in the right place, if we actually acted on what so many Christians, in particular, say they believe but so rarely actually put into action, that we could in fact create that world where justice comes down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. For him, it wasn’t rhetoric.  It wasn’t a sermon. It was reality.  He believed fundamentally in what he and Dr. King called the Beloved community which is really the kingdom of heaven, it’s the reign of God’s justice. …He was on that bridge, he was on those busses, he was in those bus stations, he was in that House chamber because of the gospel, and never wavered from that faith.” (MSNBC, July 18, 2020)

John Lewis was leaven. One single person whose words and actions, and deep deep faith, in community with others, led to transformation, led to something more than he might have envisioned, even though he died knowing how much work was left to be done.

We have proclaimed that our Greenlining Campaign is leaven, that our contribution to help Lawndale Reclaim their Community might be part of that bubbly starter that allows a new thing to rise. 

We need this leaven, our city, our nation, our world needs this leaven.  And God needs us to be leaven for each other and in all of the broken places crying out for God’s justice and mercy.  Leaven can be a powerful thing bringing great transformation.  May it rise in us and through us.