Hidden in Plain Sight

Matthew 13:33
Joyce MacKichan Walker
May 29, 2016

“[Jesus] told them another 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.’”

First a disclaimer, or at least an explanation. Many of you know my husband Michael is also a Presbyterian minister – he long before me. Today is the first Sunday ever we found ourselves preaching at almost the same time; he is leading worship at the Slackwood Presbyterian Church, beginning at 10:30 this morning. As we talked about preaching texts, we thought it would fun, instructive, and yes, economical, to write one sermon together. Thus, we are preaching essentially the same sermon – only the pronouns have been changed.

I can see it as if it were yesterday! Every Friday. Without fail. All six of us running the last 100 yards of the lane, up the porch steps, in through the screen door, letting it slam shut behind us in time with the command, “Don’t let the door slam!” Scanning the kitchen counter. Without fail. Four matching double loaves of white bread, golden brown, smooth and rounded, lined up side-by-side like garden rows. To their right, three muffin pans, each filled with double or triple rolls – the ones you make by rolling up two or three little balls of dough and stuffing them into the greased bottom of each muffin tin. The ones you pull apart and slather all the surfaces with butter and homemade wild strawberry jam. About once a month, next in line were two loaves of brown bread. Not all that healthy whole wheat you get now – dense whole grains – but molasses darkened, squeezably soft, even fragile to the room temperature butter that skidded over the crumbly goodness.

Before we went to school we never saw the flour – my mother was way too busy with the lunch boxes and lost homework and collecting piles of washing and soaking the beans for Saturday night’s standard baked beans and Boston brown bread. We never saw the yeast, or the rising, or the baking. Just the bread. And as we let the door slam behind us, we knew at least one loaf would not survive to see the dinner table.

That’s not the way my husband bakes bread. Here’s the way Michael tells it.

I love homemade bread. There is nothing better than the smell, the texture, the taste. Nothing substitutes. I don’t like devoting my life to making it, but that’s what it seems like when you’re in the middle of the process. Homemade bread is labor intensive. So I have found some solutions, he says. And since many of you also know Michael is the cook in our family, you will know these are, indeed, his solutions!

The first one is my marvelous Kitchen Aid standing mixer with a dough hook. That takes the kneading pretty much out of the equation. Of course this solution has its own problems – getting that monster out to use is a real chore. It weighs a ton. And then it always seems that, at one point, the dough climbs up the hook. If you are not careful, you have a mess to peel off the workings of the machine. Still, it’s a definite improvement.

The next solution is the bread machine – automation at its best. I only have to dump the ingredients into the machine and turn it on, or better yet, set the timer to let it do its work. Smells great, tastes great, but it’s not perfect either. For one thing, it takes up a lot of counter space. And then you end up with a strangely shaped, almost cylindrical loaf that doesn’t cut into very usefully sized slices. You also have a metal paddle embedded in the bottom of the loaf. I have to carefully dig the paddle out of the bottom of the load with some sort of plastic or wooden tool, being careful not to scratch the non-stick coating on the paddle. Of course that means you have a big hole in the bottom of the loaf and the last slices are mangled beyond recognition. It’s not pretty. And everyone knows you didn’t do much to make these strange slices of bread. Still, it’s fairly convenient, all in all.

But then Michael found an incredible recipe in the New York Times. It’s said a 6 year-old can make better bread this way than most any bakery in the country. There is very little work to it at all; you simply mix together three cups of flour, a little salt, a fifth of the yeast you would normally use for making bread, and some water. Then you just leave it alone. The biggest ingredient in the recipe is patience. You have to walk away from it for 12 or more hours. You let nature take its course. Then you form it, dump it in a covered pan, and bake it. It comes out like this… The house smells great (I can vouch for that – yesterday morning!), the loaf has a wonderful crust, a delightful crumb and a great flavor. That’s it. All you have to do is let it do its thing all on its own.

We were reminded of that recipe by today’s parable because of the large amount of flour and the little bit of yeast, but most of all because what creates the bread is the little act of the woman at the beginning to set the whole natural process in motion. Bear with me as I read the whole parable to you again: “The Kingdom is Heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Thus ends the parable.

The first thing to understand about the parable is that this woman is not preparing a normal recipe. Far from it. Three measures of flour may not sound like much, but in reality, it’s somewhere between 40 and 60 pounds of flour, way more than any family could eat. She would have enough for a banquet! And it’s certainly more than a woman – than anyone – could manage without some heavy-duty equipment. But packed into this very compact parable is the fact that she’s not really baking the bread in a normal way at all.

The New Revised Standard Version doesn’t translate this parable literally. According to the Greek text, the woman didn’t mix anything. Maybe a chef translated it that way because it would make more sense than what the woman actually did. The NRSV makes more sense than the Greek because there is one word in the Greek you don’t expect. I was taught if you find a word in the text that doesn’t make sense, pay attention to it. It’s likely there for a reason. The Greek word in question here is “enkrypto.” It’s the root of our English words like “cryptography” – the art of writing or solving secret codes — or “cryptogram” – a text written in code — or better yet, our word “encryption.” The point is she’s not mixing it. Good thing with all that flour. She’s much less active than that. She’s hiding the yeast in the flour. A little bit of yeast and 50 pounds of flour – no mixing or kneading involved. She simply let’s nature take its course.

Three measures of flour is not unique to this woman. There is another woman in the Bible who had three measures of flour to work with. It’s no accident. By telling this parable, Jesus reminds his listeners of another woman, Sarah, the wife of Abraham. That story offers a promise, and a sign of hope. Usually hope for a couple of their age comes in a good report on blood work or a satisfactory EKG, but for this couple the good news is that the old woman will be pregnant. They have waited all of their long lives for a son and heir and now God announces that it’s finally going to happen. Hope for a brighter future. A promise that their legacy will live on.

The situation is this: 90-plus year-old Abraham has three visitors. Abraham apparently recognizes who and what they are right off the bat. Abraham is in the midst of a divine visitation. Who are they? Well, later on in the story two of them are identified – they’re angels. But what about the third? In Jewish interpretation, the third one is the Lord, and there is actually some evidence for this in the text itself later on. The announcement, of course, is of the impending blessed event. Sarah is about to conceive and bear a son. Sarah, however, listening at the door (or the tent flap, as it were) doubles over in laughter. After all, this baby is more likely to be born in assisted living than in the maternity ward. But Abraham reacts by inviting the three to stay for “a little bread,” as he calls it. And so he directs Sarah to make “a little bread” from three measures of flour – 50 pounds of flour. “A little bread,” indeed! Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt, puts it this way, “Were my husband to run into the street, invite three strangers to lunch and tell me to make 60 dozen biscuits, at least one of us would need counseling.”(1)

But this wasn’t lunch – this was a celebratory meal with the Divine.

The woman in the parable has enough dough for a divine banquet, too, a heavenly one. Remember how Jesus introduces it – “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

The parable is tiny, at least in number of words, so we’re not likely to gain from it a complete blueprint for the Christian life of discipleship. You have to read on for that. And yet, despite its diminutive size, there is a lot here. It’s not so much about the woman. It is about what she does, which really isn’t much at all. She takes a small amount of leaven and simply sticks it in a gigantic amount of flour. That’s it. But she starts the process that creates a glorious result. That’s grace.

We fit in the parable. We belong in the middle part, the part after the leaven was hidden and before the miraculous result – between the initial acts for our salvation and that splendid reunion with the saints in glory. We’re caught in that middle where it appears that not much, if anything is happening. That middle part is where we live. It’s our common, everyday existence. New Testament scholar Dale Allison says, “Everyday life is ruled by custom, habit, and routine, and these can all-too-readily cultivate a God-obscuring stasis. Unless one realizes that things are not what they seem to be and they will not be as they are forever.”(2) We need patience. We mustn’t be caught in the temptation to think that the here and now is the limit of our reality. There is something more and it’s already been set in motion. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who cryptically places the yeast in the flour and produces more than anyone can possibly need – that’s what happens in the end. That’s grace.

There’s more grace here, too. Yes, of course we have a lot to look forward to – that heavenly banquet where people will come from east and west and north and south to sit at table in the Kingdom of Heaven. But the parable proclaims the Kingdom is present even in a place as simple as that Galilean kitchen where the bread making began and where the purpose of God is working out. The parable declares the Kingdom is here now in the most ordinary and commonplace parts of our lives, the places where we don’t often see it, in little triumphs, and even despite our big disappointments. The Kingdom comes. The Kingdom comes. The Kingdom of Heaven comes.

1. Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, HarperCollins Publishers, 2014, page 122.
2. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=107

Written with the Rev. J. Michael Walker

© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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