On faith: Are you growing the love of God in your heart?
Have you ever had friendship bread or homemade sourdough bread? These two breads start from a mixture that quite literally grows. It doubles in size every week or two. These two bread starters rapidly run around a community as people learn that they cannot possibly keep up with the amount of bread they produce. The first week you make your loaf of bread, next week you bake two, then four, then eight, and so on, until you are buried in loaves of bread and your children or neighbors are begging you not to give them another slice of bread.
There are two solutions to the ever-growing starter problem. You can throw out what you don’t need to keep the batch going, or give starters away to your friends. You know you have been passing out the starter batch too much when your neighbors turn down an aisle in the grocery store just to avoid you. As an experiment, someone decided to see how far they could spread out bread from a single starter batch. It was started in California and I got my jar in West Virginia about four months later. As far as I know it ended somewhere around Maine.
The gospel text this Sunday describes God’s reign in both our hearts and the world with a very similar image. In Matthew 13:33, Jesus says: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough (NIV).”
The exact amount of flour in Jesus’ story is in question, as some copies of the Greek text tell us it was the equivalent to about sixty pounds (or between forty and sixty loaves), and other merely enough for a single loaf of bread (between four and six cups). Whichever was the original, it scarcely changes the point. I suspect Jesus used the larger amount, as he seems to enjoy hyperbole as a form of humor elsewhere in scripture.
Whether the woman was a home-baker or a commercial one, the amount of yeast needed to create the loaves is vanishingly small when compared with the quantity of flour. In dark grain flours, like the stone-ground barley Jesus would have been most familiar with, you can barely make out the yeast when you mix it into the flour. It is a little easier with modern white flour, but not by much. By the time you’ve added the sugar or honey and milk or water that the yeast needs to do its work, you will not be able to separate the yeast from the flour.
It has disappeared from the naked eye. It lives in the matrix formed by the flour and water. It feeds on the sugar. You keep it from exploding out of the pan with just the right amount of salt. You turn the sticky mass out onto a board or a stone and work it until it becomes less sticky. You put it in a bowl, and cover it in some warm place. And then you wait.
In the case of most yeast breads, it is about two hours. You must resist the urge to peek, but then you don’t really need to. Your nose will tell you that the yeast is doing its job. The warm faintly pungent scent will spread through the house. When it has doubled, punch it down and then wait some more. Then comes the best part of baking bread. You bake it.
This will kill the yeast, without which you could not make the bread, but when you have turned out your brown loaf of bread and slice it still warm from the oven, you appreciate the effort the tiny little creatures have put into creating this perfection. You will probably not remember their work, but without them you would have something the consistency of dried wall plaster and about as flavorful. These tiny creatures have given their life to provide you with the staff of life.
This is what the reign of God is like, Jesus says. It starts small, almost invisible. It gets mixed in with common elements in our lives; it is given food to grow and water to provide the structure. And once all the ingredients have been mixed together, we must wait. We must not peek too early, or the loaf will fall. When the Baker is certain the time is right into the oven it goes, and out comes something new, nothing like the flour or the yeast. The staff of life is born from death. Like common bread, the Bread of Heaven is not meant to be hoarded until it turns moldy on the shelf, but it is to be handed out to all in need.
Are you growing the love of God in your heart or have you placed the loaf of your life in some drafty place where it is in danger of falling? Are you hoarding God’s grace or giving it away?
Rev. Deana Armstrong is the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Craig.