Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The Work of the Baker Woman
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today I’d like us to picture the world as an ungainly, promising mass of dough. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The comedian comes out on stage, and starts his routine. In a rapid-fire monologue he serves up jokes. His timing is masterful, and the one-liners burst forth in succession, with precision, so that you can’t help but laugh.
Jesus comes out in front of the crowds, and starts his teaching. In a rapid-fire monologue, he serves up parables. His timing is masterful, and these word pictures burst forth in succession, with precision, so that you can’t help but see.
Here there’s a similarity between Jesus and a stand-up comic. The comedian makes you laugh. Jesus makes you see, and what you see is something of the kingdom of heaven, that realm where God’s sovereignty is recognized.
The routine Jesus offers in today’s Gospel is a bonanza: five short parables in a row. All of them are gems. Parables about a mustard seed, treasure buried in a field, a pricey pearl, a fishing net. Then there’s one I’d like us to focus on this morning: the parable about yeast in the flour.
It’s a one-liner. You might have missed it if you sneezed when the Gospel was read. Maybe I can’t tell it like Jesus did, but here we go: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, which a woman took, and hid in with three measures of meal, until it was all leavened” (v. 33).
Three measures of flour! Do you know how much that is? About eighty pounds! This woman is not Martha Stewart whipping up a couple delicate exquisite little biscuits that together weigh less than a canary. No, no. This woman is a baker!
She’s emptying sixteen five-pound bags of flour into the biggest mixing bowl you’ve ever seen. She’s pouring in forty-two cups of water! She’s got a mass of dough on her hands that weighs over a hundred pounds! Kneading this lump of dough, shaping it, pounding it. It looks like some scene at the end of a professional wrestling match. Here we have a no-nonsense operation. Sports fans, this is baking at its best. A woman, with her apron dusted with flour, her ten fingers deep into the dough — she’s a combination of Julia Child and Hulk Hogan.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast, which a woman took, and hid in with three measures of meal, until it was all leavened.” Jesus tosses out this parable, this one-liner, and he does so for a purpose. Just as the stand-up comic wants us to laugh, Jesus wants us to glimpse the kingdom of heaven, that realm where God’s sovereignty is recognized.
Take another look at that huge mass of dough. It’s not just flour any more. The yeast is in the dough, invisible, but permeating the mass, and having its effect. A mystery is bubbling away inside, with much more happening than meets the eye. As this process continues, the hidden will become manifest. There’s no way to stop it! The movement from mystery to manifestation: Jesus presents this to us as the pulse of the kingdom of heaven. Here is how God’s sovereignty becomes apparent: it resembles the strange transformation that turns flour into dough.
We get to watch the baker woman at work. We’re invited to look at this process and see it for what it’s worth. But if we’re to get a glimpse of the kingdom, if we’re to look down to the center of this parable, then two things are asked of us: we must be patient, and we must exercise discernment.
Yeast takes a while to work, and its working is mysterious. So we have to be patient as the dough rises and comes to life. This dough is not a dead lump, a hopeless, shapeless pile, but instead a universe where opportunities become real. The baker woman is at work with our life, our circumstances, and the people around us. Nothing is outside this lump of dough.
We need to be patient, to exercise discernment, if a lump of dough is ever to be bread for the world. And we must exercise this same patience and discernment about the universe. Life’s something other than a pile of flour and a bit of yeast. Life is an ungainly, promising mass of dough, on its way to becoming abundant bread. Just as yeast permeates the entire lump, so the kingdom is present everywhere, and everywhere it becomes manifest for those with eyes to see.
If we look around us and within us, we can recognize the presence of the kingdom. That kingdom is at work, just as yeast is active in the dough. And as yeast is invisible and known by its effects, so the kingdom is hidden, concealed, buried deep in ordinary circumstances, yet known by its effects.
Look at your life in the light of grace. Something is there for you to find–whether you feel happy or sad, whether your life seems successful or disastrous, whether you call yourself a winner or a loser. That something is the activity of the kingdom, yeast bubbling away in your corner of the lump.
And when you find the kingdom among the realities of your life, nothing prevents you from finding this same kingdom present as well in the circumstances that surround you, in the lives of other people, and everywhere you choose to look.
There’s one caution to keep in mind. The kingdom does not come with brass bands. It’s not the subject of headline news and public relations efforts. We’re talking here about yeast working invisibly in the dough, a hidden yet potent activity.
As it takes faith to believe that bread will rise, so too faith is necessary to see the kingdom manifest in the everyday and the ordinary. We must exercise patience and discernment wherever God places us. Then we will see that what seems like a dead lump is in fact bubbling with divine life.
So may each of us go forth this week, and encounter places and people and circumstances, and look there for the kingdom:
— not as distant, but near at hand;
— not as obvious, but hidden;
— not as static, but alive and becoming manifest;
— a kingdom making room for all of us.
When we look for the kingdom, then we find it present, abundantly present. And when we do, then we have more reasons to give thanks than we ever expected.
We discover it’s true, that one-liner Jesus tells us. All the world is a lump of dough, flour with yeast mixed in, and SURPRISE! God’s a baker woman making bread.
I have spoken to you in the name of that God who offers abundant bread at the heavenly banquet, and gives us a foretaste even now: the Trinity in Unity, whose mercy endures forever.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.
Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).