Foundry United Methodist Church

Jana Meyer




“Until All is Leavened”

Sunday, June 6, 2010



Jana Meyer

To what should we compare the kingdom of God? 
The kingdom of God is like a computer virus that a hacker introduces onto on computer until all the machines on the internet are infected.
The kingdom of God is like a person in the midst of a quiet congregation who begins clapping until  everyone feels the Spirit and is praising God
The kingdom of God is like a person in a restless congregation who sits in silence until the entire congregation is still in the presence of God
The kingdom of God is like a drummer in Malcolm X park who sets up his drums and begins making music until the entire park is alive with music and dancing.

The kingdom of God is like a bunch of drag queens at a gay bar called Stonewall in June of 1969 who decide they'd had enough of police raids and fight back until 41 years later Sunday school teachers at Foundry are teaching children to value all families until the children when they hear the commandment Honor thy mother and thy father decide that the commandment needs to be rewritten so that its more inclusive because some children have a mother and a mother or a father and a father until one day, our entire society and church value and respect inclusion and diversity.

The kingdom of God is not necessarily a concept we think about on a regular basis. 

On the other hand, we probably do think about what's going on in the world - the oil spill in the gulf, wars in Afghanistan and Mexico, homelessness and HIV/AIDS here in DC; the earthquake in Haiti, the economic crisis,  poverty, illness.  Do you ever wonder what God's plan is – or what God wants from you in response?

These are really questions about the kingdom of God.  What’s the vision? What’s the plan?  What’s our part?  These are questions that the writer of the Gospel of Luke was seeking to address for his audience of 2nd generation Christians.  Jerusalem had been destroyed and Jesus had not come back on schedule.  What was God's plan?

And then there was the issue of the Christian community’s relationship with power and the larger world.   This was a group of Christians who were largely Gentile having to define themselves both in relation to their Jewish roots but also the Roman empire.  And as Christianity evolved after the time of the writing of this Gospel, its relationship with the greater culture also changed – with Constantine it eventually became the religion of the Empire. 

Today Christianity is not a homogenous community.  We are individuals with complex identities and allegiances which means we are both part of dominant and mainstream culture as well as in tension with it.  We are constantly confronted with suffering and injustice and with a sense of powerlessness and apathy.  What's God's vision and plan?  What's our role and what is our relationship with the world around us?  Are we transforming the world or is the world transforming us?

The parable of the leaven speaks to this question by talking about the kingdom of God.  The term kingdom of God can be a barrier for our ears – we don't have kings, it's patriarchal and autocratic.  Some people use the term “kin-dom”.  I personally like the term “community of God”, and I'll probably use all of these interchangeably.  Jesus has several parables that speak to the kingdom of God.  One of them is the great feast where everyone is invited but its people who are marginalized that take their place at the table.  The kingdom of God is a place and time of wholeness for all people. It is present and future.  Its very nature is also uncomfortable and disconcerting and liberating because it turns all of our assumptions upside down.  Each parable offers different insight into the kingdom. The parable of the leaven is paired with the parable of the mustard seed.   The mustard seed features men’s work and the leaven features women’s work.  Luke has a habit of pairing stories which highlight women and men's work, in this way affirming women's place in the narrative of salvation. The mustard seed parable is about growth.  The parable of the leaven is about more than growth but about the real question of transformation.

To what should we compare the kingdom of God?  It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

The context of this parable is a woman's household work, although the quantity of flour she is using is huge – enough to feed 160 people.   So let's keep in mind that the context for transformation is our daily lives, even areas that might be marginalized, but its not quite business as usual.

 Leaven, or yeast, refers to the old dough in a high state of fermentation.  Yeast is not the same as leaven but they are both translations of the same word.   The qualities of leaven are its ability to permeate an entire batch of dough and to change the nature of the dough. In general the connotations in the bible are negative, in case you were wondering about my computer virus image at the beginning.  Sacrifices containing leaven were not to be offered to God.  All homes had to be cleansed of leaven for the Passover.  Jesus refers to the leaven of the Pharisees to describe their corrupting influence and Paul also uses the term to refer to the spread of negative influence. 

Several things can happen with this leaven 1) it can spread impurity 2) it can be discarded 3) it can be kept in a jar or 4) it can be used to leaven new dough

Part of the power of this parable is that it deals with the real tension of transformation through the ambiguity of the negative and positive image of leaven.  Change and transformation are not always positive. Corruption is a negative form of transformation.  Anyone who has lived during a time of war can see how violence can infect a society leaving permanent effects even after the war is over.  There is a value judgment in transformation.  Many of us have personally experienced the misuse of scripture, of faith, of Christianity in ways that have harmed and oppressed ourselves or others.  Gay and lesbian people have had to face a very homophobic transformation movement which insists that everyone should be transformed into heterosexuals. Colonialism and racism have carried oppressive forms of transformation, forcing people to adopt customs, values, and lifestyles of the dominant group and to internalize self-hatred.

In the area of mission, there are so many ways our good intentions can lead to actions and projects that are either a waste of precious resources or disempowering or patronizing to those who we seek to help. 

We can also be very quick to discard what seems imperfect in ourselves and in our work and in the process discard the potential for transformation.. Remember leaven is that old dough. Sometimes it is in our very places of weakness, ineffectiveness and imperfection that we encounter  transformation. A friend of mine says that in her pastoral work she is reminded again and again that the biggest changes that happen for people's lives are not when she is “effective” in finding them housing or solving their problem, but when she can be part of moving their own process of discovering the faith and strength that it is in them to confront the often harsh realities of life.

Sometimes we keep our leaven in a jar and go about attending church on Sunday and maybe even being quite involved in the church but without really letting ourselves or the community around us be transformed.  Too often when we talk about transformation, we're really talking about turning everything around us into something that is comforting and reassuring and just like ourselves as opposed to living into the very real tension and risk of what transformation means.   We're afraid of change and of losing what is familiar. We're afraid of being changed.

When the leaven, or old dough in a state of fermentation, is mixed with the new dough, it permeates and changes the new dough and causes it to rise.   Some of the dough is then retained to leaven the next batch.  

The kingdom of God is in a constant cycle of renewed transformation which means that it is not static.  To be part of God's transformative activity means to both allow ourselves to be used and to be changed in the process and to have this happen again and again as part of or in tension with a larger whole (community), which could be Foundry, the larger church, our community the world.  It means to open ourselves to changed expectations and relationships. We have to be willing to be transformed and changed in the process.

Foundry's statement of call states that we are called to transform the world through active service and prophetic leadership.  I remember when this statement was being drafted there were questions about the wording.  Isn't it presumptuous to talk about transforming the entire world?  Who are we to be transforming others instead of being transformed ourselves?   What do we mean by prophetic leadership?  These are still valid questions, and this is still a very powerful statement when seen through the lens of this parable.

This statement is often thought of in terms of our mission and social justice areas of the church.  There many testimonies of how people have been transformed through active service in mission .  The act of cooking for Christ house residents, participating in Great Day of service, or being part of the Friday morning walk-in mission.  People have touched lives of others around them and if we choose  we can open ourselves to being changed by new and sometime uncomfortable encounters, and to look beyond the boundaries of our daily lives.

On the other hand, prophetic leadership builds upon the prophetic traditions in the Hebrew bible where prophets provided spiritual guidance, advice to leaders, warned leaders and society to change their ways, spoke out for justice, articulated God's promises and hope.  Prophetic leadership evolves through time, and is lived out in different ways for each community.  This parable speaks to a prophetic leadership that does not simply speak truth to power, but aims to transform and change society and culture.  Foundry lives out that prophetic leadership as a reconciling congregation, in its campaign to end homelessness through Washington Interfaith Network; in reaching out to day laborers in our neighborhood and city in ways that have created new relationships and community.

Yet transformation through active service and prophetic leadership are by no means limited to mission and social justice. It is the calling of our entire congregation.  In a society of isolation and disconnection, the fellowship council hosts entree dinners and picnics so that we create a culture where everyone is part of community.   In a city where we always want to get things done, discipleship council calls us to deeper reflection, learning, and spiritual growth.  Stewardship/resources challenge us to increase our giving and vision in a time of economic crisis.  Worship calls us experience joy and transcendence in new and familiar ways.  At a time when people are increasingly alienated from institutional religion, Foundry begins a new worship service.  Our congregational council is certainly living out the call the transform the world through prophetic leadership, through guiding us through the summer of discernment on the proposed policy for marriage equality.

Some of us may only come to Foundry for the time being to sit in that back pew and leave, yet we are that piece of dough that is pulled off and in our families or in our workplaces we are transforming the world around us in the same way that we have been transformed.  The simple act of being a good parent or aunt or uncle or caring adult in the life of a child or young person where young people face so many negative messages and challenges is a transformative act.  The choice as a gay or lesbian couple to raise a family in the midst of a homophobic culture is a powerful act of transformation.   

I see many people at Foundry fully living out new ways of God's transformative activity:  people in their 20's testing out new vocations and bringing new activism and passion into the leadership of our church and society; people in midlife experiencing God's call in new ways in their life; people who have retired contributing their gifts and energy in ways they never had the time for before. 

Active service and prophetic leadership is the leaven we use to transform the world.  The image of a woman making bread is an image of the work of our daily lives.  And in our daily lives we most often lose sight of the transformative nature of the community of God.  Its tempting to discard the leaven or keep it in a jar.  We get complacent because we're Foundry.  We get caught up with details and meetings and frustrations and stress.  We get worn out from confronting racism or sexism or homophobia or other forms of oppression on a daily basis.  Justice seems very elusive no matter how many years we struggle.  The kingdom of God is often hidden, as is the leaven/yeast.  The process of leavening is often long and sometimes fails.  The Gospel of Thomas, which didn't make the final cut into our Bible asks “when will the kingdom come? It will not come by watching for it.”  And indeed we cannot sit back and wait and watch.  We are called to be fully part of the process, and to look beyond perceived limitations. 

In the parable, a woman mixes the leaven with 3 measures of flour, a huge quantity.  The very quantity of flour in the parable seeks to shock us out of complacency, to envision and act and prepare for big things – like ending homelessness, like changing the Discipline, like growing to 900 people on a Sunday, like transforming the world, like changing our lives.

The final phrase of the text “until all of it was leavened” uses a tense of the verb to leaven that is called the aorist passive. The aorist tense refers to an undefined action that normally occurs in the past.  The aorist passive is sometime called the “theological passive”, and refers to God's implied action.  The phrase “until all of it was leavened” refers to God's action in the transforming process of this huge amount of dough.  In the parable the woman does her part, putting in the leaven, but there is this invisible and mysterious process that her action makes possible which goes well beyond what she could make happen on her own.

Ultimately we are called to do our part, putting in the leaven of active service and prophetic leadership, into sometimes overwhelming situations but we can never lose sight of that fact that it is not our activity but God's activity that brings about transformation in ways we could never envision or attain on our own.

The transformative quality of the kingdom is never static.  It is always dynamic, which means that we are continually called again and again to be part of the transformative process until the dough is finally leavened, until the bread is baked.  Even then the old dough will be still taken to again transform new batches of dough.  Our danger is to think God's project, and our role in it is complete, or that it will stay as it is. It’s not complete until we are fully living out the community of God.   

At Foundry, we are all called to transform the world through the leaven of active service and prophetic leadership.  It’s a call that belongs not just to Congregational council or Mission council or just to Foundry but to each of us, including those of you who are visiting.  It belongs to you in the front and sitting in the back, you in the balcony and in the choir loft and standing in the narthex; you listening or reading this online.  How are you living out this call to transform the world?  Is your leaven in a jar or are you open to transformation? How are you being called to be leaven?   

In the words of Jan Richardson, “… for the labor that is never over, give us strength, for the healing every before us give us courage.  May our resting be for renewal, not forever; and may we work for nothing save that which makes your people whole.”

Make us be leaven O God, make us be leaven, that through the power of your love the world might be transformed. 

The term “theological passive” is attributed to Max Zerwick by J. Ramsey Michaels in “Exegetical Insight”, an introduction to the chapter on “ Aorist and Future Passive Indicative”  in William D. Mounce,  Basics of Biblical Greek:  Grammar (Zondorvan, 1993).
Jan Richardson, Night Visions (United Church Press, 1998)