“THE TROJAN YEAST”
Matthew 13: 33
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
March 19, 2017
Do you ever play the, “if I were King” game? You know that game; what you would do if you were suddenly undisputed king of your house or your office or your country or the world. It’s a fun game. I play it all the time. If I were king, boy, things would be different I can tell you that. I would do all sorts of fun and exciting things for the world and things would be a lot better. I spent a good amount of time earlier in my life discussing and reflecting upon how I would have fixed the Star Wars prequels. They would have been much better, like most things, if I had been in charge. I would list all the things I would do but it would take so long I wouldn’t have time for the rest of the sermon. But I have thought of them. Have you? Have you ever thought: if I were in charge, I’d do this or that differently? Of course you have. You wouldn’t be human if you hadn’t. When we chat with our friends, or read a newspaper, or watch TV we can’t help but backseat drive everything. If we were king, things would be different.
Well, what about the Church. What if you were in charge not just of this congregation but of the Church in the world? And then, what if you were in charge of all the people as it relates to their faith? What would you do? Odds are, having talked to many of you, you would make it so the Church was restored to its rightful place at the head of society. Perhaps, if you were king, you would require church attendance. Or maybe you would re-institutionalize prayer in schools. Maybe you would make it so everybody in the world had to be Christian. I don’t know what you would do; I know what I would do. I’d make it so everybody had to be Presbyterian, I would make sure the radio played organ music so everybody would get used to it again, and I would ban the theology that says God wants you to be rich. At least, that’s where I would start. See, wouldn’t I be a good king? But no matter what the details are, we all sort of figure that the way to solve whatever ails the world and its relationship with God is to impose it. From the top down.
But here’s the problem with that idea. Isn’t that the same offer the devil made to Jesus during the temptations? I believe it is. The devil would make Jesus king of the world, and everyone would worship him, if Jesus would just worship Satan. Then Jesus could just impose the kingdom of heaven on everybody. In Jesus’ day, it was popular to impose stuff. He lived in the midst of one of the great top-down empires that ever lived, the Roman Empire. They loved to impose stuff. They would impose taxes. They imposed military service. They imposed emperor worship. They imposed local politicians. Later on, they would even impose a person’s career. They loved to go around imposing stuff. So you would think, as wildly successful as they were during Jesus’ day, that he would be in favor of imposing the kingdom of heaven on the world. You would think that he, like us, would have thought, “if I were king, things would be different.” But he was king. He was the Son of God, invested with all the divine power he needed. He could have imposed everything. He could have toppled the Roman Empire. He could have made everybody follow him. He could have lived out our fantasies of unchecked and unlimited power and made the world perfect.
But he didn’t. Instead, he said things like this, “the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” What? That’s not exactly king language. This is what Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to, a yeast starter. Then he says it will just be mixed into the bread. That’s not very powerful. That is, in fact, kind of weak. Jesus’ description of the kingdom of heaven here doesn’t exactly fill you with pride, does it? I mean, who upon hearing this passage thought to themselves, “Yes! This is awesome. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. I knew it!” Let me answer that for you: nobody. Nobody thought that. And yet here it is, a tiny little verse tucked into the middle of the Gospel of Matthew. It seems so small, so inconsequential. But I don’t want to talk about the scale of the Kingdom of Heaven.
I want to talk about an issue with the translation in our NRSV. The translation says the yeast was “mixed in” with the flour. That’s not exactly true. The more literal translation is that it was hidden in the flour. Hidden. It was just tucked in there where nobody would even really notice it until all the bread had risen, and by then it would be too late to do anything about it. Yeast is a small thing. Nothing really, but hide it in some flour and the next thing you know you have big puffy loaves of bread. So, we can see something very important here. The Kingdom of heaven is not imposed from the top down, no. It subverts the world. It comes from the inside and, before anyone has noticed, it has changed everything. And let me tell you this, when the Church has been at its best, when we have been our most effective in the world, has not been when we have sat upon a throne looking down upon our domain; no, it has been when we were our most powerless. It has been when we have been using our lives to subvert and transform the mighty kingdoms and empires of this world. That is when we’ve been at our best, and it is this to which Jesus has been pointing us with this parable.
When the great ancient preacher John Crysostom spoke about this passage he said, “As therefore the leaven then leavens the lump when it comes close to the meal, and not simply close, but so as to be actually mixed with it, so also you, when you cleave to your enemies, and are made one with them, then you shall get the better of them.” Chrysostom sees the leaven in Christ’s call to love our enemies. Do you see it there? Do you see what the kingdom of heaven does? It subverts. It takes our natural desire for revenge and victory, it transforms it into love, and it then subverts the powers and principalities of this world which tell us that we should win at all costs. That is the sort of kingdom that cannot be imposed, it can only be baked into the world.
Think about it this way, the kingdom of heaven has been subverting you for years. It has been telling you, “don’t hoard your money, give it away.” Don’t abuse your neighbor, love them. Don’t think death is the end, it’s the beginning. Do you see? Your view of the world, the natural view that we humans have, has been subverted. And in so doing, the world has been changed ever so slightly.
There is no upside in being king. It’s a no-good job. The kingdom of heaven is not something to be imposed, it is something which seeps inside of us and changes us. And it works most effectively when we, you and I, the humble Jesus followers of today, recognize it in this world. Our goal is not to win. It is not to get all the people. It is not to force everyone to be like us. No. Our goal is to see the kingdom of heaven spread through this world like yeast in meal, to see the world rise, ever so slowly, and to know that there is nothing in the world that can stop the kingdom of heaven. In the end, all will not be conquered, it will be made new. Amen.