The Kingdom of Heaven is Leavened

Proper 12A/Ordinary 17A/Pentecost +6

July 24, 2011

Genesis 29: 15-28

Romans 8:26-39

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46

“[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.’” (Matthew 13:33).

Queer: differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal [1]

The thirteenth chapter of Matthew features a series of parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, which compare the Kingdom to everything from a mustard seed to pearls to fish. (Huh?) The weirdest comparison (in my opinion) is the yeast parable. The Kingdom of Heaven is like … yeast. Really?? What planet did that come from??

Well, let’s dive into the weird and wonderful world of yeast and find out – shall we?

If there ever were a queer organism, it would have to be yeast. It’s not quite an

Candida Albicans (yeast)

animal, but it’s not quite a plant either. It’s classified under the kingdom Fungi, but within that kingdom, it forms two entirely different phylogenetic groupings: Ascomycota and Basidiomycota.[2]  It has both asexual and sexual reproductive cycles. It thrives in dark, damp, airless environments, where it quietly eats up sugars and burps out alcohol and carbon dioxide. It can be immensely useful in brewing and other industrial processes, but it can also wreak havoc on human bodies in very awkward places.

The ancient Hebrews were (understandably) uncomfortable with the queerness of yeast. It was classified as ritually unclean under the Torah, because it had to be kept separated from other food and eliminated from the house during Passover (Pesach): “No leaven [yeast] shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days [during Passover]” (Deut. 16:4). Leviticus 2:11 also specifies “No grain offering that you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for you must not turn any leaven or honey into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord.” Yeast was often used as a symbol of moral corruption, egotism, and laxity. Because yeast was considered unclean, it was also typically handled by women.

So if yeast is bizarre, sexually ambiguous and corrupting (i.e., queer), then what was Jesus doing comparing it to the Kingdom of Heaven??

Jesus (like many of the prophets before him) liked to use imagery that the people of his day would have found shocking and even offensive. The purpose of this imagery was to jolt oppressed people out of their complacence within the present (unjust) Kingdom and energize them to imagine the possibility of a new life (the Kingdom of Heaven). Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggeman says of Jesus’ language that “The strangeness of this prophetic energizing is that it is addressed precisely to nonpersons consigned to nonhistory”.[3]  In other words, it is addressed to those who have been shut out of society due to their status as “unclean,” “corrupting” or “queer”: “The staggering works of Jesus – feeding, healing, casting out, forgiving – happened not to those who held on to the old order but to those who yearned because the old order had failed them or squeezed them out”. [4]

The synonym for yeast – leaven – also comes from the same root as the word “levity”. Something that has levity has humor, lightness and (yes) gaiety. Have you ever noticed that when we try to smother the leaven in society, it often ends up having the opposite result – with a great deal of levity ensuing? Remember in 1999 when televangelist Jerry Falwell denounced the children’s television character Tinky Winky as being covertly Gay and tried to enjoin a boycott of the “Teletubbies” TV show? The result was that Tinky Winky abruptly became a household name, featured on everything from late-night comic monologues to “The Simpsons”. When Jerry Falwell passed away in 2007, one editorial cartoon depicted him approaching the pearly gates … only to be greeted by a smiling Tinky Winky. Behold the small yet mighty yeast, my friends.

Leavening can also come out of tragedy. When Matthew Shepard’s life was brutally ended in an anti-Gay hate crime, his memory was honored and preserved through the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, and his death was the subject of the 2000 play “The Laramie Project” which has been performed and acclaimed internationally. The leaven that is smothered ends up transforming the whole.

What would a leavened church look like – one that models the Kingdom of Heaven? I like the picture painted by the Rev. Susan Russell, pastor at All Saints Church of Pasadena, CA:

Deciding to follow Jesus – I’ve decided – is a little bit like Coming Out. While

Keith Haring, "National Coming Out Day," 1988

you can never really go ‘back into the closet’ once you’ve come out, you find you have to keep coming out … over and over again … The year of the Lord’s favor will not be realized until there are no strangers at the gate, no outcasts on the margins, no single member of the human family left wondering if the Good News of God’s inclusive love includes them. [5]

The more people keep “coming out” as leavened Christians – dedicated to spreading the Good News of the chesed of God (God’s unconditional, Covenant-backed love) – the more society is leavened. It does not matter what indignities or brutalities we suffer on the way there. As Paul says in today’s Letter to the Romans (8:33-35):

Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?

The answer is: no one. Even when we ourselves have given up, “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words … We know that all things work together for good for those who love God …” (8:26, 28). Amen!

[1]  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/queer

[2]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeast.

[3]  Brueggeman, Walter.  2001.  The Prophetic Imagination.  2nd Ed.  Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, (pp. 110).

[4]  Ibid., (pp. 111).

[5]  Russell, Susan.  May/June 2010.  “Going forward, in faith.”  New Hampshire Episcopal News, (pp. 2).

One thought on “The Kingdom of Heaven is Leavened

  1. Reblogged this on Under the Rose and commented:

    In celebration of National Coming Out Day, I thought I would re-post this. For those of you who haven’t read “My Big, Gay Sermon,” yes, I also happen to be Gay (but of course no one knows – except my wife! Har-har!)

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