In early December we had a fermentation workshop here at the church. Emily and Andy from Welcome Table Farm supplied the veggies for sauerkraut, and Liz, their farm manager, led the hands-on how-to of kraut making and Brian turns out to be our resident microbiologist, so he taught us about lactobacillus colonies and anaerobic metabolism and the stuff like the mind-blowing fact that we have far more cells of good bacteria in our body than we have actual cells of our bodies – our bodies host this big party that keeps us healthy.
Anyhow, we learned how to make sauerkraut and we helped each other pack half-gallon jars of it in the kitchen. And then we washed off our hands and sat in a circle in the fellowship hall, and we pondered together the parable where Jesus says, basically, that the Realm of God is like fermenting stuff, it’s “like yeast that a woman took and hid in a whole lot of flour which it then leavened.”
Jesus continued: “To what should I compare the Realm of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and concealed in three measures of flour until it was all leavened.” – Luke 13:20-21
This is a parable that doesn’t get a lot of press. It comes right after the famous parable of the Mustard Seed which people talk a lot about, there are lots of sermons. But the Leaven parable, not so much. It’s just a sentence long, and it’s kind of puzzling, it’s hard to know what to make of it.
So, we did this little experiment to see if we learned about fermentation maybe that would help us gain some insight into how this parable speaks about our spiritual lives and about the realm of God.
It was a lot of fun. It sounds like people’s sauerkraut turned out tasty – mine did. If you want, we can work on doing it again.
But for now, I’m overdue to share some of the insights this group harvested – especially because I think it has everything to do with what’s been up with this community of faith. There seems to be leavening going on.
Beloved: Be Leavened & Be the Leaven!
Fermentation happens because of bacteria that happens to be good for us, that when they grow, help to preserve food, help to make food healthier, more nutritious, easier to digest, and just tangier, more flavorful.
These good bacteria are just waiting there, ready to grow. They’re already on the vegetables in the case of kraut. Or in the case of sourdough, they’re wild yeast just riding the wind looking for a good place to settle down and starting a family.
The art and science of fermentation is a matter of creating the right conditions for the good bacteria to flourish, and the unhealthy bacteria to not be able to take hold.
Our group thought about how this is like the conditions that get created with a health enough religious community and health enough spiritual practices. With a good enough container the fruits of the spirit just naturally grow and unhealthy, destructive influences just naturally get crowded out. When we’re talking about the fruits of the spirit, we’re talking about what the Apostle Paul named as Mercy, Love, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Self-Control, Moral Courage.
Our group was impressed by how, if we see fermentation as a parable for the ways the realm of God grows within us and among us, we have to appreciate that it’s a process that just takes patience. With sauerkraut or sourdough, after you work to create the right conditions, you just leave it alone. You do need to be attentive to it and to tend to it now and again – but for the most part you just leave it alone and let it do its thing.
It’s actually not that big of a deal, it’s not something to get too anxious about. If skuzz does start to grow on the top, if there is bad bacteria, you just skim it off, and press everything back down under the brine, and with enough time the good bacteria will have taken over again.
You’ll notice I’ve been talking about “good enough” conditions, a “right-enough” environment. The good bacteria are just waiting, eager to grow if given the chance. Same thing with the realm of heaven within us and among us. It’s just primed to grow and once it starts growing it can be quite tough and resilient, and spread like crazy. So, we don’t need to try too hard when it comes to our relationship with God and the growth of our souls. The Jesus way is all about mercy and grace. God is just waiting for the chance to be on the move, our souls are just ready for a little opening to grow.
Actually, too much fussing over it can be counterproductive. It can’t be forced. Forcing can be found among the spiritual police state of religious fundamentalism of any stripe, as well as in the self-righteousness and anxiety about spiritual purity that we can find in different forms the worlds of “spiritual but not religious”. This is a universal human tendency that Jesus is undercutting in a sly way with this parable.
We can just relax. What’s needed is the kind of gentle attentiveness and patience of someone helping something grow that is eager to grow of its own accord.
And when the fruits of the spirit do start to grow, we may not be even aware of it, they bubble up from below. That’s how unimportant we are in the process. Faith means Trust, after all.
Jesus emphasizes this by saying the woman “conceals” the yeast in the dough. It can come as a surprise where we realize, “O my God, I’ve been transformed!”
Big experiences of epiphany or conversion have their place, yes. But most of how God works on us and through us is slow and steady and underneath the radar. And we don’t really have to understand or even be able to name what’s going on. People have been successfully fermenting stuff for millennia, with out knowing the details of the microbiology of it. The same is true of the lives of the spirit.
Now, here’s the other really interesting thing about this parable of the leaven. This is a way that Jesus is being a trickster here. This parable uses leaven and its ability to multiply and grow as being a positive thing. But overwhelmingly in Jewish religious writing at the time, and even in the New Testament writings of Paul, leaven is a negative thing. It’s an image in fact of impurity and corruption and how that can have a pernicious way of taking over. Because, remember, one of the holiest Jewish holidays, Passover, involves unleavened bread. That came to be a sign for purity. Leaven came to be a sign of impurity.
So, Jesus is doing a tricky thing here. He’s saying the Realm of God is to be found in what has been considered profane, corrupt.
So this just makes me think, you know, as I appreciate the ways the leaven of the realm of heaven is on the move here among us, this makes me think of just how much of a blessing it has been that for twenty years now this congregation has been open and affirming of LGBTQ orientations. The reality of humanity that religious authority so often casts out as impure is actually a source of life and vitality, when given a chance to flourish.
Jesus was all about that – that’s what got him into so much trouble – finding God at work in the least and the last and the lost, finding heaven most alive among the outcast, the leper, the foreigner, those people and those parts of ourselves too often locked out of the gates of the fortress of the holy religious institution, are actually the leaven of heaven when welcomed into this great fermenting and fomenting life of the realm of God in our midst.
So, with care, with patience, attentiveness, trust, and humility
Beloved, let us Be Leavened & Be the Leaven.