The Parable of the Woman Baking Bread

This sermon was first preached at Holy Family Lutheran Church in Cabrini Green on Sunday, April 3, 2022.

Holy Family is using The Woman’s Lectionary by Dr. Wil Gafney. You can see the relevant Gospel reading here, but I encourage you to order Dr. Gafney’s version.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Good morning!  I am Pastor Elle Dowd, the spouse of Pastor Adam who was your intern here at Holy Family from 2019-2020. He and the girls send their love and greetings. Holy Family has such a special place in our hearts and it is so good to be back here with you all today. 

The Gospel reading this week features two parables about the Reign of God. Parables are not usually one to one comparisons or neat and tidy allegories. They are something we can struggle with and think about. Parables are stories, layered with meaning. 

In these parables, Jesus compares the Reign of God first to a mustard seed planted by a farmer, then to a woman making leavened bread. A few chapters later in Luke, Jesus shares a parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd who goes to find it, paired with a story about a woman who loses a coin. So one of the layers of meaning you might peel back in these parables…a man who goes after a lost sheep, a woman who searches for a coin, a man who plants a mustard seed, a woman who bakes bread…is that the Reign of God is all around us. It can be revealed outside in nonhuman nature, in animals and plants. It can be found inside our homes. It can be revealed in public or private. The reign of God can work through spaces which are considered by some to be masculine. The reign of God can work through the feminine domain, through the places where women are traditionally in charge, like the kitchen. The Reign of God can be revealed by actions by men, or by women, by people of all genders, all across the gender spectrum. We might even say that the pairing of these parables…one featuring a man and one featuring a woman, reveals that God values diversity. That the the Reign of God is best understood by noticing God at work in all kinds of people…people of all genders, all races, all sexualities, all socio-economic types. The Reign of God, like many holy things, is beyond our understanding. And so in order for us to grasp it, just a bit, Jesus gives us a variety of images. Each image reveals something about the nature of God. And. Each image on its own is not the whole story. That is why you all are using The Women’s Lectionary, a new lectionary, created by Dr. Wil Gafney, to lift up many of the stories and images in scripture that our patriarchal culture has too often ignored or erased.  We need a diversity of images, a diversity of holy stories, to get the most full picture of who God is and how God works. 

So what else do these stories today tell us? What else can we learn about who God is and how God works through the picture painted in Luke of the woman making bread? Again, parables have a multiplicity of meanings. One meaning, is that God is at work across the gender spectrum. Another meaning might be that God works through community. Because, and I didn’t know this before researching it, but 3 measures of flour? Is A LOT OF FLOUR. This woman is not baking like one loaf of bread for dinner, or a couple of loaves for her household. This woman is using enough flour to feed like 100 people. It is enough flour for a big gathering, a party…except that flour? Flour doesn’t really feed people on its own. Flour is multiplied and made bigger by yeast. Big enough to fill 100 bellies. This is a story about abundance.

What else does this story today tell us? What else can we learn about who God is and how God works? We can learn that God works across the gender spectrum. That God works in community and that the Reign of God is about abundance. What else might we learn about the Reign of God from a woman making bread? One thing we might not notice, is that this measurement of flour…3 measures…is the same measurement used in Genesis 18. In Genesis 18 we hear a story of Sarah and Abraham, the matriarch and patriarch of the Jewish faith. In that story, God visits Abraham and Sarah in the form of three men or maybe angels. And Abraham offers the three men rest, some water, and a feast of a roasted calf, curds, milk,…and bread that Sarah baked, made of 3 measures of flour just like in this parable. In Genesis 18, the three men tell Abraham and Sarah of God’s promise for them. They promise that Abraham and Sarah will have children, even though Sarah is barren, even though at this point they are very old. It’s so unbelievable that Sarah laughs when she hears it. But it’s true. God fulfills the promise. And then some. Just like the yeast multiplied the flour in the parable in Luke today, Sarah and Abraham’s descendants multiplied. This is a story about how in the Reign of God, God fulfills the promises made to us and to our ancestors. 

What else does this story tell us? What else can we learn about God and how God works through this woman who is baking bread? We learned that God works across the gender spectrum. We learned that God works through community and in the Reign of God there is abundance. We learned that God fulfills promises made to us and to our ancestors. What other things might this story say? The original Greek says that the woman baking bread took yeast and hid it in the bread. ἔκρυψεν. It’s like the yeast is encrypted in the bread. It is kinda just snuck in there. The Reign of God is beautifully, mischievously, sneaky. It surprises us.

Now we have learned that the Reign of God is surprising, that it fulfills promises, that it is abundant and found in community, that it works across the gender spectrum and all kinds of diversity. What other meaning might we find? What else can we learn about who God is and how God works through this parable?

One interesting tidbit of math and science trivia that we might think about in this parable is that trees (like mustard trees but really any tree) and leavened bread both include fractals. Fractals are patterns in the universe that repeat at scale. It’s like God’s whole world is created with these patterns…some that are large, and some that are teeny tiny. Author and Emergent Strategist adrienne maree brown talks about fractals. Brown gives the example of a fern leaf. You know how on a fern, there are a bunch of leaves? And then each leaf of a fern is made up of what looks like mini tiny leaves? She says,

“A fractal is a never-ending pattern…self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale… what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.”

This story of leavened bread and mustard seeds that grow into big trees reminds us that the building blocks of life? The building blocks of transformation? Of revolution? The building blocks of the Reign of God? Are made up of simple, ordinary ingredients. God works like yeast in bread, something we might find in our pantries. God loves using the most everyday things to do something miraculous. That’s why we have communion with things like bread and wine or juice, it’s why we join God’s family through something as everyday as water in baptism.

Sometimes when we think about building the Reign of God or helping to bring the Reign of God here on earth it can seem really overwhelming. I look at the world out there and I see things like, a brilliant, qualified, Black female judge being disrespected and grilled for hours. I see war in Ukraine and Somalia and Palestine. I see a pandemic that has taken so much from us, that feels like it will never end. I see Black folks dying in the streets. I see obstacles so big that they are whole systems, systems like white supremacy, capitalism, and the cis-hetero patriarchy. And I see problems so entrenched that they are embedded in our institutions from the foundation. Anytime I try to make a change in the world, any time I try to make things better it just seems so much bigger than me. And I don’t know about you, but especially after these past few years? I am tired. I am so tired. I see God’s vision for turning the world upside down and I desperately need it, but sometimes I feel like I just don’t have it in me anymore to fight another never ending fight.

Fractals in leavened bread and in mustard trees remind us that while the revolution is big, its building blocks are small. Freedom is like a muscle, when we use it, it gets stronger. There is no way that we can be ready to participate in the radical upending of this world order without some practice. And the good news that these parables tell us is that what we do on the small scale matters. We can practice liberation in the small moments, in our most intimate relationships, with those closest to us. And the universe repeats at scale, God designed it that way on purpose. So those small moments of liberation matter. They echo into the cosmos and reverberate into eternity. This parable reminds us that God works through simple, little things to make them great. God uses our everyday faithfulness as the substance of the revolution. This is a parable about the way God can work through the small things. 

The Reign of God is like a woman. Baking bread. Getting a whole bunch of flour and hiding a bit of yeast in there until it changes the whole mixture. So what does this story tell us about God and how God works? This story tells us that God works through the small things. That God surprises us. That God fulfills promises, that the Reign of God is abundant and found in community, that God works across all kinds of diversity

What else does this story tell us? I would love to hear at Fellowship hour what you think. Is there one of these layers to the story that feels especially real to you today? Are there stories of how these examples are playing out in your life or at Holy Family? Or maybe there are other layers that you are peeling back from this story, layers that I don’t know, layers that God has revealed especially to you. What is God telling you about who God is and how God works in this story of a woman making bread?

The Reign of God is like that. All of that. It’s simple and complex and alive and well. It is among us. And around us. It is in you.

Thanks be to God.

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