"Bread of Life: A Little Bit Goes a Long Way"
The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland
“Bread of Life: A Little Bit Goes a Long Way”
Rev. Amy Morgan
March 14, 2021
[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."
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him.
12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation."
13 And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.
14 Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.
15 And he cautioned them, saying, "Watch out-- beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod."
16 They said to one another, "It is because we have no bread."
17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?
18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?
19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" They said to him, "Twelve."
20 "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" And they said to him, "Seven."
21 Then he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?"
It’s only about 100 nanometers wide. By comparison, a human hair is 60,000 nanometers wide. This thing is miniscule. Microscopic. And yet, this tiny particle has completely transformed almost every aspect of life on this planet over the course of the last 52 weeks.
One year ago today, the Session held a called meeting where the decision was made to cease all in-person activities, including worship. We scrambled to create our first online worship service and cancelled all our plans because of a virus that is only 100 nanometers wide.
Since then, we’ve transitioned to working from home, grocery shopping online, meeting over Zoom, going to school and teaching online, wearing masks and social distancing, and so many other immense changes. Millions have died, hundreds of millions have fallen ill, some with long-lasting health consequences. People have lost employment and economies have crumbled. The generations alive today will be indelibly shaped by this microscopic particle. We understand, in very real and tangible and tragic ways, the outsized impact of small things.
A particle of yeast is only 600 nanometers, not too much larger than the particle that causes COVID-19. And in most Biblical mentions of this tiny thing, it is cast as something to be avoided as vigorously as a deadly virus. Scholars speculate that the ancient Israelites thought yeast created the effect of making bread rise by somehow corrupting it. At the Passover, God instructs Israel not to leaven their bread and in the festival remembrance of this event, all leaven must be purged from the household. Leaven is prohibited in sacrificial grain offerings to God. While yeast certainly wasn’t deadly or dangerous, the Israelites viewed it as somehow unholy and unacceptable to God.
So it makes sense that Jesus would compare the Pharisees and Herod to yeast when warning his disciples not to be influenced by them. Herod had killed Jesus’ cousin, John, and the Pharisees were a problem for Jesus at every turn. Herod was only one man, ruling only a fraction of a kingdom, with minor influence in the massive Roman Empire. And yet, he had an outsized impact on the life of Jesus and all Jews in the region. The Pharisees were not the only sect within Judaism of the first century, and they weren’t the most powerful or well-connected. They represented only a small percentage of the Jewish population. But they had an outsized impact on the practices and perceptions of average Jewish people in the first century. Jesus is clearly drawing upon his people’s ancient aversion to yeast when he makes this comparison, implying that Herod and the Pharisees are a corrupting, unholy influence.
The warning of a sinister threat gets lost in this story, though, mainly because the episode is so comical. This story follows the miraculous feeding of the 4,000 that we heard last week. Immediately (because everything happens immediately in Mark’s gospel), some Pharisees come to Jesus asking for a sign from heaven. And what does Jesus do?
He sighs deeply. He doesn’t even attempt to hide his exasperation. Of all the details Mark might have chosen to include in his gospel account, Jesus sighing makes the cut. We don’t know how tall Jesus was or how many siblings he had, but we know that when Pharisees show up asking ridiculous questions, he sighs - heavily. I would venture to guess he also face palmed and rolled his eyes. And then he says, “no, I’m not giving you a sign,” silently adding, I’m sure, adding, “did you miss the miraculous feeding of 4,000 people a minute ago?” And then hops back into the boat with his disciples.
If this were the end of the scene, that would be funny enough. But it gets better. Jesus gives his warning about the Pharisees being like yeast, and the disciples completely miss the point. They immediately (because everything happens immediately in Mark’s gospel) get defensive about forgetting to bring bread on their trip. The narrator notes that they did actually have one loaf of bread, but, as is typical for the disciples in Mark, when there isn’t enough, there might as well not be any at all.
Now Jesus is more outspoken in his exasperation. His disciples have been following him around for quite some time, not only witnessing, but participating in the miracles he’s performed. Like the one that just happened. Where he made more bread out of not very much bread. Like, maybe he could do that again. He has the disciples review those past miracles, leading them right up to the conclusion that, perhaps, he isn’t concerned about the amount of bread they brought along. And then, he asks them, “Don’t you get it?” Blank stares are all he gets in return.
Jesus is exasperated, with the Pharisees and the disciples, because they are refusing to see, or unable to see, what Jesus is doing right under their noses. Something amazing and wonderful is happening, but they are blind to it, and it’s really starting to get annoying. Obviously, they aren’t missing the miracles, the big show of Jesus’s power. But they are missing the point of the miracles, the small thing that is having an outsized impact in the world.
Jesus explains this in the gospel of Matthew when he talks about the kingdom of heaven as yeast. This is a very strange comparison given the fact that just about every other biblical reference to yeast has negative connotations. Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of heaven to some unholy, corrupting influence? It would be like saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a coronavirus that spread across the whole world and infected everybody.” Not a great image.
But in this series of parables, Jesus is going for shock value. He compares the kingdom of heaven to all sorts of unusual things – seeds scattered around willy-nilly, a tiny mustard seed, a field with weeds and wheat growing together. Not exactly symbols of great and powerful kingdoms. But Jesus understands the influence tiny things can have – for better or worse. Just as yeast can “corrupt” bread, so it can make it rise.
In the parable Jesus tells about yeast, the Greek actually says that the woman “hid” the yeast in the bread, secretly. And three measures of flour was an immense amount – enough to make bread for 150 people.
And that’s how the kingdom of heaven is at work in the world. A tiny, hidden thing has an enormous impact on a huge amount of material. Dean had me watch an educational video on string theory the other night. It hurt my brain, I’ll admit, but I also couldn’t help but see parallels to how Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven. I won’t attempt to begin to explain string theory, because I still don’t understand it myself, but the over-arching idea is that physicists have developed this theory about string particles to explain how things in the world actually work out in experiments. Sting theory allows the math to add up. We can’t see the strings and watch them work. We can’t even prove they truly exist yet. But we know they must be there, unseen but detected by the impact they have on literally everything.
Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast hidden in a giant batch of bread because the way God is at work in the world can’t be seen or proven. But it explains how things actually work out in our experience, it explains why life adds up to more than the sum of its parts. We can’t see it with our eyes any more than physicists can see string particles. But we know the kingdom of heaven must be there, and we can detect it by the impact it has on literally everything.
From the grace of the first breath we take to the blessing of a beautiful sunset. From the dramatic, sweeping romances of our lives to the daily, mundane commitments to those we love. From the historic movements for justice to the individual gesture of kindness, humility, or understanding. From the still, small voice to the blinding light of an epiphany. Hidden within it all, the kingdom of heaven is at work, helping us rise, making us more than we can see and know.
This doesn’t diminish the fact that there are also tiny, unseen threats all around us every day. Not just viruses and germs, but grudges and resentments, prejudices and biases. Algorithms embedded in social media that keep us addicted to our phones and distanced from each other. Advertising that persuades us to buy products we don’t need or even want. Small, almost invisible, actions and attitudes that have an outsized influence, corrupting our relationships, our society, our faith. Beware the yeast of influencers. Beware the yeast of evangelists who corrupt the gospel for their own gain. Beware the yeast of your own ideological echo chamber. Beware the yeast that corrupts and puffs us up.
Beware, yes, be aware - but do not fear. See what God has done, and is doing, in the world. Do not be blind to the yeast that is the kingdom of heaven. The disciples were filled with shame and despair because they couldn’t see what was right in front of them. One loaf of bread. And the one who fed thousands with just a few loaves. The one who, in John’s gospel, calls himself the Bread of Life. They had the only bread they needed.
A virus measured in nanometers has upended our lives in the last year. But Jesus has been in the boat with us through it all. And the yeast of the kingdom of heaven has been at work. In connecting neighbors. In concern, compassion, and support for those most directly impacted by the virus. In movements for racial justice, fair housing practices, more just employment policies. In the unmasking of the corrupting influences, the yeast that we must be aware of.
It doesn’t take much. Something small. To create tremendous harm or immense goodness. It doesn’t take much. One cruel word. One genuine smile. One loaf of bread.
When we think we don’t have enough, when are ashamed that we have failed or disappointed, let us remember that all we need is right here in the boat with us. Whatever small things threaten to overwhelm us, the kingdom of heaven is at work in sometimes imperceptible ways. And because of that, we will rise.
Thanks be to God. Amen.