Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
September 1, 2019
Texts: Psalm 121; Luke 13:18-30
As a small child I was entranced by the bowl full of rising bread dough in my grandmother’s kitchen. The smell of cardamom used in pulla, a Finnish coffee bread would fill the kitchen. It always seemed to be such magic. The magic, of course, was the leavening – yeast.
So, as a new bride in the previous century, I decided I would try to make bread. My mumu – that’s what I called her – had done it so could it be that difficult? Well, I learned that you could kill the yeast if the water was too hot or not warm enough and the result would be like a brick, which I used as a doorstop.
Yeast is actually a living organism, a single cell with its nucleus inside the membrane making it part of the domain eukaryote. Yeasts have been around for almost a billion years. We think of yeast as just one kind of ingredient, but there are about 1500 varieties of yeasts.
Ancient peoples probably first discovered yeast in the brewing of beer and other grain based alcoholic drinks. Then bakers domesticated the yeast for bread. Archaeologists have found traces of yeast in Egyptian tombs and prehistoric bowls from northern Europe. Unlike the yeast I managed to kill, some of those traces were determined to still be alive, probably just waiting for the right baker.
Although I have grown lots of different plants, I have never tried to grow mustard. That’s probably because it’s not my favorite taste although I do have to admit that just a touch sometimes adds a necessary taste to certain dishes. Mustard plants and bushes have been around a long time, not as long as yeast to be sure, but certainly since the dawn of horticulture.
Mustard seeds and yeast share certain qualities in common but are different in one significant way. The seed transform itself into the plant and the bush. The yeast makes other things grow and expand, like bread. The rabbis commented that the reason that Jews ate unleavened bread the night of the first Passover had to do with the fact that waiting for something like bread to rise takes time and the fleeing Jewish slaves did not have time.
Mustard seeds and yeast are similar in that their final product does take time. Serious time. You can’t hurry either one. Plants grow and breads rise in their own good time. And that is a bit like faith – and working for the realm of God. Both seem to take their own good time.
It’s a tossup between the two activities I like to do – caring for plants and baking bread. The plant, like faith, requires weeding and this spring and summer we’ve had plenty of weeds to pull! The worst kind of weeds are those that have become entangled with the roots of the plants you want to grow. And God’s realm requires care as well, weeding out what is clearly destructive to justice and peace.
Baking bread is different. As you mix the eggs with the milk and a bit of sugar and butter into the softened yeast and throw in the freshly ground cardamom, the fragrance explodes into the rest of the kitchen. Stirring in the sifted flour at first seems easy, but then the mixture becomes thick and requires kneading.
Faith is a little like that. At first it seems easy, but then like the dough, it becomes more difficult to stir so you must work it with your hands. It will require kneading. With the heel of your hand, you push and pull the dough as you struggle to have it acquire that elastic quality. Our struggle to reflect the life of Jesus is like that. We push and pull until we respond as does the dough when kneaded.
The yeast here is the critical element for it is the yeast that will allow the dough to obtain that elasticity. But before kneading, you have to turn the dough out of the bowl and let it rest and so must we as we reflect on what it means to be church, a community of faith and care in today’s world.
While the dough rests, while we reflect on the meaning of our faith and of church, important things are happening. The yeast is infusing itself into the dough. In a similar way, our conversations about the nature of faith and our study of how it affects our lives in the world will become the groundwork for our actions.
Then, of course, I will begin to knead the dough. Sometimes when I am really upset or frustrated with the world, I find the kneading to be a way to work it out. I have already put a light dusting of flour on the kneading board so I can pick up the dough without having it stick to the board. In the same way, when we begin our kneading, our work for God’s kingdom, we want to be able to free up the dough from the board where it had rested.
Then the kneading begins in earnest. With the heels of my hands I work the dough, always keeping that light dusting of flour on the board so the dough doesn’t stick. In like manner, we want to be able to free the dough of our minds from what would make it stick to the board, our preconceptions and prejudices.
Then at some point the dough begins to take shape just as our work for God begins to take shape. Just as the dough responds to my hands working it, we suddenly realize perhaps we really are on the right track as a community of faith and that the work we are doing will begin to yield some results.
After the kneading makes the dough just the way you want it, it’s time to put it into the bowl for the first rising. After covering it with a damp clean cloth – can you imagine that cookbooks actually have to tell you to use a clean cloth – what else would you use? The fragrance of cardamom fills the kitchen again as we wait to see the results of our work. That little bit of yeast does its work and the dough begins to expand and double in size as does our faith when we live the Gospel.
After it’s doubled, it’s time to shape it into the form for baking. Now, the nice thing about pulla dough is that you can put it into any kind of shape you want. Usually the loaves are braided, but there may be other times when you want a different shape to better reflect the needs of the world around you.
Little swirls with soaked dried cranberries in the four corners of the swirled dough are nice; other times, making fancier shapes suits the work better. Again you can design and work the shapes on the dusted board and put them on a well buttered baking pan so they won’t stick while going through the second raising. I really abhor that term “well-greased” for using butter, real butter.
Like us after we work, the dough needs to rest as it rises again. It needs warmth so the baking sheets are put on top of racks over pans of hot water. And then covered with a damp cloth, clean, of course, just like during the first raising.
The magic of the yeast makes the dough rise again just as our work can become like the yeast for the kingdom of God. Baking is the time when the fragrance of cardamom takes over the entire kitchen wafting into the rest of the house. And when the bread is done, we see how that little bit of yeast has transformed the simple ingredients we all have into communities of faith to bring God’s realm of righteousness into the world.
Let us come to God in prayer: God who has given us the gift of yeast, help us to use it to transform our lives to make the bread of your justice, mercy, and peace to be shared with the world. In the name of him who gave us a vision of you, even Christ Jesus our Lord.