Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
May 14, 2017
Psalm 33; Matthew 13:33; Luke 13: 20-21
As a very small child, I remember watching my grandmother’s mixing bowl full of dough. It bubbled as it gave forth to a sweet smell that would yield the dough she would knead into braids. The whole kitchen would be filled with the smell of cardamom and almond on the sweet bread she baked. Just a small cake of compressed yeast worked wonders when combined with eggs, sugar, flour, milk and the spices.
There are many ways of baking bread, of course. The ancients used other methods of making bread, such as what we call flat breads, cooked on a flat surface rather than baked; tortillas or the South Asian chapatti are usually cooked this way. Other breads are roasted. The bread of Jesus' day was made with combinations of grains, such as barley, spelt, and a coarser kind of wheat and was often unleavened. It was nothing like the soft white bread first introduced in 1921, known as Wonder bread. During the 1940s the parent company Continental Baking began adding certain vitamins and minerals to the bread as part of a U.S. government program to combat certain diseases such as Beriberi and Pellagra, caused by thiamine and b-12 deficiencies. Remember those commercials about how Wonder Bread built our bodies strong in 12 ways?
The real secret to most breads, of course, is the leavening agent; yeast was the traditional way, baking powder or soda not really developed commercially until the early nineteenth century. Although yeast and baking powder and baking soda cause breads to rise in different ways, both are just as susceptible to being killed, as it were. I remember my deaf mother wanting everyone out of the kitchen while a cake was baking or some calamity such as noise or shaking could cause the cake to fall, just as liquid too hot or too cold could kill the yeast.
One of the problems with this metaphor about the kingdom developed as the result of our faith is that it are so well-known and used so commonly that in some respects we have almost lost their meaning. What is it about a seed or leaven that is like to the kingdom? Seeds and leaven occur all around us in nature. The Synoptic Gospel writers also have Jesus compare the religious establishment of his day to the leaven of corruption, leavening being that agent that allows something to bubble and grow. As is often the case, it's just as easy for evil to develop from the leavening agents of hate, fear, and prejudice as it is for the kingdom to develop from the seeds and nutrients of faith.
Yeast, although essential to bread rising, is but one ingredient for the loaves of our social compact. Trust is also an essential ingredient, but how do we learn to trust and who should we trust? It seems that there is a loss of trust in the essential national ideals that hold our society together.
Another important leavening is doubt. At first, it may seem strange to say that we must learn to trust and learn to doubt, but rather than being in opposition to each other, one develops from the other. Trusting does not mean believing everything we hear. Trust involves judgment, discerning judgment. Doubt is one of the instruments of discernment. People who believe everything they hear aren't trusting; they're just plain gullible, simply accepting statements that reinforce their prejudices, and we are all guilty of that temptation.
Just as the yeast can be easily killed off by not being properly nurtured, the bread can also be flattened by not giving it enough attention. The study that leads to questioning is well and good; that is clearly one part of the nurturing of faith. But without the part of love leading to action, the yeast will not live. Just as democracy is not a spectator sport, neither is faith a mere intellectual exercise. It requires action in order to truly grow and live. That action can take a variety of forms, of course, from shopping for school packs for homeless kids to standing up against an army. The leavening of love into action covers many fronts. Not only does it include protecting the social safety net of services for the poor but stewardship of our environment; it includes basic justice issues such as a living wage and the protection of due process in our judicial system. And we haven't even touched the questions of prejudice, racism, or the unequal treatment of disfavored groups.
When we put the dough into the bowl, we make sure the bowl is well oiled or buttered so the bread will rise without hindrance. One of the toughest parts about all this care we give the bread dough is that we need to protect it from drafts or sudden shaking, so we cover it with a clean damp towel. We use a damp towel because the moisture interacts with the bread, rising.
And I always make sure the bowl is warm so I set it on a rack over a pan of water that has been boiled. The warmth given the bowl gives the bread an added oomph, just as the warmth of our care and love gives the added oomph to our faithfulness as Christians. Then the bread will rise.
There is a reason why bread is called the staff of life. The origin of that phrase which is so familiar to all of us seems to be unknown. Bartlett attributes it to Matthew Henry (1662-1714), who in his famous commentaries on Scripture tied it back to the Psalms. Phrases close to “staff of life” are also found in Isaiah and Ezekiel. In other parts of the world, such as the Far East, rice, rather than bread, is called the staff of life.
Bread, like rice, actually signifies hope. Jesus spoke this parable to a people bereft of hope. They lived in a time of brutal occupation by the Romans and their so-called leaders were no more than collaborators in that occupation. Between the taxes due Rome and the taxes due the temple, some have estimated that peasants in the time of Jesus only kept 40% of their crops.
Although evidence is fragmentary, archaeological examinations of children’s skulls indicate serious iron and protein deficiency. For a people living on the edge, bread was critical. Jesus realized this in the prayer he offered: Give us this day our daily bread. But the bread that we need is something to be worked for; bread does not rise by itself without our help.
Similarly, the hope we have called the kingdom of God just won’t rise by itself. It will require our involvement. Well, that’s obvious, you may way, but what kind of involvement is required? Ah! That’s the question, to quote the Dane who faced choices and decisions as well.
Several weeks ago, the Star Ledger carried an article about the Ramapough Lenape peoples here in New Jersey. Like the Sioux at Standing Rock, they face a serious challenge to the integrity of their tribal lands. There are about 5,000 members of this tribe who live in the Stag Hill area near Mahwah and Ringwood. Their old lands were poisoned by sludge and toxic materials produced by Ford in its production of six million vehicles for over 25 years; the plant closed in 1980.
It was only in 1980 that the tribe was recognized as such by the State of New Jersey. But it took almost twenty more years before they were recognized as such by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which involved court suits and fighting the local U.S. Congresswoman at that time Marge Roukema, who agreed with real estate investor Donald Trump that recognition would only create problems.
Although there was a settlement to tribal members, there is much cleanup left to be done. And to add insult to injury, the gleaming Sheraton tower which now sits on the site of the former Ford plant was built on ceremonial grounds at a time when no one cared much about First Nation peoples.
But the tribe and we in New Jersey face a new issue today: the Pilgrim Pipeline proposal which would create two side by side lines, one carrying the highly flammable Bakken crude from Albany to the Arthur Kill Refining plant in Linden, just up the road from here. The Ramapough tribe is fighting it because the pipeline would go right through their land, not to mention at least 29 New Jersey municipalities.
What’s this got to do with our loaf of bread in the bowl? If we are serious in our efforts to bring hope as part of God’s kingdom, then we must take action here as well as the giant towers proposed by JCP&L, and the Penn East Pinelands Pipeline, approved by a commission stacked by you know who. Yes, it’s good to support the Sierra Club in its court battle, but to get the bread to rise so we get a good loaf, we need to do more.
This is an election year in this state. Where do the candidates for governor and state representatives stand on these issues? We need to call them to task because there’s more at stake than property taxes. We need to look at the real issues that face our state: income inequality, decaying cities, the lack of affordable housing, street violence, and, thanks to the current governor, the availability of guns even to the mentally disabled and impaired.
Jesus offered the image of bread rising as a symbol of hope for us all as we strive to realize the kingdom. As we look at this year’s primaries, set for June 6, we should learn where all these candidates stand on the really important issues in our state. And we should offer the hope of risen bread to the many communities in New Jersey that seek to preserve the creation God gave us against the exploitation of large companies seeking only to increase their profits at our expense. To do less betrays our call as a people of God.
Let us pray: Help us to be as faithful to you as you have been to us by being not just the yeast but the hands that work the dough into the kingdom you offer us. In the name of him who is our symbol of hope, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.