“He 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.” (Matthew 13:33)
Yesterday’s gospel reading from Matthew, chapter 13, included the parable of the yeast, or leaven, to use a more antiquated term. This little nugget of scripture sang out to me in light of several events going on at this time.
First, we are approaching the 40th anniversary tomorrow of the ordination of eleven women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, which happened on July 29, 1974 at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. Second, it was recently announced that the General Synod of the Church of England had approved legislation for women to be selected as bishops, twenty years after the Church of England admitted women to the priesthood in 1994. Third, and at nearly the same time as we received that news, several hundred Episcopal youth were raising the roof at the Episcopal Youth Event in Philadelphia—some of them even got to visit the church in Philadelphia where that first ordination took place. Further, I write these words today from Camp Phoenix, which is the summer camp for youth operated by the Diocese of Missouri.
What does all this have to do with this parable?
I would bet that most of us have experienced times when we have been discounted or overlooked for some reason, regardless of our capability. Maybe it was due to our age—either being too young or too old. Maybe it was due to our gender or sexuality, especially when we try to do something that traditionally has not been stereotypically within our sphere of activity. Maybe it was because of our body shape, or our accent, or the credentials we hold or do not hold, or perhaps because it was feared that our admission into a role would diminish that role’s prestige or traditions. Nonetheless, sometimes the most discounted or overlooked things have the most to offer us. One such person was Jesus. He didn’t have the right pedigree, the right accent, the right credentials. Even his neighbors disregarded him and his authority to teach.
That’s part of why Jesus told this little parable—he was explaining how something that could be discounted, that could even be considered unclean, could actually do great things. If you’ve ever made bread from scratch, you know that yeast is tiny little granule-looking things that are actually alive—they are micro-organisms classified as a fungus. But if you had lived at the time of Christ, you would not have thought of yeast as something found in cute, sterile little packets in the grocery store, but was instead you would have had to cultivate from old bread that was allowed to decay. Something that appeared to be useless provided the starter for something good: leavened bread.
Add yeast to flour, water, and salt, and the entire mixture rises and becomes what my more rural relatives used to call “light bread” (as opposed to biscuits). Over time, it grows in size: yeast added to three measures of flour created enough bread for a feast, or so my commentaries tell me. It’s a sometimes messy process, but it’s also amazing. Another facet of this short parable is that Jesus can be compared to the woman in the story, and it is one of the places in scripture where feminine imagery and “women’s work” is used to describe an action of God—in this case, revealing to the world the realization of the reign of God in our lives and in all of creation in the leavening and rising of that bread. Bread that feeds the soul, and the world.
For the last fifty years in the Episcopal Church, the leaven that women provide as laity, deacons, priests, and now bishops—even presiding bishops!—has been allowed to rise, and continues to evolve. Now the Church of England itself is moving further toward an fuller embrace of that same truth. At the same time, we are steadily evolving in our understanding and celebration of the role that our youth can play within the Episcopal Church and the greater church in the world.
We are all leaven. Each of us—male, female, transgendered, old, young, gay, straight, bisexual-- may look like an unlikely source of enlightenment to the world at large, but each of us has a part to play in the Kingdom of Heaven. It may take time and patience but also perseverance for this to come into fullness. When all are encouraged to come fully into the gifts and talents we all have, the entire Body of Christ and the world is lifted up and rises toward a fuller realization of the Kingdom of Heaven right now. May we all have ears to listen!
Leslie Scoopmire is a newly retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She will attend Eden Theological Seminary beginning in the fall of 2014. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.