By Richard E. Helmer
A few months ago the makings of what looked like a curious science experiment began to appear on the shelves of our kitchen. Knowing our seven-year-old’s propensity for putting things in water and watching what happens – with sometimes rather gruesome and foul-smelling results – I initially thought nothing of the proliferation of jars and their strange contents. But as they persisted, curiosity began to grab hold. In one jar was a layer of swollen raisins floating in water that was slowly turning a golden color. In another was a doughy paste that was starting to slowly bubble.
The coin didn’t drop for me until a few days later when some delicious bread appeared for dinner. My wife and son had, of course, been making bread starters. I discovered the benefits of our car port, where the back-end of our hatchback got enough sun during the day so my wife would put a culture in back to enjoy the warmth. The yeast was completely natural, started from the skins of everyday raisins, gently tended into a culture ready to mix with whole-wheat flour. In a few days, the resulting starter would expand, and a few teaspoons would go into a bread recipe made from scratch.
It was so much fun, I had to get into the act, and soon I was preparing bread starters from next to nothing to donate to our annual parish bake sale. It was great fun, but it demanded patience. The yeast would sit in a new clean jar with the flour for two or three days doing what seemed to be nothing, and then it would – one night when I wasn’t watching – take off, announcing that it was ready to be kneaded into some dough. My wife was far more patient, giving a sometimes daily batch of dough several hours to rise and noting the huge difference a cold, damp day would make.
She was also the one who grasped the theological implications of what we were doing long before I did. As we sat down for dinner one night, she said the experience reminded her of Jesus’ parable about the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 13:33, among the briefest of all Jesus’ parables: “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.”
In our age of store-bought packages of quick-rise yeast, bread-making machines, and impatient schedules, the full meaning of this simplest of parables hadn’t dawned on me until my wife connected Jesus’ words with our making bread-starters and baking simple breads from scratch. In her connection, I discovered a valuable lesson for all our ministries in the church and the wider world: Ministry, working with God’s grace in cultivating the “kingdom of heaven,” requires the simplest of ingredients: like raisins, a bit of flour, and water. . .the yeast is already naturally present, like God’s Spirit waiting to act, if only given the right conditions. Our job is to gather those ingredients and create those conditions, offer the water it takes to build up the sacramental life, the “flour,” the food it needs from our shared stories and experiences, and the warmth of love in community that it takes to spread, take nourishment, and grow.
Ministry requires patience. It’s a no-brainer, but it’s the hardest discipline of the lot in our age of quick gratification and instant success. How many times to we go to the ecclesiastical grocery store to buy our quick-rise “yeast” program off the shelf – packaged and guaranteed to deliver? And how often are we disappointed that our efforts produce a ho-hum spiritual bread devoid of the joy of labor well done, of prayerful work committed over a long period? Waiting for the yeast to take hold is like waiting for the Spirit to act. When we create the right conditions for God’s grace to enter our lives and the lives of others, we are on God’s time. And God comes – as does the “Son of Man” – just like the yeast: a bit of a “thief in the night.” We wake up one morning to find our efforts by grace have taken root, the Spirit has acted, and what began with simple ingredients has blossomed into a culture of abundance, ready to leaven a whole batch of folk and an entire community with the life, hope, and vision of the kingdom.
Ministry is organic. It ebbs and flows with time and conditions – many of which are outside of our control. Yeast works faster when it is warm, slower when it is cold. We have to ride with its cycles much as we do with the cycles of life in our communities of faith and vocation. How often I have brooded over a down year or two in our parochial report! But experience shows that often these down times make room for a new infusion of grace and people, itching to engage in the deep life of the Gospel. We have to keep the best of the culture going, trusting in the natural life-cycle of the yeast. Sometimes, new clean jars are needed. Sometimes, we just have to start over. But faith is measured more in our long-term adherence to the Gospel calling – our kneading together the simple recipe of love of God and love of neighbor, the hope in Christ’s life-giving presence, the promise of grace that hooks into our life-cycles and demands our deepest trust and greatest devotion.
My wife and I chuckled over calling the bread coming out of our kitchen “Kingdom of Heaven Bread.” We chuckled because it seemed silly at first to gather such theological meaning out of something so everyday as break-making. But then, that is what the Christian life is about: God making the ordinary extraordinary; the everyday becomes miraculous. At that point, I suppose our chuckling became a bit more profound, a bit more leavening for life we had discovered, mixed in with three measures, and rising into Christ Jesus.
The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif., and a postulant in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs at Caught by the Light.