February 2021: the beginning of a new year. It’s a time when many people would be a few weeks in to keeping the New Year resolutions they made back in early January. Ordinarily, anyway. But I wonder if, this year, less people will have made some?
Under normal circumstances, many would already be discovering by early February that they can’t keep the resolutions they made. The unpredictability of life gets in the way of our best-made plans and upsets our resolve. But with our experience last year of so many disrupted plans and disappointed expectations, I wonder if we’re less inclined to make firm resolutions or fixed plans for ourselves this year?
Perhaps, instead, we’re more inclined toward expressing our hopes for what life might be like in the coming year: for ourselves, our families, our communities, our Church and our world.
Perhaps, instead, we’re more inclined to open ourselves up to imagining alternative possibilities, and to hope? But how can we hope for such things?
It was a year ago that I needed to choose the theme of our upcoming Synod. This was before we had any idea of what 2020 might hold. Yet strangely, surprisingly, the theme I chose seems to speak to us in the midst of these times we find ourselves in.
“Like Leaven in the Loaf”
The theme comes from a single verse in Matthew’s gospel:
“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’.” Matthew 13: 33
It’s a tiny verse, rich and full, that speaks of a tiny amount of hope, dreamed large.
The yeast itself is tiny, completely invisible once mixed in with the flour. Yet it is potent, transforming the dry flour into tasty bread that sustains our life. The parable speaks to us of how the Spirit of God can work powerfully through small and seemingly insignificant things, barely visible to our eyes, and yet far beyond our expectations.
We have no control over the activity of the yeast. Once mixed in, it is invisible to us, and needs to be left alone, to rest. Yet it works away, hidden from our eyes and slow, taking its own time – as does the Spirit of God.
The parable echoes the story of Abraham and Sarah in their tents by the oak trees of Mamre, visited by three strangers who brought God’s promise of a child and a future far beyond their expectations. Like the woman in Jesus’s parable, Sarah also takes three measures of flour to make bread to feed the visitors.
For the original readers of Matthew’s gospel, the parable would have immediately brought this story to mind. And they would have known that three measures of flour was a massive amount. It was not the amount required for a small snack for a few people (as Abraham suggested), but enough for a huge feast – enough to feed the entire neighbourhood!
The parable would have rung out loud of the kingdom of heaven being about the extraordinarily extravagant generosity and rich hospitality of God that we are both promised and called into – beyond our wildest imaginations.
The parable also speaks of how heaven is to be found in simple, ordinary daily activities, amongst ordinary people who join in with the work of God, as co-creators with God. Through women and men, children and seniors, of all cultures, abilities and regardless of status – heaven can happen through us all, as we give of ourselves to the hidden work of God.
This parable offers us an alternative way of living from that of our predominant culture, which suggests humans can be masters of their own destiny. The parable tells us how we can live with unpredictability, when our resolutions are stymied and our plans dashed.
It tell us that the kingdom of heaven doesn’t depend on our actions or resourcefulness alone. The power of the yeast to transform the flour into bread, does not depend on our work alone – but it does need us to do our part, small though that might be.
The parable tells us that the hope of the world does not depend entirely on human capacity. Instead, it guides us in hope, as it speaks to us of the unexpected and often hidden presence and activity of the Spirit of God in our midst – and invites us to join in. It was a woman who mixed the yeast into the flour.
We can be tempted to overload the meaning of a parable. At the same time, parables work by stirring up associations within our minds, connecting to our experience of life. They work by jolting us out of stuck ways of thinking, when we are feeling resigned to things remaining as they are, feeling there is no possibility for change. They work by bringing our imaginations to life, to see things we otherwise might not be able to see or imagine. They invite us into a different reality: the reality of the endless possibilities of life in God.
This parable raises for me a truth: that the redemption of the world does not depend on human capacity alone, but is brought to life through the hidden presence and activity of the Spirit of God. It speaks to me of how heaven often comes in unexpected people and places and ways, and often through seemingly insignificant people contributing in small ways.
It brings the promise of the possibility of life beyond our wildest imaginations. And it invites me to work together with the Spirit of God. If only I have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Is this not a message of hope for us all?
May the Spirit of God fill you and immerse you in hope, and empower you in love, kindness, mercy and extravagant generosity we know in Christ Jesus.
Rev Denise Liersch, Moderator VicTas Synod