Bishop Larry R. Benfield
Emmanuel, Lake Village, and St. Paul’s, McGehee
July 24, 2011
Year A Proper 12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
All that bread consists of is flour, yeast, water, salt, and perhaps some sort of fat, either solid or liquid, if you want to increase the bread’s keeping quality. You mix these ingredients together, let the dough rise, bake it, and you have bread. I know these facts because for years I have made bread, with my goal being to make in my own kitchen something that rivals the loaves from Boulevard Bakery in Little Rock.
But it is apparently not as simple as it looks. I’ve watched the TV shows, and I have even purchased—and read in its entirety—a 600+ page book called The Bread Bible, which goes into more detail about how to bake all kinds of bread than you would ever imagine possible.
As simple as the list of ingredients might be—flour, yeast, water—my breads neither look nor taste like those wonderful loaves that come from Boulevard Bakery. They never rise with quite the same yeast-driven push, they never have the same texture, and they never have quite the same beautiful chestnut brown color. Even my sandwich breads seem to me little better than what you find in those plastic bags in Kroger. I keep waiting for the perfect loaf to emerge from my oven, but I always find something less. I want a loaf that I could take with pride to a communion service on Easter Day and say, “This is the bread fit for the feast of the kingdom of heaven.” But what I get is something that is no better than to be marked “for personal use only” as a last ditch ingredient for each day’s hastily made breakfast toast or luncheon sandwich.
I think that if I wait long enough and work hard enough, I will finally arrive at the “kingdom of bread.” There are people who have had their own outdoor wood ovens built in an attempt one day to replicate artisanal bakery bread. Some people will only use the most expensive flour and specific types of yeast ordered online. Others go to bread baking schools so that they might possibly have bragging rights at the next neighborhood party. Me? I just keep standing in front of the oven door, waiting for the kingdom of bread to arrive.
Something tells me I have it all wrong. If I were honest I would admit that bread is for sustenance, not show, for eating now, not dessert. Bread, in all its quotidian forms, is meant to nourish us every day of the year and not only at our Easter feast. Today’s gospel is a witness to that truth. In it, Jesus describes the kingdom in at least five different ways. And in each of them there is nothing either showy or futuristic about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom, it seems, is already present, hidden even, in the everyday stuff and staff of life, invisible to the naked eye, in the ground or under the surface of the sea right now, always ready to surprise us because it is already here in unexpected places and events and people.
There is an entire religious world that revolves around preparations for a very public future display of the kingdom. For fundamentalist Muslims, the present day job is to destroy the power and place of decadent Western civilization so that God’s will might eventually be done. For certain Jews, it is to do whatever is necessary to get Jerusalem made sufficiently Jewish so that the Messiah will return. For many fundamentalist Christians, it is to cleanse the land of all that is evil so that the Son of God will one day return in triumph. All these folks are tapping their toes for the religious equivalent of Boulevard Bakery bread coming out of the oven. They wait for perfection.
But Jesus is subversive, not fundamentalist. For him, the kingdom is like a small seed that gets in all the cracks of the earth, impossible to see, but you know it is there. For Jesus, the kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field, discovered now in the digging, not planned for and showily on display. For him, the kingdom is like a dragnet that works out of view, gathering everything in its path, below the water’s surface, churning everything there is, straining the rope as it rises to the surface. And most importantly, given our talk of bread, for Jesus the kingdom is like yeast in the midst of flour, in the struggle of a woman as she tries to handle 100 pounds of dough.
Jesus is telling us that the kingdom is here and now and rarely obvious. While we are looking for perfection, the kingdom is all around us. The kingdom is in our very struggle and our lack of wisdom and our days when things don’t go according to plan. That is where the presence of God dwells, even more surely than God’s supposed presence in the Temple of Jerusalem at the same time that Jesus was in the countryside proclaiming good news to those who did not live within the comforting walls of that holy city. The kingdom is right where people are, in small town, everyday life, far from the glamorous world of impossible standards and promised perfection.
And that brings us to where we are. At some subconscious level we Christians as a body got the message even if we don’t as individuals. When it comes to bread, our basic food and sacrament, the church makes no attempt at perfection. We don’t let the rising even begin. We say that there is no time to wait, just as the Israelites had no time to wait when they were escaping Pharaoh and going out into the wilderness where God was. We need bread for the journey now. That which is perfect can wait for another day. What we followers of the Christ see in our hands each week at the altar rail would never win a prize at a baking contest, but as unbreadlike as it is—that wafer tasting nothing like what bread can be—it is our food, our tangible sign that the kingdom of heaven is here, often in ways almost impossible to recognize.
In a world filled with war and pain and struggle and personal heartaches on a daily basis, the good news is that the kingdom is all around us just the same. Our very struggle is a sign of the kingdom’s presence. God steps into the realities of our lives, the sweat of our brow, the struggle against impossible odds, and declares those realities holy. What we have in this room on a Sunday morning is a tiny, almost tasteless wafer and a sip of unpretentious wine. And it is enough because it is a sign of the kingdom already present in the very ordinary people and objects in this room. There is no need to wait for anything better to come along. The ingredients to a holy life lived in the here and now are few: recognition of the power of unconditional love and recognition of the resurrected Christ in the people around us. Everything else is icing on the cake.