Rev. Esta Jarrett, pastor of Canton Presbyterian Church in the mountains of western North Carolina, preached at the NEXT Regional Gathering in Durham on August 18th, 2012. She was gracious enough to share her words here.
“The Great Leavening”
NRSV: 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.’
CEB: He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”
A little more than a year ago, I began work at Canton Presbyterian Church as their Designated Pastor, or Teaching Elder, or what-have-you. Canton is a tiny paper mill town in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I was called there as part of a residency program through the PC(USA) called “For Such a Time As This.”
The idea of the program is simple: it matches pastors with churches who are having a hard time attracting full-time clergy, because of money or location or both. The pastors and congregations are given 2 years to help the church find its feet and establish meaningful, vibrant ministry in their particular setting.
The program gives a lot of support during those 2 years – mentors, resources, continuing education, financial help when it’s needed. It’s an amazing program. I honestly don’t know how anyone begins a call in a church without this sort of support.
So here we are, one year in. My friends in the program and I keep in touch – we talk on Facebook a lot, checking in, comparing notes and experiences. We talk about what this year has brought us and our churches – relationships established, programs attempted, session meetings navigated.
We have commiserated when there have been spectacular disasters, like the night before my installation, when the ceiling of my fellowship hall fell in. Welcome to ministry! Another story: at my friend’s church on Maundy Thursday, during communion the baptismal font got knocked off its base and shattered. My friend asked what we would have done in that situation. I said that it couldn’t get any worse, so I might have been tempted to do jazz hands and say, “Ta da!” Fortunately she’s more mature than I am. She just pretended that nothing had happened, and went on serving communion. It’s things like this that we don’t learn in seminary.
We have also shared moments of celebration, such as weddings, baptisms, new members, and Christmas morning services that were surprisingly well attended. We lift each other up in the midst of all our milestones.
In our conversations during the past month, a common theme has started to pop up, as we look at attendance and membership. Like I said, we have just 2 years at our churches to try to turn things around. But for many of our churches, numbers are either the same as when we started, or are actually down. We have buried a few people, but not as many have joined. It’s a sobering realization, especially at this midway point of our residency, as the program is hoping for quantifiable good news so that we can get funding for another year.
Now, we all know that there are many ways for churches to measure vitality. Numbers can be deceiving. But that’s hard to remember Sunday after Sunday, as you look out from the pulpit at a sanctuary that once held 120 people, into the faces of the 20 or 25 who remain. They sit scattered around the room like paperweights holding down the corners of the church, where their parents sat and grandparents before them, seeming to brace themselves for what’s coming next.
It’s a challenge, to plan for vitality and growth in the midst of seeming emptiness. And yet, these congregations are taking on the challenge. Across the country, on the Florida coast and in the Kansas plains and West Virginia coal country and North Dakota prairies and Western North Carolina mountains, these churches are all trying something new. And we feel, we know, that hidden deep within the day-to-day grind of church ministry, something vital is rising up.
In our parable, we hear Jesus compare the kingdom of heaven to a tiny measure of yeast mixed with a huge amount of flour. Some translations say the woman “mixed” them together, but others say she “hid” that yeast in the flour, like a light that is hidden under a bushel. Something small and nondescript can be so completely scattered that it becomes invisible. But even yeast that is well-mixed, or hidden, cannot be forgotten or ignored. Before too long, it will cause the dough to expand and rise transform into something entirely new, and delicious.
In such a way, the presence of the Holy Spirit, signaling the reign of God, cannot be ignored. When our churches are denuded of members, when our budgets shrink, when, on paper, it looks like there’s nothing happening, when transformation is painfully slow and just plain painful, in churches and ministries of all sizes…even then the Holy Spirit makes her presence known. Everything the Spirit touches rises and transforms into something new. You can’t hide that presence when it’s there, just as you can’t pretend it’s there when it’s not.
The fact that Jesus used yeast as an analogy amuses me. The chemical process through which dough rises is not pretty. Yeast are microorganisms that stew and ferment and produce gas. This isn’t the most elegant image for the kingdom that I’ve ever heard, and it may be a little too on the nose for some days of ministry I’ve had.
But ultimately, this parable shows us that part of the work of the kingdom is about the creation of open space. Yeast transforms flour into bread by stretching and seething and making room. It elbows its way throughout all the flour there is, as much as we can bring, and makes room, and turns it into something that will feed us.
I’ve seen a lot of new things happen in my church in the past year, most of which has been encouraging. The congregation on a small scale is doing what the whole denomination is seeking to do: trying new things, taking on new ministries and considering different ideas, some of which are rocking the boat, and some of which don’t look like church as we know it.
In Canton, one of our newest members felt a strong conviction that we should host a Vacation Bible School for our community. It didn’t matter that most of our members are older, and have little energy, and that we have exactly zero young families with children. What mattered was the need for kids in our neighborhood to have a safe place to gather, sing, make crafts, and learn Bible stories. We have a building and people, so why shouldn’t we do it?
So, this past June, we had Vacation Bible School. It was an intergenerational event, held with a neighboring Episcopal congregation. Over 5 nights, we had 30 kids and 25 adults for dinner, study, and play.
At the end of the week, one of the mothers came up to me and said, “When’s Sunday School? The kids want to know when they can come back.” So, a week later, we began a Sunday School program, the first the church has held in years. I should emphasize: this happened not because we felt we needed a program, but because the congregation is hearing the voice of the Spirit, making itself known through their particular gifts and desires. Many of the children at VBS came from troubled homes, or foster care, or are in group homes through the Department of Social Services. There are particular needs in this community with which we can work.
All this is happening because one person in my congregation saw possibilities instead of reasons to say no. Perhaps the fact that he came to the church with an outsider’s perspective, a breath of fresh air, helped make all this possible.
Maybe it doesn’t matter so much how it happened. What matters is that everyone stopped saying “We can’t,” and started saying, “Why not?” What matters is that we are learning how to trust the power of the Holy Spirit, instead of ourselves. And with the Spirit, miracles do happen.
I admit that my vision of capital-C Church is a very particular one. I see ministry through the lens of a small town from which industry has fled, that is only slowly rebuilding its identity. Sometimes the challenges seem insurmountable. What does the work of one old church in such a community matter? Why do any of our churches matter, wherever we are? Whether we are a mono-ethnic suburban congregation, or a new congregation meeting in coffee shops, or a group of volunteers working at a community kitchen, or a two-language congregation navigating different cultural traditions, whether we wear dresses or jeans or seersucker and bowties, no matter how we see ourselves, we have to ask: what makes our ministry worth doing?
In this post-denominational age, during what Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence” of the next stage of Christianity, our churches are facing unforeseen challenges at every step. The founders of our churches could not have possibly imagined these cultural shifts that are part of our everday lives. Old paradigms of the church in the world no longer apply. So why are we pouring so much love and sweat into ministry, when numbers tell us it’s a losing proposition?
I believe the answer lies with the yeast. Even when we cannot see it at work, the kingdom of God is like this: persistent, unstoppable, undeniable, homely and comforting, infinitely nourishing.
Our Lord is at work in the world and is not letting creation lie dormant and unfulfilled, but is bringing about something new. As we ask important questions and seek to respond faithfully to God’s claim on us, the kingdom is revealed, in different small ways, wherever we are. What ultimately matters isn’t our strategies for growth and survival, our membership numbers and bottom line. What matters, for the church and for the world, is that the power of God’s kingdom is at work, and that there is nothing that can stop it.
I ask myself whether we are being naïve, to work so hard and care so much. It’s hard to maintain any fashionably ironic detachment when we’re looking at our communities through the eyes of church. We talk about love and promises and forgiveness, and we’re embarrassingly earnest about it.
But, our life in Christ is the opposite of naïve. We are called to a terrible and persistent hope. We cannot give up, or be content with the way things are, because God has not given up and is not content with the way things are. In the kingdom, we insist on hope. Every single day, we choose it, for ourselves, our neighbors, and the world.
That hope manifests itself in very particular ways, in small moments and shared stories. That hope is made known in occasions like small town Vacation Bible School, when a young mother in the neighborhood becomes connected to a congregation for the first time in her life, and finds an extended family of faith.
That hope rises to the surface when a Presbyterian Women study helps mobilize a group of grandmothers to fight human trafficking in our town.
That hope is felt in worship, when a mother is free to grieve for the death of her child, and is held by the congregation in love and shared mourning.
Through our communities of faith, in our living and our dying, our serving and praying, God’s relentless hope for creation can be given room and that hope mixes, and expands, and rises up, and becomes something new.
All these small, particular stories of hope and renewal are being echoed in churches, in worshipping communities, in towns, in countries throughout the world…wherever the Spirit is felt and welcomed. These stories help us understand and live into the great true hope of Jesus Christ that makes us more than what we were, uniting us in the work of radical love and hope that goes beyond life and death.
At the recent General Assembly, our denomination voted to support 1,001 new worshipping communities. We committed to think creatively about what makes a church. As we wrestle with the difficult issues of our life together, stories of transformation and hope will continue to rise up, like fresh bread baking in an oven. And we will remember that our purpose is not our own preservation, but our participation in the kingdom, where all may gather freely and be fed.
There’s no hurry. We have to give yeast time to work. Whether we have two years or twenty, we’re on God’s time, now. We can be in the kitchen together, talking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company. All the best parties wind up in the kitchen.
The divine hands are kneading and shaping, working their way through all of us with strength and assurance, so that the kingdom will be felt by every person in every place. Even as our institutions are in the midst of evolving into something different, this kneading, this “Great Leavening,” is bringing the living bread of Jesus Christ to the world.
There will be enough to go around, friends. A scant handful of yeast in a bushel of wheat will make enough bread to feed hundreds of people. And we know, don’t we, what our Lord can do with only a few loaves of bread. God is never stingy when it comes to feeding us what we need.
Our hope is realized when we gather at the table, as believers have for centuries, to share our common meal and tell our common story.
So, come as you are, beloved of God. Come broken, come humbled. Come with more questions than answers. Come and be fed with the living bread, and feel the Spirit at work in you. Come and rejoice, because in the Lord, there will always be enough.
Thanks be to God the Creator, God made flesh and risen, God who dwells with us, now and forevermore. Amen.