“Old Grain, New Grace”

1998 Covenant Conference
Evening Worship, Friday, November 6, 1998

“Old Grain, New Grace”

[Matthew 13: 33 – 35]

by Joanna Adams
Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Atlanta

Excerpts from this sermon appear in Covenant Connections #5.

What a song! What a day! What a conference! It’s been wonderful to be here. I feel as if I’m giving voice to the sentiments of each of you. It’s been a wonderful experience to be a part of this conference, and I am grateful for the new friends that I’ve made and the old friends that I have reconnected with.

At least half a dozen of you have spoken to me and said something to the effect that you hadn’t seen or heard from me since the General Assembly in Minneapolis in 1986! That was a long time ago. I remember leading worship there. It was one of the great experiences of my life. I led worship several times during that Assembly, and those of you who were there might remember that on the last day the Moderator, who was a wonderful person from Texas, said “I’m sorry to say that this sweet young thing” (referring to me!) “has to go back to Atlanta today.” Many people in the congregation took offense. My husband had come to show a little solidarity with me for that exciting experience, and when someone asked Al how he felt about his wife’s being called a “sweet young thing” by the Moderator, he replied, “Well, the real problem is that he was wrong on both counts!”

I’m absolutely not a day younger than I was then, but I’m deeply honored to find myself here in this pulpit tonight.

I love this description of the Church: “You gather the people. You tell the stories. You break the bread.” That is it, basically, isn’t it? It’s enormously comforting to realize that none of us has to follow a solitary, lonely path. We journey with companions, and you remember the original meaning of that word “companion”: simply someone with whom one shares the bread. That’s the basic thing. Before we come to the table for the sharing of the Lord’s Supper, may the bread of life and the word of God feed us until we are filled with hope and strengthened in faith.

From the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: “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 it all was leavened. He told the crowds all these things in parables. Without a parable, he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the Prophets. I will open my mouth to speak in parables. I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” [Matthew 13: 33-35]   This is the Word of the Lord.

[Congregation] Thanks be to God.

I recently watched a movie entitled “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” the eccentric concert pianist and composer. It is literally that: thirty-two short films about the pianist Glenn Gould. The first one is set in the Arctic, or the Antarctic, or someplace on this planet where everything is white and flat and frozen. All that breaks the monochrome vastness is a tiny black dot like a single speck of pepper floating on a great sea of salt. Gradually, the viewer notices that the black dot is getting larger, that in fact it is moving toward the camera. You realize that it is a man walking across the vast windswept space. His hands are jammed into the pockets of his coat. His hair is blowing. His glasses become catch-basins of sunlight. And soon there he is, close enough to touch, the pianist himself staring at you as big as life.

For some odd reason, the scene from the movie came to my mind when I sat down this week with tonight’s little parable. The woman in the story seemed a tiny speck on the far horizon of our faith heritage. The whole thing seemed to me flat and cold, and I said to myself, “Lord, why did you lead me to this scripture that seemed like such a good idea two months ago when Pam Byers asked, ‘What will be your text for the evening?’ ” I began to wonder if there might be some of you here tonight who had perhaps never even heard the parable before. I was confident that most of you, if not all of you, would be familiar with the surrounding stories: the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field. It is like a merchant who, finding a pearl of great price, goes and sells everything he has in order to buy it. But the kingdom of heaven, like yeast that a woman stirs into a bushel of flour? Be still, my heart.

It was a good thing on that depressing day that I didn’t also realize that I would be the last of 170,000 speakers you would have listened to in a twelve-hour period!

I didn’t realize that most of you yourselves would be frozen into a catatonic state!

I’m glad I didn’t realize it, because if I had, I am afraid we would have missed the chance to rejoice together over the new world that is surely, subtly, slowly, surprisingly overthrowing the old world, through the grace of almighty God and the power of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Here’s the thing about the parable: It doesn’t matter at all whether anyone is paying a bit of attention. That woman keeps on mixing the yeast into the flour until every bit of the flour is leavened. She just keeps on doing it! The apron around her waist, the perspiration breaking out on her forehead, she is going to mix the leaven until all the flour is leavened, and that is all there is to it.

She makes me think of Jesus, and how the religious world into which he came was dominated by the law and the traditions of a synagogue culture that was fixated on matters of purity, on rules for righteousness(1), and on the exclusion of outsiders. She makes me think of how it was that Jesus himself upended that world by the words that he spoke, by the life that he lived, by the surprising list of invitees to the supper table that he hosted, by the death he died; and by his resurrection, the great inversion took place. Old rituals became swallowed up in new kinds of celebration, and those who had heretofore been excluded were now welcome.

“Ritual order has always had its outsiders,”(2) hasn’t it? What is so astonishing about the comparison of the kingdom of heaven to the yeast that the woman stirred into the flour is precisely the claim that God’s dominion is best understood by thinking of it as being like leavened holy bread baked by a woman. What is so astonishing about it is that both the woman and the leaven were ritually unclean. They were examples of the outsider that would come quickest to mind, because if there was one thing the Pharisees were sure of, it was that holy bread would be unleavened bread. The children of Israel were to eat unleavened bread at the time of the Passover. Indeed, whoever ate leavened bread would, according to the book of Exodus, be cut off from Israel. Gideon presented unleavened cakes for the holy burning. According to Leviticus, a grain offering should be of unleavened wafers spread with oil. The festival of unleavened bread became the holiest day of the year, according to the tradition of the synagogue.(3)

And here was a teacher who cracked open the old story by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven” that is going to be mixed into the flour by a woman, the unclean woman. A devout man of God would pray every morning, “I thank you, God, that you do not make me a woman.” Woman the temptress, woman the daughter of Eve, woman the source of every manner of wickedness. And so it was much to everyone’s surprise that Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven mixed by a woman.”

There’s still another surprise in this teeny little parable, this one sentence, twenty-five word parable: three surprises. There’s the leaven, and there is the woman, and then there is the amount of flour. Now this is a particularly subtle surprise. It’s ironic because three measures of flour was a great tradition, a great, what you might call, grain tradition. Abraham instructed Sarah to use three measures in baking the bread for the celebration parties the day the angels arrived unexpectedly at Mamre. Three measures were what Hannah brought to Samuel at the house of the Lord at Shiloh. Three measures were the ancient grain tradition.(4)

But in Jesus’ hands, the old grain tradition is presented as the means for the new grace.(5 ) Like a loaf broken open at the communion table, the ancient story is broken open, and fresh, enlarged messages of grace and welcome are released. The dominion of God is like leavened holy bread baked by a woman.

Imagine that. Envision a world in which there are no outsiders. The old categories of who is in and who is out are gone, shattered finally and forever. The disinherited and the disenfranchised, they all have a special place in the new reality. Their place turns out to be another surprise in the very center of things, because Jesus himself was the one who said that their place was with him.(6)

Of course, the old systems, the ones that the Church and society cling to, have not yet vanished, to be sure. But of this we can be sure. They no longer possess any sort of ultimate power, because this world is even now being transformed into the kingdom of heaven. The old systems that hold in religious institutions, that serve to exclude and make different categories of citizens and communicants, have no ultimate power in the Church, because the power that has been unleashed in the Church is the same power that has always been in the Church: it’s the power of Christ. The power of Christ rests in his willingness to make present the reality of God, no matter what it costs. And of course, it cost him plenty.

I have sensed in a deeply meaningful way the presence of the power of which I speak tonight on two different occasions in recent days. A couple of weeks ago, I joined a very small gathering at a very small church in Atlanta, a group of people who are continuing to struggle with the consequences of recent decisions made by our denomination with regard to ordination. Some in this circle have left our denomination and joined other denominations in their ongoing struggle to try to be true to their savior Jesus Christ and to themselves as they have been created by God. It was a little bunch of people, tired people who have been struggling for a while. There was pain in the room, but also lots of laughter and hope and joy and a barrelful of courage.

It made me think about the great big old Presbyterian Church United States of America, and how the institution is going right along, but that all over the place, there are also people pouring their little bits of yeast into the mix. It made me glad. The kingdom of heaven business, it’s always been, it’s always been a hidden kind of thing. You can never say, “Lo, there it is! It’s done, we’re finished!” But you can long for it, can’t you? And you can work for it, can’t you? And you can have the great satisfaction of knowing that you are doing your part to bear witness to the reality of the presence of God here and now.

And then finally, this to tell from just last week. For ten years now, a group of people with whom I have worked for a while have been sponsoring a Requiem Mass at the large Episcopal cathedral on Peachtree Street in Atlanta on the Monday after All Saints Day, in honor of the lives of homeless men and women and children who have died in Atlanta in the last year. This year, the names on the list that we prayed for totaled over fifty.

What was astonishing about the experience was that as I walked into the cathedral (they say that the Cathedral of St. Philip is the largest worship space east of the Mississippi River. Come visit Atlanta and see for yourself) I realized that the vast space was filled. It was filled with people who live in the shelters of our city: women and men and children. I have to tell you that most of the worshippers that night were African American men, those who, as much as any group of people in our society, have been forgotten and discarded, left outside the circle.

I just couldn’t believe a whole cathedral full of homeless people, in our Olympic city of Atlanta. The economy has been terrific! How can you fill a cathedral?

And then I remembered: How deep is the fear of the other. How broken is the human community. How unwilling is society to admit injustice. How without hope we are, all of us, save in the sovereign mercy of God.

I just sat there in a hopeless state, and then, about halfway through the service, they gave out the candles. They passed them all the way back. They started at the front, as we’re going to do with Communion in a moment. And then the leaders of worship came to the front pew, having lit their candle from the Christ candle, and they lit the candles of people in the first pew, and then they turned and lit the candles of those who sat behind them. It was dark in the cathedral. The only light was the candlelight. And you could see people’s faces as they turned to the stranger behind them to pass the light person to person.

We sang “Amazing Grace” without accompaniment. I was amazed that everyone there seemed to know every word by heart. The instructions in the bulletin said, “Candles may be extinguished at the conclusion of the hymn.” We sang every verse, and then the big cathedral grew silent. But no one could extinguish his candle. Finally, someone in front of me held his candle up, and everyone saw, and we all held our candles up: homeless people, business leaders of Atlanta, everybody. We stood there looking up in hope, remembering that “the Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures, he will my shield and portion be as long as life endures. ”

It was the kind of experience that makes you want to go put an apron on and sift the flour, and see if you can’t get out there and do something to make sure that everyone is included in American life, just as this experience here in Denver makes us want to get out there and do what we can to make sure that in our beloved Church, everyone is included and treated with equality and respect.

What shall we hold onto in such a time as this? We can hold onto our faith in the real presence of the kingdom of heaven here and now. We can hold onto the grace of Christ. It’s old grace. It’s new grace. It’s everlasting grace. It’s coming close. It’s coming close to you. Here, take this. This is his body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of him.

Let us pray:

We thank you for the bold story of the flour and the yeast, our gracious and loving God, and we pray that we might feast on it in our hearts with thanksgiving. Amen.

 Charge and Benediction

Go now in peace, to love and serve the Lord, rejoicing every day in the power of the Holy Spirit. Remember only this is required: that you do justice and that you love kindness and that you walk humbly before God. May the peace of Christ be with you all this day and always. Amen.


1)Robert W. Funk, Jesus as Precursor (Society of Biblical Literature, Univ. of Montana), p. 67.

2)Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Things (Fortress Press, 1993), p. 26.

3)Ibid., p. 25.

4)Ibid., p. 24.

5)Ibid., p. 24.

6)Ibid., p. 208.

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