Critical yeast | May 6

Texts: Acts 10:44-48, Matthew 13:33

For today’s focus I’d like to borrow an idea, a phrase, from John Paul Lederach.  If you haven’t heard of John Paul Lederach, let me build up his credentials a bit to show why it’s worth listening to his ideas.

John Paul is an international leader in the field of conflict resolution.  While immersed in the work, he came to see the limitations of the framework of confliction resolution, proposing instead a larger framework of conflict transformation.  That shift itself has been widely influential in the field.  He has worked extensively in Nicaragua, Colombia, Nepal, and the Middle East.  He has sat at the table with militias and gangs, impoverished rural women, and high ranking officials.  Rather than treat conflict as a set of presenting issues and problems, he has developed methods of drawing out the stories of those involved to get at what they want, and what they need.  He tells organizations and foundations investing in peace they should think in terms of decades rather than short term projects whose immediate results are more easily measured but whose long term effects may be minimal.  He’s a professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame and has taught many years at Eastern Mennonite University.  He is a Mennonite, still living, in his early 60’s.  He’s written over 20 books, but consistently credits the people he works with, often without formal education, as the innovators of peace.

You actually can’t learn a whole lot about John Paul through Wikipedia.  My theory on this is that many people probably write their own Wikipedia page, and he’s too busy or humble to write much of an entry about himself.  Just a theory.

An excellent introduction to John Paul Lederach is this 2012 interview with Krista Tippet titled “The Art of Peace.”

OK, so now that I’ve built this guy up, this better be really good.  The phrase I’d like to borrow from John Paul has to do with his observation about how change happens – how substantive positive transformation takes place.

John Paul says that social movements are often spoken of in terms of critical mass.  You build a movement and communicate a message that energizes and gathers enough people, and at some point you tip the scales.  Without diminishing the importance of critical mass, John Paul says he’s come to think of change as involving “critical yeast,” meaning a smaller number of people who hold a certain quality of relationship within a group or a system or an institution.  A certain quality of relationship that ultimately alters the functioning of the whole.  Like the way a small amount of yeast is distributed through flour to make the whole dough rise.  He’s observed this happening time and time again.  Critical yeast.

So that’s what the sermon title is about.  It’s not critical yeast like yeast that’s critical of other yeast for not eating their share of glucose.  It’s critical yeast as an idea to be understood in conversation with critical mass.

This phrase might be original to John Paul Lederach, but it’s an old idea.  There’s that wonderful concise parable of Jesus in Matthew 13:33:  “The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  When you picture three measures of flour, don’t picture three cups of flour, the exact amount we use to make our household favorite long rise, no knead, bread recipe.  Three measures of flour, one seah times three, was about 50 lbs.

“The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  So picture this woman, white powder everywhere, large bowls all around, mixing up a feast for a multitude.  There’s way less yeast in the dough than flour, but it gets distributed throughout, and transforms the loaves.  The kin-dom of heaven works this way, Jesus says.

It fits alongside other parables of Jesus where small things, or seemingly insignificant people, exude a certain quality of relationship.  Like the tiny mustard seed that grows to become a living refuge for birds.  Or small crystals of salt that flavor and preserve: “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells his followers.  Or the widow with no social standing, no economic or political power, who keeps petitioning the no –good judge to grant her justice, eventually wearing the judge down.  The judge declares, and I quote from the parable in Luke, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).

These are not stories of critical mass, but critical yeast.  Here, transformation does not depend on an overwhelming quantity of something, but a certain quality of presence.

This is perhaps a counter-intuitive message to be preaching on the eve of the BREAD Nehemiah Action.  The Nehemiah Action is our largest gathering of the year where we are absolutely focused on getting a critical mass of people of faith and goodwill to fill the Celeste Center.  We want to demonstrate to our public officials how vitally important these issues are to us.  If you’re only involved in the work of BREAD one day a year, tomorrow is the day.  The lofty aspirational goal of our 40+ congregations is to each turn out our average weekend worship attendance.  There are 52 Sundays in a year to show up for worship, and one day a year we can all show up together to do justice.

Thus the chant 52 – 1.  52 -1.

Our Annual Report, completed just a few weeks ago, notes that our average Sunday attendance for the last year was 181, so we are making the modest goal, which would still be a record for us, to turn out 100 people tomorrow to have a strong CMC showing for doing justice in Franklin County with our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions.  Imagine 3000 people of all ages – Baptists, Unitarian-Universalist, Reformed and Conservative Jews, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonite, and other, gathering en masse, one team, cheering on the side of affordable housing, restorative practices in our schools, living wage jobs, and a Municipal ID for homeless and undocumented folks among us.

That widow petitioning the judge could get what she needs a lot faster if she’s got people standing in solidarity with her.

Join the critical mass, even if you’re slightly critical of all the methods BREAD has used in the past.

The Nehemiah Action is a critical part of the work of BREAD.  But it only happens once a year.  When the event is done we’ll each drive home, back to our different neighborhoods throughout Franklin County.  The critical mass will make the evening news, but it will be the critical yeast that continues its work throughout the rest of the year.

There’s something freeing about critical mass not being the only factor needed to tip the scales, shift the conversation, change the culture.  I think about this with our Sanctuary work.  As of now there are only about 40 public sanctuary cases around the country.  That’s a very small percentage of people facing deportation and separation from family who are in sanctuary.  It’s a very small percentage of congregations that exist in the whole country who are providing sanctuary.  We do not have a critical mass.  But I wonder how all of this is working as critical yeast.  I wonder how the relatively small presence of sanctuary within the wider system is leavening the whole loaf, creating a certain quality of relationship based around neighborliness and solidarity.  Thinking in terms of decades rather than weeks and months, I wonder what is slowly rising in the dough.

More broadly, all of us, each one here, is a part of the critical yeast of the kin-dom of heaven, no matter where we’re distributed among the loaf.  How about this as a thought experiment: Think about where each of us might be say on a Tuesday afternoon, and imagine each dot on the map as a bit of yeast in the dough.

On a more personal level, I’m guessing we can all identify one relatively small presence in our life – a mentor, a teacher, a book, even just a stray phrase we pick up along the way – that has served as yeast for us.  These people and ideas get sprinkled into our lives, and it’s the quality of their presence, not just the quantity, that does its work over time.  There’s likely a book or two waiting to be written about the critical yeast method of parenting and grand-parenting.

This is one of the ways the kin-dom of heaven does its thing.  It tends to take an unpredictable course.  This was the experience of Peter in the book of Acts who, through a series of events not of his own making, found himself in the home of Gentiles.  With his world neatly divided into the tired old categories of “Us” and “Not us,” Peter was suddenly face to face with “Not us,” a group of Gentiles.  And, much to his surprise, the same Spirit of life and liberation he had experienced through Jesus shows up among these Gentiles.  The yeast jumps loaves, does the same thing in different mixing bowls, causing Peter and the early church to ponder the unfathomable reality that maybe there’s just one big loaf, with the same yeasty Spirit spread throughout.  This is the good news that consumed the early apostles, the good news we still remember when we share from the one loaf of Communion.

I want to draw this together by ending with a collective meditation.  A gratitude prayer of sorts.  So you can get yourself positioned in whatever way works best for you to do that sort of thing, eyes open or closed.  We’ll start with the inward journey dimension and work our way out.

So first of all, let’s call to mind the people who have served as critical yeast in our own lives.  Those people who’ve had a certain quality of presence.  Maybe just a brief appearance, maybe a consistent presence, but people through whom the Spirit has lodged itself in our lives.

And now let’s recognize that we play that role in the lives of others.  Let’s call to mind the people we especially hold dear who could perhaps use some critical yeast that we have to share.  And we’ll do this and the other parts silently.

Let’s imagine this in our interpersonal relationships, and in the organizations and institutions where we give our energy.  This work is not an additional burden, but a gift of the Spirit given through us.  Places where, through the grace of God, we might be that critical yeast.

Let’s also call to mind those people we’ll never meet, whose names we’ll never know, who are critical yeast in their communities, in their neighborhoods.  The kind of folks John Paul Lederarch works with.    Folks doing the slow work of peace.  Folks who cross language barriers, folks who get others to sign petitions, folks who administer care in whatever form.  People in positions of power and people with no formal power.  Peacemakers in troubled parts of the world, including our own.  We give thanks for these folks, and pray for strength and courage for them.

Let’s move another concentric circle out and imagine our congregation and other congregations around the county and country and globe as critical yeast in this one big loaf of a world that God loves so dearly.  All the small ways the kin-dom of God bubbles up through these communities.  Our prayer is that we continue to develop the quality of relationship with God and one another that keeps us vital.

And finally, let’s imagine critical yeast coming together with critical mass, for events like tomorrow’s Nehemiah Action.  When we join and concentrate our energy in a show of people power.  Critical yeast plus critical mass, so that the Spirit of life and liberation, the Spirit of love of justice might do unexpected things among us, so that the kin-dom of this earth might look a little more like the kin-dom of heaven.  This is our hope, this is our prayer, this is our faith in action.  Amen.