Sermon preached on 5 September 2011 at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva

By the Rev. Jane Stranz, coordinator of the WCC language service


Exodus 12:39; Matthew 13:33

(This text is unabridged and rather longer than the version preached at the Ecumenical Centre prayer service giving thanks for new colleagues and those moving on this year)

Two philosophical introductions
Three fragments
and something that may be a sermon ...

“I chose to work on the writing of Paul Ricoeur because of his insistence on rediscovering a joyful ecumenism” said Beate Bengard at a lunchtime conversation hosted by the LWF’s department of Theology and Studies just two weeks ago. I was moved by her passion at Ricoeur’s thought, perhaps all the more so since I had just bought a book of the final fragments of his writings called “Lebendig bis in den Tod”  - to live right up to and right in to death, would be possible translations, but perhaps a freer and better translation would take up Christian Aid’s slogan of “we believe in life before death”.

While listening to Beate I thought of the work of another philosopher and theologian, the Canadian, Grace Jantzen, who was a Quaker. In her work she pushed for a thorough-going non-violent philosophy of religion, based on natality rather than on mortality. Unlike Ricoeur she did not have the privilege of living into old age. Her series on Death and the Displacement of Beauty in Western Philosophy remained unfinished following her untimely, early death. Yet her work and witness remain natal.

So these ideas of joy and giving birth to a new creative future frame some of the background to what I try to share this morning, perhaps particularly as we move this week towards the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Three fragments

In a concentration camp a father stands wailing next to the body of his dead son. He came quickly when they told him, now he screams in frustration because someone else managed to take his dead son's bread ration before he could. Dehumanized by a desperate system he grieves not for his son but for missing an extra ration of bread. Kyrie eleieson

The 14th century was a time of famine in southern England. Historical documents show that when the famine was at its worst the landlords made more profit. It's a story that may sound all too familiar given speculation on food prices in our own time.

During that famine the abbot of St Alban's Abbey - no doubt worried because he was losing his part of the tithe - ordered that the small milling stones, the quern stones, be removed from everyone's house. He then built a patio with them. While the peasants could no longer mill small amounts of grain for personal consumption at least the Abbot had a patio.

The church's preferential option for the poor came along only a few centuries later.

More recently Globethics published a book entitled "Corruption free churches are possible"… kyrie eleison

An overweight middle aged woman refugee sits in the office of a British Member of Parliament, she comes back day after day until he agrees to sign the papers allowing her brother right of entry to the United Kingdom. She knows her English isn't very good, she even understands that this is "not quite the done thing", she also knows she has nothing to lose. Her only child, a daughter, had died suddenly at the age of 13 just a year earlier. Helene Hurwitz-Stranz was a determined and tenacious woman. Her brother, his wife and their two teenage children arrived in Britain in April 1939, today would have been her brother's, my grandfather's, 121st birthday. Even with feisty defenders millions like him then were not so fortunate, neither are millions today. He was a fragment. Justice and dignity just a matter of arbitrary luck. Today the UK government claims as a virtue the need to balance net immigration. Kyrie eleison.

So now perhaps for an attempt at a sermon.

Just occasionally on hot summer nights when we sleep with the windows open I am woken by an exquisite and enticing fragrance. It's not often that a smell wakes you and makes you want to get out of bed in the morning but this does. It is the smell of the baguettes baking and the croissants crisping up from our local boulangerie. And it is glorious! (Though rather dangerous for the hips!)

This morning the fragment from the gospels that we reflect on is about the stage in bread making that precedes the wondrous smell of baking. It's a beautiful, if for us perhaps rather old-fashioned image, not of freeze dried or industrial yeast but of natural leaven raising large quantities of flour. Leaven works more slowly than yeast or baking powder but it transforms the flavour of the loaf more thoroughly, some say it even makes the flour more digestible. The best French bakers use "levain" - leaven or sourdough for their bread and not yeast or "levure", real baguette à l’ancienne should be crisp but slightly sour on the inside.

The parable gives us an image where the kingdom of God is growing in hidden yet glorious ways, we are offered a vision of God's promise where gentleness, joy, reconciliation and respect, justice and stewardship, care and peace are the sourdough kingdom values, raising the dough with authenticity and integrity.

For those of us working in ecumenical affairs this gospel fragment offers perhaps also a glimpse of oneness in the future potential loaf, we could all share in together. A wonderful vision of the oikoumene.

And well I could end there, but I'm sorry to disappoint you, we have a little way to go yet...

As is so often the case with the parables of Jesus the riddler there is something more complex, cryptic, playful and challenging going on than might at first seem to be the case.

The word krypto is even there in the Greek – even if modern English translations lose that sense – the woman hides the leaven in the flour. Is God’s kingdom about subterfuge, about transgression and by a woman? Is that the only way the kingdom will grow? Is Jesus simply saying: open your eyes to signs of the kingdom taking place in the everyday life of the homes around you. The kingdom is just like bread rising and that happens every day…

The bread of the Exodus, the bread of liberation, had no leaven in it. Today a Jewish household once a year will clear out all traces of old yeast and leaven, a ritual and practical break with the past.

Setting out into the desert and dependence on God's grace meant leaving the leaven of servitude and slavery behind and living with the unleavened, tooth-breaking bread of exile and with the manna which the early morning dew provided.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that amongst those desert wanderers and their descendents there were so many murmurings and yearnings about returning to the real food, the fleshpots of Egypt.

Over the centuries the spiritual unleavened bread representing liberation came to be prized above the everyday leavened bread, leaven is even judged as corrupt in parts of the biblical literature. There are warnings in the gospels and in Paul’s letters about the false or corrupt leaven of some teachers.

Yet as I return to Jesus’ clever and ambiguous parable I am struck by how it is the leavening, rising dough which symbolizes God’s commonwealth. The dough rising speaks so much of hope, of the voiceless being heard, of the integration of the marginalized of the overcoming of oppression and the end of violence. The dough rising speaks of something hidden, marvellous and yet uncontrollable. This is what the kingdom is likened to - not to the baked bread.

As soon as the dough is baked – and those delicious smells come from the bakery - it becomes more fragmentary, less complete. Of course the bread actually feeds and nourishes but the rising dough is the subversive promise of all that potential feeding and sharing … all that might be possible.

Sometimes, very often even, I feel caught between promise and practicalities between the demands of the gospel and what I am able to do.

The French will vote with their feet, or taste buds when it comes to buying baguette, preferring the bread of one boulangerie over that of another, though globalization and the supermarkets are even eating away at this traditional discernment! I know I need to discern between the leaven of integrity and the leaven of corruption in my own life, in the life of the world.  I know too that, however promising and full of possibility the rising dough may seem, the eschatological sourdough needs to be baked, the flavour of it needs to become real on peoples tongues.

And of course as soon as the hope filled dough is baked it becomes a fragment, bread that needs not to be hidden but to be shared, bringing straightforward nourishment, satisfaction and perhaps fellowship, justice or even life. Fragments of the flat liberating bread of exile, of mouldy prison rations or of fine brioche from the tables of the rich all have the potential to carry such hope.

Christ the leaven of our life offers the promise of liberation from cruelty and slavery of all kinds – the cruelty of famine, the slavery of materialism, or of abuse of power. That liberation is offered for both the oppressor and the oppressed.

The wholeness, vitality and natality of the rising dough, calls us to hold on to hope for all that is natal and joyful and hopeful as we try to bear witness and to live in such a way as to reconcile the fragments.

Perhaps the hidden leaven of God's kingdom will help us to develop an ecumenism of fragments which overcomes fragmentation; an ecumenism which believes in the sourdough values of the commonwealth, a bread which takes longer to rise, lasts longer and tastes better. A bread of true joy and not of manufactured bland niceness. The bread of tomorrow which feeds us today; its taste and texture speak to our hearts of life before death and of being one, if not at our divided earthly altars then surely at heavenly ones.

Jesus will not always put the fragments back together for us but he will say:
This is my body, broken, for you
This is my body, in fragments, for you

May the scales fall from our eyes and may all that is hidden and authentic within us bear the fruit of peace, joy and love which the Spirit wills for humankind and for the whole inhabited earth. Let us concentrate on that which creates and engenders.