Open for 122 years

The Parable of the Leaven

May 20, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

The news for today is simple. God’s time is coming and it will be good for you. It is as simple as leaven laid to bread. Parables say that small things, like leaven and seeds, matter – and this is the kind of message that people find all but ridiculous. Where is the oomph? Where is the gun? Where is the power in saying that Jesus saves or that small is large? Is it possible that big or good news will come by way of the carrot and not the stick? How stupid, in a world of sticks and spin, where our job is to become big by spinning others and refusing to be spun?

In fact, one of the biggest points of a parable is that it uses no guns. Parables are bullets that refuse to be bulleted or bulleting. While the people who made the mailbox with the gun on it, which says Jesus saves, parables are not manipulative. They do not use fear to command your attention, or guns to command your attention or try to control you in anyway. With Jesus the medium is the message. He doesn’t say you have to believe in parables but instead that you may believe in them. He actually says to farmers and fisherman and peasants that they have power and that their power is leaven and seeds. In a time when most of us mistrust everybody, because we feel so powerfully manipulated by all things, from dawn to dusk, parables come a long and suggest a small sincerity, an integrating integrity. . They invite you to believe instead of manipulating you to believe. So please know that I am not trying to get you to believe in parables today. I have no stake in whether you do or not. You need not believe that common wealth is coming, nor do you need to believe that it might not be coming, nor do you need to abandon your hope in bigness. Or that you might get big enough to matter. Or become strong enough or beautiful enough to matter. I don’t care whether you follow me here or not.

And of course you don’t believe me when I say that at all. You know that we just hired a communications director and that we have been spinning the Judson story and that if you give us your email address, we will follow you around with invitations. You also know that I want to get the minimum wage raised in New York State and that I spent actual time in actual Albany this week, manipulating the press and the spin on that issue. We do act in the world, but we act without forcing, if we follow Jesus. If we act with forcing, or manipulation, we have left the power of the parable and entered the world of manipulation. If we spin in self-interested ways, we find ourselves outside of the world of Jesus and trickily, cannily inside the world of spin and respin, the world of the spunned and the spurned. Today I want to attend this important problem of the difference between the genuine invitation and the sneaky invitation to the gospel.

Consider Judson Memorial Church, whose doors have been open for 122 years. We would love to congratulate ourselves and say that we have been truly open for 122 years. We would love to impress ourselves and you and a few more funders by telling them a story of the day in the life at Judson. Imagine this day, which is written in several of our fund raising proposals John Le Cusa’s play is on in the gym, which we spin as a work out space for the arts. The Village Independent Democrats are meeting in the garden room, what we cherish as the most interesting room in this great building. The Sex Workers Alliance is meeting in the blue room, where the couches donated by NYU, give them a happy if edgy berth. Occupy is meeting in the assembly room. The ordination committee is meeting in my office. The meditation service just ended in the meeting room, this one. What am I trying to tell you about Judson here? We do a lot, we matter because we do a lot. Or as one of our brochures says, we do a lot with a little. We also say that we are a church that is a little bit different, committed to making a difference. Or perhaps you prefer our other favorite bullet speech, that we are a fusion of arts, politics and spirituality. Or perhaps your favorite is mine, that we are Research and Development, R and D, for the wider church. Or a new favorite, gathering momentum, is the “Judson Off Center.” Or that good old favorite, “the little church that could.” Whichever of these spins about Judson you prefer, today I ask you the question of the yeast or the leaven. Are these things true? Do they have integrity? Are they true when we talk honestly to each other, in quiet places, on the subway on the way home, at brunch after church, or in the park or the smoking lounge on what NYU thinks of as its alley? In other words, does the yeast work its way all the way through the bread, so as to truly feed people? Did we tell the potential funder in that “day in the life” pitch that the lift, metaphorically and actually, is out a good bit of the time and that we are not always accessible and that many people complain that they can’t figure out how to get “in” to the building, again both metaphorically and actually? Did we tell them that the most honorific position here is to “work the door?” That is also true metaphorically and actually.

Or do we say one thing about ourselves to ourselves, another to another, a third to a foundation? And if we do that are we not part of the gun of Jesus rather than the gift of Jesus? Are our bullet points more like bullets than not? Who can we really blame for the profound mistrust that many of us have of each other, if not ourselves? When we go out of parable and its invitation, into spin and its manipulation, we leave behind the very truth about ourselves and our world that we covet. We become part of the problem, as Pogo loved to say. Our mistrust creates mistrust. Our actual belief in the power of influence becomes the permission power has to be less than it could be. Power is bigness, influence. We say we don’t like that – and go on to get a Girl Scout to speak at the rally in Albany for the living wage. Why do we get a girl scout to speak at that rally? Because we think she will influence people and make us bigger. There is a way to have a girl scout speak at a rally and to have it be leaven. The parable’s leaven guides us here. She needs to be part of the process all the way through. Likewise our work in immigration. We surely want power and influence to stop the absurd machinery of deportation. But if immigrants are not our friends, we have probably moved to spin and out of leaven. Integrity is the issue, you have to work the leaven all the way through the dough for it to rise. Or for the lift to really lift.

I loved the story about the apartment on Sullivan Street that was in the Thursday home section, what we used to call the Women’s Pages. Designer Graham Hill bought 400 or so square feet and then designed an apartment that rotated to be one room sometime and other rooms at other times. It is a 6 in 1 apartment. Check it out if you didn’t see it. The designer said that the most important part of a modern housing life – and yes everyone has one – is editing. Yes, editing. We need to be spare. We need to be dense. We need to work the yeasts of our life all the way through the bread. One of our rooms should also be another of our rooms. We may sleep in the room or work in the room or eat in the room but all functions are done by the same person. There is integrity to that person, a style, a wholeness, not one picture for some and another picture for others.

I couldn’t help but apply this design principle to both the parables and to Judson’s invitation to invest in them. Our founding document says that we are here to follow Jesus. That’s all it says. It is one of the most spare and edited documents imaginable. Thus, everything we do in all our spaces – and all our brochures -- is about this editing. We are a fusion of arts, spirituality and politics because we believe these windows show Jesus. As my friend in Canada puts it, the medieval church saved the arts but the arts will save the church in this century. We are an off center, not an on center, because that is our way of following Jesus in an environment that is hostile to him. We are R and D because we love the whole church, not just our corner of it. We are a little different because we know Jesus was a little different. I got into quite the quarrel with my Canadian friend, David Graybill, at the Andover Newton Graduation this week. He is pushing the word “unchurch” as his brand. I argued that we needed to be church plus. I also got into a quarrel with Andover Newton, a very fine seminary. Their “bullet” – don’t you just love that word bullet point – is “think outside the pulpit.” Hmm. That sounds to me like a seminary abandoning the church. Why not think in the pulpit too. Anyway, in spin, we say thngs we imagine other people want to hear. And the truth is what people want to hear about is trust, not about how effectively churches can join the world of mutual manipulation.

One word about Aubrey’s message to us as well. He dances as a way to understand the power of mentoring. In mentoring, things usually go sour. Why? Because the mentor starts to spin or control the mentee, or the mentee starts to spin or control the mentor. Instead of trust passing through generations and elders and novices feeding each other in a magnificent mutual mentoring process, which gains trust and leadership capacities over decades, even centuries, broken hearts keep the leaven from filling the bread and letting it rise. Mentoring works if it resists mutual spinning and becomes mutual growing. Again the parable points us to a beautiful future, entered by small beginnings, which rise to great breads and feed hundreds.

I resist spin because it finally hurts people, giving power to the power message, more than being an other message. I also hate manipulation and love trust. Such a long way they are from each other, manipulation and trust. In manipulation, we become the person we think somebody else wants us to be. We accept the gun aimed at us. In trust, we put the gun down and say that Jesus saves, but not by the gun. We use bullets but we don’t let them use us, or penetrate us, or permeate us. We admit that Judson has been sort of open, as well as it could, for 122 years – and we go on to integrate all our activities into one message, the invitation from Jesus about the good times that are coming. We participate in that commonwealth now on behalf of it later. We put yeast in bread and know that small things carry the weight of God.

Last night we enjoyed a simply phenomenal concert in this place, with Michael Conley, setting some of the poems of Emily Dickinson to music. If you missed it, you really missed something magnificent. Michael’s words were as important as his music. He talked about why Emily became such a recluse and why we love her for that. He said that she became a recluse because she knew she couldn’t fit in to the world as it is. I think Judson will never fit into the world as it is, no matter how good we get at spinning the message of Jesus. I imagine we will fail to represent Jesus as much as we will succeed. It will all be about the integrity of our origin, about how it seeps through into all the trust that we bring to the world, room by room, message by message.

Funny thing happened as we got home. I had left one of the windows open and a robin had flown in to the house. My cat Chewibacka could catch a robin even if it hadn’t flown into his kitchen. He is a mighty hunter. But making it easy is always a mistake with Chewie. So sure enough he got the bird, which I found hiding behind the rice jar. The bird was in tatters, just tatters. Warren got him out the front door with a form of courage for which I will continue to honor him. There were feathers everywhere. I mean everywhere. There still are. I just didn’t know that birds had that many feathers. And the house had just been cleaned. Anyway, all of a sudden, as I unsuccessfully tried to sweep up the feathers. (You can’t sweep feathers.) I remembered my favorite Emily Dickinson poem. “Hope,” she said, “is that thing with feathers.”

Trust is what we are all about. Like Jesus was. Hope is what we are all about. Like Jesus was. And feathers are small and dominate the entire house, once released. We are one room in six. We edit ourselves well, we stay spare. Open for another 122 years? Probably. Especially if that thing with feathers, hope, joins that thing with leaven, trust, and permeates the entire building, the entire community, and we embody our constitution.



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