The Yeast That Leavens Everything
The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your Kingdom. (Taize Chant, Rom 14:17)
Today, for the first half of the teaching, I want to work primarily with one verse: Romans 14:17 — the Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Later on, I’ll weave in some of the parables we heard Judy read, but to start, I want to focus on the intersection of two elements of this communal life to which we’re called — justice and joy.
So, to start, a story.
A few months ago, before the pandemic, I was out with my students on a field trip. We went to the ARC theatre in Southeast DC and watched a documentary about historically black colleges and universities. It was interesting, and many of you would have liked it, but many of my students fell asleep, tired and bored of yet another talk, another class, another movie about racism. Afterwards a panel of three young black adults took the stage, each of whom had attended a historically black college or university; they spoke of their experience at HBCUs. The third man was a doctor who went to Howard U — he spoke of what it was like to go to a school with so many talented black people, and then he shared this little anecdote that completely stirred the room; he said, you know, I even had a class with Travis Scott. And suddenly, the room got quiet, and the kids who were half-asleep woke up, and the kids who were already awake sat up in their seats a little bit.
I leaned to my left and turned towards one of my 7th grade girls, Heaven, I said “who is Travis Scott?” Heaven looked at me with disbelieving eyes and whispered, “Are you serious?” I said, yeah. Then she said, “for real?” And I said, yeah, who is he? And of course, she didn’t answer me. She needed to tell the girl to her left, Tekiyah, that I didn’t know this really basic information. Tekiyah looked at me across Heaven and said, “Mr. S, you don’t know who Travis Scott is?”
Does anyone in worship know who Travis Scott is? Well for days, I had 7th grade girls asking me this question. When we got on the bus, Da’Niya asked me. When we got back, Shaniya asked me — then Sanaa.
To be black is more than to be a victim of systemic racism, more than a victim of police brutality. It is, for my 7th graders, in this instance, just as much about an affinity for Travis Scott’s music. To correlate race with racism; to contextualize blackness only within the conversation of police brutality alone is an incredibly narrow way to talk about the fullness and the richness of what it means to be black.
Nikki Giovanni captures this well in her poem called “Nikki Rosa” when she writes,
Black love is Black wealth [but] they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy
It’s easy to talk about cultures and peoples in limiting ways. In the news, you’re hard pressed to find current stories about Latinos that aren’t about the disproportionate effect of Covid on Latinos, or about ICE and the Southern Border patrol. If all we know about what it means to be a Latino immigrant is that you are a victim of American violence or gang violence, then we are so far from the fullness of what it means to be Latino. Racist policies are a significant part of our nation’s story, but to only see people of color in such a light is limiting and unproductive.
Undoing racism is more than challenging injustices; we can and need to talk about race without talking about racism, because as people, we are more than what happens to us. In the words of the white poet, Mary Oliver, if the world is all pain and logic, then who would want it? Not my 7th grade girls. My experience in the classroom is that what brings children alive, just as much, if not more, than awareness of oppressive systems, are the people in their lives who affirm who they are.
Much has been said of the prophetic imagination in recent sermons. What we haven’t spoken about as much recently is the poetic imagination. Whereas the prophetic imagination challenges the wider society to make joy accessible, the poetic imagination is concerned with the true self, the part of us that is grounded and solid and open to the slow process of transformation. Both are concerned with a quality of being, a quality of presence, a quality of life — what I think Jesus would call life and life to the fullest.
The prophetic imagination without this poetic imagination, in the final analysis, is ungrounded and self-defeating. I believe this is why the poet, Ross Gay said in a recent interview, “that justice is as much tending to what one loves, as much as what one must fight.”
Justice work that is joyless, that is borne only of oughtness, that is held only as burden will not last for us. To elevate justice above peace and joy, is to become lopsided; it is to exhaust ourselves; it is to sprint the first mile of a marathon, without realizing that we had 25 miles ahead of us. It is to express the life of faith as a grind, and nothing more.
In L’Arche, I once worked with a person who was an incredible advocate for social justice. This person was passionate about disability rights and women’s rights. When the time came to defend someone in the home, especially one of the core members, they were absolutely fearless. This embodied for me the ferocity of love, the necessity of boldness, the value of ruffling feathers, and challenging the status quo.
And yet, when it came to enjoying the presence of Sonny — my friend and Santiago’s godfather — when it came to radically affirming his gifts, when the opportunities arose to uplift and praise who he was, they really struggled. And in the end, it was a relationship that was riddled with tension and conflict, and sucked the life out of each of them.
This is perhaps, one of the secrets of L’Arche that is impossible to mandate in other group homes.
Justice without friendship is stale.
Justice without joy is incomplete.
Mo Higgs was hard-wired for joy. One recent story that I heard about him concerns his time at Forest Haven, DC’s notoriously incompetent instiution for people with disabilities. The story goes that Mo hopped on the back of a truck and hid in the bed of that truck until it left the premises of Forest Haven. Then, Mo snuck off and found his way to a local bar. Apparently the guards and direct caregivers knew Mo well enough to know what he’d be up to, so it wasn’t more than a couple of hours when they found him at this local establishment having a beer. When I imagine the scene, I imagine Mo letting out a stream of cuss words, downing his beer, and reveling in his temporary escape with the other residents when he got back.
As much as this story brings a smile to my face, many of you know more than I do what a horrific place Forest Haven was, not only for Mo, but for thousands of people with disabilities. Mo knew, firsthand, the viciousness that life demanded of him just to survive. It was necessary, for example, to protect himself and his things, for he shared one room with forty other men. From five years old all the way until he was forty, Mo was never given the solitude that every person needs. Mo knew, first hand, the humiliation of being hosed down outside, in a line of adults. Mo knew, first hand, friends who were raped by those to whose care they were entrusted. This is why Mo, Glen, and Eugene appropriately called Forest Haven the jail house.
Justice without joy is incomplete, but joy without justice is shallow.
I’ve had to face the fact that I can’t get to racial justice with the same old voices I’ve been listening to for awhile. One of my favorite things that I like to do is spend months with one person whom I feel called to learn from. I’d like to list for you the people in whose work I’ve really done a deep dive in my life in order, Henri Nouwen (who brought me into L’Arche), Krista Tippett (who sustained me in L’Arche), Brother Roger (who retranslated the Bible in such a beautiful way that I began to love it again...), and more recently Richard Rohr, David Whyte, and finally, Mary Oliver. Six wonderful luminaries who have absolutely changed the trajectory of my life; And yet, it must be said, they are all white! And now, in this moment, part of the balance of growing up, of becoming more mature in my faith, is to call myself to stop holding up the white voice as supreme, to challenge myself to no longer hold only white voices at the center. Hence the class, Steeping in the Saints of Color.
I’ve been hanging out with Toni Morrison, the great American novelist, for the past few weeks, and it’s been incredibly rich and challenging. Part of the impetus for writing, for her, was to honor the history that black people lived in this country. In a time when slogans like black power and black is beautiful were gaining traction, Morrison felt that these things were true, and yet, at the same time, felt personally called to tell the more poignant realities of America’s racial caste system.
Because much of Morrison’s work is fiction, reading her work is not so much an intellectual exercise as much as it is entering into the interior world of characters who experience racism, in both its subtle and brutal fullness. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, her most famous work, there is a character, a grandma, named Baby Suggs. She is, in Toni Morrison’s words holy, a fierce preacher, a wise woman, and at the same time — a mother of eight children, only one of them consensual, and all of them taken from her, sold, lynched, or lost; the one pleasure of her old age is an old quilt that has two remaining orange patches on it, that offer her life, as she says, a bit of color — she wakes up one day and offers her final thoughts on life before she dies. Morrison writes:
Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for an occasional request for color she said practically nothing --until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.
Justice without joy is incomplete, but joy without justice is shallow.
I used to think that anti-racism was an unnecessarily radical idea that could perhaps belong to some of us but that did not belong to me. I felt that it was enough to be “not racist.” But I’ve since come to see the problem with such a passive positioning of myself. The black lives matter movement has shown me that being “not racist” is not a helpful framework when on average, black families have access to a minute fraction of wealth that white families have access to. In 2016, in Washington DC, the average median wealth (assets minus debt) for a white family was $284,000; for Latino families, it was $13,000; for black families, it was $3,500.
That means, that on average, a white family in DC had 22 times the familial wealth of a Latino family.
That means, that on average, a white family in DC had 81 times the familial wealth of a black family.
If I’m comfortable with that, am I really neutral?
Danez Smith says, every poem is political. Bell Hooks says, every education is political. And as I have come to realize over time, there is no neutral expression of faith. God is either passionate or apathetic.
When it comes to racial equity, when it comes to this moment in our country, the gospel’s charge now glimmers with even more brightness — repent, change your life, evolve, become a new creation.
The urgency of this Gospel imperative echoes loudly in the words of Beverly Tatum, who writes:
“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.”
Dr. King said, “freedom only comes through persistent agitation.” The kind of agitation that Dr. King is talking about is not merely speaking truth to power, and one of his followers says, we need more than expressive politics. We need to agitate. We need to, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, drive a stake into the wheels of injustice.
For me, this anti-racist framework is illuminating because it’s honest in positioning us all on the moving walkway. Moreover, it is, also, to my wonderful surprise, a framework that is not shame-based. It’s a framework that isn’t concerned with fixed identities.
Ibram Kendi, one of the leading voices in this movement, writes the following: the good news is that racist and anti-racist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an anti-racist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, determines what, not who, we are. (2x - it’s too liberating) And Kendi adds, I am no longer identifying with racists by claiming to be ‘not racist.’ I am no longer speaking through the mask of racial neutrality. I no longer believe that a black person cannot be racist. I am no longer policing my every action around a white or black judge trying to convince white people of my equal humanity, trying to convince black people I am representing the race well.”
When I first heard these words, I had goosebumps, and the reason is a little bit strange; when I heard Ibram Kendi, I realized that he is talking about racism in a very similar way to how St. Paul is talking about sin. He was telling me, it’s about as helpful to call yourself a racist as it is to call yourself a sinner.
I do not believe that the crux of the Christian life is calling ourselves sinners. In the same way, Kendi is saying, who you are on the level of being is not anti-racist or racist or not racist. Your value, your worth, your belovedness, your goodness, your identity in God is not in question.
What St. Paul and Ibram Kendi are each saying is quite parallel. Each of them are giving us a theological framework that is not shame based or paralyzing; the focus is not the heavy labels. This is why Paul focuses more on being in sin or under sin rather than calling people sinners. This is why Kendi is convinced that the term racist is not a fixed identity. The better question is, how can I dismantle racism today, or better yet, in this moment? Both are saying, let’s get beyond the labels of ‘sinner’ and ‘racist’; that’s not the point! Paul says, in Romans 6, I am bound to righteousness! For Paul, the work of right-living is a pleasure. Kendi says, I used to be afraid of anti-racist books; now I am running after them! For Kendi, anti-racism is not self-flagellation or self-loathing, but pleasure! Remember, as Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is in you. In other words, we are unequivocally affirmed by God, and as a result, we are utterly free to change.
All of this leaves us with a God who loves us into the question: how will we reorient our lives, yet again, for Christ and the Gospel.
We are called to justice in all its forms: whatever harms our planet, or women, or indigenous communities, or Salvadoreños, or black people, or LGBTQ people, or people with disabilities is an affront to Jesus and is violence that needs repair. And where those identities intersect, all the more so!
And if all these concerns belong to Jesus, then they all belong to us, too. “No one,” Jesus says in Mark 10, “who leaves everything behind for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions.” There is no persecution or harm, personal or systemic, that God does not call us to bear witness to and do everything in our power to stop.
And so, anti-racism isn’t calling us into shame, and it isn’t a call to set aside our other works of justice. It’s simply another tool that we can use to inform how we love neighbor, stranger, refugee, immigrant, brown people, native peoples, and black people. Anti-racism is a Gospel invitation; it is good news. It is better news than I ever realized because it is bigger than I ever realized. It has room, I believe, for Gail’s playfulness, for Crisely’s voice, for Santiago’s lust for life. It is standing on a corner with Marja the greed of private prisons, and it is making space for Irene to lead us in singing This Little Light of Mine. Anti-racism is expansive and spacious and truly, I believe, a gift for us to use.
Justice without joy is incomplete, but joy without justice is shallow.
How then, we will move forward, with both?
Putting the Two Together
The Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. I’m more convinced than ever that God is calling us in equal parts to justice and to joy, and that true peace will only appear as we live fully into both of these Gospel values. This internal peace will necessitate enough grace to make room for Netflix, for the many losses of the pandemic, for days of sadness and grief, for making mistakes, for remembering that life in community is a life of forgiveness — seventy times seven times.
And yet the question remains — how will we tend to justice and joy, these two seeming opposites?
To my great surprise, Jesus shows us in his parables in Matthew 13.
He says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
A 1st century Roman historian and naturalist named Pleny the Elder says two very interesting things about the mustard plant. 1) : “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health.” So it’s medicinal. And 2) he says, “It grows entirely wild...and once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.” (So, it’s medicinal and it’s confrontative towards the other plants in the garden.)
A third thing to name is that birds are seen very differently in this culture than we see them. We see them, and we think, oh, how beautiful, a cardinal, a thrush, etc. But to a farmer in an agrarian society, birds are opposition. Birds are problematic. Birds attack the seeds! In other words, when Jesus says that the birds come and make nests in the branches of the mustard seed, he’s saying that the Kingdom of Heaven attracts opposition!
The Kingdom of Heaven is medicinal, but it is not wanted by the opposition.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a dangerous, confrontational weed.
Jesus then says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in sixty pounds of flour, until it was leavened all the way through.” Can you imagine sixty pounds of flour?! This is a massive baking operation we’re talking about, and a woman sneaks in and hides yeast in the bread. In other words, we have this woman who is hiding this essential ingredient, but it’s also problematic; in Jesus’ Jewish culture, yeast was seen as something that corrupts. Remember, yeast has not yet made its way into yellow, refrigerated packets that say Fleishmann’s! But rather, it is a smelly and unpleasant substance with a negative connotation. This is why Jesus says in Luke 12, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” This is why Paul writes to the Corinthians: 6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch... Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1:Cor 5:6-8)
These two texts highlight the absurdity of what Jesus is saying in this parable. The Jewish culture says that yeast is corrupt, that it disrupts, that it ruins things. And Jesus says, yup! That is precisely the Kingdom of Heaven — an unwanted infiltrant! The Kingdom of Heaven is disruptive. What a parable!
I would now like to share a story about a time when I discovered the Gospel’s quality to infiltrate; it’s from the first few months of my relationship with Crisely.
One of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life was meeting Crisely’s family. In the early days of our relationship, I was in awe of Crisely and eager to show her family that I was worthy of her. After dating for just a short time, Luisely came into town. Soon enough, I found myself sitting across a table, alone, with Luisely. We were fifteen or twenty minutes into our meal when she interrupted the conversation (or interrogation, depending on how you look at it) and asked the question that she really wanted to ask all along — She looked me in the eye and asked, why Crisely?
What I explained to Luisely was this: I can see that Crisely’s faith permeates everything she does — the way she eats, the way she dances, the way she speaks to me, the way she speaks to Johnny and Waltico, the way she sings, the way she listens, the way she leads — her utter lack of anxiety when she sits down to do a crossword puzzle. From the very first week, I could see, quite clearly, that Crisely’s faith was leavened into the whole of her life.
In Taize, there is a song that has different translations. One of the brothers, there, translated it to me this way — God cannot help but taint everything God does with love.
If we sojourn in such a way that justice permeates, and leavens, and taints everything we do, then we will come to know the words of the black poet, Toi Delocotte, when she says, joy is resistance. Then we’ll be able to play with those words and reverse them and say with confidence, resistance is joy; anti-racism is joy. What if we treated anti-racism like the yeast that leavens everything we do?
One of the people that has been leading me in these past few months is a woman named Austin Channing Brown. She is a black woman of faith, and in a conversation with her friend, Brené Brown, a white woman of faith, she said something quite remarkable. I quote:
There are lots of things that I wish I could bottle up and hand to people so that they could experience it — like Black Joy and you know there are things that I wish I could bottle up and be like here, here’s why you want to practice anti-racism. And one of those things that [I’d like to bottle up] is what happens between co-conspirators… When you are equals and when you are partners, and when you’re in it together and you’re like if this all falls apart, we’re just gonna half to fall apart together, go to jail together, you know...that level of intimacy, I wish I could bottle it and say listen, here’s what’s on the other side!
God calls us to a joyful subversion, to a life of confrontations steeped in gladness; to a posture of joy that infiltrates the whole of our lives. God calls us to a joy that can be quietly disruptive like the woman who hides the yeast, or more boldly disruptive like the mustard seed — the medicinal weed — which completely takes over the whole field! In another parable, we meet a man who finds this hidden treasure and hides it — this would have been potentially inappopriate in Jesus’ time. But we see in this beautiful painting the posture of a person who knows that giving one’s life is fundamentally joy.
Recently, when I’ve spent time contemplating this painting, I think about Baby Suggs, holy, in Beloved. I think about her desire for just a little color. The only color in her life, marked by enslavement and systemic racism, offered only two patches of orange — this is what should have and could have been available. Woe to us if we hold back from making such joy and such beauty a possibility for all people.
So, are you called to join Carol Bullard Bates and Mary Brown, who are quietly affirming the lives of young people of color? Or are you called to follow in the steps of Eve Tetaz, who has not just said, I disagree with this policy or that policy, but has driven stake after stake into the wheels of injustice, who has been arrested 247 times to upend the systems of violence and evil? Or perhaps, something new needs to be done in and through you, for the postures of joyful subversion are endless. What new and joyful posture of subversion is God calling you to in this season of your life?
The gift of 8th Day, the gift of our Church of the Savior roots, is that we know, from experience, that each of us is particularly called to justice and joy in such a way that speaks to the way we are made, that satisfies us, that brings us wholeness.
In Journey Inward, Journey Outward, Elizabeth O’Connor speaks to this, citing how our foremothers and forefathers would ask, over and over, the same question to everyone who walked through the doors of 2025 Massachusetts Ave. What is it that you really want to do?
Because as Gordon Cosby noted, “‘the person who is having the time of their life doesn’t just talk about good news; such a person is good news, and verbal proclamation becomes believable.’”...and she goes on by saying, “so our sermons, classes and conferences were all discerned with helping people hear, call and discern their gifts. We found ourselves so often asking, ‘What is it you would like to do now that you are six? What is it that you would like to do now that you are fifty and the children are grown and out of the house? What is it that you would like to do now that you are eighty and have a whole lifetime of work to bring to every work?’”
I’m convinced that today, she would ask this same question, holding together both justice and joy. I’m convinced that Elizabeth would ask us, “now that you have seen afresh the pain in this world, what is it that you would like to do?” I do not believe that God is asking us to give up the things we love, but quite the opposite, to be willing to be courageous in bringing the prism of race to the places that we want to be, to the kinds of work we want to do, to the kinds of relationships we want to cultivate, to the kinds of communities we want to form, to the kinds of policies we want to create. This is what I mean when I say, what if anti-racism is the Gospel yeast that can permeate the whole of lives?
If anti-racism does not sound like a beautiful invitation, then find the phrase or the language that works for you. You won’t offend me.
If anti-racism sounds like freedom, then take it, and grant me the privilege of running with you down the moving walkway.
What matters now
is an active, joyful, subversion.
Nothing less will be enough
for this is
as Krita Tippett says
the calling of our lives.
I couldn’t be more grateful to share in this struggle with all of you.
Amen and hallelujah.
Resources for the Road Ahead: Sowing Seeds of Commitment w/ Anti-Racism
https://www.tnqshow.com/ (A tv show on the expansive nature of racial justice.)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zL9IBFH7fEE (Sermon by Andre Henry.)
https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/bren%C3%A9-austin-channing-brown-on-im-still-here-black/id1494350511?i=1000477381573 (Brené Brown & Austing Channing Brown in conversation.)
https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-ibram-x-kendi-on-how-to-be-an-antiracist/ (Brené Brown in conversation with Ibram X. Kendi.)
Matthew 13: 31-35; 44-52