Letting Jesus Be Our Teacher - Reservoir Church
Image Map
Image Map


Earth- Lent: A Spring Season

Letting Jesus Be Our Teacher

Steve Watson

Mar 19, 2023

We’re entering the second half of this season of Lent, invited to sit with some of the teachings of Jesus through this year’s theme of our connections to the rest of the Earth. 

Last week, we heard from indigenous wisdom teacher and theologian Randy Woodley. He taught about the Bible’s way of shalom – harmony, wellness, just peace – and the Way of Jesus as it is contextualized into the indigenous cultures from which we call home. 

Part of why I so love the work of my friend Dr. Kiran Martin, the founder of Asha, is that the same is true for her. She is animated by the love and wisdom of Jesus, but in Asha’s work our church supports, serving destitute Hindu and Muslim residents of urban North India, she and her team contextualize the Way of Jesus into an empowering way of life that does not require religious conversion to participate in. 

I’m also meeting people throughout the country who are doing this in the weird religious moment that our world is in. Amidst growing rigidity and fundamentalism, in response to change and fear, amidst the increasing revelations of abuse of power and harm in the American evangelical movement, a national church network I’ve been invited to participate in is getting off the ground.

The thing is called the Post Evangelical Collective. It’s a community for pastors and churches who have some roots and history in the evangelical Christian movement, but because of the way we’re following Jesus in this age, with radical commitments to justice and inclusion, we don’t fit there any more. And this post-evangelical collective is emerging to resource and connect churches like us all around the country and beyond. 

I’m really excited to be part of this movement and I hope as it gets going, for our church to be part of it too. This May, we’ll be hosting the first New England gathering of the Post Evangelical collective. You won’t see it, because it will be a small thing for pastors, but a mentor of mine and friend of this church David Gushee will be in town for the gathering and we’ll offer some kind of class or conversation in the evening you’ll all be invited to. 

I’m so excited about this venture, that I’ve already started planning for next year’s gathering, and I’ve already scheduled another great national leader to come be with us and also to preach one weekend here at Reservoir. This new friend of ours is Drew Hart. Drew’s a theology professor and a leading speaker and author on antiracism, justice, and activism in the church.

All to say, pray for our church and for this new venture, the Post Evangelical Collective, if you can. That it be healthy, that it be a way for us to better connect with, learn from, and support like minded churches, and that it be a place where the wisdom and love and power of Jesus can sit well and be fruitful in our generation and in the generations to come. 


Alright, as I said, in our theme of earth – about our connection with all of creation, encouraging humility, gratitude, and openness – we spend the third quarter of our guide, starting today, looking at the earth teaching of Jesus. We look at his quaint little stories about seeds and crops and birds and trees and see if the Spirit of Christ, who is always with us, can teach and provoke us anew.

I had planned to have us sit with three or four different teachings of Jesus in this sermon, letting them speak anew to us but I got so deep in the first one, the shortest one to which I was drawn, that that’s mostly all we’ve time for, a little one verse, one sentence teaching of Jesus. 

Here it is: 

Matthew 13:33 (Common English Bible)

33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.”

Last week, I was at a Board meeting for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. There were some new Board members there and we were doing this team activity about the values we wanted to see represented in the work, and I just wasn’t drawn to all the words on the table like courage and equity and creativity and all that. Nothing wrong with those values, it’s just they seemed kind of bland and abstract. And I’m not believing much in bland, abstract ideas these days, if I don’t see them in action.

Jesus didn’t give people adjectives to live by or aspire to, he told stories. So I thought of values that were embedded in stories. I quoted Howard Thurman, spiritual mentor to the civil rights movement, whose work one of my community groups has been reading. 

And I was like one value I have is “contact, with fellowship.” My group had been talking about Thurman’s phrase in Jesus and the Disinherited, where he talks about the danger of the opposite, how contact without fellowship breeds contempt. This is why white people with superficial, transactional contact with people of color can actually become more racist. Or it’s why some teachers, not most teachers, but some come to hate their young students. 

It’s contact without fellowship. And I was like: I want fellowship, real, respectfully engaged relationships in everything we do.

And the other thing that came to mind with me was this story Jesus told. So I wrote on my values card: a fistful of yeast that feeds a village. 

People didn’t really know what to do with that. Like what kind of value is a fistful of yeast? 

So I told this little story – there was a woman with a fistful of yeast, who hid it in a whole bushel of flour, until it worked its way through all the dough. 

Admittedly, who knows what it means? Single, celled fungi are amazing. Science! There’s one take away.

Or little things can have a lot of power. There’s another, I guess.

But I was like:

How about this? Jesus honors the skill, the labor, the contributions of working class women. How about that for a value? 

It’s a tiny story, but I love it. Jesus picturing this woman kneading yeast into the dough, working it through, picturing all the bread it’s going to make. 

What does he mean when he says this is what the kingdom of God is like? This is the Beloved Community, this is the reign of God.

I wonder if it means the beloved community is about feeding people, about more than enough bread for everyone. 

There’s a bit we miss in translation, this bit about the bushel of flour. This woman isn’t making a loaf, she’s making dozens of loaves, maybe a hundred. A bushel of flour is like 40 pounds or more. Like five-10 of those big bags of flour you find in the supermarket.

It’s an obscene amount of bread, if you’re cooking for a family. It’s just right, though, if you’re cooking for a village. This is bread enough for a temple, a synagogue, a neighborhood. 

When you cook, set a wide table, and make enough for everyone. This is beloved community.

It’s cool that this is in reach of a working class woman. Most people who get celebrated in history are rich and powerful men. When meals get remembered, people talk about the guest of honor, or the folks who had enough resources to hire caterers. 

But most people, with skill and care, can feed a community. A pretty poor person can save up enough funds to buy 10 bags of flour and a few jars of yeast. 

And maybe that’s beloved community too – when you take what you have, and with the help of God and friends and fungal food chemistry, you work it to maximum impact. That’s a story worth telling too.

Or maybe again, it’s just recognizing the power and honoring the labor of working class women, and anyone else that gets overlooked. 

This is why I brought this up in GBIO. We have plenty of workplaces and government units and communities that honor the gifts and labor of the best educated and wealthiest and highest status people among us. 

We don’t need more of that. 

Most of these abuse of power stories I talked about in my sermon on repentance, they wouldn’t have happened, or they would have been cut off fast, if people hadn’t been so trusting and protective of the status of powerful men, if we’d been honoring the voice and power of ordinary women and children.

We need more companies and cultures that will recognize and celebrate the voice and power of ordinary people, of marginalized people.

On Thursday, some of us were part of an action for housing justice on the steps of the state house. It was awesome. More than 300 people, coming to the governor and the heads of the Mass State house and senate, having built a coalition and done our homework to insist on the kinds of funding and policies that ensure dignified, affordable housing for all people, in all our communities. 

If you want to get involved in this work, talk to Pastor Lydia. She was actually leading the action on Thursday. Oh, and friends, you should have been there. Wow, Lydia was on fire! So skilled, so articulate, incredibly moving and impassioned, with brilliant attention to detail. You should be so proud to have a pastor that can lead like that in public life. I was just beaming watching my colleague lead this work.

Really special.

You know what was just as special, though, and maybe even more a sign of the work of the Spirit of Jesus, it was when two working class women, tenant leaders who live in local public housing, advocated for the budget it would take to actually maintain the low income, public housing of our state.

Bishnu talked about what it’s like to be a South Asian, Hindu immigrant and be told you can’t take off your shoes in your own home. All the asbestos, all the cockroaches you see night and day are too big a risk for your skin, so keep your shoes on. 

And at the state house, with crowds of followers, Bishnu told the press and the government, we deserve apartments clean enough so that we can take our shoes off indoors.

And then Arleen talked about growing up as a serial victim of all manner of trauma, moving from house to house only to be abused again and again in other people’s homes. And she called out to the leaders of our state, all of us deserve our own place to call home where we can shut and lock the door and be safe. 

We were led by these working class women whose voices in the past have been disregarded, shut down, told “you can’t” again and again. Not by Jesus, though. The kingdom of God is the power of working class women to effect radical generosity, community-transforming change. 

To these women, Jesus says: I see you. I hear you. You can do it. You have the power. Spirit of God is doing this still, friends. I saw and heard it happen this Thursday. 

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough.

It reminds me of another scripture, from the letter called I Corinthians, where the faith leader, apostle Paul, writes, in the first chapter:

God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong.

28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing.

29 So no human being can brag in God’s presence. 

I’ve shared before that Reservoir is part of a faith tradition, the way of Jesus, a way that as a religion has been called Christianity, is badly in need of massive reform.

I often call that reform the decolonizing of the faith. Finding all the abuse of power, the controlling theology and ethics, the spiritual and community practices that don’t bear good fruit and replacing it all with what helps us get free. Uncovering the Way of Jesus in dialogue with the times and culture we live in for a renewed, healthy, powerful faith.

Some of that is peeling off a lot of stuff that Christianity accrued over centuries as a European, colonizing religion. It’s the humbling of the Western Christian tradition. Taking a lot of what was considered extra something and reducing it to nothing. 

But I was thinking this week: what’s some of the gold of this tradition we’re keeping. What are the babies of European or Western Christianity we’re not throwing out as we try to drain the toxic bathwater? 

And I was realizing that a lot of this is the good stuff that was born out of humble people. It’s wisdom and power drawn from the spiritual yeast of people who met God in their trauma. 

I think of Brother Lawrence. He was a 17th century monk at a time when prayer was pretty formal, the reading and chanting of words written by others. But he developed this mode of prayer which was not formal at all. In fact, it was not necessarily even saying much at all, but kind of reminding oneself throughout the day, whatever you’re doing, that you’re a child of God and all of you is loved by all of God. 

He called this practicing the presence of God. And he had such great joy and peace from this that people flocked to him to learn his secret. It was disarmingly simple. While he peeled potatoes, or mended shoes or whatever, he’d simply remember:

God is there. And I am God’s child, loved so very much.

And that gave him the freedom to think and feel and say whatever he thought and felt knowing God was attuned to him, paying loving attention to him. And so he felt at peace, and so he loved God too. That was it. 

So simple, but enduringly influential through this day. How did this spiritual breakthrough occur? How did Brother Lawrence learn to pray like this? 

Well, it was born of trauma. 

I was listening to an interview with Carmen Acevdeo Butcher, a scholar with a new translation out of the 17th work of the monk Brother Lawrence, famous for the practice of the presence of God. 

Lawrence grew up dirt poor, he was uneducated. As a teenager, with no school, no resources, he ends up being drawn into the army, as poor people often are. He served for a few years in the Thirty Years’ War, a brutal, long, violent religious war in Central Europe. He was injured in war, permanently disabled. He suffered chronic pain over the next 50 years. He ended up in the monastery because he failed at other jobs. And in the monastery, he had a low rank. He cooked soup, washed dishes, mended shoes. And he said people told him all these complicated ways to pray – that with his low education maybe, with his anxiety or PTSD just didn’t work for him. 

But out of his own need for healing, he discovered he could remember again and again that God was with him, knowing and loving him always, and then he could silently communicate whatever he felt and thought to God. And he described this as a returning again and again to love, a returning to love, and that slowly healed him. 

Breakthroughs in our faith, born out of pain, disability, living on the edges of the tradition. This has been true again and again. People seek God, or they find God seeking them, in trauma, and they become our guides. 

Julian of Norwich, Julianna of Norwich I call her, taught us the mother-love of a God who mostly by then was seen only as male, Father. She had a wildly hopeful, optimistic faith, which disarmed the angry, wrathful God she was taught and helped us see that all of God is love.

How’d she get there? A vision of Jesus while so sick with the plague she thought she was dying. Traumatized by the death that was everywhere around her – some people think she had a baby child who died of the plague – in this grief and trauma, in her weakness, God found her, and she became one of our great teachers of prayer and of the love of God.

Again and again this has been so. 

This is the way of God on earth – working class women with a fistful of yeast to feed a village, or a story to tell that gets housing for a community. A disabled veteran who can’t pray the right way until God shows him a better way. A traumatized young widow on her sickbed, who has a vision of bloody Jesus that becomes God her friend, God her love, God her mother, and she knows all will be well somehow, everything will be well. 

God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong.

28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. 

If you ever are accounted by yourself or by others as foolish or weak or low-class or low-life, know that you are the one God chooses. You are the means for the miracle. 

And if you are ever accounted by yourself or by others as wise or strong or high class, know that you might need to look to others to lead you in the best ways of God. 

Jesus says, that woman with nothing but yeast and flour will lead us. The scriptures say a child will lead us. 

Don’t despise weak people and small things. 

A couple weeks ago, a third grader in our church found me on his way outside, and stopped to show me what he had done in kids church that day. With my adult eyes, I was inclined to see a kid’s tiny cheap pot of earth, nothing more. Cute maybe, but a kids’ craft, nothing much. But this child, Junia, he helped me see what he saw. He said: look, a sunflower. I didn’t see the sunflower. I saw a tiny bit of dirt in a child’s hand. But Junia saw a new life he had co-created, a seed in the dirt that was on its way to a giant, golden sunflower that just might get taller than him. 

Is that charming and cute? 

Or is it just true? Is it the Beloved Community reign of God?

We so easily despise the people of the earth we account as weak or small, don’t we. Not Jesus. Spirit of Christ says the Beloved Community reign of God flows from their yeast and flour, their hospitality and voice, their advocacy, their truth, their trauma, their spiritual and religious innovations.

Pay attention. Learn from them. Honor them. If you’re one of them, let your light shine. It just might be the very light of God we need.

And we so easily despise new beginnings. Because new beginnings of Beloved Community, of the reign of God are small. All new beginnings are small. 

If the Way of Jesus is going to be uncovered, found winsome and empowering again in this country, it’s going to start in new beginnings – small but beautiful things like Reservoir Church and the Post Evangelical Collective and our friend Mariama’s beautiful New Roots Church in Dorchester and many other small, but powerful ventures. 

If we’re going to see our world’s massive urban slums become healthier, more just places, where – as the Bible puts it – ash heaps are resurrected to garden communities of hope – it’s going to start city by city, with new life born of seeds and flours like Asha and Cheza sports.

When we learn to pray again, when we learn that God loves us and our faith is renewed, when justice breaks forth like the sun at morning dawn, it’s going to burst forth from the wisdom of the Juliannas and Lawrences, those that met God through trauma, it’s going to burst forth from the powerful truth of working class women like Bishnu and Arleen. 

Friends, every plant, every life is born of tiny, dying seed.

The most beautiful things of God burst forth from people and places some of us considered nothing, a fistful of yeast. 

Don’t ever patronize, condescend to, or despise God’s presence and truth in the people and places that some of the world considers low class and low life. Don’t ever patronize, condescend to, or despise God’s presence and truth in the parts of your own self you consider nothing.

And friends, don’t ignore or despise small beginnings, because all beloved community, all of the reign of God, every great love story, every miracle of resurrection looks pretty dang small at first. 

When you perceive it, celebrate, give thanks, pour out all your love and hope onto small beginnings. It’s the way of Jesus, it’s the way of the God, it’s the hope of the world.