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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Beware the Yeast

Summer’s End, a 3-week sermon series at the end of Summer, preached Sunday August 27, 2023 at the 9:30am worship service


The religious leaders have just tested Jesus by asking him to show them a sign, as proof he is of God. He answers them, “You know how to interpret the weather from the appearance of the sky, but you can’t interpret what God is doing from what is going on around you? (Only) An evil, cheating generation would ask for a sign.” Then Jesus and the disciples go across the water to the other side.

We pick up at verse 5, not 13 as printed. In preparation for today, I needed to include these earlier verses so the later verses would make sense. Let’s pray and listen for the words of the Lord…

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture Matthew 16:5–17

5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

7 They said to one another, “It is because we haven’t brought any bread.”

8 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about not having bread? 9 Do you still not get it? Don’t you remember the five loaves (that fed) five thousand and how many baskets (full) you gathered (after)? 10 Or the seven loaves (that fed) four thousand and how many (full) baskets you gathered (after)? 11 How could you still worry I was talking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!”

12 Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast, as in bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

13 Then as Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do (the) people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And the disciples said, “Some say John the Baptist, and others say Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “And who do you all say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)

Sermon Beware the Yeast

My and Jill’s first house had been a remodeling project. We knocked out walls, and changed the flow from kitchen through dining and living rooms. I had grown up with a mom who was always rearranging and remodeling our house, then selling it as her income, then doing the same to the next house. Jill had grown up in the same unchanged house her whole life.

When Jill and I moved out of our remodeled first house in Montgomery Alabama to Greenville South Carolina for a new job, Jill wanted a new house, one that didn’t need fixing or changing.

We moved into that new construction house, and I remember when she tried to bake bread. She did the same thing she always did, exactly the way her mom taught her. But it wasn’t working. The bread was heavy, flat, thick, instead of light and fluffy, like someone forgot to blow it up. She called her mom and they talked it through. Attee’s advice was just to keep doing it. The brand-new house wasn’t used to growing bread. It would learn. Jill kept doing it, and weirdly, yes, it took a few months, but the bread got bigger and lighter. Supposedly, there’s something about baking bread over and over again where the yeast from the bread itself will linger in the oven, the baking pans, and in the house, and that helps accelerate the effect of the yeast in future breads when they are baked.

After Jesus’ interaction with the religious leaders, Jesus is frustrated. Why is it religious leaders who struggle to recognize God among us, God at work, or struggle to sense what God wants or what God is doing? We have this whole scripture to point out the beautiful character of God. Why is God so misunderstood, or worse, manipulated by the faithfully religious? So Jesus, exasperated, warns those trying to follow him, “beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Don’t let their stuff get on you, grow on you.

The disciples are confused, thinking he’s talking about bread, and Jesus gets exasperated again, this time with his own students. “UGH! Don’t y’all remember what I’ve taught you and shown you before? I’m not worried about bread, or upset about what we are going to eat tonight. I’m talking about how religious people think of God and talk about God. Don’t let their yeast get on you. It will linger on you and grow unwanted things in you and those who come after you.”

“Ohhhhh… he means the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees, not literal bread.”

Then Jesus asks his disciples how the people in the community talk of him. “Who do the people say the son of man is?” This is a test. Who are the disciples listening to? Religious leaders, Pharisees and Sadducees? Do not let their yeast get on you. To Jesus himself? Yes, okay, great, but that’s not the point. Listening to Jesus is training for being like Jesus in the bigger world. Are you listening to the people in the community? What are they saying about me, about God?

The disciples have been listening to the people. “They are saying you might be a modern prophet, like John was, or maybe an ancient prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah.”

Jesus was exasperated twice before, once by religious leaders, then by his own disciples. This time, he is pleased twice, first with his disciples. “Very good. You’ve been listening to the people.” Notice there’s no warning to beware the yeast of the people. There’s no theological expectation or judgment on people of the community. Their wonderings and questions, beliefs and doubts about God are welcomed and should be listened to by those who follow Jesus. Good job disciples for listening.

The second time Jesus is pleased is when he asks, “And who do you say I am?” and Simon answers, “the chosen one, the anointed one of God.” Jesus gives him a nickname. “Blessed are you Simon. You didn’t get that from some religious leader. You got that from God’s own self.”

There’s nothing more infuriating than religious persons, leaders who teach and practice religion under the name of Jesus that neither looks nor sounds anything like Jesus, growing yeast into their churches and communities that gets onto generations of people.

Like the pastor with expensive suits, cars, and watches, raising more money under the promise that the more people give, the more they will be given by God…

Or the person who somehow preaches against caring for the poor and the immigrant and the elderly and the children as demonic social justice, as “woke”…

Or the Christian who, in the name of Jesus, waves an assault rifle around…

Or the church leader who claims America and Israel are God’s two favorite countries…

Or the Christian voice who says the earth is ours to use however we want, instead of something we are supposed to care for and tend to…

Or the pastors who split their denomination and congregations with votes, or rally their congregations with posters about who God rejects and even hates…

Or those churches who scare people with threats of going to hell, then sell a shortcut to “being saved,” which is usually praying a certain prayer, getting baptized a certain way, and setting up a certain recurring contribution…

Or anyone that blocks women from teaching or preaching because you know, the Bible says so…

Or anyone who justified the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, segregation using a short scriptural text out of context, slaves obey your masters…

Or the TV preacher who claims a natural disaster, a hurricane, tornado, or storm hit a certain people because of their “sin”…

Or any religious leader, teacher, pastor that uses their position of power and influence to have inappropriate relationships with members, and sometimes minors, and those who then cover it up…

Or the religious leader at my father’s funeral when I was 6, who said God took my dad because God needed him more than we did…

Or any religious person who sees and hears any of this in any pastor, preacher, or leader or Christian and makes excuses, or does nothing…

The great challenge of Christian ministry today is trying to undo harm other religious leaders have done before us, getting the yeast of hypocritical, judgmental, rigid, closed-minded, hard-hearted Christianity off of the church and all her people.

If someone is angry with me for not using the King James, I know that’s because a religious leader told them, the King James is the only and best translation. I don’t use the King James version because I also know the King forced edits into that Bible that he wanted, for personal and political reasons.

Or if someone doesn’t like the way I read the scriptures, meaning I don’t read them exactly as written in the pew Bible, well they were taught by religious leaders before them to hold a very high value of scripture, to trust every word, and they may feel like I am being disrespectful or flippant with scripture when I read it differently than its written. But I had to study the original languages, and was forced to dive under the over-simplified English and get into the messy nuances of the Greek and Hebrew, so I try not to just read the English but to preach what our ancestors were trying to say.

Or if a person raised Catholic has certain guilts, or if a person raised Baptist has certain strong opinions, or if someone raised Methodist doesn’t like the way we do communion, or is someone raised Church of Christ gets upset because we baptize infants, or if someone raised non-denominational gets upset because our hymns are boring, or if someone raised Presbyterian gets upset because our songs are too secular, well, Religious leaders made statements like that and taught them to people. Religious leaders sprinkled that yeast all over American Christians and into American culture. It’s everywhere.

When I meet someone new, who isn’t Christian, and they find out I am a Christian pastor, they are likely to assume I am yeasty with all those problems I listed before. Or if someone IS a committed Christian and they hear the way I read and preach the scriptures, or see my tattoos, they just might think I’m a heretic or something because I don’t sound like their mainline preachers of the last century, or evangelical preachers of new century.

And I’ll be honest, my great fear is what yeast I may be putting on people that isn’t good and healthy and true to God. What will someone after me have to clean up?

Now, none of us are Jesus, but all of us are in this story. Some of us may be religious leaders. Others may be confused but devoted disciples. And still others may just be people of the community, wondering about Jesus, but not sure.

Whoever we are, here, at a church that claims Jesus is the Christ, We will hear many things about God, and things from Jesus, and we will all be trying to make sense of it. The church of Jesus needs our beliefs and our questions. I pray here all of you feels welcomed not scorned, and carefully listened to. Everyone's questions and doubts and beliefs are welcome here. Jesus loved sitting with crowds of religious leaders, disciples and people from the community, discussing and debating who God is, what God is doing, and what God wants. We all might learn a few new things here, things that challenge what we’ve been taught or thought before. Jesus is asking us to measure all things not against any religious leader, past or present, or any personal belief strongly or lightly held, but against Jesus, who he is, what he said and did. If someone old or new taught you something, if you’ve thought or believed something but it doesn’t match Jesus, beware the yeast. But if you learn something, hear something that doesn’t match anything you’ve ever heard or thought before, and it does look and sound like Jesus, let that yeast bake in. Isn't that what it means to proclaim he is the Messiah, the son of God?

To God, be all the glory and honor now and forever more. Amen?



Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow, be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

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