A reflection on the 125th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Church of the Good Shepherd. Sunday 30th July 2023

I’m grateful to Ian Lawson for pointing out that Friday of last week was the 125th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of this church, an event that it’s fitting that we contemplate and celebrate. The foundation stone was laid by the then Bishop of Edinburgh, the Right Reverend John Dowden, an Irishman from the city of Cork who was consecrated as bishop of this diocese in 1886 and who served in that capacity until his death in 1910, a few months short of his seventieth birthday. Fittingly, the memorial to him in the Cathedral was designed by Robert Lorimer, whom he knew and who was the architect of the Church of the Good Shepherd.

It's a happy coincidence that today’s Gospel includes parables about the nature and growth of the Kingdom of God. The stone that Bishop Dowden laid might be likened to the planting of a mustard seed which then developed into something bigger than its small beginnings suggest, but I’m going to focus instead on the very brief reference that Jesus makes to bread-making.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Jesus is not questioned by his disciples about the meaning of the parable as he was in last week’s Gospel reading about the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The disciples should have understood that in the Hebrew scriptures yeast is used as a metaphor for influence, both good and bad. They were sometimes, however, very slow on the uptake. Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus warns them against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees and they think he’s referring to the fact that they haven’t got any bread with them.

To understand the full force of the parable, we need first to grasp that the quantity of dough that the woman is making is staggeringly large. It would make enough bread to feed at least a hundred people. There’s something here about the extravagant generosity of God, a generosity acted out by Jesus in the feeding of the five thousand. Great things do come from small beginnings, as the ongoing life of this church shows.

I’m also interested in the technique that the woman in the parable would have used. The first thing that I put into the pan of our bread maker when I start to make a loaf is three-quarters of a teaspoon of yeast. It’s a fine, dry powder and it requires water, sugar and warmth to bring it back to life and set it to work. Bread makers in Biblical times used something that was already alive. Their yeast was a lump of dough, reserved from a previous baking day, which had been encouraged to ferment. For that reason, there was a living link between each batch of bread and the previous batches.

There’s a lesson for us here about the value of tradition. Our life as a church, the yeast that enables us to rise and to nourish the world is originally a gift from God, the gift of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. For two thousand years each generation of Christians has handed on the yeast that acts as a starter for those who come after, and each succeeding generation has done the demanding work of discerning how the love of God should serve and shape the present age.

If Bishop John Dowden returned to his diocese in 2023, he would find some things with which he was familiar and comfortable, but other things which might surprise him; a different liturgy, women priests, a more inclusive view of marriage. I say might surprise him, for he was a noted historian of the church and understood that it has always flourished by having the right balance between valuing and handing on tradition and using God’s gift of reason to work out the implications of the Gospel in an ever-changing world. That gift of reason, of  wisdom and discernment is what King Solomon, in today’s first reading, asked God to grant him. It is the gift that can enable us to bring together three things.

Firstly, what we read in the Bible about the life, teaching, death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Church’s one foundation.

Secondly, all that we have inherited from previous generations of Christians.

Thirdly, the wisdom to discern, in the light of scripture and tradition, the way to be the church in the here and now.