Matthew 13:31-33, Reflectionary

Good Trouble

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened." (Matthew 13:33, NRSV)

In looking at this week’s gospel reading, my focus has been on Matthew 13:31-33, the mustard seed and the yeast. As I wrote last week, we may be tempted to assign allegorical roles to the movements in these very brief parables, but instead let’s look at the overall image created. A tiny seed is sown and grows to an unlikely size, thus making a home for many birds. A woman leavens a huge amount of flour that when baked can feed many people. What is the kingdom of heaven like? Something small and hidden does its work and creates something new that is greater than expected and beneficial to many. 

I spent time this weekend reflecting on the life of Congressman John Lewis, whose courageous and faithful actions over his lifetime influenced and benefited many. I’m wondering today, what if the kingdom of heaven is like good trouble? It was a phrase he used repeatedly, in speeches and even on Twitter. 

Despair is a familiar feeling when we watch video of protestors assailed by federal police in camo and wonder what we can do, or see the COVID-19 infection rate climb in many communities across the U.S., or moderate conflicted conversations among church leaders about returning (or not) to in-person worship. The cure comes in our God-inspired actions.

As the poet Eve Ewing writes, “‘good trouble’ is powerful as a shorthand for the idea that disrupting the rules in pursuit of the greater good is honorable & righteous.” So, how is the kingdom of heaven like good trouble? It’s a powerful question for individuals but also for the church as a collective. These times insist we disrupt the rules that have worked for us in the past.

What greater good are we growing? What seeds will we sow as we reinvent what it means to be the church? What spreading network of care and habitation can we build even while our worship takes place at a distance? St. Paul’s UCC in West Milton, PA, had just taken over a local food bank when the pandemic hit and had to immediately expand its reach as area residents faced layoffs and economic uncertainty over the past four months. 

What are we nurturing? The yeast in the parable is not like the packets we have shared with each other during the Stay-at-Home orders but rather an old-fashioned sourdough. It takes time and dark and quiet to ferment and reach its full capacity, and it requires continued care to stay alive. This image connects for me to the Wall of Moms who joined the nightly protests this weekend in Portland, Oregon, making their own good trouble and setting an example for anyone who thinks that protesting is for someone else. 

(Bev) Barnum, who is Mexican American, teamed up with Don’t Shoot Portland, a Black-led advocacy group that has been fighting for social change in Portland since 2014. They are currently demonstrating for justice in the July 10 shooting death of teenager Shai’India Harris.

“We are just amplifying their message,” Rebecca, another mom that joined Barnum, told CNN. “Parents have always been out there protesting. Black mothers have been doing this forever trying to get justice for their children.”

From Dozens of Moms formed a human shield via CNN

“We are part of a larger process, and although we may start an action, once started, it can often do quite well on its own,” writes Amy-Jill Levine, reflecting on both parables.*

Our leadership plants the seeds. Our actions incorporate the needed leaven. Our collective care keeps the movement alive. It’s good trouble, and necessary trouble, and I hope it’s an expression of the kingdom of heaven.

I’m influenced this week by re-reading the work of Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. Harper Collins, 2014, pp. 166-167. Levine reviews classic Christian interpretations of the parables, then offers a different lens both from her own Biblical scholarship and the context of Jesus’ time.

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