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.

Matthew 13:24-30, Reflectionary

It’s a blur

Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.
Matthew 13:40, NRSV

There’s a long flower bed under the bow window in our kitchen, facing the street in front of our house. I enjoy it in the spring, when daffodils predominate. From a distance right now, it’s a green, summery blur. Up close, I can differentiate between shrubs and weeds – usually. I am not a gardener, but most weeds offer some clue in the form of raggedy edges or accelerated growth or stubborn attachment at the root, allowing me to recognize them. 

This week’s gospel lesson offers a more complicated scenario. Jesus taught in quotidian parables, and this agrarian example has a hero and a villain. The planter has done a good thing, planting wheat seeds, but the enemy has come on the scene while everybody sleeps to sow weeds in the midst. Although the workers offer to get busy weeding, the planter will wait patiently to protect the good wheat and allow it to grow to its full maturity. Then the weeds and the wheat can be sorted. 

There’s an approach to this text that says the wheat and the weeds looked alike until fully mature, thus the need to wait instead of ripping things up, and there’s another that uses the parable to build a timeline awaiting Armageddon. (I am not kidding; you can find a graphic timeline if you do a Google image search for “wheat weeds bible.”) In Matthew 13, Jesus has been teaching from a boat, to get some distance from the crowd. At the end of the day, he retreats to a house, where the disciples have to ask him for an explanation. Although Jesus in the missing verses of this passage assures the disciples they understand him, unlike the crowd, Matthew’s one-for-one gloss reduces a parable to an allegory as if the gospel writer is not so sure about the reader’s comprehension, either. 

I wrote, in 2011, “God does not exclude prematurely, because God doesn’t want to uproot what is still coming to fruition. God waits for the harvest. Maybe we’re all both wheat and weeds. Maybe we’ll be be gathered in and sorted out as individuals and as churches, not discarded ‘here one group and there the other’ but instead given a chance to come to terms with the ways we’ve been both wheat and weeds, so closely intertwined that we can’t always tell the difference ourselves.” (From In the Weeds – July, 2011.) 

That personal approach to the text spoke to the congregation I served then. In 2020, it’s the collective that speaks to me. Sometimes it is hard to sort out what is good from what is evil without destroying what is good. If that isn’t an image for this moment! In the congregations you serve, people of deep faith, people who love each other and would care for each other and members of the community in times of need, might also disagree passionately about issues that we cannot ignore right now. The seed sown by the enemy, from one perspective, might be QAnon posts or White House talking points about mask-wearing, while from another the evil seeds are the guidelines recommended by the CDC or a Democratic governor. When we read it that way, we may be tempted to follow Matthew down the allegorical path.

Good? Or evil?

I believe we can tell this story as holistic, speaking to all people and for all people. I am not recommending we embrace “both sides-ism,” but rather that we acknowledge the raggedy edges of our own stubborn attachments and lift up the faith values that hold us together. Our shared reckoning with the difference between good and evil in this moment is hard, but it holds our saving hope. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a sower who waited patiently and watched the green, summery blur grow into its fullness. May we be as patient with each other’s growth, in this fraught moment.

Liturgy, Prayer, The People Pray

We are the weeds

Holy One, 

Sometimes we have planted carefully and nurtured new growth with passionate patience, then celebrated the bounty of our garden without noticing your little ones who go hungry.

You know what we take pride in, both our effort and our ignorance.

Please, we pray, forgive us.

Sometimes we are tempted to look at someone else’s garden and see only the weeds, without admitting our own failures.

You know what we hold onto, both our self-importance and our denial.

Please, we pray, forgive us. 

Sometimes we think we there is no difference between what you want and what we want; we are the weeds among the wheat, and the wheat crowded by weeds.

You know what we believe, both our certainty and our stubbornness.

Please, we pray, forgive us.

In Christ Jesus, who sows seeds of new life, we are forgiven!

I wrote this prayer in conversation with Psalm 139:1-12 and 23-24 and Matthew 13:24-30. You’re welcome to use the prayer or the image in any way that would be useful this week.