Leavening and Life after Swarthmore
In August 2013, three months after graduating from Swarthmore, I moved to Houston. I grew up north of Chicago, and nearly all of my extended family is on the East Coast. But I’d taken a job developing math curricula for a non-profit, work I was excited to do. I didn’t study abroad at Swat. Houston would be my cross-cultural experience.
“I live here but I’m not from here,” I used to tell people. I didn’t plan to stay more than a few years. The only furniture I bought was a twin bed (I’d eat dinner sitting on the floor). I commuted exclusively by bicycle: as a way to resist Houston’s driving culture, but also because I felt a car would tie me down. I wanted to be ready to leave as soon as the time came.
I don’t think my situation was uncommon. Many of my classmates spent a year or two at their first jobs and then moved on to grad school or pursued other work opportunities. But how do we use that time well? What deserves your attention when you feel like you’re just passing through?
Luke 13:20-21 – Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
Taken alone, there’s a lot to say about this passage from Luke. But, with varying degrees of nuance, most readings identify the central thrust as something like this: “The Kingdom of God is radically transformative.” Just a small amount of yeast can totally change the character of the dough, taking what’s there and turning it into something better than it could be on its own. When the love of God gets into the world, it has that kind of transformative power: transforming what’s there to make it better.
But I’d like to suggest that there’s another level of complexity here. And it comes into view only when we take the passage as part of a pair. The mention of yeast begs us to examine the most important story about yeast in the Bible:
Exodus 12:11 – This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.
12:39 – The dough was without yeast because they had been driven out of Egypt and did not have time to prepare food for themselves.
The bread in Exodus is unleavened because God’s people are on the run. After years of slavery and oppression—after witnessing the murder of their children—the Israelites finally have a chance to escape. There’s no time for elaborate preparations. They make what food they can and set off in the middle of the night, hoping to heaven that they’ll never have to return.
So what happens when we look at these two passages side by side? In Exodus, we see a yeast-free escape from oppression: a quick getaway with no time for leavening. Later, in Luke, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like yeast itself. What does the lens of the first passage shows us about the second? I think it’s this: in the Kingdom of God, there’s time to put yeast in the dough.
By saying that the Kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman works through the dough, Jesus is saying that it’s like not Passover. It’s like not packing up all your belongings and making a quick exit in the dead of night. It’s like not having to escape. Or, in positive terms: It’s like being able to invest in our communities, taking the time to stick around and watch the dough rise.
Sometimes we have to run away, of course. The Kingdom of God is here, but not all-the-way here. There are still things to escape from, still people in circumstances they’d leave if they could. Exodus is the story of a people who didn’t have time for yeast, not because they didn’t want to invest in their communities, but because they were enslaved by that community. We weren’t ready for yeast in Exodus: because we were leaving; because we were on the road.
But the Kingdom of God is for a time when we’re not leaving. It’s for a time when we get to stay, get to see what happens, get to be part of what happens. Yeasted bread is the food of a free people—people who don’t need to escape in the dead of night. It’s the food of people putting down roots. When you add yeast, you say: we’re staying here; we’re making something together. I have time for you; I have time for this.
I knew I didn’t want to stay long in Houston. I kept my belongings as minimal as possible and never stayed more than 8 months in an apartment, preferring short leases.
And my relationships? My community?
If I’m honest, a lot of it was like unleavened bread. I had matzah friendships: quick to make and better than nothing—but also dry, brittle, insubstantial.
But not every friendship was like that. Sometimes some leavening made it in: with my coworkers, the church choir ladies I sang with every week, the friends I made in small group.
And when I took the time to put yeast in the dough—when I wasn’t planning my exodus—that’s where I saw the Kingdom of God. I found it in long conversations with my colleagues about girls and STEM; I heard it when the choir ladies shared stories of their own first years after college; I felt it when my small group prayed for a friend of mine from home.
It turns out that rootedness isn’t actually a function of how long you stay in one place. It has to do with how you live when you’re there. I learned to invest in relationships, talking to people about what mattered to them. I got involved with the Houston storytelling community, doing my best to learn from and contribute to the cultural life of the city. I knew I wouldn’t be in Houston forever, but I was here now.
I left Houston in May and moved to Boston: a city I love with people I love, with public transit and boats in the harbor and trees that change color. And I think I might want to stay here for a while.
But whether it’s one year or ten, I’m learning to ask: Am I making unleavened bread in this relationship? Or am I really putting something into it, and asking God to do the same? Am I planning to stick around to see it rise?
I mentioned that most readings of the Luke passage essentially amount to, “The Kingdom of God is radically transformative”—and I certainly think that’s true. But to see that radical transformation, we have to add yeast to the dough. We can’t have one foot out the door, ignoring the place where we are because we wish were somewhere else. Even if we’re not there long, we need to invest the time we have if we want to see God’s Kingdom at work.
Unleavened bread is an important part of our history: it’s the story of God delivering his people from slavery. But the promise of the Kingdom—the promise that both is coming and has now come—is that in Christ we’re free; we don’t have to escape. We have time for yeast.
That doesn’t mean staying in one place our whole lives. It doesn’t mean committing to just one community. But it does mean learning to say:
I don’t have forever, but the time I do have, I give freely. I won’t be here my whole life, but I’m here now. And I’m choosing to make leavened bread.Tags: academia, college, community, friendship, Swarthmore College, university, vocation, work