Texts: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
The bags, you see, are synthetic fibers, so the bleach doesn’t damage or decolorize them; and yet, the mold reminded me that they are not indestructible. The mold itself didn’t hurt them, but if I didn’t feel like cleaning them they could easily have been thrown away where they would have ended up in the landfill, and someday, they probably will. In spite of the fact that they are made from plastic that will exist far longer than I will, someday they will decay and fall apart like everything else.
Scrubbing at the mold made me think about how even though we have made so many advances in art, technology, medicine, architecture and so many other things, even though we are basically able to reliably control and/or predict nearly everything around us, the control we have is a thin veneer. There is always mold growing in a wet corner somewhere, always moss eating at the shingles on the roof, always grass and flowers popping out of the cracks on the sidewalk. Were humans to suddenly disappear from the earth, it would take an embarrassingly short time for all of our great achievements to vanish.
We have been taught that we control our own destiny, that we have the power and the freedom to determine the outcomes of our own lives and achieve whatever we put our minds to. With hard work and focus, we can get us good jobs and live the way we want to live, even to the point of extending our lives with advanced medical care. Our power is immense: with some sand and mud and oil and a few minerals, we can create a box that can communicate across oceans in real time. I have more computing power in my pocket than all of NASA when they put men on the moon 50 years ago.
And yet the mold always finds a way in: incurable illness, natural disaster, economic downturn. For all of our power and mastery over the natural world, the mold is always there, ready to take over.
Sometimes I think that’s why we like rules so much. In the face of uncertainty, rules give us structure, control, power. If we know what rules we have to follow to keep from getting sick, to succeed in business, to be a good person, things will generally work for us. That’s what religion is: just another set of guidelines to balance our chi or accumulate some good karma.
Even in places like Europe and America where people are becoming less “religious,” we are still putting our faith in ideas or philosophies or ways of life that we think will help us get ahead. As a country we’re just as religious as we’ve ever been, but focus of our worship has shifted to our own individual gods of prosperity, luck, progress, hard work, or whatever. We have become our own gods, the masters of our own fates.
Oddly enough, this is not that different from the situation Paul addresses in his letter to the Galatians. Paul came to Galatia preaching the gospel and founded the church there, but after he left, another group of missionaries came in, convincing the community that they had to follow all the Jewish rules in order to be Christian. It makes sense: God gave the rules, so they must be important, right?
When word gets back to Paul, though, he is furious. He writes this withering letter to the church in Galatia to show them how wrong they are. Paul may sound pretty arrogant in our lesson today, but it’s not his need to be right that drives him; it’s his concern for the Galatians. Paul came preaching about a loving and compassionate God who gives grace to the undeserving; they are now trying to deserve God’s favor. In other words, instead of trusting in God’s compassion, they are trying to manipulate God into giving them what they want by appeasing God through the Law.
This is a problem because those systems—like the Law—are illusions. They can’t save us. If we rely on them, they will let us down. Luke tells the story of a woman who relied on the social welfare system of her day and was left with nothing. As a widow, this woman had one hope for support: her grown son. When he died, she was faced with poverty, having to beg or perhaps even sell herself to survive. The system—established in the bible—had let her down.
When Jesus sees her, he acts out of compassion. It should be noted that neither she nor anyone else asks for his help; he shows up uninvited and unannounced to disrupt the funeral procession. Just like the great prophet Elijah, Jesus shows that when God works, it may be unwanted, but it is also to bring life—not just to the dead man, but to the mother who depends on him.
Paul knows this from personal experience, which is perhaps why he is so passionate in his letter. Jesus appeared to Paul as well, uninvited and unannounced on the road to Damascus. Paul had devoted his life to defending a Law and a religion that had been given by God to his ancestors, but in the moment Jesus knocked Paul off his horse, he also dismantled all the rules and structures Paul once held dear. “Don’t trust those things,” Jesus told him, “Trust me.”
When we look at victims of poverty or violence we might wonder where God is or why God would allow such suffering. The truth of Christ shows us that it is not God, but our systems, our trust in our own control, our apathy that allow this suffering to happen. We find God suffering with the afflicted and oppressed; Christ is nailed to the cross, not in the crowd looking on. When we suffer with the afflicted, then God’s Spirit is at work in us, too, present in the lumps in our throats and the pits in our stomachs, urging us to take action and make change. God’s compassion for the suffering finds its home in us, too. That is where God is.
What I began to think about while I scrubbed at the mold is that the mold is not just decay, it is life. That mold has existed more or less as it is for a billion years, and will endure for a billion more. In spite of our impressive but impermanent structures and systems, life finds a way. Like the mold, God is able to break into our hermetically sealed lives and bring true life. Like the mold in the bathroom, God’s word shows up uninvited, and unannounced. It appears and begins to tear apart what we have created, reminding us that as pretty, as strong, as advanced as our structures may be, they cannot give us life. The widow in Zarephath learned that God alone is the source of all life, and the widow in Nain learned that, unlike Elijah who merely channeled that life, Jesus IS the life.
This is why Paul is angry, why the widows are happy, and why we are here this morning; because rules and systems and technology and religion cannot bring life—only God can. We are reminded today that when we are connected to the source of that life, even death itself does leave us destitute and alone, but safely in the hands of God.
If you don’t believe me, then just look around for the mold. Even in death, God brings life, that’s God’s MO. Jesus rises from the dead, the Church grows in the midst of persecution, and simple bread and wine transform a group of people into community. It is not a pretty image, but God is like mold—showing up (sometimes unwanted) in the most unexpected places, bringing life in surprising ways. Jesus showed up at a funeral and brought life to a man so that he could share it with his mother. He does the same at this table: he shows up and says to us, “Rise” so that we might receive life from him and share it with the rest of the world. God is the mold, and we are the spores.*
Ravens are unclean animals, yet they do God's work; the widow is a Gentile and a woman, doubly unclean and inappropriate for a man of God to associate himself with, and from the same country as Jezebel; dead bodies are unclean and should not be touched. These three stories all demonstrate God working in and through unclean, dirty, inappropriate animals, people and actions.
So, I don't feel so bad comparing God to mold. "[The kingdom of heaven] is like yeast (i.e. a fungus, like mold) that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened..." (Luke 13.21)