Starry Mud, the Breath of God and the Remolding of Nations

A sermon based on Jeremiah 18:1-11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 8, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The Bible has this great old set of verses early in Genesis that reports God made humankind from the very stuff God made the earth out of. Remarkably those verses were written long before our modern understanding that basic elements comprised of atoms and molecules form all the physical parts of creation. The Bible can be understood to have got it generally right without modern science. We ARE made of the same stuff as the earth. Which is also reflected in the playful name the Bible gives to the first human, Adam– is a pun on the Hebrew word for dirt, “Adamah.”

Because I have liked puns even before I met you all. In one seminary course I wrote short play about the Garden of Eden and I had God riff on that Genesis word play. God first notes that humans are from humus. Then tickled with that joke God says:

Humus, human.1 Not bad. Hmmmmm, but the new creature will need a nick name.

(God then asks the audience for name ideas)

Help me out here, I need a name that means dirt for this person. What do you think of the name Clay2? How ‘bout Dusty3? Or hey, its name could be Mud. Okay, what about Sandy? Rocky?

Someone keeps saying “Adam.” Wait a minute (then God pulls out a Bible thumbs the pages and point to Genesis). Ah, yes. Look, this story in Genesis will first be recorded in Hebrew. Check it out. The Hebrew word for earth is “Adamah.4 Hey how about Adam? How’s that sound? I like it . . . “Adam.” Oh, that ought to get a rib out of the creature . . . Hey, that gives me another idea.

It was fun to write that.

While the author of Genesis intuited that humans came from the same stuff as the planet, modern people, like us, tend to not appreciate that is a primary point of the creation of humans story, that we humans are directly related to the earth. She is our mother.

The ancient Hebrews may not have had the benefit of modern science, but they did observed that lifeless bodies decay into earth. They saw humans becoming humus. Which I suspect led to the words in Genesis about the creation of humans out of the earth. Listen to the King James Version that most of us grew up hearing:

the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

That’s from Genesis 2 (7). Just a few verses later in Genesis 3 (19) God notes that Adam and Eve’s mortality means that “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

The Bible pretty much gives us a rocky start with clay feet from the git go in this gritty life. Puns intended of course. Our name seems to be “Mud” in our culture, where being dust of the earth has this humbling even humiliating sense to it. But our dirty origins making us feel soiled may not have been the author of Genesis’ intent. He was from an agriculture culture in a very dirt dependant time and place with people who appreciated soil for crops and for pottery and stone and metal implements. The earth’s dust is precious to those depend on it first hand and work it.

To get us back to a sense of honoring the dust we come from and are made of, I like to hold up and remember that the particles the Bible claims God literally made us out of, is the dust that makes up the earth, the same kind of dust that makes up all stellar objects. Celestial bodies are made of stardust and we should not forget that SO ARE WE! Famed astronomer Carl Sagan put it like this

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.

Star stuff. Now that is impressive.

A few years back I started adding to Ash Wednesday Services language that it is from stardust we are made and to stardust we return. I often include that in funerals, I mentioned it yesterday at Bob Wagner’s memorial service. In our day and age and culture we get all wrapped up in the faults, foibles and follies humankind forgetting that we have the very wonder and awe of the heavens in our make up. Overwhelmingly individuals are good– the breath of God is in us and gives us life which leads to love. The fact that we have the stuff of stars in us needs to be factored into how we see ourselves . . . and others. We are each of us all on our own full to the brim with wonder and awe if for no other reason than the recipe for humans includes a healthy heap of star stuff. Take stardust, add some water and God’s very own breath and VOILA!, you have the makings of you, of people.

But once those ingredient are mixed all up and brought to life, there’s still forming to be done. Our reading today includes a famous parable about “people clay” being shaped. We may be constituted out of the clay of stardust, but we are shaped and worked upon as vessels in the hands of God the potter. There’s less atoms and molecules to that part of the process, than the pull and push and tug and pressure that molds us . . . and our institutions. Lifelong we are always heavenly clay and breath, but the making and remaking is at the hands of the Creator, God.

We are divinely plied and shaped; molded and formed; and sometimes balled back up and reformed on the potter’s wheel to grow into the vessels God needs, God wants and God desires. When the stardust becomes significantly flawed it is reshaped, not destroyed mind you, but reshaped. The New Testament language for individual reformation is “born again” a phrase that can have a negative ring to it since it has been coopted by some of our Christian brothers and sisters who tend to focus more on purported afterlife consequences of believing their way than on the loving and unloving consequences of their actions in life on Jesus’ Way. But we can understand ‘born again” as very positive, a rebirth in life to a better way of existence for all, salvation from a lesser way of being by taking actions to move into a supreme being-ness on earth while we live.

“Born again” was originally a metaphor for being re-formed by Jesus Way, in the same manner as the metaphor of a potter remakes living clay God’s good way in our lesson today. In that lesson the first allusion to God as a potter remaking the clay can be heard as a positive:

The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

I mean, who would not want to be reworked into what seems good to God? That’s why most people are in churches and in other faith communities. We want to be plied by God into a better people, to be our best shape. “God, please make this stardust the best it can be” could be most religious people’s prayer. We could even say most people– religious or not– want that.
A part of the Supreme Being in our being is a longing, an aching to be the best being we can be. We all struggle toward that as individuals– but, we do struggle toward that. It is the rare person who does not want to be the best they can be. It is a rare person who does not want to be their supreme self. To almost everyone, whether Theist, Agnostic, or Atheist the supreme being of existence matters.

While it is rare that it does not matter to a human, it is tragically not all that rare, however for human institutions to take a different course, to veer from best-ness. Even religious institutions are not immune from moving away from God’s way. Sadly we can see this in the nature of religion reflected in the media of our nation which seems to more often than not be about rescue from individual sinfulness for salvation in the afterlife by self serving ideas of right belief and right actions.

Notwithstanding the media self-centered portrayals of religion and the religious elite they feature, the Bible spends more time on the need to reform human institutions of power, than it does on individuals. Proper worship matters far less than seeking justice and loving kindnesses. So religious and secular institutions and their leaders who vie for earthly power around self, are not applying heavenly power, as God in the Bible tries to get them to do.

See, individual people by and large are good in intention and good in their souls, but the same cannot be said about human structures aimed at acquiring earthly power. So we see Bible verses over and over again addressing the sins of nations. Jesus’ famous story in Matthew 25 about nations being judged by how they treat the least among us is the most famous in the New Testament. Many Old Testament Prophets prophesy that too. Our text from Jeremiah is a great example. After setting up the image of the potter reworking spoiled clay Jeremiah aims God’s judgement and a very direct address to nations. God says

Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

The truth of those words of God actually happen time and time again in the history of all nations. Nations rise and then they fall when they fail people and do evil. They become like spoiled clay and God reworks them.

The history of our nation’s very founding is an example. Britain brought slavery and genocide and oppression and injustices to the occupants of this continent and God reworked the clay of the colonies into a democratic republic that for the first time ever claimed in lofty words – if not in outright deeds – the equality of humankind and the God given rights owed to all humanity. And the new nation that God created through individuals, has been molded and remolded and worked and reworked by God, through individuals and God-centered leadership. They continue to challenge and change institutions toward God’s Way.

God’s goal for nations and its leaders is set out in the invocation I read from Psalm 72, justice and peace and well being for all. God will rework nations whenever they fail to turn from evil. Notably the Scripture lesson before us today ends, not being about God smashing the clay of a man or a women or a child, but of human institutions. At the end of the lesson, a warning is sounded to them:

Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.

That warning is followed with words of hope that nations can avoid the tearing down by repenting. God says “turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” God is talking to a nation as a whole and its leaders – the politicians and religious elite who head up the evil-doing institutions. The evil at issue can be summed up as not doing what the verses from Micah on the walls of this church set out. The nation was not seeking justice, was not loving kindness and was not walking humbly with God.

To put it in Jesus terms from Matthew 25 the nation was not tending to the needs of the hungry, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the strangers, the least among them. Jesus notes all nations are judged by that. And the invocation Psalm is a prayer for leaders to tend to those needs. God’s will is not just for humans as individuals to care and desire and act toward supreme beingness, but for human institutions to do so as well. Why? Because we are all the stuff of stars and matter much and need to act like it alone and together. Consequently nations need to listen to God and to Jesus and amend their ways and doings so that they turn from evil. Which is what repent really means.

The good news is we are made of the stuff of stars, and that God expects institutional bodies comprised of such star stuff to behave in heavenly fashion– and is working toward that outcome. May it be so.