Pentecost V (O. T. 14); July 9, 2017
"For the LORD knows whereof we are made and remembers that we are but dust" (Psalm 103:14, Book of Common Worship).
The minister used that phrase in the prayer one Sunday, and a child in the congregation whispered to his mother - just loud enough for everyone in the church to hear - "Mommy; what's butt dust?"
Well, I'll tell you what it is. But first: we are dust. Remember the creation story in Genesis 2? The LORD God bends over the mud beside the Nile River - or the Euphrates or whatever river you want to imagine - and shapes it, makes a human form from it. The LORD looks at the human form, and nods contentedly, and brings the divine mouth near the human mouth and breathes. Michelangelo got it wrong; he shows God's finger touching Adam's finger. Read Genesis 2: the LORD breathes into the human's face, the human starts to breathe, and a living soul arises from the dust.
The LORD knows our weakness perfectly well. The LORD knows we are mortal, that our days pass away quickly. Just yesterday I was in my first call, preparing for ordination, enjoying the friendships I was making and furnishing my first home as an adult. Just yesterday… thirty-five years ago. Our days pass quickly, we have a hard time resisting temptation, we constantly fall into acting out of anger or fear or weakness. And how does the LORD respond? "The LORD is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness" (v. 8).
The LORD's compassion was made dust in Jesus Christ. The Word of God became of our dust, and consistently showed the mercy of God. A teacher at the Duke University Divinity School was walking across campus with another faculty member on a nice spring afternoon. They noticed the students: some lying around, some tossing a Frisbee, some making out. The Divinity School teacher said to the other, "Do you know what is for me the surest proof of the divinity of Jesus Christ? That, as it says in Matthew (9:36), "he looked upon the crowd and had compassion on them.'"
God is always kinder to us than we are to each other or even to ourselves. The poet who wrote this psalm had a keen appreciation of the LORD's mercy and gentleness with sinners, with mortals, with those who are but dust. God is better to us than we are to each other, than we are to ourselves.
Consider this, too. The two elements that resulted from the Big Bang were hydrogen and helium. Well, maybe a trace of lithium and beryllium too, but about 75% of the universe (by mass) when the primordial soup began to separate into elements was hydrogen and about 25% was helium. Where did the dust whereof we are made come from? Where do all the other elements come from?
As the universe cooled and gravity asserted itself, hydrogen and helium atoms coalesced into stars. When they grew massive enough, the hydrogen began fusing into helium, emitting the light that we experience. But that mass formed enormous pressures in the center of the stars, fusing helium atoms into boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and so forth.
When a star explodes, it scatters these elements throughout its neighborhood, allowing the formation of rocky planets and seeding those planets with the elements that are required for life. One of the few things I remember from middle school science class is CHOPKINS CaFe, the mnemonic they taught us by which to remember the elements needed for life: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, potassium, iodine, nitrogen, sulfur, calcium, iron. They may have tightened that up since the early 1970s. Anyway, none of those elements would exist if it weren't for the massive gravitational pressures in the center of stars. And none of them would be here on Earth if some star, somewhere, had not exploded.
We are star-stuff. The dust whereof God made us was formed in the center of a star. Who knows what was lost to the universe when that star exploded? And what was gained was the possibility for you to be born, for me to stand before you today and preach this sermon.
The LORD knows whereof we are made and remembers that we are but dust. And the LORD remembers that dust was formed in the heart of a star.
There are times, especially when I consider the state of politics in the United States and the state of international relationships, or when I drive on Interstate 80 or encounter the trolls that inhabit social networks, when I want to despair of the human race. There are times when I think that the universe would be better off if we had never been made. And then I listen to a symphony by Gustav Mahler, or I look at a painting by Velásquez, or I read a poem by Christopher Smart or a story by Madeleine L'Engle, and I remember that Jesus of Nazareth is one of us, and I think that the universe is, indeed, better because we are in it.
We are but dust. And that dust is the stuff of stars. The LORD knows that, knows all that, and is constantly and consistently merciful to us, treating us better than we treat each other and than we treat ourselves. Bless the LORD, O my soul.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master