Sermon: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

A sermon preached by the Rev. Roger Scott Powers at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore on Sunday, September 8, 2013.

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Today’s scripture readings offer two metaphors for God as our Creator.  The passage from Psalm 139 speaks of God as a knitter.  And the passage from Jeremiah speaks of God as a potter.

Of all the psalms in the Bible, one of my favorites is psalm 139.  “It was you [Lord] who formed my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

I love that image of God knitting us together.  In knitting, you transform a single string of yarn into a complex network of slipknots in order to fashion a hat, or scarf, or sweater.  When God knits in a mother’s womb, God transforms a stream of nutrients into the complex cellular structures of the human body.  From a Biblical point of view, human life is not simply a natural, biological occurrence.  It is, at the same time, the result of the will and work of a benevolent Creator.  Human life is really a miracle when you think about it.

Have you ever stopped to consider just how miraculous you are?  Consider all the activity going on inside your body right now as you simply sit there in your pew.

Your heart is pumping at about sixty beats per minute, sending blood through miles of blood vessels, transporting oxygen and food material to every part of your body and carrying away carbon dioxide and other waste materials.  Your lungs are breathing in and out, providing your blood with a constant supply of oxygen and exhaling away carbon dioxide.  Your stomach and intestines are digesting what you ate for breakfast to provide nutrients and energy for your body.  Your bones and muscles are enabling you to sit upright in your pew instead of collapsing into a blob on the floor.

Your ears are sensing sound vibrations in the air and converting them to signals to be sent to the brain through the auditory nerve, enabling you to hear my voice.  Your eyes are taking in the light that is reflecting off me and the objects around me – light that is stimulating your optic nerve to carry impulses to your brain, enabling you to see an image of me standing before you.  Some of the taste buds on your tongue may be reminding your brain of that last cup of coffee you drank before coming to church.  The olfactory nerves in your nose may be picking up the scent of the soap or shampoo you used in the shower this morning.  Touch receptors in your skin, tendons, and joints enable you to feel the pew below you supporting the weight of your body.  And your brain is coordinating all these things simultaneously without you ever having to think about it.

At the same time, you are also thinking – about what I’m saying, or perhaps you’re thinking about something completely different, like what you’re going to do after church today.  In either case, your brain is offering a running commentary – a stream of consciousness.  You also may be aware of your emotional state – feeling happy or sad or irritable or tired.  And all this information processing is going on in the cerebral cortex of your brain.

At the cellular level a lot more is going on inside you.  Each of the organs and tissues in your body are made up of specialized cells – skin cells, blood cells, nerve cells, brain cells, bone cells, fat cells, and many other types of cells.  And in each of these cells there is a great deal of activity going on.  Each cell wall is selectively allowing a constant exchange of material to occur between the cell’s contents and the fluid that surrounds it.  Oxygen and molecules of food material are allowed into the cell.  Carbon dioxide and molecules of waste material are allowed out of the cell.  Lysosomes are storing enzymes that help the cell to break down larger molecules into smaller ones.  Mitochondria – the power plants of the cell – are converting food into energy.  Ribosomes are producing proteins within the cell.  And all of these cellular activities are being directed by the cell’s nucleus, where chromosomes contain the DNA instructions that determine how the cell functions.  It’s amazing!

Now, multiply all that is going on in a single one of your cells by the many trillions of cells in your body and it boggles the mind.  Human beings are incredible, complex creatures.  And we are far more than the sum of our parts.  We have the capacity to engage in abstract thinking and moral reasoning, to appreciate beauty, and to manipulate our environment more than any other species on the planet.  We are awesome creatures.

We are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” says the Psalmist.  Indeed!  Whether we look at ourselves from a Biblical point of view or a biological point of view, we human beings are truly amazing creatures!  It was God who formed our inward parts.  God knit us together in our mothers’ wombs.

What’s even more amazing is that no two of us are alike.  Each of us is a unique individual – one of a kind.  Even identical twins with the same DNA have different personalities.  There has never been anyone just like you or me in the past.  And there will never be anyone just like you or me in the future.  So, each of us is precious.  Each of us is of inestimable value.  Each of us is irreplaceable.  We are created by God!  We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

While the Psalmist speaks of God as the Creator of individuals, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of God as the Creator of nations.  The passage from Jeremiah offers this analogy: the relationship between God and a nation is like the relationship between a potter and clay.  Like a potter working at her wheel, fashioning a vessel from a lump of clay, it is God’s intention that nations be shaped so as to reflect the will of their Creator.  If they do not, if they become misshapen, distorted by sin, and act against God’s will, they risk God’s judgment against them.  It is within God’s power to destroy wayward nations and to rebuild them, just as a potter can reduce a misshapen vessel to a lump of clay and begin shaping it all over again.

In this passage, the prophet Jeremiah is to speak God’s word to the nation of Israel, specifically to the southern kingdom of Israel, “to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”  He is to warn them of God’s impending judgment if they do not turn from their evil way and amend their ways and their doings.

To learn what they have been doing that God disapproves of, we have to go back to the seventh chapter of Jeremiah, where God says: “if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.”

Apparently, the people of Judah have been acting unjustly toward one another.  They have been oppressing the most vulnerable among them — the alien, the orphan, and the widow.  They have been shedding innocent blood.  And they have been worshiping other gods.  So God is devising a plan against them, and God will carry out that plan if they don’t repent of their evil ways.  If they continue to engage in injustice, oppression, violence, and idolatry, they risk the ruin and destruction of Judah and Jerusalem.  But if they change their ways and turn toward God, God will change his mind about the disaster he planned to bring upon them.

Nations are ultimately accountable to God.  We like to talk about the sovereignty of nations, how each nation has supreme authority over its own affairs.  But as Christians, we also speak of the sovereignty of God.  God is sovereign over all nations.  God holds the ultimate power and authority.  We may pledge allegiance to our country’s flag, but our ultimate allegiance belongs to God, who created us and sustains us.

During this past week, the world’s attention has been drawn to Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions more have been displaced by a terrible civil war.  Recently, chemical weapons were used there against civilians (killing men, women, and children), and the U.S. is blaming the Syrian government for the attack, though they deny any responsibility.  Russia, an ally of Syria, is trying to make the case that the rebels fighting against the Syrian government are actually the ones responsible for the chemical weapon attack.

President Obama had said that if the Syrian government ever used chemical weapons, there would be consequences for the regime.  So, now, the credibility of the United States is on the line.  The President has tried to rally the international community to support a military strike against the Syrian government, but with little success.  The UN Security Council will not take action unless Russia can be convinced to go along.  And even Great Britain, our closest ally, has refused to support military intervention.  Now the debate has moved to the U.S. Congress.  Will the House and Senate support a U.S. military strike against the Syrian government to punish Syrian leaders for using chemical weapons, even if it means our doing so without the support of the international community?  I emailed my Senators and Representative on Friday.  Have you contacted your Members of Congress and told them what you think?  They’ll probably be voting this coming week.

Life is precious.  Every life is precious – whether it be that of a Syrian soldier, an anti-government rebel, or an innocent child.  The death of just one person is a great tragedy.  The death of 100 people, 1,000 people, 10,000 people, 100,000 people is far more than we can comprehend.  I understand the urge to want to do something to stop the carnage in Syria, to bring an end to the fighting there.  But I fear that a U.S. military strike will only escalate the conflict, adding to the violence.

I recall the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. . . . Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

For centuries, the church’s moral and ethical decision making with regard to war has been based on a set of criteria, all of which have to be satisfied if military action is to be considered morally justifiable.  There has to be a just cause.  Limiting or stopping the violence in Syria is certainly a just cause, but that by itself would not make military intervention there a “just war.”  The military intervention also would have to be supported by the right authority.  Given that the U.S. has not been attacked directly by Syria, under international law it does not have the authority to attack Syria unilaterally.  The U.S. must have the support of the international community, preferably through the United Nations.  There also must be a reasonable hope for success – in this case, that a limited military strike would bring the war in Syria back to the limits of conventional warfare, which forbid the use of chemical weapons.  But there appears to be just as good a chance that the violence would escalate and spread after such an attack.  Military intervention also must be a last resort.  All other nonviolent options, such as arms embargoes, diplomatic visits, working with Non-Governmental Organizations on the ground, and interreligious efforts, must first be exhausted.  Those options have not yet been tried.  Furthermore, non-combatants must be protected in any attack, but it is difficult if not impossible to prevent civilian casualties.  So, were the U.S. to attack Syria today, even with the best of intentions, such a military intervention would not meet the criteria of “just war.”

We are a nation formed by God, shaped so as to reflect the will of our Creator.  We are a nation “under God” as we say in our pledge of allegiance.  Just as the people of Judah were accountable to God, so too, we the people of the United States are accountable to God.  What would God have us do?  I don’t know.  But I don’t think bombing another country, no matter how brutal its government, is ever God’s will.  Bombing is an easy thing to do.  Our nation does it well.  We’ve had a lot of practice.  Finding imaginative ways to be a constructive force for peace, on the other hand, is far more difficult.  But that is the challenge before us.  May God help us to meet that challenge, guided by God’s wisdom.  Amen.