Proper 11 Sunday – 7/21/2019 – St. Paul’s
That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Fifty years ago yesterday — July 20, 1969 — the astronaut Neil Armstrong descended the ladder of the Apollo 11 lunar lander and set foot on the surface of the moon.
His original intent was to say one small step for a man, but what came out was one small step for man. No matter. For him it was a small step — a short drop, really — from the bottom rung of the ladder to the surface of the moon. But the implications for the human race were enormous.
Armstrong did not take that step without anxiety. Before the historic flight of Apollo 11, his brother Dean had asked him, What single thing do you have the most uncertainty about?
His reply: How deep is the dust?
It was a real worry for everyone connected with the Apollo 11 mission, but especially for this man who was going to step out onto the Sea of Tranquility. Astronomers knew the moon’s surface was covered in powdery gray dust, but they didn’t know for sure how deep it was. When the Apollo lander touched down without sinking in, everyone at Mission Control heaved a sigh of relief — but no one more than Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin themselves. Their lives depended upon the depth of that dust.
More than 530 million people around the world breathlessly observed that small step on their television Screens. At the time, it was the largest TV audience ever. Those of us who were alive to watch it knew history was being made.
It was larger than the one step, of course. The human race had expanded, however briefly, to another world. The metal flag planted by Armstrong and Aldrin — shrewdly fashioned to give the illusion it was flying in an aspirational lunar breeze — symbolically claimed the moon for the United States. But in truth, the achievement was bigger than any one nation’s. It belonged to the human race.
With it came a change of perspective. As Armstrong and Aldrin looked up from their exploration and their science experiments, they saw something new against the blackness of that lunar sky: the blue-green surface of a tiny Earth.
That perspective had first been shared by some of their predecessors in the Apollo program. On Christmas Eve, 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, the crew of Apollo 8, were orbiting the moon. They had already gone around three times. On the fourth pass, they looked up and saw something they hadn’t expected to see because they were preoccupied with examining the cratered lunar surface below. What they saw surprised them. It took their breath away. What they saw was the Earth rising.
Frank Borman, the expedition’s commander, later described it this way: I happened to glance out of one of the still-clear windows just at the moment the Earth appeared over the lunar horizon. It was the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was either black or white, but not the Earth.
Borman’s crewmate, Jim Lovell, described just what it was about the Earthrise that was so arresting: Up there, it’s a black-and-white world. There’s no color. In the whole universe, wherever we looked, the only bit of color was back on Earth … . It was the most beautiful thing there was to see in all the heavens. People down here don’t realize what they have.
The astronauts had received detailed instructions to photograph the moon, but nowhere in their exhaustive expedition plan was there time set aside to photograph the Earth. Incredibly, the NASA authorities hadn’t thought much about that. They’d labeled photos of the Earth as targets of opportunity and given them the lowest priority in the astronauts’ orders. The expedition planners only had eyes for the moon.
The sight of the first Earthrise ever witnessed by a human being turned those highly-trained, disciplined military officers into a bunch of awestruck kids. Days before, as they’d sat on the launch pad atop that Saturn V rocket, they thought they were risking their lives so they could take a good look at the moon.
In fact, it would be their vision of the Earth that would prove more memorable.
Perhaps the most elegant commentary of all came from poet Archibald MacLeish in an essay called Riders on the Earth. It was published in The New York Times on Christmas Day, 1968. That was just one day after those three astronauts had taken their famous photo. As that newspaper went to press, the film with the Earthrise on it was still in the spacecraft orbiting the moon. Not only that — newspaper deadlines being what they are — MacLeish had almost certainly written his essay before those astronauts had even seen the Earth from space. How did he know what profound impact that sight would have? Maybe it was because he was a poet.
Here are two paragraphs of that short essay. More eloquent words have seldom been written…you might want to take some time to ponder it this week:
For the first time in all of time men have seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depth of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small.
MacLeish concludes his essay with these words: To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.
It’s a vision that, more than 50 years later, we riders on the Earth are still struggling to realize.
On that same Apollo 8 mission when Bill Anders took the iconic Earthrise photo, his crewmate Frank Borman was tasked with broadcasting a Christmas Eve greeting back to the Earth. Remarkably, the higher-ups at NASA had given him little guidance on what to say. We figure more people will be listening to your voice than that of any man in history, his boss had helpfully pointed out. So we want you to say something appropriate.
Talk about pressure! What Borman decided to do was simply to read the first 10 verses from Genesis, chapter 1, from the Authorized (King James) Version. It begins:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
The Apollo space program did provide the human race with “one giant leap.” It consisted of a massive change of perspective: the view back from the moon, of the Earth floating in space.
Colossians 1:15-28 presents the world of its day with a massively changed theological perspective. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (vv. 15-17).
To Christians, those words are familiar. They express what the church has always believed about Jesus Christ. But it’s hard to overestimate the impact of those words at the time they were written. To the pagan world, they upended everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Really? The fullness of God? Dwelling inside the skin of a Judean peasant?
Philosophically, it was a giant leap. Like the giant leap of the moon landing, it was no airy abstraction, no mere intellectual concoction. It was an arresting change in perspective based upon a real human experience.
That experience belonged, first of all, to Mary Magdalene, who looked through tearful eyes at the man she first supposed to be the gardener. But she was only the first. Her friends soon saw the risen Lord, too.
As Paul attests, in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Through the wonders of television, millions watched the first moon landing in real time. It changed their perspective. Can you imagine if the resurrection of Jesus had been captured on video and broadcast instantaneously to the ends of the earth? What a change that vision would have wrought!
Alas, no such technology existed at the time. So, it falls to us — those who profess Christ as Lord and Savior and are commissioned to be his witnesses — to share what we have heard and seen of him. In so doing, we rely on the testimony of those indispensable, firsthand witnesses, the apostles. Unlike the image of the blue planet, floating in space — which exists on photographic film — the image of Christ saying Peace be with you, do not be afraid can only be re-created by means of sanctified imagination. It’s the work to which we are called as his disciples: sharing the story Paul and countless others have handed on to [us] as of first importance what [he] in turn had received (1 Corinthians 15:3).
The poet encouraged us to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers. When our minds begin to grasp the new perspective that comes of Jesus’ resurrection, we make that great leap to knowing that the promise of salvation is for all.
One of the most dramatic features of that 1968 Earthrise photograph is its background. As bright and bountiful as the Earth appears, glowing with reflected sunlight that dazzled the senses of the astronauts, that delicate blue sphere seems to float in a sea of inky blackness. This Earth, this cradle of life, floats in a frigid sea of nothingness and death. The anonymous poet who wrote the Genesis creation account — the same one Frank Borman read from space — must have had some sense of the sheer terror and immensity of the universe (although he’d never seen it as the astronauts did). He describes a formless void and darkness that covered the face of the deep.
However the Creator called the cosmos into being — whether by means of the famous Big Bang or through some other way — God pushed back the nothingness and inserted something into it: galaxies and stars and planets, one of which is this blue ball on which we ride. One day, the book of Revelation promises, not only will Christ return, but this whole work of creation will be brought to a glorious completion: And there will be no more night, it says in Revelation 22:5. They need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
There will be no more night. Think of it. Think of it from the viewpoint of the immensity of space. They need no light of lamp or sun. All the perpetual night that surrounds this biosphere will be no more. There will be only light — light that emanates from the Creator, the source of all light, who will at last have come to dwell in the midst of the creation.
Until that day — that great, eternal day — it’s our task to exercise responsible dominion over the Earth: to keep it alive, to keep it clean, to tend it as though it were God’s garden (which it continues to be). By the hand of God, we have been granted a new perspective — not only that of the Earth as viewed from the moon, but that of life as viewed from the other side of death.
May such visions continue to be an inspiration for us, through all our years!
Let us pray:
O God, we thank you for this Earth, our island home;
for broad sky and star-flecked heavens,
for ocean and streams,
for towering mountains and whispering wind,
for sheltering trees and verdant grass.
We thank you for our senses
by which we appreciate your creation.
We thank you for our science, by which we can explore it
and wonder at its beauty and utility.
Grant us hearts filled with wonder,
that we may sense the promise in this blue-green planet
and feel convinced that our role is to care for it;
and likewise that we may share the wonder
of him who is before all things,
and in whom all things hold together.
In the name of this very one, Jesus the Redeemer, we pray.
God has called us to this place.
We see people who model for us God’s joyous embrace of all people.
God has brought us to this place.
We hear God’s hope that we are able to see each person as our sister or brother.
God has challenged us to open our lives and hearts to others.
We will do only one thing: welcome everyone in God’s name!
CALL FOR THE OFFERING
As Amos observed long ago, in our world the poor are too often sold for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. But we can live a different ethic—our lives can embody the love of God. Let’s make room for others through our giving, that they may also know God’s love and hope.
Go out into the world to serve God with love.
Be ready to laugh with delight
at the good news God has to offer you.
Make room at your table for unexpected guests.
When the work of discipleship leaves you weary or frustrated,
rest in Christ’s presence and listen to what he is saying.
And the blessing of God Almighty, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit,
go with you today and always.