45th anniversary of the first moon landing

On Sunday 20th July 2014, the Churn Benefice commemorated the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing in our morning service at St Andrew's Hagbourne. Below is the sermon from that service, and prayers for the work of the space industry.

(Reading: Romans 8.12-25)

I have always been hugely fascinated by space exploration. Even though I was born too late (I won’t say how much too late) to watch the first moon landing, I can remember seeing the television footage of it replayed at various times as I was growing up. And, when the space shuttle programme started, I watched all of the televised shuttle launches. I have to admit that I was also raised on a steady diet of Star Trek repeats, which probably also contributed to my interest in space. Despite this, I don’t think I ever harboured a serious desire to be an astronaut – probably because I’ve always been so bad at maths that I always knew that I’d never be astronaut material. Nevertheless, even now, if given the chance to view for myself the earth from space, I would jump at it (and would certainly not say no if offered the job of chaplain on the international space station!).

Of course, I am not alone in having a life-long fascination with worlds beyond this one – especially the moon. The moon has been a source of inspiration and interest from the very beginnings of human culture. And I suppose that’s not surprising. After all, it is the only other world that we can see in any detail with the naked eye. And we can observe its changing phases, and use them to mark the passage of time here on earth. At times, the moon appears to be so close that it feels like we could almost reach out and touch it. No wonder, then, that we were willing to invest so much in order to set foot upon it and see it ‘up close’, even if most of humanity had to get that ‘up close’ look via a television camera.

But why commemorate such an event here, in a service of Holy Communion? Surely there’s no connection between the two? Actually, in a way, we are bringing things full circle, by commemorating the moon landing during Holy Communion, because that first moon landing included a Holy Communion - Buzz Alderan's minister gave him consecrated bread and wine to take with him, and he had Communion on the moon.

But, of course, that’s not the only reason. It is also appropriate that we remember and give thanks for the first moon landing and the things that have followed from it because that curiosity, that desire to know, that led human beings to go to the moon, and continues to inspire much work in the fields of astronomy, cosmology and space exploration today, is - from a Christian perspective - nothing less than a great gift from God. It motivates us to explore our own world and the wider universe. It pushes us to test ideas and to be creative. It encourages us to open ourselves to new experiences and new ways of understanding. I suppose that the great Christian mystics from ages past (and present) would say that this gift of curiosity is also what inspires us to reach out to, and to try to know, God who is, in many ways, unknowable. It helps us overcome our fear and reach out into the unknown. In short, it drives us to be fully human.

Inspiration is an important theme in most, if not all, of the world’s faiths, and Christianity is no exception. And although we understand inspiration as having its source in God, it can come from many different directions. In the case of the Apollo missions, inspiration came from the desire to expand our knowledge, from the availability of new technologies, and - let’s admit it - from international political rivalry. As well as being inspired, the Apollo missions were inspiring. Going to the moon led people to think in new ways, and to have a vision of a better future for our own world.

For example, the political rivalry between the US and USSR that fuelled the space race moved from being a competition to co-operation, as after the moon landings, NASA entered into the joint Apollo-Soyuz missions with the Russians. And that co-operation continued and expanded into what became the international space station.

The missions to get humanity to the moon also gave us the first photographs of the earth from points beyond near-earth orbit. And these images, particularly the two best known, (the earth hanging like a jewel against the blackness of space, and ‘earth rise’) had a substantial impact on how we think about our planet. The environmental movement that had begun with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, gained momentum once these pictures were published. They helped people to realise not only how beautiful the earth is, but how vulnerable and precious it is.

The earth is precious to us because it is our home, and we depend on it for our life. For now at least, we have nowhere else to go. But the earth is also precious to God, because God loves and cares about the whole of creation. Christians believe that the universe is not without purpose. It is always changing and developing, moving towards the perfected state that God intended for it from the beginning. But it is a slow and often difficult journey. In the Bible passage that we heard read this morning from St Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, this often slow and difficult movement towards perfection is expressed in poetic terms: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; ... in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.”

Human beings can be surprisingly destructive, even when our own well-being is put at risk by our actions. And we all know that the way we’ve damaged the environment causes suffering not only to humans, but to other creatures, as well. The idea that Paul is trying to express is the understanding that human sinfulness –
that tendency we have towards being self-serving, even when we know it brings harm to others; our natural inclination to go our own way and think of ourselves first - causes suffering throughout creation (at least, that part of creation that is made up of the earth and the life that inhabits it). But Paul is also trying to get across a sense of what we, as Christians, believe has happened through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. All human beings have within us the image of God, but it is an image that has become damaged, imperfect. What Jesus did was the start of restoring that image to perfection, so that we can live as true children of God, growing into being more like God: merciful, compassionate, gentle and with a love that embraces not only ourselves and our kind, but the whole world.

This is what the creation awaits with eager longing – the time when humanity reaches its full potential as the ones who carry God’s image, no longer destructive, but enabling the whole creation to flourish.

Some of that growth, that transformation, can come only from God. But God has also given us gifts that enable us to contribute to our own development – human intelligence and curiosity, moral and ethical judgement, and wisdom. All of these allow us to learn more about ourselves and our world, to think about the things that we do and the choices that we make and the impacts that our actions and choices have.

Of course these attributes - intelligence, curiosity, moral & ethical awareness and wisdom - can be seen in most human endeavours, and the fields of space science are no exception. Space technology today is helping us to understand our world’s climate, and the impact we’re having on it, which helps us to understand what we need to do in order to care for it. As we explore other worlds, we learn more about the amazing diversity that exists in the wider creation, we learn about how the universe and the solar system developed, and that, too, helps us to know and understand our own world, ourselves, and God better.

As we grow in understanding and wisdom, as we follow God’s call to be what humanity was intended to be – caretakers of the world and bearers of God’s love for all - we also move towards the moment when we will be revealed as the children of God, and creation will be set free from its bondage to suffering and decay.

The first astronauts on the moon left behind them a plaque with the words, “We came in peace for all mankind.” Let us pray that the continuing work of space science and exploration continues in that vein, working for the peace and well-being of all mankind, and all the earth.

 

Prayers for the work of those in the space industry:

God our Father, creator of the universe,

we thank you for the richness and wonder of creation.

We ask that you would continue to inspire us and fill us

with curiosity, wonder and delight in the world around us.

Teach us to care for the earth, its creatures and one another,

even as you care for us.

 

We give thanks for the gifts of science and technology

and especially for space exploration – for all that it has contributed

to human knowledge and imagination.

We pray for those working in the fields of space exploration and space technology,

and in the related fields of astronomy and astrophysics,

asking that their work might bring to humanity greater understanding and wisdom, and be a source of peace and co-operation between nations.

 


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