Genesis 1.14-19

Job 31.24-28

Moonshot

1969: That Was The Year That Was – I

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

We’ll begin this morning with a riddle; what do the following items have in common:  Invisible braces – an ear thermometer – memory foam – cordless power tools – smoke detectors – the integrated circuit – and a Speedo bathing suit?  We’ll suss out the answer in a few minutes.

Where were you fifty years ago last night, the night that the first human being, Neil Armstrong, stepped foot on the moon?  I’ll tell you my story, then see who of you would like to tell yours.

When I was in high school, we had a tight group of friends who were an outgrowth of our church’s youth group.  To this day I still remain in touch with many of them, including one who lives right up the street on Wig Hill Rd.  On July 20 1969 a bunch of us were at my friend Barbie Iwerks’ house; for reasons I don’t recall, we decided we were going to teach ourselves the polka that night, so we got a few books out of the Meriden Library, brought Barbie’s record player out onto the picnic table attached to a long extension cord, put on a record of the world’s favorite polka tunes, and started two-stepping all over her back yard under a star-lit sky.  At about 9:00pm, Barbie’s mother called us all into the house to watch the live broadcast of Armstrong’s moonwalk on their black and white television.  There I was, with most of my best friends, watching history being made; it is of course an experience I will never forget.  What about yourselves?  What do you remember about the first human being on the moon?

The moon, of course, has always held human beings in rapt fascination.  The ancient Greeks associated the moon with the goddess Artemis, sister of Apollo.  The Incas understood the moon and the sun to be sister and brother.  And while the Egyptians and much of early western culture ordered their calendars around the sun, the Hebrew people ordered theirs around the phases of the moon, with the New Moon holding special significance.  In fact the very first commandment given the Hebrews, even before the Ten Commandments, reads in Exodus 12, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.’”  The word for “month,” we know is derived from the word for “moon,” and so the month to begin all months was marked by the New Moon.

And that stands to reason of course, since as Peg read for us this morning, the moon and the sun figure prominently in the story of creation. 

“God made the two great lights – the greater light [or, the sun] to rule the day and the lesser light [the moon] to rule the night and the stars.  God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.”

And it was good, but there was also a danger in giving too much honor to the celestial bodies.  A number of the cultures that surrounded the Hebrews elevated the moon to the level of a deity, and there are a number of warnings in the Old Testament against lunar idolatry.  In his defense before God, Job made a point of insisting that he never succumbed to solar or lunar worship, and admitted that, had he done so, he would have been unfaithful to God.

As we’ve been reading all week, the year 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing.  But 1969 was a remarkable year in a multitude of respects, and over the next several weeks we’re going to be looking at some of the highlights – and lowlights – of that year, and consider the ways it speaks to who we are as people of faith.  The landing on the moon was surely the most remarkable of technological feats fifty years ago, but it wasn’t the only one.  In June of 1969, the American side of Niagara Falls was turned off – the technical term is, “dewatered” – by the Army Corps of Engineers in order to study the falls’ erosion.  It was accomplished by setting up a series of dams upriver and diverting the water to the Canadian Horseshoe Falls so that the American Falls slowed to a trickle; the falls were restored in November of that year.  Also in 1969, the US Department of Defense established a method of computer-to-computer communication; it was called the “Advanced Research Projects Agency Network,” or ARPANET for short.  The US ARPANET is the forerunner of something we could not live without today, the Internet.  And that riddle we started with today?  What do invisible braces, the ear thermometer, memory foam, cordless power tools – which got a lot of use from our Florida mission team last week - smoke detectors, integrated circuits and Speedo bathing suits all have in common?  Anyone have any guesses?  They were all either invented, or refined to a high degree, by NASA as part of the Apollo project that sent astronauts to the moon.  For so many reasons, the 60s were a heady decade, and 1969 was the crown.

But if the temptation among the Hebrews and the nations surrounding them was to deify and worship the moon and the stars, I think in our own age the temptation is slightly different, although no less biblical.  In the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, humanity not only began to flex its technological muscle, but also to idealize and idolize it, by building a figurative tower that would allow them to reach the heavens.  A tower that would allow humanity to reach the heavens.  In other words, the object of their veneration turned away from God and toward the imagination of their own mind and the work of their own hands.  “Come,” they said, “let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”  And so they did, but God saw their presumption, struck down the tower, confused their speech and scattered the people to the four corners of the earth.  But the temptation remains, I think, to be so smitten by our own accomplishment – if we can send human beings to the moon, there’s nothing we cannot do – and to forget our contingent place in creation.

But for this weekend, I think we can be forgiven for celebrating a moment – probably one of the few moments in human history – when people all over the world were united in celebration and accomplishment.  There was a lengthy article in last month’s Smithsonian Magazine about the moon landing and the incredible efforts that led up to it, and I was struck by this one sentence:  “One of the ribbons of magic running through the Apollo missions is that an all-out effort born from bitter rivalry [it was, after all, a space race] an all-out effort born from bitter rivalry ended up uniting the world in awe and joy and appreciation in a way it had never been united before and has never been united since.”  Of all the possible learnings from this signal moment in human history, this is one that I want to take away:  that in that moment in time, all the world was as one.  How long ago it seems; yet if it was possible once, perhaps it is at least possible to be so again.  I know, you can call me a dreamer.  It was an amazing time in an amazing year.  And a great deal of the amazement at the accomplishment stemmed from the fact that, in 1962 when President Kennedy challenged the nation to reach the moon by the end of the decade, he was asking for something that no one knew how to do:  as that article put it, “We didn’t have the tools or equipment – the rockets or the launchpads, the spacesuits or the computers or the micro-gravity food.  And it isn’t just that we didn’t have what we would need; we didn’t even know what we would need.”   It was a new day – it was a new world.

And I learned some fun trivia over the past week in the runup to yesterday’s milestone anniversary.  The radio station I listen to regularly played Dvorak’s New World Symphony Friday morning and followed it up by telling listeners that Neil Armstrong carried a tape recording of the piece with him to the moon and listened to it on the mission, knowing full well that if the mission were successful, it would indeed usher in a new world, or at the very least, a new understanding of the world and our place in it.

I also learned that Neil Armstrong was one of us.  He was confirmed at Trinity Evangelical and Reformed Church in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, in 1943; as you may know, the Evangelical and Reformed Church, like the Congregational Church, is one of the forerunners of our United Church of Christ.

I learned that the moon has a smell.  Of course between the vacuum of space and their spacesuits, the astronauts couldn’t smell anything on their moonwalk, but when they reentered the lunar module they were covered with moon dust – deep gray, fine-grained and extremely clingy – they said it had the smell of wet ashes, or in the words of Buzz Aldrin, it was “the smell in the air after a firecracker has gone off.”

I learned that, even though the mission was guided by the smallest and fastest computer of its time – a computer that is still no match for the phones in our pockets – the astronauts also took with them paper star charts so they could use a sextant to verify what the computer was telling them.  In fact the software was stitched together by women sitting at specialized looms – using wire instead of thread – to create the brains of the computer.  And the spacesuits – twenty-one layers of flexible material of various fabric and fiber, sewn together by hand – were created by Playtex, makers of the living bra.

Who knows if the world will ever again be united in such joy, wonder and awe as we were that night fifty years ago?  Who knows if our nation will ever again own such a singleness of purpose?  Who knows if humanity will ever again reach the moon, or Mars, or beyond?  Who knows if we can even find a way to be more responsible and respectful of our own planet, God’s earth?  Perhaps the place to conclude this morning is the same place we began, with the eighth psalm:  “When we look at your heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars – we are humbled that you even think of us.  You have made us with glory, you have created us with honor and joy.”  Like the sun, moon and stars, you and I occupy a holy and sacred place in God’s creation.

Amen.

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