The Beacons Beckon

A sermon based on Genesis 1: 26-31 (The Message); Psalms 139
given at Mount Vernon, OH April 26, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

This past Wednesday was the 50th celebration of Earth Day, a day set aside to honor our planet, and the concept of world-wide peace. Earth Day focuses on support for the whole of earth, hoping humankind might make it much more of a habit to tend to the well being of creation. As our reading from Genesis 1 puts it in The Message paraphrase humans were created:
“So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself . . .”
Since my youth I have considered Earth Day significant and when I became a Christian I was pleased to learn God has long been understood to call us to be good stewards of the earth. In fact I mentioned in my video message on Wednesday that I now think of Earth Day as a secular way to call humanity’s collective attention to care for the earth. We are charged by God to be good stewards of creation, and I am all for a secular message reinforcing that charge. And Christians have more than the charge in Genesis challenging us to tend to the well being of creation. We are to love God, and creation is soaked with God. As I often point out, Paul pointed out God IS what we live and move and have our being in. Creation is Holy and Sacred and we should act accordingly and tend to its well being . . . very responsibly. Earth Day can help us do that, and help get others to do it too!
Usually the symbol rightly associated with Earth Day is one image, or another, of a big round earth seen from a heavenly outer-space perspective. On the first Earth Day way back in 1970, humankind had only recently had its first glimpse of the whole-round-earth in color. We saw it in a famous Christmas Eve photo titled “Earthrise,” taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders. You probably remember that amazing picture with the moon’s gray dusty surface stretching across the bottom quarter of the picture and deep dark night sky occupying most of the rest of the photo above the moon’s surface . . . except right there in the dark, rising – in the night of the moon– shines a 3/4 full gorgeous bright blue and white striped globe, our earth. (Here’s a cropped version I made bigger so hopefully it will show in the video to jog memories)
I love that the Christmas Eve celestial body that had the world’s attention that Christmas was earth. It seems a Divine message to me, given that up to that point in 1968, the year was full of human conflict and turmoil. Then as the year closed a heavenly body – God’s own earth– beckon us to see our oneness and the wonder of creation.
On the 50th anniversary of that “Earthrise” photo the photographer wrote an article I am going quote at length. Retired Major General, and former Astronaut, Bill Anders wrote that when he took the picture rocketing through space (quote)
America faced many challenges. It sometimes seemed as if the country was coming apart at the seams. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the protests against our involvement there, and the Cold War divided us against ourselves and against the world. Forces from within and without threatened us.
Everywhere, tensions ran high. Still, millions of Americans, and some one billion people worldwide, tuned in on Christmas Eve to watch our crew’s live television broadcast from space. . . . (end quote)
General Anders then describes the scene the Apollo 8 crew saw as he snapped the photo:
The Earth we saw rising over the battered grey lunar surface was small and delicate, a magnificent spot of color in the vast blackness of space. Once-distant places appeared inseparably close. Borders that once rendered division ( . . .) vanished. All of humanity appeared joined together on this glorious-but-fragile sphere.
And then the General reported he did something remarkable– not recorded on film– something that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up:
I held my fist at arm’s length . That stunning vision disappeared. From one lunar distance our world was easily obscured. At 10 lunar distances Earth would have been but the size of a ladybug. And at 100 . . . Earth would no longer be visible to the naked eye. Here was everything humans had been, everything we were, and everything we might become — and yet our home planet was physically insignificant in space
. . . From our tiny capsule, it seemed as if the whole Earth was smaller even than the space the three of us inhabited. From there, the blue-and-white glory of Earth, the only color amidst the blackness of space, became a beacon. . .
Bill Anders then poetically sums up the power of the revelation of seeing the earth from space:
The most significant revelation of Apollo 8’s journey extends far beyond our scientific-and-technological achievements, beyond our “records” and “firsts.” We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth . . .
[The photograph] “Earthrise” reminds us that distance and borders and division are merely a matter of perspective. We are all linked in a joined human enterprise; we are bound to a planet we all must share.
We are all, together, stewards of this fragile treasure. 1 /// . . . (Pause)
Thanks to the Apollo missions we became the first humans in history to see the earth suspended out there in the endless expanse of the universe. Before spacecraft and airplanes the human perspective was earthbound– taking in the expanse of the biggest thing we could see up close, earth, but only as far as the eye could see while standing on it. The photographs of earth from space portray a beautiful yet relatively tiny sphere floating in the great expanse of space. Tiny images tend to make us think of the insignificant. We know otherwise when it comes to earth. It is a ball of life containing all the things we need to survive. Its Creator put life on it . . . AND all that life needs to thrive. It is a fragile treasure indeed.
I love too that General Anders calls earth a beacon, and that it . . . EARTH . . . was discovered on the Apollo moon mission. This place we inhabit, earth, harbors and nurtures life, it’s very existence is a beacon. It hails us to the breathtaking miracle that IT is . . . It shows us a very small but very significant part of God. Full of life, full of sustenance . . . and may we never forget, full to the brim with God whom we live and have our very being in.
Like the Christmas star, earth itself can be understood to point to Christ, God incarnate in life. God with us. The Christmas story in Matthew – the one with the star– tells us Christ would be called just that. The angel told Joseph, “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ Which means, ‘God is with us.’”
In our Bible lesson today, humans are created by God to take care of the creation which God is infused in through and through. The KJV and NRSV versions of the Genesis text state that God gave us “dominion” over the earth, which means we are to rule over it. But rule over means to be responsible for it, not to dominate it; not to pillage it; not to abuse it; not to ignore it . . . but rather to carefully govern it. Sometimes humans have acted instead like a marauder plundering the earth when, God, help us, we are suppose to be its responsible caretaker!
The Message paraphrase Laura read so nicely picks that meaning up perfectly.
God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature. So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” God created human beings; he created them godlike, Reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female. God blessed them:“Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.”
We are charged with taking charge of the earth– to be responsible with it . . . and we are responsible for ALL of it. That’s what the Bible tell us. It’s basically what the Bible is about, this God soaked sphere ought to be tended to by humanity as very dear. That is also what Earth Day is about. And actually it is what beckons us from the “Earthrise” photograph. That beacon to humanity, which to quote, the good General Anders:
“reminds us that distance and borders and division are merely a matter of perspective. We are all linked in a joined human enterprise; we are bound to a planet we all must share. We are all, together, stewards of this fragile treasure. . . .
I was tempted to end with that poetic quote, but a line of poetry written before we saw the marble of earth in space, written even before this church building was built, just kept coming to mind. It is one of my favorite set of lines ever. You may have heard me quote it before. In the stanza Elizabeth Barrett Browning aptly names the reality of earth’s divine nature, and the human responses of those who see it, as well as those who don’t. She wrote
Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries, And daub their natural faces unaware . . .
The beacon of the Earthrise on the moon fifty years ago alone should have every modern person taking off their shoes, should the earth from below as should Ms. Barrett Browning’s words and Earth Day and the Bible and God. Let us pray those things serve to lead humanity to the day when none of us sit around daubing our faces unaware that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God.” May all of humankind soon fulfill our obligation to responsibly care for creation. May we all honor earth and God in it. Everyday. AMEN.