Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stewards of the Earth, Stewards of the Moon?

Scripture appointed for this 19th Sunday after Pentecost includes Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; and Mark 10:17-31. This sermon was given in the course of a baptism.

In our first reading, Job is perplexed. He wants to protest his innocence before God, but he cannot find God: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” It seems as if God gets to vanish from the scene of Job’s many sufferings, but Job cannot vanish; he must come to terms with his reality and with his God, who has terrified him with too much silence.

In our Gospel, Jesus’s disciples are perplexed. They want to protest the absurdity of their Lord’s teaching, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” That flies in the face of their street wisdom: “If the rich don’t have the favor of God, who does?”

So our biblical forbears are perplexed today. I’m perplexed today. What has me perplexed is NASA’s mucking-about with the moon. Does any one nation on planet earth have the right to send a spacecraft crashing into the crust of another heavenly body, to test what it’s made of? Who says we have that right? That’s what I’m perplexed about, the implicit arrogance that claims such freedom as this.

I know it’s been going on a long time, this race to outer space. I don’t know why I haven’t felt perplexed before now, but my attention got caught when I heard a reporter raise the question, “And why does it matter whether there’s water in the interior of the moon?” The answer I heard was that with the presence of hydrogen comes the potential of fuel, and with oxygen, of course, the ability to breathe. From another source, I hear that the moon is rich in Helium-3, which might be sought for nuclear fusion research and could become an alternative source of power on earth.

How, I wonder, does God look on this venture? Our New Testament letter tells us that the Word of God judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. God knows all that our human race has done to blast the resources out of planet earth, how we’re prone to simultaneously lament global warming and still keep draining the dregs of earth’s petrochemicals. Do we imagine God looking with approval on our assaying the minerals and chemicals of another heavenly body? Given our track record as stewards of the earth, do we picture God welcoming us to a stewardship of the moon?

What perplexes me most is who’s doing this: who is the “us”? Who is the “we”? This mission was an American one. I read that an ambitious British mission named MoonLite will fire a series of penetrator missiles into the moon’s surface to create a network of seismic monitoring stations, the start of an infrastructure for communications and guidance systems that may provide commercial opportunities. But for whom? Perhaps evolutionary theory will answer, “For those who keep trying, those who have the longest staying power, and those who adapt best to what they find.”

But as we leave earth’s atmosphere, will we be open to discovering God showing us that there is more to evolution than the forces of mutation and selection? That there is the third force, cooperation?

In 1975, the American spacecraft Apollo and the Soviet craft Soyuz made their historic rendezvous, opening the prospect of international cooperation in space. In 1998, the International Space Station was launched, enabling testing and research in preparation for new manned missions to the moon and on to Mars. Since 2000, there has been an uninterrupted and international human presence aboard the station, supported by the US, Russia, the seventeen nations of the European Space Agency, Japan, and Canada.

Notice that China has been excluded, and it’s China now vying for third place in space after the US and Russia. India aims to be next, preparing missions to the moon and to Mars. Iran has launched its first satellite. North Korea is said to be planning a space program. Nigeria and Venezuela are partnering with China. In whose orbit is the moon?
In our stewarding of the earth, have we yet built a constellation of nations ready and willing to trust one another to share equitably the resources and responsibilities of a universe?

Let’s look again at the perplexed in our scriptures today, and consider what they say to us.

Job can’t locate God, who has gone entirely silent. Soon, though, God will summon his servant Job to stand before him in a withering confrontation that will make Job’s professed innocence seem like a silly claim.

As we look to explore a universe, God is apt to remain quite still, watching, waiting. Which is to say that it’s time now to explore the ethics of the colonizing of space. Our more pressing question is not what is within the interior of the moon, but what is within us that will resonate with the justice of God. God, who will not remain silent, but will stir hearts and minds that dare to be open.

And those disciples have a hard time being open to the revolutionary teaching of Jesus, who looks with love on his would-be disciple who has lived a blameless life and on top of that is well-to-do, and says to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” And this young man went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

“Why disqualify him?” we can imagine one disciple asking another. “He’s a better man than I was when I was called, and, unlike us, he’s rich!”

But not free. Entering the kingdom of God does not require blamelessness. What’s required is letting go of our trying to be kings and queens of our own domains, letting God be God, and learning to cooperate with God. Then we are free to enter the realm of grace, follow Jesus, and let him shape our stewardship of life.

How easy to say those words, to string them together in the right order, such simple words—and how perplexing they are to each of us. But they describe the pathway to eternal life, and that is what the rich young man asked for.

We want for Aodhan Andrew that he be free to walk this pathway. He is set on it today in holy baptism, by the choice of his parents; and the responsibility of his family, Godparents, and parish is to support him on that pathway so that he will be able, some day—indeed, many days—to choose to follow Christ.

Consider Aodhan’s namesake, Saint Aidan. No such honor yet surrounded the name of this young monk on the Scottish island of Iona who, in about the year 635, accepted the responsibility thrust on him by King Oswald to come and shape Christians out of the people of Northumbria whose ways were the old ways of the Druids, whose religion revolved around the moon.

His method would be to promote Christian culture by showing them a life of spiritual simplicity. For the headquarters of his mission he chose the lonely island of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland coast. From there, Aidan and his companions traveled on foot from town to village, across northern England and in Scotland, preaching the message of Christ and encouraging young men and women to join them in their quiet life of study and prayer.

Self-denial and discipline were the hallmarks of these communities whose members, many of them, came from rich and powerful families; but they had renounced their possessions and accepted a daily round of long hours at prayer, little sleep, and a sparse diet. John Michell writes, in his "Traveler’s Key to Sacred England", that “their compensation was access to the best teachers and education of their time. At Lindisfarne and its dependent communities there was a renaissance of scholarship and the arts and crafts. The Celtic Church combined classical and native Druidic learning with Christian humanism, and the product was some of the most inspired works of art in England’s history. The finest example is the Lindisfarne Gospels, displayed in the British Museum, a wonderfully illuminated manuscript created in the scriptorium on Bishop Aidan’s holy isle about the year 700.

That Aidan brought light to the Dark Ages—or is it truer to say that through his story we see that they were not all dark?

This Aodhan also shares in the legacy of light, the inheritance of the disciples whose choices free them to receive a hundredfold now in this age. May our Aodhan find himself at home in our houses, find among us friends as close as brothers and sisters, and find his way with us into fields of creativity and service. Persecution is also promised, and while we hesitate to wish that for him, I suppose it is another name for perplexity, and none of us escapes that, not if we’re paying attention, and not if we’re open, and those traits are the very paving stones of the pathway he steps onto today.

That pathway will assuredly introduce him and his generation to the universe more fully than we have seen. On that pathway may he and they walk closer to peace than we have come, go deeper into truth than we have known, and move more bravely towards justice than we have dared.

(John Michell's "The Traveler's Key to Sacred England" was published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.)