The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
The angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up. ‘When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. “
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…
The Little Prince lay down and wept at the sight of five hundred roses in a garden. You see, on the planet he ruled, he had a single rose who had told him that she was unique. Yet here were five hundred roses, just like her, in one garden. “I thought that I was rich,” he thought sadly, “with a flower unique in all the universe.”
Then the Little Prince met a fox who taught him an important lesson about love. “To me,” the fox said, “you are nothing more than a little boy who is just like a thousand other little boys. I have no need of you. And you have no need of me. I am just a fox, like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world, and I will be the same for you.”
The Little Prince returned to the garden of five hundred roses and realized that for all their beauty, he felt nothing for them. But he loved his rose far away on his tiny planet—the rose he watered and sheltered, and cared for. “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes her so important,” the fox told the Little Prince. “You are responsible for your rose” (Antione De Saint Exupery, The Little Prince).
“It’s a peculiar sensation to watch the earth sink away and become smaller and smaller,” Neil Armstrong told the graduating class of Miami University in 1970. “During a trip to the moon you see that the earth is in fact a three-dimensional globe and you appreciate the brilliant colors, the hues of the oceans and the whites of the clouds, the little bit of green that you see along the shore lines and the river basins soon disappearing. An old statistic vaguely remembered from our grammar school days reappears, and we realize that only ten percent of the land of the earth is arable, and now we have a striking visualization that that is a fact, and the continents become tan and brown and red. The geographic features fade leaving only the continental forms as you depart father from earth. No national boundaries can be seen, and as the globe becomes smaller and smaller you remember another statistic. It holds three and a half billion people, and of that three and a half billion, one half are hungry and two thirds live in poverty. You shudder to think that this problem will be much worse during the remainder of our lifetime, and at the end of the century, the population of the earth will be six or seven billion.
“To solve the problem,” he went on, “of feeding this population and protecting this planet for the use of that population is going to take an international approach far beyond any cooperative effort ever seen in history.” Then, in characteristically understated candor, reflecting on the turmoil of that particular moment in our history, (exactly one month after the killing of four college students at another Ohio campus, Kent State) he said, “I suppose we have to ask ourselves whether international cooperation on this scale is even possible” (Neil Armstrong, Commencement Address, Miami University, June 4, 1970).
We are responsible for our rose.
Today we honor and give thanks for a man who knew that everything worth striving for, every dream we pursue, every adventure that beckons, every challenge that calls forth our greatest efforts cannot be accomplished alone. “Why did you walk away from the public adulation?” he was asked in more ways than we can count. “Why didn’t you bask in the limelight as long as you could?” “Because,” he said, “I didn’t deserve it.” This was not, I am convinced, an expression of Midwestern modesty, an attempt to minimize his passionate ambition, commitment to disciplined and hard work, rigorous intellectual study and physical training, and sense of awe and the possibility of what one person can, in fact, accomplish. It was simply the truth: No one goes to the moon alone. No one accomplishes anything of lasting value in any realm of human endeavor alone. Neil Armstrong wanted us to know that. It wasn’t about him; it was about all of us, together.
It’s been said that each of us has in our life at least one moment of insight, our Burning Bush, if you will, an otherworldly, time-stopping experience that somehow succeeds in getting through to us, the insight that, if we let it, will carry us through and set the course for the rest of our life (Thomas Cahill, The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels).
In reading the many public tributes to Neil Armstrong, it’s obvious that we all assume that the defining moment of Armstrong’s life was walking on the moon, those amazing 2 1/2 hours. How could it be otherwise? It was after all a first and giant step.
Yet he tended to downplay the personal impact of the experience. Once, when speaking to a group students he was asked, perhaps for the millionth time, how walking on the moon changed his life, he replied that because of the moon he got to go to a lot more press conferences at which people ask how the moon changed his life. But he went on to say that when he was a kid the same age as the students asking questions, no one had ever flown a plane at supersonic speed. There was no space program. Going to the moon was pure science fiction. In the first half of his lifetime—everything changed. “Opportunities will be available to you that you cannot imagine.”
Last week, Mr. Vance Wilson, headmaster of St. Albans, a school of this Cathedral, addressed the students in their opening chapel, drawing their attention to the beautiful stain glass window known as the Space Window. At is its center is a rock from the moon, presented to the Cathedral by the three men of Apollo 11, one of whom, Michael Collins, is a St. Albans graduate, class 1948. Mr. Wilson also mentioned, in a way Neil Armstrong would have surely approved, NASA’s historic landing of Curiosity on Mars this summer and the endlessly fascinating stream of photographs available to us on our computers.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “how about beginning this school year with a dream? Ever thought about being the first human being to walk on Mars? Why not? You wouldn’t be the first St. Albans graduate to do the impossible. You better get started soon, though. If you leave today, it’ll take you the entire school year. “
Without question, walking on the moon confirmed for Armstrong the importance of a dream, a compelling vision that propels as individuals and a species where we have never been. And it pleased him whenever his example, in the words of his family, “inspired young people around the world to work hard to make their dreams come true, to be willing to explore and push the limits, and to selflessly serve a cause greater than themselves.”
But that cause, I suggest to you, for Neil Armstrong, was not exploration for exploration’s sake, but for the survival of the only planet we human beings call home. The defining moment for him, it seems to me judging from the way he chose to live his life after Apollo 11, was when he looked out his spacecraft window. “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” The earth was his rose, and it’s our rose, too.
Space exploration was for him but one way we human beings can marshal the best of who we are and learn the kind of cooperation that will save us from ourselves. He experienced the world coming together through space exploration. “During the flight of Apollo 11, I sincerely felt I had the good wishes of people from every country around the world.” He felt that same global spirit as the world held its collective breath as the astronauts of Apollo 13 climbed into their lunar lifeboat Aquarius and safely returned to earth. “During that return, world-wide offers of cooperation came from a dozen nations, including the Soviet Union, our great space competitor…. The concerns of our fellow human beings during Apollo 13 are evidence that we can pursue common avenues of international interest, not only in space but here on earth.”
Thus as we honor Neil Armstrong today with our words and prayers, I invite you all to imagine that peculiar sensation he described of watching the earth become smaller and smaller; to see in your mind’s eye the thin strips of green around oceans of blue, and to remember that all the world’s populations live on those strips and the small patches of brown quickly disappearing from you view. You can no longer see all that divides us as a species, only our common fate as those who call this beautifully spinning planet home.
You and I are responsible for our rose. In his child-like wonder and quiet determination, Neil Armstrong wanted us to know that. He urged us to work together, as we must, to solve the heart-breaking challenges and consider the breath-taking possibilities of our species.
But let me remind you, in the words of the 20th-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, that nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished by alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
Thank you, merciful God, for the faith, hope, and love of Neil Armstrong. Together we commit ourselves this day to following his great and humble example.