The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our gospel for this morning, Jesus and one of his disciples are walking in Jerusalem when the disciple makes what might seem to be an offhand remark about the beauty and the grandeur of the temple. Perhaps he was just making conversation. But you can tell that this disciple was awestruck by what he saw, and he had every right to be. The temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was an impressive structure. Originally built more than 500 years before, around 515 BC, it had just been refurbished and enlarged by Herod the Great beginning in about 20 BC. During this renovation, the temple itself was enlarged into an impressive and massive ornate structure. And the Temple Mount itself was expanded from 17 to 36 acres in size. For first century Jews like Jesus and his disciple, this new grand structure with its large stones, beautifully carved, and the artistry involved in building it, would have been a source of immense pride and awe and wonder. But no sooner did the disciple praise this magnificent building, then Jesus told him that the time was coming when not one of those perfectly formed temple stones would be left standing upon another. That as beautiful as it was, the temple was doomed for destruction. And he was right. Less than 40 years later, around 70 AD, after an uprising against the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, Roman troops sacked the city and destroyed Herod’s temple. It has never been rebuilt.
Today, if you visit Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, all that is left of this incredible structure is what we now call the Wailing Wall, perhaps the holiest site in all of Israel. For me, this story of the disciple’s sense of awe at seeing such a magnificent creation and Jesus’ prediction that it would one day be destroyed, reminds me of the fragility of everything. And especially the fragility of those things that seem most permanent, most dependable, most important. This theme of awe coupled with the fragility and impermanence of things is what I want to talk with you about this morning.
This past Wednesday, we held a remarkable program here in the Cathedral. Perhaps you saw it. If you didn’t, I invite you to go online and watch it, it’ll be well worth your time. It’s called the Ignatius Forum. And because of the generosity of the Ignatius family, in honor of their parents—Paul and Nancy Ignatius—since 2008, we have been able to bring to the Cathedral some remarkable people to discuss some of the most important issues of the day. This year our topic was, “Our Future in Space.” We were blessed to have with us for this 90-minute conversation Senator Bill Nelson, who’s the head of NASA, Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, Dr. Avi Loeb, who’s an astrophysicist and author from Harvard, Dr. David Wilkinson, who is an astrophysicist and theologian from Durham University in the UK, and last but not least Jeff Bezos, the creator of Amazon and Blue Origin.
There was a fascinating conversation that I do encourage you to go online and watch. We talked about everything from colonizing the moon, to planned trip to Mars, to building an infrastructure to one day enable building cities in orbit, to space-based military opportunities and threats, the probability of primitive life in the universe, the possibility of intelligent life in the universe, and the theological implications of it all. As someone who grew up watching Star Trek and telling everyone to, “Live long and prosper,” I just loved it. But what I found most surprising was the number of times the conversation turned to experiences of all humility and a realignment of perspective in the face of the vastness of space.
Bill Nelson, during his interview, talked about his time as an astronaut on board the space shuttle and his 98 orbits around the earth that he made. When asked by David Ignatius to describe his experience, he said, “The Earth is so beautiful. It is so colorful. It is this magnificent creation that is suspended in nothing and space is nothing. It is an airless vacuum. It goes on for billions and billions of light years.” He went on to say, “I had several reactions as I would float by the window and look outside the shuttle. I was struck by how fragile the Earth looks. I would look at the rim of the Earth, that blue band, and right below it, I could see the atmosphere and realize that it sustains all of our life here. And I could see how we are messing it up. It made me want to be a better steward of what we have.” He closed by saying, “One other thing I want to say, one other lasting impression that I want to tell you about, is that as I looked at the Earth, as we orbited every 90 minutes, I did not see racial division. I did not see religious division. I did not see political division. From that perspective, looking back at our home, what I saw is that we are all in this together.” It was quite a powerful moment during the program. Here was Senator Nelson describing the awe and wonder he felt looking down at our planet and the realization that despite its immensity, just how fragile our Earth actually is, and by extension, how fragile all of us are, who live on it.
Later in the program, Jeff Bezos said that they call what Senator Nelson experience, “The Overview Effect.” The Overview Effect. And he said that almost everyone who goes into space has this kind of transformative experience. Not simply because they have left Earth’s orbit, but more importantly, because they can look back and see our bright blue island home. He said that for many people, it is almost a spiritual experience that changes you forever. And once you return to Earth, he said, “You become an Earth ambassador.” He said that when William Shatner landed after his trip on Blue Origin, this past October, he was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he could not speak. That there were no words to describe the awe and wonder of seeing our Earth from space.
My friends, why do I tell you all of this? Because like the disciple who marveled at the enormity and the beauty and the seeming permanence of the Temple in Jerusalem, but failed to see how fragile it actually is, I think we too can fool ourselves into believing that because our planet home is so enormous, so full of resources, so full of life, that we can take it for granted, that we can assume its permanence and our permanence on it. But the fact, is our Earth is so fragile and so small and so insignificant when you compare it to the vastness of space. Think about this, there are 250 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone. Two hundred fifty billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. And there are more than 2 trillion galaxies in the universe. Moreover, the closest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, is more than 4.25 light years away. With our current technology, it would take us something like 70,000 years to get there. Friends, we are an insignificant speck when compared to the vastness of the universe, we are on our own and this Earth is all we have.
Yes, our Earth is awesome, but it is fragile. And we are in fact, messing it up as Senator Bill Nelson reminds us, and we can no longer take it for granted. But the truth is, I don’t think we need to go into space to experience the Overview Effect in order to become one of Earth’s ambassadors. In fact, scripture tells us that being good stewards of God’s creation is a fundamental duty of the human race. In the book of Genesis, we are told that God gave humanity dominion over the Earth, but that does not mean we are meant to rule it and exploited. Rather, that language means that we are to cherish it and protect it the way our gardener loves her garden.
It is indeed an awe-inspiring place, but we can no longer take its health for granted. Since the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, we have had the power to destroy it. Now we must find the will to protect it. But if we keep on going the way we’re going, we may well make it uninhabitable for many types of life, including our own. As the UN Global Climate Summit draws to a close this weekend, and I find reasons for hope. The time for us to act as a species in decisive ways to protect our planet is running out, and yet on Saturday, 200 countries struck a major agreement to intensify our efforts to fight climate change. It may not be an agreement that moves as fast or pushes as hard as many people would like to see, but it’s progress and it’s hopeful. And it is a sign that we might just be learning the truth about the fragility of our island home and our responsibility to protect it.
Friends, I believe in a God of love, who became incarnate in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, the infinite God became finite and entered our finite creation in order, through his death and his life and his death, to destroy death and to reunite us with God. As our lesson from Hebrews today points out, through his life Jesus shows us what it means to sacrifice in the name of love. He showed us the way to love our neighbor and by extension, the way to love our world. We too can learn to sacrifice in the name of love in order to heal our planet, in order to heal our relationship with our earthly home. The question becomes, what are you willing to do to be one of Earth’s ambassadors?