Order of service

Scripture Readings: Philippians 4.4-9
Matthew 5.1-16
Cherish the light
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

On the 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin approached the surface of the moon in their fragile Lunar Module, the Eagle. It was a fraught descent. Aldrin was calling out computer data to Armstrong as they approached, but the computer played up- and only cool heads meant that the landing was not abandoned. And as he approached the surface, Armstrong spotted that their landing site was strewn with boulders the size of small cars. In his attempt to find a clear site to land, Armstrong almost used up all his fuel reserves, which would have meant that they could not return home, or crashed among the boulders.

Finally, Aldrin called out- ‘Contact light’- the indicator that the Lunar Module had contact with the surface. Armstrong switched off the engine, and radioed home: ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed’. A few hours later, Armstrong became the first human to set foot on another heavenly body, to be followed by Aldrin. They were the first two of only twelve people to have walked on the moon (so far).

We still have people who risk life and limb to go exploring. But Aldrin and his companions were true explorers, who took incredible risks. Those risks were understood by those in the know- White House staff had prepared a speech to be given by President Nixon if the astronauts were killed or stranded, for there was no way of mounting a rescue if the astronauts had become trapped on the surface of the moon[1]. Armstrong and Aldrin put their lives on the line for the sake of exploring a new world.

Many years later, in 2002, Buzz Aldrin made the news again. He was at a Beverley Hills hotel when we was confronted by one Bart Sibrel of Tennessee, a ‘lunar hoax conspirator’, who thrust a Bible into Aldrin’s face and challenged him to swear on it that he, Aldrin, had, in fact, walked on the moon. Aldrin was steered away by his stepdaughter, but Sibrel continued to call Aldrin names: a liar, a coward, a phony- eventually goading the sprightly 72 year old ex-astronaut to land a surprisingly effective punch on his jaw. When Sibrel complained of assault, police did not charge Aldrin, deciding, unsurprisingly, that the elderly astronaut had been provoked[2]. And I have to say, I think I can well understand his feelings.

According to Wikipedia, at times, between 10% and 20% of Americans have agreed with Sibrel and the lunar conspirators that America didn’t land anyone on the moon, and that the entire thing was a clever TV show. In case we think this is an American eccentricity- a poll in 2009 claimed that 25% of Britons didn’t believe people had landed on the moon[3]. For many of us, these are astonishing statistics. Here is a well-documented historical event which people deny ever happened. No wonder Buzz Aldrin, who had risked his life flying to the moon, was provoked!

We are told, now that the internet is almost ubiquitous, that we live in an ‘information age’. You’d think, that with the facts almost literally at our fingertips, we would be able to widely agree on what is true or not. Yet the internet- like everything else in creation- has its dark side. The freewheeling nature of the internet makes it a natural home for conspiracy theorists to make their case- about the moon landings, about the Kennedy assassination, even (disturbingly) about Holocaust denial theories. Pick any subject- no matter how obvious- and someone on the internet will take the opposite view.

A dose of healthy suspicion is a good thing. In fact, a good education should teach us that. But it should also help us work out whether the sources of our information are reliable or not, and therefore whether the ‘facts’ we are being given are true or not. Last week, the Washington Post had an article about a class for senior school children offered by the Newseum, a museum of journalism in Washington DC. The class, ‘Fighting Fake News’ which was immediately booked solid by teachers worried that problems are developing because children are growing up hearing about ‘fake news’- even from their President, and don’t know how to tell real news from fakery.

When I was growing up, we got a daily newspaper, watched the Nine O’clock News on the BBC or News at Ten on ITV and listened to radio bulletins. That was where I got my news. Today, I can get TV news from umpteen different channels. I hardly ever buy any newspaper except a local paper, but I read news from all over the world via the internet (including The Washington Post!). The greatest theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, was said to have urged preachers to prepare their sermons with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other[4]. Nowadays, the newspaper is more likely to be a mobile phone. (In fact, you might be reading the Bible on a mobile phone as well).

Yet in an age when we have access to more information than ever before, people seem to find it harder and harder to know what the truth is. The public is confused by the news. And that has opened a door to unscrupulous people who make the most of our confusion. It will be tempting in future for other politicians to take a leaf from Donald Trump’s book, and play on the mistrust and uncertainty of the electorate. I dare say there are people who believe that a million people turned up at Donald Trump’s inauguration, and that the news photos showing differently were simply doctored by a hostile press. ‘If they can believe that the moon landings were faked, they’ll believe anything’ was perhaps what the strategy behind Trump’s run for president.

I still find it unbelievable that Trump managed to get people to think that a three-times married casino magnate with criminal connections, no political experience, little respect for women, racist sympathies and a history of lying and obfuscation would make a fitting occupant for the White House. But he did it!

This is not just down to the how Trump used the technologies of today. Decades ago, Dr Goebbels realised what could be done with the then new technologies of cinema and radio to mould public opinion, convincing Germans that Adolph Hitler was the man the nation needed. It seems we can be convinced of anything.

Some people say, ‘Well, politicians, they are all liars, aren’t they?’ Opinion polls certainly show that politicians are among the least trusted people in Britain (although you will be glad to know that local councillors are seen as far more trustworthy than national politicians[5]). We are told that the public want to have politicians that they can trust. And yet, I suspect that politicians don’t tell the whole truth because the public don’t want to hear it.

For example, it’s easier to pretend that, say, the issue of climate change is all made up, rather than face up to the changes that global warming must bring. It is easier to blame immigrants for putting pressure on public services than to admit that we simply don’t spend enough on our hospitals and schools. It is easier to blame someone else’s religion for wars, rather than working hard at peacemaking. Politicians who just tell us what we want to hear, rather than what we need to hear, might do well. For telling the truth is not easy, because often the truth is uncomfortable. But in the long term, dishonesty is simply storing up problems for the future.

Politics sometimes seems to just be people arguing among themselves. But we humans are like that- in all aspects of life. That’s why sometimes the church seems a very political place. For we Christians argue a lot. It has always been so, right from the start. In fact, much of the New Testament consists of letters written by church leaders to congregations who were having arguments among themselves. I’m glad that those letters are there, because it helps put the arguments we have in today’s church in perspective. And we can learn for today by listening in to those first Christians’ arguments.

The first reading which Ron read to us today is an extract from one such letter. St Paul is writing to the small Christian community in Philippi, a city in northern Greece. It was a church which he had founded, and he had great affection for the people there. There is controversy in the church, however, and they must have written to Paul for advice; the letter we have now is a reply to that lost letter. Sometimes their arguments got personal. Indeed, just before the extract we heard earlier, Paul appeals to two women by name to stop disagreeing:

‘I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord’[6].

Yet Paul stresses the joy of the good news of Jesus Christ, even in difficult times:

‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…’[7].

For Christian faith is meant to be joyous. And it is a faith, says Paul, which should have positive effect it has on believers. And so, in a famous passage, he tells the Philippians something about the Christian virtues, the good things that they should seek in their lives:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.[8]

‘Think about these things’. Here is a call to think about the real good things in life- what is really important and valuable. Paul speaks down through the centuries to us, living as we do in an age of many distractions, about the important things that money can’t buy: truth, honour, justice, purity.

‘Whatever is true… whatever is honourable’. Is there a tendency, nowadays, to think that ‘honour’ is an old-fashioned concept? Is there a tendency, even, to thing that ‘truth’ is an old-fashioned concept? If so, then I would like to suggest that we take Paul’s advice here. We probably need to be more honourable than ever. We should be striving for the common good of our community, and not just to enrich ourselves. We should be honest in all our dealings with other people. We should resist the lie that it’s only wrong if you get found out.

Today there are many people in the public eye today (not just politicians, but business people, or stars of sport or entertainment) who daily show us how to live by the opposite of the ethics that St Paul commends to us. Like the Christians of Philippi, lets us, by all means, have strenuous disagreements with one another. For a healthy democracy needs robust discussion and passionate debate. But if our leaders are without honour if, they are prepared to use lies and deception to cling to power, our democracy will rot from within.

For sometimes it needs someone to point out that the deepest truths are the ones we cannot, or are unwilling, to see. Mourners will be comforted by God’s presence. The meek (not the egomaniacs) will inherit the earth. Those who hunger for justice will have their dreams come true someday. Peacemakers are the children of God. Jesus preaches a deeper truth, a subversive truth- that the ordinary folks are the ones who matter to God. Here is another challenge to our political norms. Here is the challenge to see politics, not as a way of keeping the injustices of the world in place, not to keep the powerful in power and the little people in their place- but instead to be caught up in the possibility- God’s possibility- that the truth is that the world is going to get better for the oppressed, the marginalised, the forgotten.

Combine a passion for truth and justice, and a sense of joy at the wonder of ordinary life- and you are coming close to what righteousness really means for Christians. Why shouldn’t we rejoice as we seek to make life better for others? For after all, God is on the side of the people at the bottom of the heap- the ones who are so tired and worn out, pushed to one side and ignored- those who are truly are (as Jesus described them) ‘poor in spirit’. To them belongs the kingdom of heaven.

Christ told his followers that they should be lights in the world. You can’t hide a city built on a hill, he said- ‘so let your light shine before others’. This city doesn’t sit on a hill, but in a river valley. But why shouldn’t we hope and pray that our city becomes a beacon of light and hope? It will never be perfect, for nothing human and created can ever be perfect. But let us cherish truth in our speaking, let us cherish honour when we see it in our public life, let us cherish the pure, the just, the commendable and the excellent in the life of our city. Let us cherish the light!

In 2009, the unmanned Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft photographed the Apollo landing sites from lunar orbit. Published pictures show the Lunar Module landing stages, the flags and the experiments those twelve brave men left behind[9]. Bart Sibrel of Tennessee perhaps thinks those photos are faked as well (as he nurses his conspiracy theories and, perhaps, even, his jaw gives him a bit of gip from time to time!). For one day, no doubt, we will return to the moon, and prove once and for all that people from earth once did walk there. For Buzz Aldrin’s footprints are still in the dust, for there is no wind on the moon to blow them away.

Ascription of Praise
All things were created by God,
and all things exist through God and for God.
To God be glory for ever! Amen.

Romans 11.36 (GNB alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo
[1] Andrew Smith Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, p150
[2] Smith, ibid, p94
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_landing_conspiracy_theories#Public_opinion
[4] see interview with Time magazine: https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,896838,00.html
[5] Ipos Mori 2015: https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/politicians-are-still-trusted-less-estate-agents-journalists-and-bankers
[6] Philippians 4.2
[7] Philippians 4.4,6a
[8] Philippians 4.8-9
[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_Reconnaissance_Orbiter