Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
• • •
The Lord be with you.
I’d like to begin this morning by talking about the events of our own day, then working back to the biblical story we just heard.
This is a historic weekend in the history of our country, in the history of the world. Fifty years ago yesterday, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got into the Lunar Module called the Eagle, left behind crew mate Michael Collins in the Command Module, and descended to the surface of the moon. A little while later, Neil Armstrong went down the steps of the Eagle and became the first person to ever step on the moon. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he said. Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin soon joined him, and they began to do the exploratory work they had traveled 239,000 miles to perform.
That was fifty years ago, and there are many here today who watched that amazing event on television. It was the culmination of years of planning, preparing, coming up with technological innovations, and putting together an effort that was unrivaled in its complexity and scope.
It took 400,000 people working together to send those astronauts to the moon, make it possible for them to land and walk on the lunar surface, and return to earth.
It involved remarkable technological developments, including the world’s biggest rocket; the world’s smallest, fastest, most nimble computer; the first worldwide, high-speed data network; spacesuits and space food and a moon-ready dune buggy.
It also involved a lot of people doing incredibly laborious tasks by hand. Take the spacesuits for example. They were made of 21 layers of nested fabric, strong enough to stop a micrometeorite, yet flexible enough to allow the astronauts to move freely on the moon. The spacesuits were made by Playtex, who convinced NASA that they knew something about making garments that were both form-fitting and flexible! Each layer was sewn and assembled by hand with intricate and delicate skill.
Then there were the tires on the lunar rover. Goodyear came up with the technology, using a mesh made of piano wire in the shape of a tire. This gave the rover traction and allowed some of the dirt to slip inside. As the wheels turned, the mesh flexed open, the dirt dropped back out and the wheels returned to their tire shape. Each tire required 3,000 feet of piano wire.
Of course, the three astronauts participated in years of grueling preparations. And Neil Armstrong almost didn’t make it. As part of the training for Apollo 9, Armstrong was testing the lunar module when it crashed, and he ejected only 200 feet from the ground.
I don’t think we can fathom how complicated and precise this mission had to be. And in the end, it all fell on the three men out there in that spacecraft, hurtling through space and then finding their way in a place no human being had ever been before, making sure everything went perfectly. Any one of a thousand small glitches could have meant their death and the failure of the mission.
And yet one of the astronauts was able to see beyond all that to something even more important. Like Mary in our Gospel story today was able to see beyond all the busyness and anxiety of serving guests in one’s home, one of the astronauts was able to grasp something beyond all that was happening around him.
Buzz Aldrin, a devout Christian, developed an idea as he was preparing for the moon mission. He talked to his pastor about it and they made a plan. Each astronaut was allowed a small personal preferences kit, in which he could carry some small items for his own use. Aldrin packed his, didn’t say anything to anyone about it, and then blasted off on Apollo 11.
As he and Neil Armstrong began their descent to the moon in the Lunar Module, the Eagle, they noticed that the original landing area that had been chosen was full of large boulders, Armstrong took the controls, skimmed across the Lunar surface, and manually found a safe spot to touch down. When they landed at Tranquility Base, they had only 17 seconds of fuel left.
The two astronauts sat in the lander for awhile, waiting for the signal to go down the ladder and on to the powdery surface of the moon. It was time for Buzz Aldrin to act on his plan.
He got his personal preference kit and put it along with a small note card on a small table surface in front of him in the capsule. Then he called Houston.
“Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM Pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”
In the silence, Buzz Aldrin reached into his bag and pulled out two small plastic packages and a silver cup. From one he removed a piece of bread and from the another a small container of wine. He poured the wine into the chalice. And then he read the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” (John 15:5)
And then Buzz Aldrin took communion.
He had prearranged with his pastor and his church that the congregation in Houston would gather to share communion as close to the same time as possible. And so as he took the Body and Blood of Christ he felt a connection not only to the God of the universe who had come in Christ to redeem him but also to his church family back and to the church everywhere on earth.
And so, the first liquid ever poured and drunk on the moon was the Blood of Christ. And the first food eaten there was Christ’s Body.
Buzz Aldrin got it. Like Mary in our Gospel today, he perceived what was most important. Even as he participated in one of the most transcendent and historic experiences human beings have ever known, Aldrin paused, listened to the words of Jesus, and received God’s grace and peace through taking communion. As Jesus said of Mary, Buzz Aldrin chose the one thing that was needful, the most essential relationship of all: his relationship with God through Christ.
Aldrin has said often that he believed what God was doing in the NASA program was part of God’s eternal plan for humanity. And when push came to shove, in the most extraordinary circumstances, when his life and mind was filled with all kinds of other thoughts and feelings, by faith Buzz Aldrin slowed down and chose Jesus.
There are a thousand memorable things to celebrate when it comes to Apollo 11. But I can’t think of anything more significant than that one humble act on the moon. Buzz Aldrin’s church back in 1969, Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, continues to celebrate Lunar Communion Sunday on the Lord’s Day closest to the anniversary of the moon landing. They’re joining together at the Lord’s Table together this morning.
Today, we get to join them and the church in all places and all times. This is the one thing needful, the one essential thing. With Mary, we come to sit at Jesus’ feet. With Buzz Aldrin, we come to abide in Jesus, the true Vine.
May the God who created the heavens and the earth bless us and keep us. Amen.
And now, may the Word of Christ dwell in us richly, in all wisdom, and may we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Amen.