From Folsom Prison to the Moon

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014

Loosen a little our grip, O Lord, on our words and our ways, our fears and our fretfulness, that finding ourselves found in you, we may venture from the safety of the shore and launch afresh into the waters of grace with Christ, the Morning Star, as our guide.[1] Amen.

Well, my friends, the big weekend has finally arrived! It’s a day of celebration for this congregation, and I’m honored to share that joy with you as your new rector. Together with my wife Carrie, our two boys Rowan and Ben, and, yes, even Tippet the Labrador Retriever, I’ve been truly overwhelmed by your kindness and your hospitality. We’re excited about walking with you as fellow travelers, with Jesus, the Christ, before us always, leading us. Don’t forget that it’s Jesus who leads us.

Everyone here has a story to tell about this wonderful place. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been here for ten years or ten minutes. Those experiences are part of the Great Story that God has written in the Scriptures and continues to write on our hearts. It’s the story of how God uses ordinary men, women, and children to bring forth extraordinary things in the world around us. It’s the story of how even small, concrete acts of love reflect the love of God in Jesus of Nazareth. It’s the story of how we’re transformed by the Holy Spirit, in spite of ourselves, for the sake of others. Indeed, there’s much to celebrate today for what God’s doing both in this moment and in our dreams for the future.

Now I want you to know that I haven’t forgotten it’s Trinity Sunday. Nevertheless, we have before us a text about the beginning. So this morning it seems to me rather appropriate to consider that text as, together, we celebrate a new beginning. Those first words of the Bible are familiar to most of us. But perhaps, like me, you first heard them from the King James Version:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.[2]

Forty-five years ago last Christmas Eve, astronaut William Anders read those words as he and his Apollo 8 crewmates orbited the moon. Across the globe, people heard his voice in a memorable television broadcast that showed the lunar surface through the window of the command module. Earlier in the broadcast, Apollo 8’s commander, Frank Borman, had described it as being “a vast, lonely, forbidding . . . expanse of nothing.”[3]

These were the first humans to enter the gravitational field of another celestial body. They were the first humans to witness an earthrise, the gradual appearance of our planet over the lunar horizon – a blue oasis in the void and a stark contrast to the lifeless, gray surface of the moon. Although it was Christmas Eve, the idea of peace on earth must’ve seemed like an unfulfilled and, perhaps, impossible dream.

The year was 1968. It kicked off well enough, with Johnny Cash recording Live at Folsom Prison and the Green Bay Packers winning the Super Bowl. But things went downhill pretty fast thereafter. The Tet Offensive began at the end of January with a series of surprise attacks by Viet Cong forces in the Vietnam War. The next month saw the My Lai massacre when hundreds of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were killed by American soldiers. On college campuses across this nation, there was civil unrest with students protesting against the war. At the beginning of April, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. By the end of the summer, 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 5,000 tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia.

Those were chaotic times, and – dare I speak the words – some of us weren’t even born then. Yet there are surely more than a few people here this morning, young and old alike, who are wrestling with difficulties in their own lives. They are wrestling with things that have disoriented them, things that have caused them to feel as though they, too, have been plunged into the “darkness . . . upon the face of the deep.”[4]

That phrase from Genesis is more than a poetic flourish when heard in times of struggle. In the midst of a marital or relational hurricane or some devastating illness or whatever else you might be going through right now, those words describe what it feels like on the inside. It might be the loss of a job, the end of a friendship, or a crisis of faith. It might be fear, anxiety, or a lack of courage. Somewhere along the way, all of us have cried out or will cry out for “the Spirit of God [to move] upon the face of the waters” and calm the storms of life, to bring order out of chaos and offer peace for our restless hearts, to dispel the darkness and shine a light on our path.[5]

The children of Abraham cried out to God during the time of their slavery in Egypt. Fleeing from bondage, they found themselves trapped at the Red Sea. But the God to whom they cried out, the God who raised up Moses and delivered them is the God who makes a way where there is no way. God offers peace where there is no peace. God brings hope where there is no hope. God can even create faith where there is no faith. For the children of Abraham, God established order out of the chaos – blowing across the sea, leading them through the waters, molding them on the other side into something new, a holy people.

Centuries later, their descendants cried out to God by the waters of Babylon. Their homes destroyed, their temple in ruins, their families taken into exile, they wondered if there would ever be an answer to their prayers. Generations would pass, but they came to believe that the glory of Lord had gone into exile with them and that they had not been forgotten. They were eventually brought home, beyond the Jordan River, where everything became new once again.

It was there in the Jordan that Jesus was baptized by John. He stepped down into the waters – down into the loneliness of the exiles, down into the suffering of the slaves, down into the chaos of our own lives. He stepped down into the world that surrounds us, a world that sometimes overwhelms us with darkness. Mark’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended. It was as though God was creating the world anew. That, in fact, is what we believe God was doing and is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – creating the world anew.

Here in this church, as we stand on the threshold of a new beginning, my hope is that we will focus on our spiritual health as individuals, as households, and as a community. Remember that Jesus has already stepped down into the chaos and confusion and anxiety of our world. The Spirit of God is moving over all of that.

So let’s get ready to unfurl our sails, not to be driven by the winds of our own fear and insecurity but by the very breath of God. The new life that we have been given begins today. It always begins today – in this font, at this table, through every little concrete act of love that is offered or received. Each of these is a sign of the new creation. Each of these is a light, the light of Christ, shining in the darkness. And we have been promised that the darkness shall not overcome it.

After William Anders read the opening words of Genesis more than forty years ago, his fellow crewmates continued with the verses that follow, verses that we heard this morning. Jim Lovell read about the separation of the light from the darkness and the creation of the celestial canopy. Frank Borman read about the creation of the continents and oceans and the divine declaration of the goodness of it all.

Then he said,

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.[6]

After the mission was over, he received a telegram from someone that simply stated:

Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.[7]

Commander Borman, by the way, was an active Episcopalian. He had been scheduled to serve as a reader on Christmas Eve at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in nearby League City. Needless to say, he had a pretty good excuse for not being able to be there. So, earlier in the day, he read a prayer while the Apollo 8 spacecraft traveled roughly 70 miles above the surface of the moon – the “lesser light” that was made “to rule the night.”[8]

That prayer was recorded by his fellow parishioner, Rod Rose, at Mission Control. The tape was then replayed at their church during the service that night. The words of Commander Borman nearly half a century ago can be our words, too, as we begin anew our journey of faith, right now, in this hour of worship, as the people of God at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. Commander Borman said:

This is to Rod Rose and the people of St. Christopher’s, actually to people everywhere. Give us, O God, the vision which can see thy love in the world in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust [thy] goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts. And show us what each one of us can do to set forth the coming of the day of universal peace.[9]


BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the last words of the Bible, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.” There is a comment at 004:53:02 in the online version of The Apollo 8 Flight Journal by David Woods and Frank O’Brien, online editors, that came to mind while thinking about the church as a ship at sea that is always guided by Jesus, the Christ, the Morning Star: “It is one of the beautiful truisms of Apollo that each voyage was, to some extent, guided across the sea of space by the same stars that the great explorers navigated by for hundreds of years before. It is the unchanging nature of the stars, at least as far as the journeys of humans are concerned, that make them so suitable in the role of guidance and navigation.”

BACK TO POST Genesis 1:1-3.

BACK TO POST David Woods and Frank O’Brien, online editors, The Apollo 8 Flight Journal, NASA History Division, 085:44:58.

BACK TO POST Genesis 1:2.

BACK TO POST Genesis 1:2.

BACK TO POST David Woods and Frank O’Brien, online editors, The Apollo 8 Flight Journal, NASA History Division, 086:08:07.

BACK TO POST Associated Press, “Astronauts look back 30 years after historic lunar launch,” The Augusta Chronicle, December 21, 1998.

BACK TO POST Genesis 1:16.

BACK TO POST David Woods and Frank O’Brien, online editors, The Apollo 8 Flight Journal, NASA History Division, 074:50:07. The official transcript has “the goodness” rather than “thy goodness,” hence the brackets in the quote. The latter phrasing, however, does appear on the NASA website in Chapter 11.6 of the online version of Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft by Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson (Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1979).

One thought on “From Folsom Prison to the Moon

  1. Pingback: Haiku Friday: Space, the Final Frontier | Tumbleweed Almanac

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