It’s Christmas Eve, 1968. America is at war, protesters are in the streets, people are divided over politics and civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy are assassinated, the President isn’t very popular, the economy is tanking and three American astronauts are hurdling in a tin can through space.
50-years-ago tonight, this trinity of ordinary men—men, as one commentator put it, with the lunch-pail names of Jim, Bill and Frank—gazed out the window of their spacecraft and witnessed a scene that no human being had ever seen before: an earthrise.
Imagine what it must have been like to look out over the horizon and see the earth rise in the distance, blue with water and teeming life, cloud cover like gauze binding together the wounded earth. Immediately below their orbiting craft, they couldn’t help but see the difference between earth and the lifeless surface of the moon.
With tears in their eyes, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman tenderly read these words from space: “We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you: 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 . . .”
That silent night, that holy night, Borman concluded with these words: “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.”
Not just “earth.” Borman called our island home the “good earth.” He echoes the poet of the Book of Genesis who tells us that we inhabit a moral universe, a cosmos of meaning and purpose, of beauty and love.
The astronauts cried when they saw the earth rise. They cried tears of reverence, joy, and hope. They read from Scripture with love in their hearts for humanity and the good earth. It was a tender moment in a very tumultuous time.
That’s my message for you this Christmas Eve, 2018: when times are tumultuous, try a little tenderness. I’m quoting of course from the song of the same name, sung so famously by Otis Redding in 1966, not too long before the Apollo 8 mission.
“Try A Little Tenderness” has been part of the American songbook since the 1930s. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke, Eddie Murphy as a singing donkey in the movie Shrek, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Florence and the Machine have all offered up their own take on this song.
But no one sings it like Otis, backed up by the Stax Studio band in Memphis. When you listen to Redding perform the song live, he sings it with complete vulnerability, total abandonment. Redding lived in those same tumultuous times as the Apollo 8 astronauts and his response, like them, was to reach out in song, to try a little tenderness in our harsh world.
Mary and Joseph know something about the harshness of our world. There’s a reason there’s no room in the inn: Mary’s pregnancy is a scandal.
Ponder this with me for a moment: Mary and Joseph are living in a time and place in which hospitality is the highest value. If a family member, friend or even a perfect stranger knocked on your door, no matter the hour, you got out of bed, welcomed them in, stoked up the fire, and prepared a meal.
It’s a sacred responsibility to care for the sojourner in your midst, because someday, you may be that traveler in need of care. Joseph and Mary are traveling to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem, which means House of Bread. Under normal circumstances, they could have expected the royal treatment from their family and friends.
A hot cloth to wipe the dust off their face and hands. Freshly-baked bread still warm from the oven. A refreshing drink of water, the best wine. A dinner made with love. No one would have let them clear the table or do the dishes.
Their only duty should have been to receive hugs and kisses from their loved ones, to talk and laugh well into the night, to relax and enjoy the company as embers of contentment glowed in their hearts.
Instead, they’re alone, like astronauts hurdling through a cold and dark void. No fresh-baked loaves to be found in this House of Bread. Mary is very pregnant and exhausted. Joseph is at his wit’s end, and there’s no room in the inn.
The only way that we can explain their predicament is to conclude that their family has rejected them. Joseph’s family has heard that Mary is with child and that Joseph isn’t the father. To make matters worse, at least in their eyes, Joseph doesn’t have the guts to dismiss Mary. We can imagine Joseph and Mary knocking on their relatives’ door, only to be met with these words: “You’re on your own. There’s an inn a few blocks away. Good luck.”
If that were not enough, remember that Mary and Joseph aren’t in Bethlehem to visit relatives for the holidays. They’ve made this journey to register with the government so that one day, they’ll have the privilege of paying heavy taxes that will finance Rome’s wars and the emperor’s lavish lifestyle.
That’s why St. Luke begins the Christmas story by listing the names of Roman political leaders. He paints the backdrop for this play by starting with the cast of characters presiding over this corner of our wounded planet.
It’s a 1968-world of war, palace intrigue, violence and poverty. There’s nothing cozy and comforting about the manger that holds the Christ child. It’s a filthy trough used to feed livestock. After Mary gives birth, she and Joseph desperately wrap the child in bands of cloth so that the infant will survive the bone-cold night.
Mary and Joseph are at their very limits—just like there are so many people in our world right now who are hanging on by a thread. It’s into this harsh tableau, this tumultuous scene that God is born then and now.
God doesn’t come wearing the boots of tramping warriors as we hear in our first reading tonight from Isaiah. God doesn’t come as an emperor or a religious authority bossing people around. God comes to us as a holy infant so tender and mild, as vulnerable as three astronauts hurdling through space on a wing and a prayer.
When our Savior is born, it’s like we witness the first earthrise. Suddenly, you know that God holds the world in God’s good hands. You understand that this planet we inhabit isn’t random or meaningless any more than our lives are random or meaningless.
As you gave upon the face of the Christ child in the manger, you grasp the sheer depth of God’s love for you and for all of humanity. You comprehend how God sent his son not to condemn our world, but to save it, to unwrap the gauze binding our wounds and setting us free.
Your eyes blurred by tears are the first to see the renewal of all creation, a new heaven, a new earth asleep in Mary’s arms. That transformation is wrought not by force, but through God’s tender love, a kindness that extends to every place of tumult and pain in our world and in our hearts. My brothers and sisters, this is a night for us all to try a little tenderness.
The silence of this night is broken only by the singing of the heavenly host. They sing like Otis Redding, with complete vulnerability and total abandonment. They hold nothing back, just like we should hold nothing back tonight. This news is too good to keep to ourselves: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.”
Or in the words of the Apollo 8 crew: “We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas—and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL on Christmas Eve, 2018.