The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Exodus 32:7-14; Luke 15:1
“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them;
Exodus chronicles the flight of the Hebrew people from captivity. The word used for their behavior is shachath implying several ideas, so it varies by translation. In King James, the people are said to have corrupted themselves. In more modern versions, they have acted perversely. The word could imply decay or ruin or destruction. Shachath is not a good thing be.
“[T]hey have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'”
Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to sit in the presence of God. He would be gone for forty days, but the people did not know that then. They knew that Moses left. He had gone up the mountain, the top of which was covered in clouds out of which erupted fire. That did not bode well for Moses and so the people were losing hope.
Remember where they were: out in the wilderness far from home, even if it had been a home for slaves. They had lost everything that was familiar to them. Food and shelter, their very means of existence. They were free, of course, but to them in that moment it seemed like they were free to die. It is hard to eat freedom.
Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’?
Moses is trying to save his people, not that he is pleased with their behavior. Why set the people free only to kill them in the mountains? Moses intervened and so the Hebrew people did not die. But he then descends from the mountain to see the people dancing around a golden calf, of all things.
Recall we just heard Moses mediate with God. And then he sees this. Moses becomes enraged and hurled down the mountain what he was carrying. What did he have? The stone tablets bearing the covenant between God and the people. Moses hurled the tablets down breaking them upon the foot of the mountain. The covenant had been broken.
The people had chosen to worship a god other than the God. That was commandment number one, broken. And they did so by erecting an idol. There goes commandment number two. The people did so out of fear, fear that Moses had abandoned them or had died on the mountain. The people asked Moses’ brother, Aaron, to do something about it, to make them some gods. So Aaron told the people to take all the gold they had, earrings and jewelry, and to give it to him. He melted the gold, formed a mold, and cast an idol in the form of a calf.
Moses asked his brother “What did these people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” Moses blamed Aaron. Aaron turned around and blamed the people. They asked him for gods, he asked them for gold. He threw it into the fire and look what came out – a calf. Aaron’s description of these events does not make sense. He was embarrassed, I would guess. He was ashamed because he had let the people talk him into doing something out of fear.
Fear is very powerful. In some ways, fear is the strongest human emotion because it is the most basic, the most universal. Fear has always been with us.
This week I am offering the first in a series of sermons based upon movies. There are many kinds of movies – westerns, comedies, thrillers, and so forth. Today, I am looking at a science fiction film, an early one that has become a classic of the genre: The Day the Earth Stood Still.
This movie first aired in 1951, so this is the 65th anniversary of the film. There was a silver flying saucer and a giant robot, both of which were admittedly cheesy. But the majority of the film was carried by an ordinary looking man in a two piece suit. That man was the alien, called Klaatu. He was sent to Earth to deliver a message of grave importance. He landed his flying saucer on a baseball field in Washington, D.C. He walked out of the ship and was almost immediately shot by one of the soldiers gathered in response to the landing.
The soldiers were on edge, fearful, as was the large crowd of onlookers. Klaatu had made an unexpected gesture and the soldier fired. Klaatu also had a companion, a giant robot. In response to this sudden act of violence, the robot destroyed all of the weapons the soldiers had brought – the guns, the cannons, the tanks. Klaatu stopped the robot from continuing his rampage and was then taken to a hospital.
A representative of the U.S. president came to meet with Klaatu to inquire as to the nature of the alien’s visit. The alien refused to reveal his mission, instead explaining that he had a message for everyone in the world, not just one group of people or their leaders. He asked for representatives of the world’s nations to gather, but was told that it would be awkward, a gathering completely without precedent. The government man explained that the world of 1951 was full of tensions and suspicions and therefore such a meeting would be impossible.
Klaatu then asked about meeting with the United Nations. Rather than say anything about the United Nations, the government man said that there were evil forces in the world that were producing trouble. Klaatu brushes all that aside, saying he was not concerned with the internal affairs of Earth. His mission was not to fix Earth’s petty squabbles – Klaatu’s words, not mine. His mission concerned the existence of every last creature on Earth. The government man goes away with that ominous thought in mind, explaining that he would attempt to set up a meeting. He was not successful. No one was willing to sit down with anyone.
And so Klaatu escapes from the hospital to go live with and to learn about the people of Earth. He looked perfectly human and managed to steal some clothing from another patient with the last name of Carpenter. So Mr. Carpenter found a boarding house filled with lots of regular sorts of people. People scared to go out at night because an eight foot tall Martian with tentacles might be hiding in the shadows. People scared that the alien story was actually an effort by the Russians to infiltrate the United States. The only people not consumed by fear were a young boy and his widowed mother, who both took a liking to the mysterious Mr. Carpenter.
Eventually however Klaatu was discovered, betrayed to the authorities by the widow’s boyfriend. There was a high speed chase, ending with Klaatu being shot and killed in the street. Klaatu had set up a contingency plan, however, sending the widow to see the giant robot, whose name by the way was Gort. In order to forestall Gort’s destroying Earth, she had to say to him the phrase, “Gort Klaatu barada nikto.” A generation of schoolchildren apparently memorized that line, hopefully to forestall an invasion of giant robots. Gort the robot retrieved Klaatu’s body and brings the dead man back to life. A man named Carpenter who comes back to live – not subtle imagery.
This movie is about many things. It is a story about an alien visiting Earth, one who takes on Jesus- like characteristics. But below that surface is another, more worldly story. Although mentioned only once during the entire film, the movie is about the United Nations. Really. The producer of the film thought there was a desperate need for the United Nations. Those tensions and suspicions mentioned in the script were real and worrying to him. And as no one would make a Hollywood movie about the building of the United Nations, instead there was a movie about a man from outer space.
Klaatu had come to Earth to deliver two things: a warning and an invitation. He warned that if the people of Earth decided to spread their war-like ways and atomic bombs into space, the Earth would be reduced to a cinder. Klaatu, his people, and the other planets had set up a system that prevented all wars. Remember the giant robot. The robots were the space police. They were given absolute and irrevocable authority to intervene in any and all matters of violence. Klaatu does not describe to punishment, but explained it was too terrible to contemplate, apparently worse than becoming a cinder. The threat of violence removed, by a bigger threat of violence, the people of this robot-protected utopia could apply themselves to more “profitable” pursuits. Earth could either join Klaatu and his people in their system of peaceful coexistence or be destroyed.
Klaatu has offered a choice, though it does not seem like much of one. Choose to remain free and face certain destruction. Or choose to become a part of this new absolute authority and live in peace, however “peace” might be defined in that situation.
Again, this was about the United Nations. Absolute authority to intervene in matters of aggression was the hoped for result at least by these movie makers. By the way, remember that in 1951 the Korean War was raging on with the prospect for peace nowhere in sight.
In a peculiar way, the reading from the Book of Exodus presents a similar choice. The Lord tells Moses that the people would be destroyed and Moses would be the father of a new nation. The people have acted perversely, corrupting themselves by turning to a false god. They have made the wrong choice, for what is sin but making a wrong choice.
The problem is that the Hebrew people did not know they were making the wrong choice. Moses was climbing down from Mount Sinai holding stone tablets in his hand upon which were written the rules, the heretofore unknown rules. The people did not know they could have no other gods. They had just left Egypt, a place filled with temples to many gods. Can you sin when you did not know it was a sin?
The Hebrew people turned to these false gods out of fear, fear of an uncertain world, fear of an unfamiliar wilderness. That fear drove them to seek out order, predictability, in some form. They called out to the gods when Moses expected them to call out only to God. Fear of the unknown can make you do the wrong thing particularly when the right thing to do is by no means obvious.
Today is September 11th. That was not lost upon me when I chose the movie for this week. Fifteen years ago this morning, several airplanes were hijacked and turned into flying bombs. The World Trade Center towers were destroyed, the Pentagon severely damaged. Another plane crashed into the fields of Pennsylvania as passengers attempted to wrestled control back from terrorists. Thousands of people died. Today we remember those lost to these mad acts of violence.
I remember that day. I was starting up my solo law practice, so I was to spend the day looking at office space. I was home when the phone rang. It was my ex-wife. She asked me if I knew what was going on. I said no and turned on the television. I watched the first tower burning. I watched live as the second plane hit the second tower. We then heard reports that the Pentagon had been attacked and that other planes could not be accounted for.
My ex-wife was worried so she asked me to go get my then two year old daughter – I said that I did not know what was going on but I was fairly certain she would be safe at her daycare. But I did not know it. No one knew what was going on. And so September 11th for me became the day the earth stood still.
In the movie, the title refers to a demonstration of power. The alien somehow shuts off all the electricity in the world. All the lights go out, the telephones are dead. Trains and cars stop moving. The world ground to a halt.
September 11th was like that in a sense. The world ground to a halt to look on in horror. Everything stopped because no one could look away even as no one knew what to do. I know I was afraid, afraid for the people injured and dying, afraid for the cities of New York and Washington and even Boston from where two of the flights began. Afraid for that missing plane that latter crashed into a field. I was afraid for them and I was afraid for me. Afraid because I did not know what to do.
What do you do when you are afraid? Not what should you do, but what one often does. You might hide. I sat in my house all that day glued to the television. You might cry. I saw men and women cry as they ran away from plumes of dust and debris from the falling towers. You might pray. I know I prayed and know that the churches in my town filled up with fearful, crying people.
In time, people would get angry, but not quite yet. Anger takes more time than fear because anger needs a direction. Fear can set up shop anywhere, anytime, but anger needs a focus.
It did not take long to find out who was responsible. And it did not take long to respond. Less than a month later, the United States began aerial attacks upon Afghanistan, where the Taliban government had allowed the terrorist group al-Qaeda to take root and to plan these attacks. The war in Afghanistan spread in time to Iraq, a much debated decision. Some would argue that the war in Iraq was the flash point for the current civil war in neighboring Syria.
There are many reasons to go to war. In the case of September 11, the United States went to war in response to these terrible attacks. There was anger arising out of an unprecedented assault. Understandable fear followed by understandable anger. And yet at some point along the way, for me at least, it has all become very hard to understand.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was set in 1951. In that year, there was a war going on in Korea. It was referred to as a police action because it was not to be understood as a war so much as a response to a breach of the peace. The United Nations authorized military action against North Korea. U.N. forces, the bulk of whom were Americans, pushed the North Koreans to the Chinese border. In response, there was a massive invasion of Chinese forces. The police action became a quagmire.
My copy of the movie has special features. One of which includes an old newsreel from 1952. The movie is mentioned in this short film, but it also presents world events such as the ongoing war in Korea and the ongoing war of words in an ever more divided world. That second conflict would come to be known as the Cold War and people would come to live with a low level of constant fear, a backdrop of anxiety. Fear that a war could break out between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Anxiety about who might hold the wrong sympathies or harbor divides loyalties.
In the movie, there was a scientist, supposedly based on Albert Einstein. The actor was a man by the name of Sam Jaffe. He was a prolific character actor, but he found it hard to find work in the 1950s. He was blacklisted because he was thought to be a Communist sympathizer. The producer of the Day the Earth Stood Still was asked to remove him from the film to avoid controversy. But neither he nor the studio was willing to fire Jaffe. Fear became a scare and so many people started to look scary.
In the Book of Exodus, the people are afraid. They ask Aaron to make them some gods. This is literal – make them some gods. And so Aaron did so. He gathered together the gold earrings and jewelry of the people, melted it in fire, and poured it into a mold. This is how you make a god, or more appropriately, this is how an idol is formed. The people become fearful. They frantically look for an answer. They pour themselves into the act, pushing all their feelings into the exercise. Add heat and form it into the desired shape. And then dance around the fearful and fear-filled graven image.
I do not mean to suggest that we worship our fears. Instead our fears overwhelm us. We lose sight of the divine; we lack sense of what is holy. There have been and are many reasons to be afraid in this world. There are many worries facing us, large and small. But fear sometimes becomes phobia, fear which is irrational and all-consuming and unforgiving.
I do not think an army of robots will solve the problem, any more than a squadron of drones has done so to date. I do not think the UN on steroids will help either. We need to grapple with these fears, to sort out the real from the imagined, to fix what needs to be fixed. But we cannot kill a shadow. We can only try to add more light.
There is a quote from another science fiction book, Frank Herbert’s Dune. One of the mystic warrior type characters teaches that fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the mind-killer. I think this is true. Fear can drain away every good thought. Fear rather than courage. Fear rather than hope. Fear rather than love. Fear can even turn us away from God.
Why? Because we do not trust God to stand with us in times of fear. We want God to take away all our fears, but that is not the nature of this world. God accompanies us through the fear and the shadow, as strength, as comfort, as the promise of the coming dawn through the darkness of night. As hope.
God does not offer us a choice between destruction and imprisonment, obedience in exchange for life. As the lost lamb is sought after, as the missing coin is hunted for dearly, so will God seek out those who seek out God. Amen.