Living with uncertainty is very hard to do. It was certainly hard to do for the Christians in Rome during the decades following Jesus’ death and resurrection, for whom Mark was constructing his gospel. In chapter 13, Mark records Jesus and his disciples on their fateful final visit to the Temple in Jerusalem. Chapter 13 is known as the Little Apocalypse– a curious intrusion of dire warnings about a dystopian future into the overall flow of the Passion Narrative.
It’s a universal human experience that living with future uncertainty cultivates an attitude of fear and foreboding in us. Predictions of a dystopian future currently constitute a staple diet for Hollywood movie script writers and producers. It seems we have an unending appetite for frightening ourselves. It was no different in the 1st-century in which Mark was writing.
It’s not that there is nothing to worry about. The future viewed from our current lens looks increasingly bleak. Last week I noted the increasing dangers to international order posed by the rise of nationalistic, authoritarian government that seems only interested in alliances of convenience that shift and change from moment to moment. Later last Sunday, in his St Martin’s Day address, RabbiHoward Voss-Altman warned against our subtle desensitization to re-suregent racist and fascist tendencies. The now continual news of catastrophic climate events is really beginning to focus all our attention, the current Administration excepted, on the realization that as we endeavor to ensure the future prosperity of our children in material terms, we are actively bequeathing them an escalating process of environmental degradation.
There are real worries for the future posed by problems that can, however, be tackled, if we but find the collective political will to do so. However, at a deeper level, the inherent uncertainty of the future continues to pose an existential anxiety for which the most effective solution is living lives nurtured by faith, hope, and the daily practice of love. In short, the antidote to existential anxiety is spiritual in nature.
Our Christian faith offers us what I continually refer to as a really big story within which to construct our lives. When we fail to acknowledge that this is the central story with a claim upon our allegiance, we risk becoming enslaved to lesser stories, that like all idolatries promise more than the can deliver. Perhaps it’s the desire for wealth, the drive for security or competence, the craving for satisfaction – food, alcohol, sex, drugs, and let’s not forget shopping – all delivering only temporary satiation of our longed-for desire to feel full and complete. Perhaps it’s the adulation of success – beautiful bodies, glossy lifestyles, professional and personal adulation that promise insulation from the slings and arrows of life’s outrageous fortune. Let’s not forget the naive allegiance to the charismatic leader, the latest slick politician promising to solve all our economic woes and appease our social-racial-gender anxieties by playing on our fears. I could go on.
All of the lesser story claimants on our lives are not in and of themselves inherently bad, it’s that they are simply unable to bear the weight of the expectations for meaning and purpose we project onto them.
The only antidote to fear and anxiety generated by uncertainty is to let the large story of faith, hope and love shape us. This is important for us individually, but more significantly our religious story is lived out only in community. For it’s in community we catch from and reinforce in each other our common spiritual heritage. Last Sunday’s wonderful celebration of St Martin’s Day is such an example of what I mean, an event that is the fruiting of new energies of commitment and collaboration within our parish community, which in turn strengthens our overall commitment.
Like the disciples ogling in wonder at the great stones of the Second Temple, we place our confidence in the wrong things. Mark’s Jesus, not for the first time shows he has no truck with such naivete. He slaps his dreaming deciples down hard! Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. You can imagine the disciples – to use the current vernacular – thinking: Hang on Jesus, keep your hair, on I was only just saying —–
If you are like me, you will often look around in admiration of the stones of this very beautiful church of ours. I remember my first visit to St Martin’s. By that point I had become used to the Colonial-Spanish styles of Arizona Episcopal churches, so that on entering St Martin’s for the first time you might have heard me exclaim: Look Jesus, a proper church!
We love the stones of this church, it’s glass and its grace in decoration – St Martin’s is indeed among the finest examples of an Arts and Crafts church interior in New England. But look a little closer, see the buckling plaster, the severe water damage to the walls in the chapel. Look closer and you will see beautiful stones come at a price; the price being that of continually very expensive maintenance and repair.
NowI believe that we must shoulder our responsibility to maintain with diligence and effort the stones of this church – bequeathed to us by former generations – of whose sacrifices this building remains a living testimony. Fortunately, the task is not yet beyond our capacities. Yet, there may come a time when it will be. One of the future’s uncertainties is what will happen to churches like ours in the face of demographic and generational changes that are already resulting in drastically reduced commitments to church and church going among the post-boomer generations?
My purpose is not to depress us all. It is simply to affirm Jesus’s teaching as presented by Mark, that we live always in the face of the future’s uncertainties. We cannot know the future but we must trust ourselves to it, nonetheless. Jesus reminds us that many will come in his name. Their ability to lead us astray rests upon our craving for clear and certain answers to uncertainty cannot be met other than that uncertainty must work itself out over a longer time frame than the one we are most comfortable with.
This is why each year the Annual Renewal Campaign carries such importance. Today, the 2019 campaign comes to a close with the in-gathering of our commitment promises for the next 12 months. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from making our commitment to living life in the here and now by the un certainties of the yet to become known future.
Onin-gathering Sunday, our practice is to return – if we have not already done so-our estimate of giving cards for 2019 as we come to eat and drink Christ intoour lives. Doing it like this emphasizes that the gifts of life are to beenjoyed and given thanks for as God-given and not worshiped as gods, in themselves.The gifts God gives us are for the enjoyment of our lives, and the means throughwhich to fulfill our responsibilities.
For no amount of hard work, no degree of piety, no level of personal achievement, no desire to make ourselves acceptable by the sweat of our own brow can insulate us from the uncertainties of the future. When we worship the gifts of God rather than the God who gives them, we fall away from the support of the large story of faith, hope and the practice of love into the clutches of the smaller stories of our anxiety-ridden human condition.
Christian faith is not a protection against future uncertainty. It is not an insurance policy against things going wrong. Rather, it promises that we can discover “who we are” only when we firmly know “whose we are”(David Lose). We entrust ourselves to a future that is for us yet to become known because we are God’s beloved children, love by God unconditionally. The opposite to uncertainty it turns out is not certainty, but courage – faith, hope, and the practice of love.
 Apocalyptic writing in a genre of Biblical writing that predicts catastrophic events that will herald the end times.