I preached this sermon at Oxford University’s Keble College during an Evensong service. The service was one of the last of the academic year and took place during final exams. I preached it less than a week from my final departure from Oxford.
Grace and peace to you all. My name is Kari Aanestad, and I am honored to be among you all tonight. As a brief note of introduction, I am a seminary student from Minnesota and am in my last year of study for ordination in the Lutheran church. My husband Brian is a proud member of Keble College in Oxford, and we are sad to say that after two years our time in Oxford is quickly coming to a close. What comes next for us is a bit of a mystery. I only have a few courses left of my degree, and Brian is finishing his now. In other words our current life plans are finding some resolution, and we are quickly being forced once again to deal with the dreaded f-word, the future.
I am sure you can all relate on some level to the sense of impending doom and dread that I know I feel when I hear the word “future.” The time we share among friends punting the River Thames, traipsing through Port Meadow, and cycling through the city seems to whiz by us faster than Oxford’s taxi drivers. Before we know it, here we are at one of the last Evensong services of the term. Our future is hurtling toward us, there is a lot of uncertainty about what may happen next, and how we make sense of it all is seriously up to us.
Some of us respond to uncertainty by latching on to firm answers, and I have a wonderful example of this. I’m not sure if you heard about this, but a few weeks ago a group of Christians in the United States became quite public about their belief in the impending Rapture. Many of them cashed their life’s savings, sold their homes, and quit their jobs all so that they could be ready for Christ’s glorious return to earth on Saturday, the 21st of May, 2011. They were quite public with their conviction that the end was coming; they conducted television interviews, advertised in magazines and newspapers, and quickly became the object of the US media’s fascination.
As you can all probably guess, Saturday, the 21st of May came and went. No heavenly trumpets were heard, no whore of Babylon or beast from the sea were seen, and no salvific lamb finally conquered the forces of evil.
With that group of Christians in mind, when I read the assigned scripture readings for today from the Gospel of Matthew, I couldn’t help but laugh. In 24:42-46 Jesus gives us a humbling reminder of just how uncertain the future really is for everyone. He is quoted as saying, “You do not know on what day your lord will come…the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” Maybe those Christian Rapture enthusiasts in the United States were spending a bit too much time in the book of Revelation and not enough time in the Gospel of Matthew.
But my point isn’t to have a good laugh at gullible people. My point is that we are all a bit more like those Rapture enthusiasts than we would like to think or admit. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can acknowledge that we too respond to uncertainty with firm answers, plans, and decisions. Whether we are a Rapture enthusiast or an Oxford student, we all make decisions about our lives now according to our best guess of what the future may be.
Though we probably haven’t cashed our life’s savings because we believe we will be bodily subsumed into heaven tomorrow, we may have spent our life’s savings on a degree from Oxford or on adventurous travel designed to help us find ourselves. Though we may not have sold our homes in anticipation of our heavenly home, we have sold ourselves on the transient life of a student – one where we have many homes and yet none are permanent. Though we haven’t quit our jobs because we believe the world tomorrow will not exist as it does today, we may have chosen our studies here based on certain careers prospects.
Now I am not suggesting that the decisions we have made in order to be here make us the object of ridicule comparable to the Rapture enthusiasts. I am suggesting, however, that we all make decisions about our lives according a certain idea of the future. We operate in a system of meaning that holds in tension the fantastic possibilities of tomorrow and the somewhat mundane decisions of today. We all need something that we are not only working toward but also that provides the daily-ness of our lives with structure and meaning.
And there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with that. But I do think there is danger when we forget that we are always operating according to our best guess of what may happen and start to believe that we can and do have certain answers or that we have some semblance of control over what happens to us. Frameworks of meaning built on that type of certainty crumble quicker and faster than any other, and the results are often personally devastating. Last year I spent five months in the John Radcliffe Hospital on a chaplaincy placement. Nearly every day I saw how one diagnosis, one car accident, one blood vessel completely changed an entire family’s trust in the world and hope for the future. “You do not know the day or the hour…”
I do not mean to depress you all, but I am trying to invite you to reflect on what sort of answers, plans, and frameworks for meaning you have that help you respond to an uncertain future. What is your equivalent of the Rapture? I ask all of this because I think that when we are able to be truly honest with ourselves about how much really is out of our control, we find ourselves gently cupping little mustard seeds of faith. A faith that grows not into a trite belief that all things happen for a greater purpose, but rather blossoms as a deep trust born from authentic struggle. There is opportunity in uncertainty.
I do not pretend to have all of the answers about this stuff nor do I expect any of you to have them either. These are lifelong issues with which we will all continue to struggle. It is fundamental to who we are as creatures of meaning. My parting prayer as I leave this great city is simply that we find the courage to be more honest with ourselves and more vulnerable with each other, that we find a balance between the plans that drive our productivity and the opportunities that exist in uncertainty, that we find new depths of being in this world after the loss of old ways, and that we ultimately find a future so unimaginably dazzling that all our present hopes, dreams, and plans seem a dull gray at best. God be with you on all of your journeys. Amen.