Tricia and I had the opportunity to visit New York City this week to see a show on Broadway. And perhaps because we don’t go into the city very often, I had the same response that I’ve had every time we’ve visited in the last 21 years as the magnificent skyline comes into view and my eyes instinctively search for the place where the World Trade towers once stood: how horrifying September 11th must have been for the people who lived and worked in the metro area. On Wednesday evening, as we sat on a bus stalled in traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel, I wondered what was it like on that day as people were fleeing the city rather than just exiting it? As we were jostled about by the midday crowd in Times Square, I wondered what it was like on that day in a panicking, fearful crowd. I know that it was terrible to watch symbols of American pride and prosperity reduced to rubble from 90 miles away; how much harder was it for the people who were in Lower Manhattan?
When we revisit the horror and disbelief we felt about September 11th and the collapse of one of our national icons, I think it helps us to understand the horror and disbelief that must have gripped Jesus’ listeners when he predicted the destruction of the Temple. For the Jewish people, the Temple was an icon of their faith, a symbol of their religion and culture and national identity. It was inconceivable to them that anything would be able to destroy the might, the grandeur, the sheer enormity of the Temple. And when you add in all the other dire predictions that Jesus laid out for his listeners – wars and insurrections, nation fighting against nation, earthquakes and plagues, signs in the heavens – to ponder these things must have been imagining the end of the world as they knew it.
Throughout all of history, Christians have mistakenly pointed to crumbling religions, wars, famines, and persecution as signs that the world was coming to an end. Even right now, I’m sure that someone somewhere believes with all sincerity that the difficulties we are facing around the globe are signs of the end of the world. But, when we try to define a timetable for the end of the world as Jesus’ followers did, or even when we ask for signs of what is just around the corner, we perpetuate a myth about life. We perpetuate a myth that says, if only I knew what the future held, if only I knew what was going to happen and when, then I could be ready. Then, I could handle it.
On Wednesday, we used Peter Pan bus lines to get us into New York, with a connection in Hartford. Our trip into Port Authority was a cinch. But travelling home, we were delayed in heavy traffic exiting the city. I didn’t think too much about it for the first part of the trip, still under the magical spell of Broadway. But after we had been on the bus for about an hour, I realized that we were behind schedule. We only had 10 minutes to make the transfer in Hartford, and by my calculations, we were a good 20 – 30 minutes behind schedule. I wanted to check online to see if there was another bus from Hartford to Springfield that evening, but our cell phones are aging and they are losing their charge very quickly these days, and of course we had forgotten to bring our chargers . . . I feel my breath getting shallow just thinking about it. But I couldn’t not check the website, you know, because I subscribe to the myth that I can handle anything just as long as I can see it coming. And wouldn’t you know it . . . the bus we were supposed to transfer to was, in fact, the last bus of the day from Hartford to Springfield. We were sitting in the front seats, and you have no idea how much I wanted to lean up and ask the bus driver if he knew if we would make our connection. But I left the poor bus driver alone because a) it wasn’t his problem, and b) I thought it was probably better not to distract him as we were hurtling along 84 in the darkness. So I stewed. And fretted. And generally made myself a mess. Tricia, sensing the internal combustion in my gut, said “Look, let’s not worry about this until we know we have something to worry about.” Which, of course, is very wise advice. But which, honestly, didn’t do much to calm my anxiety, because on some level, I still believe that “If only I knew what the future held, I could be ready for it.”
But the truth is that, without the help of God, we can’t handle anything on our own: not a missed connection, not the outcome of an election, not the results of medical tests, not the amount of time we have left with our loved ones, and certainly not the end of the world. And worrying about the future only makes us afraid of what is to come – afraid of something that is completely beyond our control anyway.
All the while, Jesus is clear and consistent about the future. He tells us that the future will include the good and the bad; that we will experience suffering and gladness; that we will feel fortunate at times and empty and abandoned at others; that we will be persecuted sometimes, even hated for what we stand for . . . but that we will be blessed forever. We cannot predict any more than that about the future, so fear is useless. What we need is faith. Instead of worrying about the future, we ought to be living faithfully now, in the present.
Living faithfully now means seizing every opportunity to bear witness to Jesus Christ, or as Jesus put it in this morning’s lesson, using this and every opportunity to testify. When we pray for those in need, we are testifying to our faith – that we trust in God’s loving and gracious will. When we reach out a hand to help a sister or brother, we are testifying to our faith – that we know and understand our role as God’s partners in bringing relief to those in need. When we promise to share generously of our resources, as we will do next Sunday when we make our financial commitments to the work of God through this congregation, we are testifying to our faith – that we trust in God, that we believe that God has always and will always give us more than enough: more than enough to sustain us, and more than enough to share with the world.
And the more we do these things – praying for those in need, reaching out our hands to our sisters and brothers, giving generously of what we have to partner with God in the work of the kingdom – the more we do these things, the more we will find that we are well-prepared for the future because no matter what happens, Jesus is with us to bless us and sustain us.
We didn’t get stranded in Hartford on Wednesday evening. Peter Pan held the bus. But even if they hadn’t, we would have been okay. With the help of God (and maybe the help of a few human agents of God), we would have figured it out. My moments of anxiety were unnecessary, unhelpful, and unhealthy – physically and spiritually. So let me take this opportunity to testify to you (and to myself): whatever the future holds, we are safe and secure in the care of the one who has pledged that not a hair of our heads will perish.