Today, we had the privilege of welcoming a child among us. We heard her parents and godparents make their commitments to her. We all made commitments to help and accept and respect and care for her.
We, who are grown-ups here today, will almost certainly not see as far into the future as Francesca and the other little ones will. They are the representatives of the future among us.
Our job is not to see that future, but to prepare them for a future that we cannot imagine. Our responsibility is to help them to become people who are able to think for themselves, people who are strong and comfortable with who they are, people who are able to be compassionate and understanding with all of the many different kinds of people with whom life will bring them into contact.
It is our job to let them know that they can be anybody they want to be and know that we will love them still.
Many of us look toward the future and we shudder with fear for ourselves and for our children. We worry for ourselves and for them that the future will be ever-more difficult.
There are reasons to fear, of course, and reasons to be pessimistic at times. But, we here live better and more healthily and more free and in less danger than the vast majority of human beings have lived throughout time. And although we are subjected to the news of humanity at its worst all too often, we also know that these instances are the exception. That they are part of cycles of woe too often passed from generation to generation.
The radical American historian Howard Zinn was well acquainted with humanity at its worst. He wrote of the dark truths behind the morally sparkling mythical facade that hides the cruelty and selfishness of the history of his nation. And yet his own words are filled with hope:
“To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Let us teach our children hope.
Our responsibility to our own children and to the future represented by all children does not end there.
We are very bad at imagining the future with any clarity whatsoever. That lack of vision is represented by the image I chose for the cover of your order of service today. Where is my jetpack? Really. Where is my flying car? How about the robot who’s supposed to be cleaning my flat and cooking my supper while I am here?
Science prediction often turns out to be science fiction. Whilst we are more often wrong than right about what they future will bring, how we think about the future matters. It matters a great deal. Traditionally, religious people dreamed of the coming of a heaven on earth. My dreams have something of a different flavour.
I will confess to being a major fan of the greatest science fiction television series of all time - Star Trek.
I know that some of you may disagree with my characterisation, and in this place we agree to live with our differences and do our best to respect and understand other opinions. So, those of you who prefer Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, or anything else… Well - you’re just wrong. Sorry.
Star Trek was important to me and it was important to many people. It presented an image of a different kind of world - one where people of different nationalities and colours lived and worked together in harmony.
You may not know the name Nichelle Nichols. She was the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura. Nichols was the only black person on the command bridge in the original Star Trek series. That was an extraordinary thing, because it made her one of the first black women on a major television show portraying a character that was not a servant.
Well, the role of Lieutenant Uhura was a pretty boring one. She was basically a space telephone operator in a very short skirt. “opening a channel, captain”, “hailing them, captain”, “hailing frequencies open, captain.”
At some point, she had had enough and she was ready to leave the show. But then Nichelle Nichols had a conversation that changed her mind. That conversation was with a fan of the show - a fan by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. He explained that Nichols was in a unique position of showing children of all colours and kinds to imagine a world where blacks and whites were treated as equals. He told her that she was helping to create a different future.
Nichols stayed on the show and, indeed, many have cited her role as Lt. Uhura for allowing them to dream big and to do great things.
Gathered in this place, it is well to remember some of the gifts left to us by those who stood here before us.
In this place, Rev. Richard Price preached and agitated for the rights of individuals over unelected rulers. He supported the overthrow of the French royals and he sided with the American revolutionaries against the British crown.
And here, a young woman dreamed of equal rights for women in the 18th century. Mary Wollstonecraft helped to begin a wave that washed away legally-enforced men’s power over women, won the battle for universal suffrage, and that still flows today to bring about full equality for males and females all over the world. She helped to create the future into which Francesca has been born - a world where women dream not only of being nurses, teachers, and secretaries, but of astronauts, firefighters, prime ministers, doctors, presidents, and business leaders.
Mary Wollstonecraft did not live to see her vision fully realised, but she planted a seed that, watered by successive generations, grew strong. Like the biblical prophet, Moses, leading the Israelites toward the promised land, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr leading his people toward an end of American racist oppression, or Archbishop Oscar Romero inspiring his people in their battle for freedom from corrupt dictatorship, and many more, the prophet does not always get to see the promised land.
We will not see the distant future in which of our children and our children’s children will live.
“We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We may never see the end results [...]
We are prophets of a future not our own.”
Sounds a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it? We don’t need to be prophets who free a people or lead them to a promised land, but it is we who are building today the world in which those who follow us will live tomorrow.
To bring our attention away from the very grand prophetic changes, let us turn for a moment to something a bit less lofty. Let us think about sewers. London sewers to be specific.
In the 19th century, London was a very bad smelling place indeed. Sewage ran through open channels in the streets to flow, untreated, into the Thames. Besides what was termed “the great stink,” this situation became a tremendous danger to public health. Tens of thousands of Londoners were lost in Cholera epidemics.
Into this picture, came a man called Joseph Bazalgette, charged with constructing an enclosed sewer system for our city. When planning the sewer network, Bazalgette gazed into the future. He looked beyond the needs of his day. He took as his baseline assumption the densest population in London. He allowed for the most… prolific sewage production per person and from this, he calculated the diameter of pipe that would be needed to handle all this volume.
And then he thought 'Well, we're only going to do this once and there's always the unforeseen' and and he doubled the diameter to be used. The sewer system Bazalgette designed was opened in 1865.
Joseph Bazalgette died in 1891. He didn’t live to see Londoners living in tower blocks in a density greater than he could imagine, but his vision has meant that the sewer system he built copes with London sewage to the present day. Joseph Bazalgette was a prophet of a future not his own.
In every little thing we do, we are shaping the future in which our children and their children and grandchildren will live. What future will we make for them.
Will it be a future that is polluted or clean?
Will it be a future whose people are turned to violence because of poverty and injustice, or one where everyone has an equal chance and where no one is left out?
Will it be a future with many species of animals and plants known only in historical records, or one where the richness of life on earth is allowed to persist?
Will it be a future where climate change floods and bakes the earth, or one where our sacrifices today have restored a stable climate?
Will it be a future of fear or one of love.
What kind of future will we build for our children?
In the words of Walter Rauschenbusch, “May we bequeath to them an earth fairer than we found it; may they be granted a vision of the far-off years as they may be, if redeemed by us. Let us take heart, then, and build bridges for our children.”