Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Beast Called Nostalgia

In the words of the immortal Bob Dylan: You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance, You may be the heavyweight champion of the world, You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed, You’re gonna have to serve somebody, Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Bob Dylan probably never imagined that the lyrics to his song would open a sermon in an Episcopal Church.  And yet, there is a deep truth to be found in his words. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It’s a refrain that sums up the truth that, no matter what station we are in life, no matter how significant or insignificant we may be, no matter how powerful or powerless we are, there will always be something that demands our allegiance.  There will always be something making a claim on our imagination, on our time, on our very lives.  Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

We all know that feeling…the feeling of being torn between two competing things.  Whether it’s the persistent struggle between family obligations and the demands of our work, or the more religious struggle of learning how to choose the will of God over our own designs…all of us have known, or will know, what it means to have our allegiance tested, pulled in competing directions.  And it’s a terrible feeling.  Absolutely terrible.  Sometimes it’s the case that the things pulling at us, tugging at us, are both good and wonderful things.  But there simply isn’t the possibility of reconciling the two, of doing both things at the same time.  It’s a terrible feeling, an unfortunate dilemma, but a dilemma that seems to haunt us all the time.

However, in my estimation, there is something that haunts us more than anything, something that seduces our imaginations and holds them captive with a ferocity unlike anything else: the persistent need to look backwards, to remember the glory days, to wish we could go back to the way it used to be.  Simply put, the feeling of ‘nostalgia’ that keeps our eyes looking backwards is one of the most difficult things to shake.  And while we may think fondly about the past, the danger is when such a backwards gaze keeps us from living in the present and imagining a brighter future.  The word itself, ‘nostalgia’, has a deep and dangerous meaning.  It comes from the combination of two Greek words.  One word, nostos, simply means ‘homecoming.’ Harmless enough, I suppose.  But it’s the other word that is troublesome.  Algos, and it means ‘pain’, or ‘ache’.  Combined together, nostalgia isn’t just a sweet gaze at the good old days.  It’s the literal ‘aching’ for a return to the ways things were…an ‘aching’ to return to what we have deemed our truest home, regardless of the reality we are presently living in, and certainly regardless of the future set before us.  It’s an aching for the past that competes, as it were, with the claims of the present and the future.  And it’s precisely this kind of ‘nostalgia’ that Joshua confronted within the people of Israel.

Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.  Israel seemed to have a perpetual problem of looking backwards…looking back at what they had before the Exodus, even when life in Egypt was harsh and degrading.  We know from Scripture that the people of Israel constantly waffled back and forth between the God revealed in Smoke and Fire and the gods of their own creation.  Just recently, we heard the story of their complaints against God during the wilderness journey, that they would rather have enjoyed the food and drink of Egypt than the harshness of the desert.  And in a way I can’t blame them.  But that looking backward came with a cost: it prevented them from focusing on the miracle of salvation God did in their midst, and kept them from enjoying a deep relationship with their God in the present.  Ultimately, they were unable to imagine the good things God was doing for them because they were fixated on the past.

And this fixation on the past is what Joshua struggled against.  Apparently, his people were looking fondly on the past worshipping life of their ancestors, and became transfixed by the idols their ancestors created.  And this life, as Joshua pointed out, was ‘beyond the river’.  It was a life that was outside of the Promised Land, outside of the blessings God was showering down upon them, outside of the promised future God was creating for them.  But for some, this nostalgic turn was enough to distract them from what God was doing in their midst.  They ached and longed for what came before and were thus unable to discern what God was doing with them in their wilderness journey and in the conquest of the Promised Land.  And sensing that he was losing his people to such a nostalgic and backwards gaze, Joshua presented them with an ultimatum:  decide today who you will serve.  Decide if you will continue with the living God who is calling the people into something new and amazing, or if you will serve the old, dead idols of the past.  But know that I am moving forward with the God who is making all things new.

I think, in many ways, it’s much easier to be like the people who gazed longingly into the past.  The past is familiar.  It can be comforting.  We can rest on the achievements of the past without being burdened by the struggles of the present.  Ultimately, I think this backwards, nostalgic gaze is so seductive because it is something we can understand, something we can more easily understand than what God might be mysteriously doing in the present and in the future.  And my, how we love what we can control, don’t we?  In the exchange between Jesus and his disciples after his new teaching about his flesh and blood, a conflict between concrete understanding and the mystery of God became apparent.   When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? The inability to fully know what Jesus was doing in their midst was a compelling enough reason, for some, to give it up right then and there...to turn away from what God was doing in the very flesh of Jesus.  There was something else that called for their allegiance, and they answered that call and thus missed out on the wonderful ministry of Jesus.

But not all went away.  Turning to the remaining twelve, Jesus posed an ultimatum much like Joshua's: Do you also wish to go away? And though the disciples quite often got things wrong, and exhibited a kind of religious stubbornness, this time they knocked it out of the park: Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.  Despite their inability to fully grasp what God was doing in Jesus...despite their recognition that his teachings were difficult, the disciples were so overwhelmingly convinced that Jesus was the Holy One of God, someone worthy of allegiance because he spoke life in the midst of death, even though they weren't able to fully comprehend what those life-filled words meant.  Nostalgia for an older way of being religious, for an easier spiritual journey to understand...this sense of spiritual nostalgia was ultimately deemed insignificant.

So, what about us, disciples of Jesus Christ in our own right?  In what ways are we held captive by a sense of religious nostalgia, an aching for the way things once were?  Whether it is as individuals, or collectively as a parish, how faithfully are we responding to the creative energies of the Living God?  It certainly is scary, in a way, to entrust ourselves to the unknown future known only by God.  It's totally human to look fondly at the old days, or to relish in the comfort of the present, holding tightly to what we have right now.  But the thing about the God of the Bible is that God is always, and at every turn, calling us into something new.  This God sets before us a horizon of hope and heavenly rest, but the journey towards that horizon will necessarily entail some uncertainty and even some letting go of the best things of the past and present.  But what we ultimately realize is that there isn't anything better than what God has planned for us in the future.  So together, in this new season of Trinity on the Hill's life, lets entrust ourselves to the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life, serving him with all the faith we can muster in his promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us even when we can't fully grasp what he is doing with us.

You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody's landlord you might even own banks.
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Thankfully, we know who we serve.  And we've got a bright future ahead of us in his presence.

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