September 12, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

1 Timothy 1:12-17 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
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Sermon: No Time for Nostalgia
I believe it was George Bernard Show who said: If you must hold yourself up to your children as an object lesson, hold yourself up as a warning and not as an example.
Perhaps that is what Paul is doing today in his letter to Timothy:
I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy … so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
Paul does not have a very nostalgic view of life – his focus is not on the past, but on the future.
The Bible has this strange contradiction of on the one hand telling us to remember, and on the other hand telling us not to look back. In the book of Deuteronomy we read a number of commandments that are reinforced with the call to remember:
If a member of your community is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free.. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you. (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)
You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 24:21-22)
On the other hand, we read in Luke that when someone says to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus responds “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
The thrust of the Gospel is that God is setting before us a new way, and walking in that way requires we turn around and turn our backs on the old ways. Jesus puts it slightly differently in this passage:
No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. ( Luke 5:38)
We call ourselves Christians, yet how do we see our religion, how do we see our faith, how do we see our church? Is our church an institution that attracts us because it is bold in proclaiming a new future, or does it attract us because it is comforting in protecting a familiar past? Is it a church which fills us with eager expectation for tomorrow, or does it nurture a warm nostalgia for days gone by.
A few hundred years ago the word nostalgia was actually a medical term describing a syndrome of sadness, a melancholy mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land. According to the Swiss doctor who first identified the syndrome, sufferers took on a lifeless and haggard countenance, became indifferent to their surroundings, confused past and present, and even hallucinated voices and ghosts.”
Harvard Professor Svetlana Boym, who wrote a book entitled The Future of Nostalgia, tells that doctors once prescribed such remedies for nostalgia as purging, opium, leeches, and "warm hypnotic emulsions." This was before Barry Manilow music.
Boym notes that what was once a "passing ailment" has turned into "the incurable modern condition," "The twentieth century” she writes, “began with a futuristic utopia, and ended with nostalgia."
But Boym, as you expect a Professor at Harvard to do, distinguishes between two kinds of nostalgia – a nostalgia that reflects on the past and a nostalgia that seeks to restore it.
She sees reflective nostalgia as a positive force: "You don't deny your longing, but you reflect on it somehow; It helps us explore our experience, and can offer an alternative to an uncritical acceptance of the present."
In contrast, Boym sees danger in "restorative nostalgia," which "is not about memory and history but about heritage and tradition. It's often an invented tradition--a dogmatic myth that gives a simplified and glorified version of the past.
The Nazi’s had a restorative nostalgia in the destructive drive to return to a pure Germanic society uncorrupted by foreign influences, especially by Jews. Islamic fundamentalists have a restorative nostalgia, wanting to return to some ideal time of pure Islam before Western Culture and the great Satan, the United States of America, polluted it. And white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh and various militias and survivalist groups around this country also want a return to a past that never was, a golden age when there was religious and ethnic uniformity and America was united in a sense of community undefiled by people of color and non-believers.
On a slightly less pernicious level, restorative nostalgia can be seen in the rhetoric of return to a Christian America, losing sight, as another preacher said, of the fact that
…from the beginning there were Jews and Africans brought as slaves, not to mention Native Americans, living here; that the "Christian commonwealth" quickly splintered into a number of sects; that there were always non-believers; that Catholics soon arrived; and that the founding "fathers," while nominally "Christian," were mostly a bunch of deists and intellectual radicals who feared the marriage of church and state and who would have abhorred the kind of Christian fundamentalism which rules the day and yearns for a return to a past that never existed.
The remembering the Bible commanded was never a desire to return to a former time; In fact, it specifically reflects on the urge and rejects it:
Psalm 42 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God… My tears have been my food day and night; these things I remember: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
The Psalmist cries with bitter remembrance of a better time, yet realizes that God is not found in remembrance but in hope – not in the recollection of the past, but in a vision of the future.
It’s so important that we develop a faith that is suited to the future, that we prepare our children to live in a world we don’t know and can’t visit – but it’s out there and it will be their world.
Our religion can remember the past, but there is no room for nostalgia. God speaks to us not out of the shadows of history, but in the bright light of this present moment. If we want to hold up the past, let us do it as Paul did, as prelude to the experience of the grace of God in the here and now and as a sure sign of God’s waiting for us in the future.
If there is time, let me end this sermon with a final quote, this time from a famous American theologian, Dr. Dolly Parton, who wrote a song entitled: Tomorrow is Forever:
Take my hand and walk with me
Out of the past of yesterday
And walk with me into the future of tomorrow
Yesterday must be forgot
No looking back no matter what
There's nothing there but mem'ries that bring sorrow
I care not for yesterday
I love you as you are today
Yesterday just helped to pass the time while waiting

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