WHAT WE DO WITH THE PAST
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church September 12, 2021
Deuteronomy 32: 28-39; Mark 9: :33-37
Remember those old photographs? The ones that tell us how it used to be? Some were in sepia tones; the newer ones are in color, though faded. Those old photos tell us of how it used to be. What was it like then? Depending on the year you’re talking about, it was a time of war, a time of peace. When we see the old photos, we become nostalgic – sometimes for a time that never was.
If you listen to the old timers here, they’ll tell you about the time before Route 35 swung around Kings Highway, before the Parkway was built, before the developers began buying out the farmers and building their McMansions that dot the landscape. Some of the more nostalgic will tell you that it was better back then because people knew each other and cared about each other. They will hearken back to a time that was different because the world was different.
Nostalgia is like recalling the fun without reliving the pain. Over this past week, as we approached the 20th anniversary of 9-11, we found ourselves caught in both nostalgia and grief. Nostalgia for the way we thought the world was, and grieve for how it actually turned out to be. Caught in an imagined idyllic past, we are never prepared for the truth of events that transpire. Nostalgia becomes our weak attempt to create cause and effect as we imagined it must have happened.
Although the sentiment we call nostalgia is probably as old as the human race, the word nostalgia is of relatively recent origin, coined by a Swiss medical student from two Greek words nostos, meaning to return home and algia, or pain, to describe the deep depression that Swiss mercenaries of the late seventeenth century experienced when they left their mountain homes.
It is more than our desire to stay with the familiar and to hold onto what we know. Its power is precisely in that what we miss is irrecoverable, whether it is our youth, a time past, or our desires. In our post 9-11 world there is a similarity between the despair of the Jews when their world collapsed and the despair in the post-Christian western world today. Some still see the value system of our world similarly collapsing, taking with it the ordered life of society.
A common definition of what constitutes good and evil has disappeared. As the values of yesterday weaken, a war between the needs of the individual and the needs of the corporate world is fought out politically. Like the people of Judah 2600 years ago, we were also ripped from our past and we do not yet comprehend what the future holds for us.
Because we are not aware of exactly when the disconnect between our imagined past and present occurred, we create straw men who can then be knocked down. We have awakened in a void in which we no longer know who we are, who God is, and what values, if any, are eternal.
Whenever an old order dies, anger is loosed upon the whole society. I think that is the meaning of the national mood today. We wonder if God has died. Certainly the God defined by yesterday's world has lost power, but does yesterday's definition exhaust the reality of God? God is never bound by our human definition, nor is God ever limited by those who claim to speak for God.
To identify God with one's understanding of God is idolatry. We hear that idolatry expressed today in much of the nostalgia for the “time before” – name your time. It doesn’t matter if it’s the time before the Lord’s Prayer was prohibited in public schools or the horrific event whose anniversary we commemorated yesterday. The idolatrous God who is dying and the anger surrounding that death now infects both church and state alike.
As Christians, we called to put away our nostalgia for the past because it operates on a false premise and we are challenged to face the future boldly because the spirit of God that was in Jesus of Nazareth calls us to break through the old barriers of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability, as well as categories we haven’t even yet considered. It’s important not to let our memories of those who died twenty years ago become infected with nostalgia for a time that did not exist. That will do their memories no service. We owe it to those who died determination – a strong and fierce determination that we will use the lessons of the past well to live faithfully and boldly into the future.
Let us pray: Eternal Guardian, God of our past and God of our future, help us as a people to discern how we should live and to develop the courage to live such lives. We ask this in the name of him who came to open a new vision of your love, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.