Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Easter – May 4, 2014
May God be with us in every footstep, Jesus be known to us in the breaking of bread and the Spirit touch our hearts in gentleness. Amen.
There used to be a clever little shop in Provincetown, Massachusetts called “Nostalgia.” There you could find things of the past that took you for a trip down memory lane and brought a smile to your face. There were autographed portraits of the great stars of stage and screen, martini glasses from the 1940’s, framed comedic scenes from the “I Love Lucy” series, long playing recordings (the 33 RPM’s) of the Big Bands, and much more. Sadly, due to exorbitant rent the proprietor had to pay, it closed.
The term nostalgia describes a sentimentality for the past. The word is a formation of a Greek compound—νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming” and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain, ache”, and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home.
Described as a medical condition—a form of melancholy—in the Early Modern period, it became an important metaphor in Romanticism.In common, less clinical usage, nostalgia can refer to a general interest in the past, their personalities and events, especially the “good old days,” often more prevalent during times of great upheaval.
Early on Easter morning, when Mary Magdalen and the other women found the tomb of Jesus empty, two men appeared and told them that Jesus was not there because he had risen. When they told the others, the disciples treated this news as idle talk. After all, women got very little respect in that culture. Peter then went back to the tomb to see for himself and came away amazed.
As today’s Gospel story from Luke begins it is later on Easter Day and we hear a conversation between two followers of Jesus, Cleopas and another who is not named. They are traveling to Emmaus, just outside Jerusalem when Jesus himself joins them. They do not recognize him.
I wonder if what keeps these two sojourners from recognizing Jesus is their nostalgia, the “good old days” of following Jesus and seeing all the great signs he did. As Jesus catches up with them on the road and asks what their sadness is about they tell him about the past—how Jesus was a mighty prophet and how chief priests and leaders handed him over to death and crucified him. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” But we had hoped…
They are trapped in their story, and their stuck-ness is what makes them unable to see the person standing right before their faces. They speak unreservedly of the prophet mighty in deed and word but it is clear that they do not believe in his Messiah-ship. And any hope that he would deliver them from oppression seems lost. They are stuck in the past, filled with defeatism and doubt, and no one can recognize anything in that state. So Jesus rewrites their story for them.
Recently, I have read a fairly substantial number of articles and blogs that address the state of mainstream churches, the issue of the decline in membership and lack of enthusiasm among the unchurched to engage with them. My own attempt at blogging during Lent waded into these waters.
The authors of these expositions bring much wisdom and insight to the table and pose some hard questions. Two reoccurring themes that I have discovered are that people looking for a church community want an experience that is authentic. They want to feel like God is present in the mix and that those who are part of the church act as if they really believe that. That they walk the walk, not just talk the talk, that welcome is genuine and all-encompassing.
A second common thread is that so many churches are hunkered down in nostalgia—not unlike the travelers to Emmaus. Often they are places that have lost life, are not growing, and, sadly, either don’t know what to do about it or simply don’t want anything to change. Their interest is primarily in the past, especially the “good old days,” and they are led not by the Spirit but by the “We’ve always done it that way” syndrome. This all seems to be exacerbated during times of great upheaval—both in terms of financial woes and loss of members. In that state of downheartedness and despondency, they have great difficulty in recognizing God’s dream for them. They are trapped in a past life.
As I read the Emmaus story this week, I wondered if there isn’t a parallel between this story and the church’s story. In our own lives and in the life of the church, we know what it is like to be immersed in darkness, to have our dreams shattered, to mourn the loss of something in which we had invested great energy and hope. We know what it is like to be overwhelmed by unhappiness and to feel totally abandoned. That kind of desolation and anguish can be both blinding and paralyzing. That’s the scene we enter in the Gospel today.
Theologian Teilhard de Chardin once said, “The whole of life lies in the word seeing.” These two companions did not recognize Jesus when they walked along the road with him because they could not see the possibility of resurrection.
Yet Easter champions the extraordinary, innate ability of those who have been made in the image of God to perceive the impossible possibilities around us and allows us to recognize the evidence of renaissance in the midst of our malaise. The whole of life lies in the word seeing.
It is significant that hearing all the things Jesus was revealing about himself through Moses and all the prophets did not seem to alter the mood of the disciples nor satisfy their confusion and doubt. What made the difference?
I think the answer is twofold: it was in the seeing—the recognition of Jesus who broke bread with them as he had many times before and it was in the sharing of that bread in community that their eyes were opened and they were able to perceive that a new day had dawned. We share that bread together here every week. That Blessed Sacrament is the sign in which we recognize and meet God’s presence and receive God’s life as a community of grace and hope. More than this, as we eat we are bidden to open our table and our community to others, especially those whom the church and society have historically preferred to exclude. Therein we find the litmus test of authenticity.
As we remain faithful to it, sharing not only this meal but every meal, eating together both here and at many other tables—something we know was essential to Jesus and the kingdom of God, we will want to see that we are not called to be a church that is stuck in nostalgia, that lives more in its past, but rather a church that embraces the life of the Spirit in its present and sees the hand of God leading it into our future. That future may require us to look at how we do church, how we engage our ordained and lay ministers, create and dismantle programs, package the Good News for the unchurched and dechurched, even how we manage our resources.
There is a clear difference between being faithful to the time honored and tested traditions we have inherited through the ages and allowing ourselves to be stuck in old models of ministry that, while effective for the church of our grandparents, may no longer work in the twenty-first century. And it takes wisdom and discernment to figure that out.
I know that as a strong and faithful community we will have the confidence and openness to do that, as on our Emmaus walk God continues to send us more and more companions reflecting God’s wonderful gift of diversity. We don’t need to look back. These are the good old days—and we live in hopeful expectation that there are many more to come.