Sunday’s sermon: First Enemy of Gratitude: Nostalgia


Texts used – Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13

  • Today we embark on our stewardship sermon series for this year. So let’s talk a little bit about what stewardship is and means before we begin.
    • General understanding: stewardship time = fundraising time for the church → And of course, there is some truth to that.
      • Describe stewardship giving tree
      • More than just about money → We talk about giving of our time. We talk about giving of our gifts, our passions. We talk about giving of our hearts, our dedication.
    • But what I’d like to explore as we talk about stewardship this year is not how stewardship happens because that’s going to be different for every person. We all live very different lives. We have different gifts. We come from different circumstances. The ways that we give to the church are always going to be different. And thank God for that! Because each one of us – every person in this room – can be a blessing to this congregation and to God’s mission out beyond these walls in a unique and special way. What I’d like to explore as we talk about stewardship this year is the why behind stewardship. Why do we choose to give – of our time, of our talents, of our resources, of our devotion?
      • Simple answer = gratitude → We give of ourselves to this church because we are thankful for its presence – in our lives, in our journeys of faith, in this community. We’re thankful for the people here. We’re thankful for the mission and ministry done both in and through this church. We’re thankful for the ways that we encounter God here.
  • But sometimes, things get in the way of us both expressing and even experiencing our gratitude. And some of those obstacles – those enemies of gratitude – are what we’ll be exploring through the next few weeks.
    • What they are
    • How we may encounter them in our own lives and in the life of the church
    • How we can move beyond those obstacles to truly express and experience that gratitude again
  • Today – tackling our first enemy of gratitude: nostalgia → Now, I want to recognize right off the bat that nostalgia is tricky. I mean, who among us doesn’t love sitting down and going through old pictures, old yearbooks, old keepsakes, or old scrapbooks? It can be a powerful experience to look back and remember.
    • Put it this way: if nostalgia weren’t an often-pleasant experience, the U.S. scrapbooking industry wouldn’t be valued at $44 billion[1] (yes … billion … with a B!)
    • And I’ve had conversations with a number of you over the years about various reunions that you’ve attended – high school class reunions, reunions for various clubs/interest groups, professional reunions, etc.
      • Describe Sharon’s/Marsha’s GAC nursing cohort reunions
    • Nostalgia can certainly bring us joy, contentment, and even amusement in our “looking back” moments. But we also cannot spend all our time looking backward.
      • One of the dangers of nostalgia = rose-colored glasses phenomenon: looking backward and remembering only the good, ignoring the challenges/struggles/conflicts → And I think that as the church, we are especially prone to this. We look so fondly back on what I tend to call the 2 “golden eras” of the church – the 1950s and the 1980s.
        • 1950s:
          • Church attendance was booming after the end of WWII
          • Churches were expanding – adding on large education wings and office suites and building bigger sanctuaries
          • Time when “everyone went to church”
        • 1980s:
          • Churches were still pretty full – maybe not as full as the 1950s, but average Sun. attendance, even in small churches like this one, was still at or just below 100
          • Most churches still had a busy and well-attended youth program for all ages
            • Youth groups
            • after-school programs
            • Large confirmation classes
            • Full Sunday school for everyone – K-12
          • Sunday worship almost always included 1-2 songs offered by a large and vocally diverse choir
        • And sure, all of that was great. Would we love to have at least some of that today? Of course we would. But there were certainly ugly spots in those eras of the church as well – the prejudice and exclusion of the 1950s (all pastors were still men, and the vast majority of them were still white), and the over-emphasis on programs in the 1980s that led to an institutional belief in a quick and easy fix for whatever ails you. And each church had its own struggles during those times as well. But we don’t like to remember those struggles.
  • And we certainly aren’t alone in our reticence to remember those times. – today’s OT reading = part of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness after they’ve escaped from Egypt
    • Context: comes right after what we read last week when the Israelites’ were complaining about not having food → God’s answer: provide quail and manna
    • Basic storyline: people have wandered a little bit farther into the wilderness and set up camp at a place where there is no water (admittedly kind of a big deal when you and your family and your livestock have been walking through the desert all day) → people complain to Moses (again) → in fear and frustration, Moses cries out to God, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me!”[2] → God instructs Moses to take his staff (same staff used to turn the Nile River to blood and part the Red Sea) and strike the Rock of Horeb with it → Moses strikes rock in the presence of the Israelite elders and out comes water
    • Last week, I pointed out that there are basically 2 frequent complaints that the Israelites utter over and over again throughout their wilderness journey:
      • 1) “We wish God had just killed us in the land of Egypt. At least then we wouldn’t be here.”
      • 2) “Life was better back in Egypt!” … Life. Was better. Back. In. Egypt. Back when we were slaves. And mistreated. And Pharaoh was free to kill our children. But at least we had food. At least we had water! Life was better back in Egypt. → today’s text = variation on that – text: The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?” But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”[3]
        • Seems to be a pretty ultimate case of rose-colored glasses nostalgia – illustrates a powerful danger when we look backward and only remember the good: neglect to see the good going on around us in the here and now and even forget some of the good of our more recent history → At this point in their journey, the Israelites are only about a week or so out from their experience of God providing the quails and the manna. One week. And yet they have already forgotten. They have forgotten God’s provision and God’s faithfulness. They have forgotten God’s compassion and God’s protection. In a moment of need and panic, they have turned their gaze away from the One who rescued them from slavery, and they’ve begun to look to each other and to Moses for what they need.
          • Scholar: In slavery, every day is the same. There is something comfortable about suffering, because it is predictable. Freedom can be much more trying. Out here in the wilderness, when they have to depend on God, when they are in uncharted territory, there is no predictability. They wake up every day having to trust that God is going to lead them somewhere.[4]
            • Joy of their freedom wore off pretty quickly
            • All they are left with = powerful desire to survive → survival that they knew for so long, oppressed and threatening and painful though it was, was what they wanted to return to
    • But the Israelites could not go backward. And friends, neither can the church. This is where our nostalgia can get in the way of our gratitude. Like the Israelites, we look to times past. We remember the good. We want to experience that good again. And none of those are bad things! What turns our nostalgia sour in the church is when we try to go back to “the way things were” – when we choose to withhold our stewardship (in whatever form) until things go back to the way we remember them … But really, there is no going back. Only forward.
      • Same scholar: It is telling that this generation of exodus wanderers never makes it to the promised land, perhaps because their nostalgia won’t let them go there. Liberation and hope lie in wait for those who can stop pretending that the past was perfection and who can walk in faith toward God’s future.[5]
      • 7 last words of the church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” → extreme nostalgia leading to fear of looking toward the future with something new
  • Now, this is certainly understandable because new is scary. New is uncertain. When we try new things, we don’t know whether they’ll succeed this time. Or the next time.
    • Our Chocolate Affaire = perfect e.g.
      • Tried it the 1st yr → fairly successful
      • Tried it the 2nd yr → flop
      • But there is encouragement in that A) we had the courage to try something new and B) when it didn’t work quite so well the 2nd year, we were able to let it go. We appreciated it for what it was, but we moved on to something new.
    • NT text combats that unhealthy form of nostalgia by reminding us that we are a community, and that we find God together – text: Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.[6]
      • Goes on to remind us who Jesus was and what God has done for us through Jesus’ death and resurrection
        • Grounds us in the core of our faith
        • Helps us remember why we come to church, why all of this matters to us
        • Helps turn our eyes and hearts and attention to what God may be doing now and in the future
  • Friends, there has to be a balance in the life of the church as in any other aspect of life. We cannot move forward by simply forgetting our past and refusing to honor it because when we do that, we forget all of the people and experiences that have shaped us and made us who we are today. But we also cannot live in that past. We cannot go back there and recreate what was because we are different and the church is different and the world is different. And to be honest, I think that this is something this congregation is actually pretty good at – honoring those people and traditions that built us up while also looking forward and trying new things. We have one heck of an example in our decision to dissolve the yoke and try to go it on our own – a decision that seems to have made us stronger and helped us grow just in the last 6 months. So friends, I’d like to end with a question this morning – a question that I will ask with each sermon in this series on the obstacles or enemies of gratitude: How can we release our nostalgia and express our gratitude for what we are doing here and now? Amen.


[2] Ex 17:4.

[3] Ex 17:2-3.

[4] Brian Erickson. “Fall Series 2: The Enemies of Gratitude – Proper 21: Nostalgia” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 66.

[5] Erickson, 67.

[6] Phil 2:1-4.

5 responses to “Sunday’s sermon: First Enemy of Gratitude: Nostalgia

  1. Wonderful sermon! Insightful and we’ll thought out. Your words were a big encouragement to me as I often have reflected on how it used to be as far as church attendance was and all and sometimes grieved over the difference we see today. But, like you, I realize not everything was perfect then either and there were challenges. You defined that concern so well and, using the example of the Isrealites, made it all so relevant for our time– on the journey we’re making as Christians. We do have so much to be thankful for here and now. Oh, I’ll still wax sentimental looking back on the “good ol’ days”, but it’s “Onward Christian Soldier” to be sure. What a unique and timely message as we approach Thanksgiving! You’re a true vessel of the Lord Lisa. Right, a jar of clay, but the Message came through you and comforted my soul.

  2. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Second Enemy of Gratitude: Worry | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  3. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Third Enemy of Gratitude – Entitlement | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  4. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Fourth Enemy of Gratitude: Greed | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

  5. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Fifth Enemy of Gratitude: Disappointment | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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