The first in our Proclaim Series is a sermon is from Gary Mathews, who is the Director of Alumni and Church Relations at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He preached it last September on Theological Education Sunday at Grace Presbyterian Church is San Antonio. Enjoy!
Nostalgia: This Is Your Space, Not Mine
1 Samuel 3:1-10; Philippians 3:12-18
Someone once joked, “My alarm clock and I had a fight. It wanted me to get up, I refused. Things escalated. Now I’m awake & it’s broken. Not sure who won the fight.”
I’m not sure how many of you feel like that most mornings, but I can relate. And I bet most of us can relate to this morning’s scripture when Eli is ‘woke’ by Samuel. It’s a popular scripture passage and is often used for confirmation classes or others who have experienced some form of “call” from God. Let’s look at the passage again.
Three times Samuel awakes Eli who he thinks has called him. Samuel exclaims, “You called me, here I am!” Eli tells him to stop it and get back to sleep. After the third time, Eli says, “Knock it off. If it happens again, don’t wake me up…it must be the Lord calling you. Wake him up and say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And that’s exactly what happened. The Lord calls, again, and Samuel answers, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Students in seminary certainly relate to this scripture. Like Samuel, they have heard the Lord call them, sometimes repeatedly – we get many students in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s. They’ve often heard the call many times before. Then at some point they let the noise, the Eli’s of their world drift off to sleep. They listen….they finally listen and they say, “Lord, your servant is listening” and they discern God is calling them to a life of ministry. And so they come to seminary.
We often focus on the “call message” in this passage, and rightly so. I focused on it for much of last year’s Theological Education Sunday sermon. But recently, I found there’s another message that can be easily overlooked. The passage, as well as the one we read from Philippians, also serves as a wake-up call to God’s community. There’s the obvious wake-up call – Samuel literally awakes Eli not one, not two, but three times. There is also within this passage a figurative wake-up call from one generation to another. And in this case, it’s a wake-up call from the younger generation to the older.
Eli is old school. I know that phrase is cliché, so maybe it’s better to say, Eli is old church. As one bible commentator notes, “Eli represents the vested interests who are used to having their way, and who expect that the place that they have occupied in this present generation will continue indefinitely, even into the lives of their children, world without end. By contrast, Samuel represents those to whom no one ever listens, the people who are regularly dismissed as unimportant, peripheral, or out of touch with “the real world.” It is such people, the text shouts in whom the Lord delights in using as conduits for bringing God’s Word to the people.” (https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-1-samuel-31-20/)
It’s no accident that Samuel is called during the night. Eli is asleep. Eli is the high priest and he will be the second to last Israeli judge, with only Samuel succeeding him. After that, the country will be ruled by Kings. So maybe Eli is asleep because he’s tired after leading the Israelites for so many years. Maybe he’s asleep because he’s become complacent and it’s just habit. Or maybe he’s asleep because the work just doesn’t excite him anymore and he’s nostalgic for the old days. Regardless the reason, Eli is asleep when Samuel, the younger generation, is called by God to lead.
In just these short 10 verses, we learn that God is not always okay with the status quo. We learn that God delights in finding new conduits for bringing God’s word to the world. We learn that God can do that in as little as one night.
In our world though, it tends to take a bit longer to accept and give way to new conduits. It’s been at least 15 years since we started lamenting about declining church memberships and the increasing of nones and dones. For a long time, much of the church has believed that with a small tweak here or there we can return to our “good ol’ days.” We pine for, we become nostalgic for the way the church was “back in my younger days.” Speaking of nostalgia, I remember when I used to be nostalgic: I miss those days.
In the late 1600s, Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer invented the word nostalgia — combining the Greek words for “return,” and “pain”— to describe how Swiss mercenaries fighting in other European countries behaved. One report explains, “These soldiers were reportedly plagued by an obsessive longing for their homeland, which manifested itself in hysterical fits of crying, anxiety, heart palpitations, diminished appetite and insomnia.” They felt real pain because they wanted to return home. (https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8492/nostalgia-and-faith)
Dr. Neel Burton writes for Psychology Today. In one article he notes, “Today, nostalgia is no longer looked upon as a mental disorder, but as a natural, common and even positive emotion, a vehicle for travelling beyond the deadening confines of time and space.”
A vehicle for travelling beyond the deadening confines of time and space. However, many psychologists also warn, that when over played, nostalgia can tempt us to dwell in the past and make us ineffective in the present. Maybe that’s why Paul warns the Philippians: Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.
It’s a bit of a balancing act, not only for individuals but for churches too – finding the value of shared stories and life lessons learned in the past without being so tied to the past that we are ineffective, complacent, asleep, or we fail to strain forward to discover what lies ahead as Paul says.
A couple of years ago, John Hamm starred in a film called Nostalgia. I don’t know if I can recommend it to you. While I loved it and found it provoking and moving, a couple of co-workers I suggested watch it were not so glowing in their reports. So that’s a 33 percent rotten tomatoes from just our office.
The movie follows several story lines about nostalgia. A couple of those stories intertwine and all of them focus on the question of how does our tie to the past impact the present and the future. In the clip you will see, a brother (Will) and sister (Donna) are in the attic of their childhood homes. Both parents have died recently. The sister has asked her 20 year-old daughter, (Tallie) to help them go through the attic items.
Tallie: So how long am I going to have to stay and help?
Donna: Are you?…I mean…
Tallie: Well I was thinking I could go up to Kathleen’s lakehouse with her and Marie. They invited me, I could be back Sunday afternoon.
Donna: No, you can’t go sweetheart. You can’t. I’m sorry you can’t go, I told you about this…
Will: Let her go, I don’t care. We can do this on our own. I don’t mind, let her go to her friends.
Donna: Please stay out of this, this has nothing to do with you. (looks towards daughter) But we made an agreement and I just expect you to stick by it, that’s all.
Tallie: No. I, I, I will and I know…I know that it matters, it’s just hard for me to understand what this all means to you. I get that you grew up with it and that it’s probably always been here. There’s just a lot of it…and it takes up so much space. Space that we don’t even have, Mom. So, I’m just a little confused. That’s all.
(Pause, Will and Donna look at each other, befuddled)
Tallie: I mean I do like these uh… (picks up homemade stuffed animal)…these little grandma-y things. But, I don’t know…Being up here isn’t fun. And it doesn’t remind me of my times here. I actually never even came up here. So, most of this stuff is stuff I’ve never actually seen. I mean most of it has probably been where it has been since before I was born. (long pause)
So…this is your space, not mine. Um, but it’s really cool that you are both really into it. And I mean that I’m happy that I get to see you Uncle Will and that you flew here to see us. So…
Donna: Yeah. (Looks at Will) Me too.
Will: Me too.
Daughter: So, I’m glad you found these cool records (a box of vinyl in the attic) and if you come by some cool tunes, you can just send me the names and I’ll download them.
Daughter: But Kathleen keeps texting me. Can I go or not? (Donna nods). Thank you. (As she leaves the attic) I love you both.
“It’s hard for me to understand what this all means to you. I get that you grew up with it. This is your space not mine.” I don’t know that the filmmakers intended this scene to say this, but when I heard the daughter passionately tell her mother and uncle those words, I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s not exactly what Generation X and the millennial generation have been telling the older generations. This is your church, not mine. I get that it is what is important to you. I understand what it all means to you. I get that you grew up with it. But this is your church, not mine. Hello generation Samuel. And it’s probably too late for the Eli old church to be woke. God is calling a new conduit to be the church.
Although greatly behind the curve, I believe most seminaries have begun to see and understand this shift to the Samuel generation. Students arrive and are more like the daughter in the movie clip, or Samuel if you will, and less like the parents or Eli. Often it seems the seminary learns more from students than vice-verse because most of today’s students come to us with ideas about churches without walls, youth groups without pizza parties, congregations without prejudices.
Seminaries must learn how to help students learn to listen to, interpret, and proclaim the word of the Lord. At the same time we must help these future pastors learn how to examine scripture with a critical, historical, and theological approach, even amongst the ever changing norms and needs of each generation.
Here’s one way Austin Seminary is trying to answer the needs of the Samuel generation. At the end of this academic year, in May, we will graduate our first students in the new Master of Arts in Youth Ministry Degree. Students in the program learn how to be more intentional in leading young adults in ministry. Students gather on campus a couple of times a year for an extensive long weekend of classroom training. They also do lots of study together online. But the whole time they are working in youth or young adult related jobs at a local church. For three years they get to put their studies to work in a real world, practical setting.
Another example of the seminary listening to the needs of the Samuel generation is our 787 Collective, which is funded in part by a grant from the Lily Foundation. Named after the first 3 numbers in the Austin zip code, the 787 collective works with Austin-area congregations seeking to engage with young adult through creative ventures that deepen love for God, self, and others. Churches submit ideas for innovative programs they feel might connect with young adults. A key point is that these programs are not about increasing membership on church rolls. Rather, programs are designed to discover new and innovative methods for bridging Christian communities and young adults. Discovering ways that will transform both populations not simply for the 20th century church’s self-preservation, but for the benefit of young adults in our 21-century community, for the great pleasure of sharing the way of Jesus, and ultimately for the renewal and transformation of the Church. The renewal and transformation of the Church, doesn’t that sound like God’s call to Samuel?
Those are just two ways the seminary is answering the call to the Samuel generation. Or to use Paul’s words to the Philippians, ways that we press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. By the time we know all the ways, most likely it will be time for a new generation to be called while generation Samuel sleeps.
Remember the two words that form the word Nostalgia – return and pain. The good news this morning is that God’s kingdom offers us just the opposite of that. Through Christ Jesus we are offered a time not to return to, but a time we can look forward to with forgiveness from the pain of our sin. Knowing that, with great joy let us remember Paul’s words to the Philippians and forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. To God be all glory. Amen.