The Direction of Nostalgia

The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan preaches at Sunday ServicesSermon by the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister, Memorial Church, March 21, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O God. Our rock and redeemer. Amen.

About two weeks ago Claudine Gay, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was interviewed by The Crimson. She shared that she thought it was likely that students, faculty, and staff would be back on campus in the fall. When I read that my heart unclenched just ever so slightly.

And since then, I have found my mind wandering to places that I had deemed off limits for months. Yearning for those people and places I have not been able to visit. Perhaps this Thanksgiving I will be able to sit with my extended family around the large round dining room at my parent’s home in Vermont. Perhaps we will be able to get on a flight to visit my in-laws in Colorado.

My son Henry will stop calling his grandmother “Nana iPad.” Perhaps I will be able to roam through the aisles in a grocery store without the fear that I have been lingering too long. Perhaps I can resume one of my favorite morning traditions of walking around with a big mug of coffee.

Perhaps I can rediscover what it means to be washed over by the University Choir’s transcendent singing. What is means to catch the glimpse of the holy in the midst of worship.

I also found myself yearning for experiences that I have not even had yet. Perhaps my son will be able to play with other children and go to school for the first time. Perhaps I will be able to hug my new nephew. We live just a few miles away, but I have missed watching him grow up the first year of his life.

I suspect that I am not the only one longing for some semblance of normalcy or familiarity of routine. One infuriating element of this pandemic is that we feel at the whims of its violent capriciousness.

This pandemic has been monotonous, relentless, and devastating. Over 525,000 Americans have died. And we still do not know how this story ends. There is no comfort of a clear narrative arc-- a tidy beginning, middle, and end. This is no Hero’s Journey.

News about the vaccines is encouraging to be sure, but so much remains unclear about the trajectory of this pandemic as we learn about new waves and emerging variants. We still do not know when children will be able to get vaccinated. This leads us to more uncertainties, more unknowns, and no definite timeline.

In our first lesson for today read by Sally Hammel. The prophet Jeremiah is speaking to a people who are nostalgic for the old days, looking for the familiar, hoping to get back to normal. They have been living through one of the most turbulent and catastrophic moments in ancient Israel’s history, the Babylonian Exile.

The Hebrews have been expelled from Jerusalem and they are in exile. Their lives have been uprooted. Daily existence is hard and unpredictable and dangerous. They do not know if and when they will be able to return home. Understandably they long for the way things were.

Yet, when Jeremiah imagines a time when the Hebrews will have returned to Palestine he says, in essence, that "normal" and "familiar" are not enough. He declares that God is establishing a new covenant with the people of Israel in which — “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”

We would be amiss if we did not remember that many Christians have historically interpreted this passage in Jeremiah in supersessionist terms by claiming that Christians are the sole inheritors of this promised new covenant.

Here, however, Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant does not replace the standing covenant between God and the people of Israel — the one given to them by Moses during their exile from Egypt. Rather, it is a reformulation of what is already established. The newness of this covenant is not in its content, but its internationalization.

Theologian Karl Barth translated the promise this way: “I will put my law in their inward parts and write it on their hearts.”

The law remains a key point of continuity between old and new. The teachings of God will no longer be limited to what is written in the Torah, but will be written upon the hearts of all God’s children.

Our relationship with one another is not based upon a hierarchy of moral purity.

Rather, in this new covenant the mercy that God extends to humanity is to undergird the graciousness we extend to one another. The orientation of our hearts and the direction of our actions align.

Jeremiah’s prophecy is an invitation in which God calls us forward, rather than backward. The nostalgia for the good old days is nothing compared to what God has in store for us. We are called to so much more.

As we have tried to find our way during this pandemic, many of us have sought comfort in our longings for the way things were. But as Jeremiah cautions the ancient Hebrews, I wonder if our nostalgia is leading us in the right direction.

In a recent Op-Ed from the New York Times, Leslie Jamison observed that “nostalgia is a sneaky curator… Yearning for the Before Times as a mystic era risks obscuring the ways in which the Before Times was really different kinds of before. Longing for freedom and safety risks forgetting that neither mobility nor vulnerability has ever been democratically distributed… Your nostalgia of the Before Times is in part a barometer of how well they were serving you…”

This pandemic has unveiled disparities for white people that so many people of color have known their whole lives. Our hierarchy of care is determined by wealth and not need, white supremacy is in the air we breathe, and racism has this nation in a chokehold.

Jamison goes on: "Pushing back against the syntax of wanting things 'to return to normal,' protests demanded, instead, an interrogation of normalcy itself, tracing the Before Times back to a much longer history of violence..."

Is it a coincidence that calls for racial reckoning has grown during this time of being sequestered? Or, by keeping us at home, has the pandemic forced us to face images or realities that many of us tried to escape previously?

In regard to racial justice, we do not want to go back to a "normal" that benefits a select few based upon the oppression of so many.

And, unfortunately, the oppression of racism is not just relegated to the past, it is the reality of our present day. This week there was a tragic shooting in Atlanta where eight people were killed, six of whom were women of Asian descent.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are being told that this atrocity might not be a hate crime, and the white man who committed these targeted murders has been described by the police as having a “really bad day.”

It is understandable that many of us long for the comfort and convenience of the Before Times. Yet there is denialism and danger within that longing too. To put it simply, in many ways the “good old days” we long for were terrible.

Is there is there a way in which we can go back to what we have known in the past and no longer approach them as normal? As something in need of transformation? Or, just as important, as a special gift to be seen and savored anew?

Much of what has been revealed by this pandemic — both good and evil — is not new to us. This time of isolation has reminded us how much we need each other, long to be in community, how our lives are so much smaller when we do not reach out. We don't want to go back to the "normal" go-it-alone tendencies of our culture.

Perhaps our new covenant is to live anew into God’s sustaining calling for us to care and love one another. An opportunity to embody our innate understanding that our being and wellbeing are inescapably tied to one another.

As Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” We want this covenant written on our hearts, for it to reside deep within us, as Jeremiah envisioned.

Harvard professor Svetlana Boym describes the distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia leads us to creating an idealized past. It is selective in its memory, often privileging one group’s narrative over and against another. Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, questions and critiques the very thing it longs for. We can long for those things we miss without apology if we are willing to, in her words, "interrogate the very image it longs for."

Within reflective nostalgia lies an invitation to seek transformation — to see the past anew, to seek change, or, when appropriate to appreciate anew what we have known in the past, which in itself can be a kind of transformation. Thanks be to God.