William Bradford: “They knew they were pilgrims”.
Pilgrims journey. Pilgrims travel in a certain direction. Pilgrims hear within their earthly travels the echoes, faint but real, of lasting meaning. Are you pilgrims?
Thanksgiving at least allows us to pause and consider whether or not we are going anywhere. And so, even this holiday can become an opportunity for the power of God to change hearts. As Ernest Tittle well wrote, “It is not required of us to save the world. It is required of us to say what the world must do to be saved. The event is in the hands of God.”
In Plymouth, Massachusetts, anno domini 1621, that is in the second year of that community’s life, Governor William Bradford declared December 13, 1621 to be set aside for feasting and prayer. He meant for the pilgrims to look back a year, to give thanks, and to pray. Have you lived through a trying year? So had Bradford’s pilgrims.
During the winter before, 1620-1621, ONE HALF of all the original travelers had died.
William Bradford: “The living were scarcely able to bury the dead”.
Somehow, the rest survived. After a full year of struggle with nature and history and providence, on Bradford’s order they sat down for feasting and prayer, to look back a year and to give thanks and to pray. They gathered at table with their Native American neighbors—hosts, saviors, fellow pilgrims—and paused.
In 1621, the people of that little struggling pilgrim community paused, for feasting and prayer. The women of the community baked for days. The children turned roasted wild pigs on spits atop blazing open fires. The Native peoples brought wild turkey and venison. The pilgrims brought ducks and fish and geese—the provision of an abundant if harsh environment. Together they ate the meat with journey cake, cornmeal bread with nuts. For dessert there was pumpkin stewed in maple sap. They spent three days singing, and eating, and praying. And then they went back to work.
William Bradford’s Plymouth Rock pilgrims knew better than we do how unforgiving the world can be. Nature and History both. The snows of 1620 and the squabbles of 1621 ravaged their community, starved their children, infected their loved ones and nearly extinguished the candle of hope with which they had come to the New World. For the pilgrims had hoped to find a place, however rude and poor, in which freely to worship God. They very nearly did not survive. Yet they found, in that first Thanksgiving, a reason to be thankful, a feast fit for pilgrims such as they and such as we. And just what spiritual feast, what Thanksgiving Feast, did they celebrate on December 13, 1621 on the shores of the Massachusetts Bay?
Perhaps, in part, they simply celebrated safety. In their feasting they gave thanks for a measure of physical safety and security. Governor Bradford himself had reason thus to be thankful. He grew up on a farm in England, but was touched by the Spirit of God and began to seek religious freedom. First he fled to Holland, but then he finally sailed to the New World, at last to be safe from religious persecution. Yes, the pilgrims gave thanks for safety, though they knew it to be a passing blessing, an uncertain commodity.
You will not always be safe. The forces of nature and the iron necessities of history continue, random and raging and relentless. You cannot absolutely control what may happen on an airliner. Nor can you determine when and how the earth will quake. Nor can you predict or preclude, this coming Thursday, what your mother in law may say, as she passes the oyster dressing. Security is a great blessing, even our great blessing today, but not all in the world are so blessed, and not always are those now blessed ever so blessed.
William Bradford: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness.”
As Y B Yeats wrote, some people are bred to harder things than Triumph. As we know, some best people, are bred to truer things than success or even safety. No, a measure of temporary security alone did not create the first Thanksgiving feast.
Perhaps they also gave thanks for community. It is one thing to have troubles, and another to have troubles together.
In class this week, as we studied the Gospel of John, I asked my students where they think faith comes from. Then one asked the same of me. After 35 years of ministry, I gave a quick answer, and I believe a true one. Faith? “Faith comes from trouble. If you ask most people how they came to faith they will tell you a story about trouble. Faith comes from trouble.”
Perhaps our ancestors were thankful for company in misery, for community in trouble. Pilgrims share a common purpose, and so a community along the earthly road. Always this is reason for joy. Here is an odd definition: A solution is a problem that has been shared. And in the life span of every problem there is a point at which it is large enough to see and small enough to solve. Savor those moments! A problem is a solution waiting for a comrade. Harry Truman found two times of real joy in his earlier life, one in the army, and the other in the Senate, both because of the very real comradeship, the very real community of those groups. I have found in the covenant of the clergy, in the brotherhood of the clergy, when and where it has actually existed, a true, profound, unique companionship (a word by the way that has its root in the sharing of bread). We take our churches so much for granted, and yet, as the cultural sun of post-Christian America continues to set, and the twilight of the full 21st century approaches, these little lights along the shore stand out, every more precious. What a precious event it is when someone finds a church home to enjoy, and church family to love, a church community for which to give thanks.
William Bradford: “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled has shone unto many.” Beware a word or a deed, every so slight, that damages real community. Be glad for every real opportunity for an experience of shared experience.
It is ironic that Northern cities in which pilgrim virtues are regularly honored, are still so racially divided. Particularly our systems of education, in which we all participate one way or another, bear witness against us. We are sowing the present wind, to reap a future whirlwind, as segregation feeds prejudice and prejudice, hatred and hatred, violence and violence, death. Not one of us is innocent, nor can be, until a real community emerges, visible first in shared, not de facto segregated, schools.
Community, as all pilgrims know, comes with sacrifice.
For those aged 10 to 30, the sacrifice involves attention, the willingness to set aside singular forms of communication in favor of the singular beauty of communion. It involves the sacrifice of the blackberry for the beauty of the blackberry pie. It involves the sacrifice of the Facebook for the beauty of the breathing human face.
For those aged 30 to 50, the sacrifice involves time, that rarest commodity for young families. Time. Time in church and time in school, but time—in advocacy, tutoring, conversation, consideration of the common good. The generation of parental influence needs to invest time.
For those aged 50-
70, the sacrifice involves authority. Also a precious feature of life. Your generation is still profoundly ambivalent about authority, and will need to learn to sacrifice some freedom for the sake of order. Those of us of this generation especially need to grow into a realization that there is a place for authentic authority in order to build community. I challenge you, now that you are the generation of political influence, to recognize and accept the real role of authority in the development of any community. Once we accept the legitimate authority of others, we then are free to take on our own legitimate authority. The generation of political influence needs to invest authority.
For those aged 70 and up, another sacrifice is specifically though not exclusively required. Tithing begins for all on the front porch of faith. You learn faith by giving, by tithing. Community requires money. Now I know the objections. Any community will waste some money. But it is a question of whether it is money well wasted. Community is not a given. It has to be built and maintained, brick and mortar, and in the age of cyberspace, click and mortar. The generation of financial influence needs to invest in the future, in the community, in the pilgrim project by investing resources.
Along the wooden benches in Plymouth, 1621, the thanksgiving feast may have celebrated the power of community, but community alone did not create the first Thanksgiving.
Perhaps the pilgrims also gave thanks for life.
William Bradford: “Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.”
Yes, they gave thanks for life. As my grandmother used to say daily, “It is a great life and I am so glad to be living it!”
Yet, we know how contingent life is. We are so dependent, so fragile. Every benediction every Sunday is meant as a provisional, final word of blessing. We view ourselves as ‘temporarily immortal’. And then we are reminded. Often by an unbidden and unwelcome phone call in the wee hours of the morning. The day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night—unexpected, dreadful, and painful. So, yes, we give thanks for life, but life is contingent, dependent, fragile. Life alone did not evoke the prayer and feasting of the first Thanksgiving. Pilgrims they were, and not merely immigrants, who celebrated the first feast.
Pilgrims give thanks, not only for security and community and life, but also for Another Reality, what our Gospel calls the food that endures for eternal life, bread from heaven, the true bread from heaven, the bread of life. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In fact, none of these others would matter—safety, community, life– were it not for the Bread of Life.
People hunt for God in such varied and tragic ways. In temples and great buildings. In nature mysticism and love of grass and water. In wild activity—even on MTV one overhears a faint high pitched longing—GODGODGOD. In influence, position, intelligence. So men and women root around for God, usually under the guise of more culturally affirmed habits.
But in hearing of the Word today, we are accosted by The Bread of Life, and the news that God meets us, in person, to heal us.
The One who is The Bread of Life is taking us and translating us, out of our mother tongue of fear, and into the new idiom of ready forgiveness. You know it. When someone has really hurt you, not lightly but deeply. And hurt moves to anger moves to hatred—and then, by grace you find you can fully accept your opponent, and know that an adversary is not necessarily an enemy. That is spiritual translation at work, and The Son of Man is the translator. Pilgrims are thankful for the bread of life which nourishes spiritual translation.
The One who is the Bread of Life is investing in the whole dimly lit world, to show us God. This investment, to which we respond in a moment by presenting our gifts, our tithes and offerings, this is all we can know of God, for God is invisible both to our eye and to our mind. A true Thanksgiving Feast, the very Bread of Life comes to invest in us, to work beside us. Work is good. That is spiritual investment at work. Let us be thankful for such investment.
The One who is the Bread of Life is guiding us and uniting us, one to another. Once real companionship takes hold in your life, there is no going back. Another kind of thanksgiving feast today is calling us to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. That is spiritual unification at work. Let us be thankful for such communal unification.
The One who is the Bread of Life, against serious odds, is forming a body. Apart from what you may hope and I may think, the bread of God comes down from heaven and is forming a new creation, clean and shiny and happy and good. Life is a smorgasbord for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Thanksgiving feast guarantees it. Let us be thankful for the former and founder of faith.
The One who is the Bread of Life is leading pilgrims on, through defeat and bitterness and fear, through illness and discord and exclusion, through killing and conflict, leading pilgrims, like us, to resurrection. Let us be thankful for the one in whom we shall not hunger, the one in whom we shall never thirst.
The One who is the Bread of Life is reconciling to himself all things. All things. This is the peace wrought for us finally upon the cross, work done for us not by us. This is spiritual reconciliation at work. Let us be thankful for this Thanksgiving Feast of Spiritual Reconciliation. You too can develop a spiritual discipline against resentment.
Here is the Son of Man, the Bread of Life, our true Thanksgiving Feast: a voice of a divine presence, resident among us, a voice so equable and serene and assured; a voice among us as a lingering essence, a persistent and distinctive aroma—and nothing more; the voice of a Lord, to whom those at the original feast also gave thanks, who makes of us pilgrims, and of our wanderings a real journey. Who makes of all our wanderings a real journey….
Dean of Marsh Chapel