“The Way of the Pilgrims”

November 20, 2011


Joel 2:21-27

Matthew 6:25-33


We in the United Church of Christ have long regarded Thanksgiving as “our” holiday—claiming the Separatist Pilgrims as our ancestors in faith. Like the Puritans who came to this land in greater numbers, the Pilgrims were Congregationalists. To this day, we call our church publishing house “The Pilgrim Press” and UCC congregations with names like “Mayflower,” “Plymouth,” and “Pilgrim” are found throughout our nation. (When I think about it, however, I can’t recall hearing of even one “Puritan” United Church of Christ—somehow that just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?)

As a harvest festival, Thanksgiving is a time to recall the blessings of the growing season now past. It harkens back to our agrarian roots as a country. Once, in a time unknown to a growing number of us, we looked at the gathered crops and prepared for the hardships and privations of winter. Now, with strawberries on sale year round and an abundance of food available 24 hours a day seven days a week, it’s hard to say when the harvest begins or ends. And while the days can be short and gray, even winter is hardly what it used to be, what with skiing and vacation trips to Florida.

Still, we take the lead of those Pilgrims and look at our lives, look back on the year now closing, and give thanks.

As a religious observance, Thanksgiving tells us to give thanks to God for all we have received. And for most of us here today that’s quite a lot of stuff, isn’t it?

If Thanksgiving were simply about “counting our blessings” it might be easy. In spite of the current economic turmoil in our country and in the world, we live in the wealthiest nation in history. Compared to the rest of the world, we, the 99%, are the 1%. To an extent that most of the world cannot imagine, we do not need to worry about what we will eat, what we will drink, or what we will wear. All these things have been given to us. Even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as we are.

I need to be clear about what I’m saying here, because often clergy are not. Having “things” is not bad in and of itself. We should receive the good that God provides, enjoy the fruits of our labor, and be prosperous people.

All too quickly, however, we can move from the position of faith in God that says “all I have, I have received from God” to the faith in ourselves that claims: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

And that’s a pretty appealing affirmation, isn’t it? After all, most people in this city work hard and we work long hours. We expect great things from ourselves and for ourselves. We save. We make good investments. Isn’t it just a little healthy self-esteem that announces: “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth?”

This, then, is the great danger of Thanksgiving in prosperity. It easily lapses into idolatry.

Scripture reminds us that the danger of forgetfulness always lurks amidst prosperity. We forget, even though we sing the words each week, that it is God from whom all blessings flow.

Prosperity is a danger.

And this morning we are reminded of another danger as well.

God speaks through the prophet Joel: “I will repay you.” I owe you one.

These are not words for prosperous people. They were spoken to people who suffered an incredible agricultural disaster: a plague of locusts that was described as “a nation with lion’s teeth.”

What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten.

What the swarming locust left the hopping locust has eaten.

And what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.

We can recognize this as a description of our lives as well: devastated relationships, dreams and ambitions that have been cut down, values and principles threatened and compromised.

Adversity endangers our thanksgiving in a way different from prosperity.

The temptation is to descend into despair, to succumb to bitterness, to let a materialistic view of life lead to anger or hopelessness.

In faith, we claim that even in the greatest adversity, when God seems silent or absent, God is still at work in the world and in our lives. In a world that moves toward death and despair, we turn in the direction of life and hope.

Thanksgiving is a genuine possibility. Even in adversity it is a choice we can make. Through tears of grief, with financial woes, with worries about health and concern for the future, we can choose to give thanks to God who is our strength, who is even now opening new possibilities for life.

“I will repay.” God says.

The people had been put to shame.

Guilt is no longer our problem as it was for people in the Middle Ages. Our problem is shame. We know how to handle guilt.

But shame flattens us. Shame tells us to worry about what other people might think.

If shame flattens us, salvation is the ability to stand up, to live dimensionally again. Jesus the failure rises again, saying “No” to shame and death, saying “Yes” to life.

To people who are devastated, broken, weary comes the promise: “You shall never again be put to shame.”

The prophet Joel sets our eyes on the horizon of the future. Listen as he calls the people to look toward God’s future when they would once again be filled and satisfied. Listen as he call you to look in that same direction.

All of this actually brings us back to the Pilgrims and their Way—because the Way of the Pilgrims looks forward.

As I said, we Congregationalists have long regarded Thanksgiving as “our” holiday. Perhaps what we can learn most from our Pilgrim ancestors is not simply their “Thanksgiving” but the Pilgrim readiness to move forward in faith into an unknown and uncertain future.

William Bradford, wrote of their departure from Lyden in the Netherlands: “So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near 12 years. But they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”

When they finally arrived in the New World, even in the face of illness and death, they did not turn back.

The Pilgrim way moves us always forward. We trust in God for the present day—with all its trouble and opportunity—and look toward God’s promised redemption in the future.

Thanksgiving calls us to gratitude. But even more, the way of the Pilgrims calls us to live courageously in the present and with hope toward the future because all of time is held in God’s hands.

This Thursday let us stop and reclaim a little of our common humanity—our citizenship in a world of great pain and simple joy. Let us laugh at the little things that continue delight. Let our hearts be gladdened by the simple presence of family and friends. Let us renew our commitments to this world, this life, these times so that coming generations might give thanks for our stewardship of the gifts we have received.

Let us give thanks:

That our prayers for peace may yet be answered

That our generosity is making a difference in the lives of other people.

That we can repent—we can turn in a new direction and seek the good of our neighbor and the well-being of all creation.

And let us continue on the Pilgrim way of thanksgiving as we move forward into God’s future.