“Memory and Hope”
November 23, 2014
We who stand in the
Congregational tradition have long regarded Thanksgiving as “our”
holiday—claiming the Pilgrims as our close 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. While most Congregational churches have simple names like
“First” or “The,” you can find many congregations with names like “Mayflower,”
“Plymouth,” and “Pilgrim” throughout our denomination.
So it is appropriate that a
congregation such as ours should recall our history and share it with the rest
of the country.
Having come to the New World
for their own religious freedom, with winter approaching, the Pilgrims did what
all right-thinking Congregationalists would do. They held a festival. They
proclaimed a day of thanksgiving.
In the only existing description
of that thanksgiving harvest, Edward Winslow writes: “Our harvest being gotten
in, our Governor sent four men on fowling; that so we might, after a more
special manner, rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our
labors….Many of the Indians [came] among us…with some ninety men; whom for
three days we entertained and feasted.”
What a great celebration! It
was interracial, interfaith, international—a gathering of all types of people.
In our beginnings—as a nation and as Congregationalists—some of our best
impulses were shown. We did not think only of ourselves and those like us.
Religious freedom meant friendship with strangers who thought and lived in
their own ways.
Yes, others came here before
the Pilgrims. And many more came after. And over time they were almost
Historians tell us that “Prior
to the mid-1800s, Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the 1621 harvest
celebration, Pilgrims, or Native People. Thanksgiving started as a traditional
New England holiday that celebrated family and community. It descended from
Puritan days of fasting and festive rejoicing. The governor of each colony or
state declared a day of thanksgiving each autumn. As New Englanders moved west
in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they took their holiday with them.
After the harvest, governors across the country proclaimed individual
Thanksgivings, and families traveled back to their original homes for family
reunions, church services and large meals.
The Pilgrims, Wampanoag and
Thanksgiving were first linked together in 1841, when historian Alexander Young
rediscovered Edward Winslow’s account of the 1621 harvest celebration. Young
isolated the description of the harvest celebration, and identified it as the
precedent for the New England Thanksgiving.
Our course, in the 1800s,
battles between pioneers and Native People trying to hold onto their land
colored images of Thanksgiving. Images of Natives and colonists sharing a meal
did not fit with contemporary scenes of violence between pioneers and Natives
in the west. The association between Pilgrims, Natives and Thanksgiving became
stronger after 1890, when the census revealed the western frontier to be
closed, and the “Indian Wars” ended.
Historical inaccuracies abound,
but still, we remember the Pilgrims.
And while Thanksgiving give us
the opportunity to remember our ancestors in faith, it is also a time to
remember our rootedness in the earth and the goodness of the growing season now
past. We look back on the year now closing and give thanks. 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. That’s not so much the case
anymore, yet even in our time the days are short and gray and we still very
much feel the winter pressing upon us.
We look back and 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?
Of course a spirit of
thankfulness grows not only out of what we have but also out of what we have lost.
The novelist Andre Dubus, who lost a leg in an automobile accident, writes
about gratitude and its connection with other people. “We receive and we lose,
and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with
whole hearts whatever of life that can remain after the losses. No one can do
this alone, for being absolutely alone finally means a life not only without
people or God or both to love, but without love itself.”[i]
Those words help me with this season of Thanksgiving.
Perhaps the dried bittersweet branches that decorate many tables are fitting
symbols of this time when we are invited to “embrace with whole hearts whatever
of life remains after the losses.” Other people are essential to a life of
gratitude, which perhaps explains why the highways and airports are so busy
Life is fragile—we know that. How does the hymn put it? “Time, like an
everflowing stream, soon bears us all away. We fly, forgotten as a dream does
at the opening day.” Accidents happen, illness runs its course, bodies fail.
The fragility of life was a common theme in ancient literature. For all of our
progress, all of our focus on security, and all of our planning, however, the
fragility of life continues to be a part of our daily reality.
An awareness of this fragility can lead to fear and to envy. And yet,
an awareness of the fragility of life can also lead to a deepening sense of
grace—God’s care for creation, and for us, in our prosperity and in many
dangers, toils and snares.
Thanksgiving, then, is a wrapping
up, a feast of fulfillment. We give thanks for what we have. We give thanks for
those at the table—and for those who have left the table.
We look back, we remember, we
But there is something else—the
The sociologist, Robert Bellah,
put it this way: “Communities of memory that tie us to the past also turn us
toward the future as communities of hope.”
On recent Sundays, Randee
Fieselmann led the adult education sessions in learning about the history of
this congregation and the men and women whose actions helped shape who we are
even today. And those sessions have resulted in many of us wanting to preserve
the historical memories of the past fifty years here, starting around 1969,
when the last written history of our churh ended. This is not simply an
exercise in nostalgia however. Memories that tie us to the past also turn us
toward the future in hope. We have a past, but we don’t live in it. As we
recall who we have been, even more we envision what we want to become.
The prophet Joel sets our eyes
on the horizon of the future. After a devastating plague of locusts destroyed
all the crops and left the land desolate, Joel called the people to
repentance—to consider a new way of life before God. The past held no hope for
him. Instead, Joel called the people to look toward God’s future when they
would once again be filled and satisfied.
All of this actually brings us
back to the Pilgrims and their way. The way of the Pilgrims looks forward, not
Perhaps what we can learn most
from them is their readiness to move forward in faith into an unknown and
William Bradford, wrote of
their departure from 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.
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
The Pilgrim way, like the way
of Jesus Christ, 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.
Perhaps this can give us a new
meaning for Thanksgiving, which often gets a little stale. One person put it
this way: While we cannot predict much about the future, which is always
uncertain and unfolds in uncontrollable and unexpected ways, there is one thing
that we can say with a fair degree of certainty. That is that next year will
not be 1969.” Which is sad in a way, because there was a lot of good music that
came out that year—and I was young and had hair. But next year will not be 1969
and we cannot live as though it will be.
Our task instead is to live
courageously in the present and with hope toward the future because all of time
is held in God’s hands.
The world is not a closed
system of limited resources. Out of our faith and friendship with God we begin
to understand the world as an open system “created by God at every moment and
infinitely rich in resources provided by God for humans to exist and prosper in
The living God is the one who
governs human life. There are times,
when, against the odds, or contrary to what we feared, something good happens.
And in the midst of times of trial we are perhaps better able to see in Jesus
Christ the God who brings life out of death, who makes all things new. A
profound joy is possible even in the most difficult of times.
As we open our lives to this
God, we discover the abundance of life given to each of us that we might use
it, share it, and expand it for ever increasing numbers of people and all
The Pilgrim way is our way. The
Pilgrim way is one of thanksgiving as we move forward into God’s future.
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
Let us give
prayers for peace may yet be answered
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.