“Memory and Hope”

November 23, 2014


Joel 2:21-27

Matthew 6:25-33


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 forgotten.

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 this week.

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 give thanks.

But there is something else—the future.

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 backward.

Perhaps what we can learn most from them is their readiness to move forward in faith into an unknown and uncertain future.

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 God’s hands.

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 cooperation.”

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 creation.

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 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.

[i] Inspired pg. 40.