We Are All Pilgrims

 

This is a sermon for Thanksgiving.  Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at the Thanksgiving Service at Resurrection on Sunday evening, November 18, 2007.  Folks from Grace Lutheran were joining Resurrection folks for this service.

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

Tonight I want you to think about Pilgrims.  At Thanksgiving time when we speak of Pilgrims we just have to think of the English Separatists who came to America from England on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock.  There is a church in Utica, New York, that was designed as a memorial to  those Pilgrims.  There are three stained –glass windows behind the altar, depicting the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock.  Another entire wall is covered with magnificent Tiffany Windows, thirty feet high.  They portray William Brewster delivering the first sermon in New England.  His kneeling congregation is dressed somberly in gray and brown.  Several men stand with muskets.  Maybe they are on the lookout for turkeys.  At the top, Tiffany angels smile approvingly from heaven.

But something is missing, I believe.  Nowhere in that large sanctuary (it seats 600), is there a picture of Jesus!  Nowhere.  Plymouth Congregational Church seemed to have been built to make saints of the Pilgrims.  We should never forget the faith and hope that they endured hardship for; to worship Jesus Christ  in an unrestricted way.

Other folks also depict those Pilgrims in a rather dark fashion.  Most of the Pilgrims were Puritans, and even today the word “puritanical” is not a happy word.  Some folks think of Puritans as severe, austere, rigid, religious fanatics.  Historian George Willison writes, they were “fond of controversy, and sharp of tongue, engaging in many a high-pitched quarrel with friend and foes alike…”  H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”

It is easy to dismiss people by painting making them seem entirely odd.  Here are some facts about the Pilgrims that aren’t often remembered:

They weren’t sullen and sour.  They wore bright clothing.  The loved to listen to music; just not in church.  The Pilgrims thought the organ and pianos and guitars and oboes wwere the “voice of the devil.”  They found choirs distracting.

 

Still, they weren’t monks or nuns.  They married early, often, and late; and produced lots of children.  They loved to drink – especially beer.

 

The Pilgrims were neither rigid fanatics nor stained-glass saints.  They were ordinary people with extraordinary faith.  They were, like most of us, on a pilgrimage, searching for truth and a closer connection to God.  Let’s take a few moments to think about what it means “to be  Pilgrims, “ both in the 1620’s and today.

To be a Pilgrim means having the courage to act on your commitments.  The Mayflower Pilgrims’ courage was clear when they left Holland.  This little band, described by William Bradford as “seventy menfolk and women, 32 good children, a handful of cocks and hens, and two dogs” had no illusions about the dangers that lay ahead of them.

In his historical book, Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford discloses the colonists’ worst fear.  They expected “famine, nakedness, continual danger from savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous, being most ferocious in their rage and merciless when they overcome.”

Their chances for survival seemed slim.  It was late in the year for an easy Atlantic crossing, and too late to plant crops.  They had scanty supplies.  The men knew little about hunting or fishing – and less about fighting.  Still, as one of their spokesmen put, “It is not with us as with other men, whom small things discourage.”  The Pilgrims had the courage to go forward, no matter what it might cost.”

It took even greater courage to stay in Plymouth after they landed.  During the first winter, conditions were worse than they imagined.  There were great gray wolves, whose howls terrorized the colonists at night.  There was the “Great Sickness.”  Over half the Pilgrims died.  They buried their dead at night in unmarked graves so the Native Americans wouldn’t know how weak they were getting.  At one time only seven Pilgrims were well enough to tend the sick.

Yet, in spite of that terrible winter, none of the survivors returned to England on the Mayflower in the spring, when they had the opportunity.  As the Mayflower sailed over the horizon, the Pilgrims stood on the shore and wept.  Few expected to live until the ship returned.

Here’s a key to why those first settlers endured:  The Pilgrims had the courage to act on their commitments, no matter what.  The question for tonight is about us here.  Do we have the courage to act on our commitments, no matter what?

Tonight we worshippers represent two congregations, Grace and Resurrection.  We both know what it is like to be a mission congregation,  starting out with great hope that God will use us for mission, will prosper our ministry, will help us grow.  Both of our congregations also know the times of discouragement and  seeming at times to go backward instead of forward.  Here at Resurrection the founding pastor left abruptly after less than 3 years to accept a call to his home state of Arizona, the next pastor was here less than 2 years, and the third pastor was here five years and resigned abruptly to start a mission congregation in Richmond.  At Grace you have a wonderful new opportunity to grow and attract folks because of the bold decision to move to a leased facility in the Southpoint Shopping Center that is spacious and attractive.  We also know that you have stretched yourselves financially, believing that God has a plan in mind for you to grow and prosper.

 

In each of our congregations there have been and are some extremely dedicated folks that are part of the ministry for the long-haul.  While other less committed folks may come and go, thanks be to God for the steadfast, tenacious, won’t give up spirit that characterizes these folks in our midst.  They give inspiration to the rest of us.

To be  Pilgrims means sharing what you have, and turning thanks into giving.  The Pilgrims colonists willingly shared all they had.  During their first three years, all property was held in common.  At one point, they were down to five kernels of corn per day for food.  Still, they divided the corn kernels up equally.  And, the original group of fifty that survived the first winter shared their limited food with the sixty newcomers who arrived in the spring.

The Pilgrims traveled hopefully, with faith in the future.  They worked and struggled and sacrificed for something they believed in.  It is my hope and prayer tonight that we, all of us, will also give of ourselves so that our congregations can be even better servants of Christ than we already are.  I hope and pray too that we as individuals are heading for a Homeland too: a glorious homeland that we cannot earn, but can only receive through faith.  There is power when we live, not tied to the past, but as “strangers and foreigners” passing through life as Pilgrims, looking forward to, and struggling for, the homeland God has promised.

To be a Pilgrim is to have the courage of our convictions, to turn thanks into giving and to cling to God’s promise that the best is yet ahead of us.

Thanks be to God for this gift of courageous faith.  Amen!