Pilgrims in a Not So Foreign Land – Rev. Alison Halsey

This Thursday we will be celebrating Thanksgiving.  The day we set aside to gather with loved ones, eat way too much, watch the Macy’s Day parade on TV, argue over how to prepare the meal, and try to survive our families. Those people with whom we have successfully gotten along because we have lived apart from one another but who are now all crammed together into our small homes.  We fall asleep on our couches watching football, and more recently we partake of the tradition of checking out the fliers to plan our black Friday shopping excursions. Someone once said, “Only in America do people trample each other for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they have.” Yes indeed, Thanksgiving is also the day to give thanks to God for the abundance of gifts God has bestowed upon us.

Nevertheless, it is one of my favorite holidays.  I enjoy getting out the tablecloth, the old china, wine glasses, and gravy spoon all inherited compliments of our grandparents. I enjoy baking pies with my daughter-in-laws and granddaughters the night before, I love the way the house smells when all the food is cooking, I cherish the tradition of foods served even my husband’s infamous jell-o cranberry salad which few eat. (He’s a midwestern boy!) And sitting around the table sharing our thanks warms my heart.  Indeed, we have been blessed.

But on the other hand, I find it a difficult day because I know many in our country or our communities are not sitting around such a table.  They maybe alone without family or friends, they maybe homeless and hungry (The New York Times reported last week that there are 137 thousand children in NYC who are homeless or living in unstable housing.), others may be imprisoned, or may be in mourning, or others who will be experiencing the day in sadness longing for memories of days gone by.  I still vividly remember a young woman at a residential treatment center where I worked as Chaplain.  Terry said she would peer into lit windows when she walked home from school and imagine what it would be like to have Thanksgiving or any dinner with that family.  She prayed that someday she would have such a family dinner in her home.

We who love Thanksgiving, tend to gloss over all which led to the first celebration. Let us recall just a little history.  One hundred and two passengers set sail on the Mayflower.  All but the sailors, for most of the 66 days of the voyage remained below deck, where in very tight quarters they ate, and slept and did everything one does to live.  If you have been on the replica in Plymouth, MA, you know it isn’t a very large vessel.  As you can imagine such overcrowding taxed everyone’s patience, the roll of the seas caused many to be seasick.  Problems with insects, rodents, boredom and homesickness taxed even the most resilient. On November 11, 1620 their ship was insight of land, but it took yet another 6 weeks before they could find an adequate place to dock the boat and begin their colony.  (And you think spending the weekend squeezed into your or a relative’s home with others a bit close.)  Then, as you can well imagine, setting up a colony as winter begins to set in created its own set of problems.  The winter was heart breaking and by the beginning of spring only one half of the original colony survived.

The Pilgrims applied the old skills they had learned in their homeland and were taught new ones by the Native Americans and fortunately the first year produced a good harvest.  In the fall of 1621 there were 20 acres of the strange corn, the seeds for which were supplied by the native people.  There was also a good crop of beans and squash, and an available source of sea food and meat.  According to history, Governor William Bradford declared a time of feasting and thanksgiving and sent out men to hunt for fowl.  They returned with enough waterfowl and turkeys to last a week.  Those who fished contributed large sums of cod, and the native people added five deer.  Ninety Native Americans feasted with the colonists for three days.

We tend to forget while they were celebrating, they were also reflecting on all which had occurred.  Life was difficult in this new world and would continue to be so, forty seven of their closest friends and family members had died over the winter, and they still mourned their deaths.   While life was looking a bit better, they were still uncertain about their future. The chill of the winter air was again being felt.

For right now, however, God had pulled this remnant through.  They had made it.  There was now hope for the future.  This first feast reminded them of God’s graciousness and made them more confident their settlement might endure.  They were in God’s hands.

In the Psalm read this morning the Psalmist invites us to join in praising and giving thanks to God, because God had saved God’s people during the time of the Exodus and delivered them into a new land.  “Come and see what God has done, God’s wonderful acts among the people.  God changed the sea into dry land; our ancestors crossed the river on foot, there we rejoiced because of what God did.  God rules forever by God’s might and keeps God’s eyes on the nations. ….  Praise our God all nations; let your praise be heard.  God has kept us alive and has not allowed us to fall.”  (Psalm 66:5-9) God’s faithfulness was assured by recalling God’s wonderful saving acts, and the hope of the community was restored.

This week we will gather around our tables, whether we are alone or with family and friends, we gather in all our humanness, with all our joys and all our sorrows. We will remember the past and Thanksgivings we have shared.  In our household rarely a year goes by when we don’t remember the year shortly after we were married when both sets of parents came to spend the weekend of Thanksgiving with us.  After getting the turkey prepared at some ungodly hour in the morning and after having survived two mothers tactfully trying to share the way they have always done it, Bill and I returned to sleep.  When we awoke an hour or so later, we discovered Bill’s father, since he hadn’t smelled the turkey cooking yet, decided he needed to close the door latch.  The oven was on self-cleaning!  We also recall all which has happened over the past year and for many, like the Pilgrims, it will be a time of painful memories.  For us, the last of those parents, Bill’s mom died this spring.

Huddled around our tables, wherever we are, with bronzed turkeys steaming   and delicious aromas wafting in the air we feel safe and secure.  We may block out the cold and the coming winter, however the memories of the past and our uncertainties concerning the future will be there with us.  Our lives are fragile, and they change – that is a constant.  There may be an empty place where a loved one once sat, or a very anxious boyfriend brought home from college or a highchair added to the circle. Who knows what a year may bring?

What we cling to when we grasp one another’s hands to say the blessing is the knowledge and assurance that God is good and because of God’s goodness, faithfulness, and love we have hope in the future. Yes, life happens but God has never

forsaken God’s people, and we can be assured that God’s love will go with us into the future. For God’s love is great and God’s faithfulness endures from one generation to another.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

We worship Thee, God of our parents we bless Thee;
Through life’s storm and tempest our guide have Thou been;
When perils overtake us, escape Thou will make us,
And with Thy help, O Lord, our battles we win.