“Pilgrims and Watermelons”
“Thanks, nonconforming separatists!”
A reflection for Thanksgiving 2017
By Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
Based on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
As my sister and I approached becoming teenagers, my mother sought to inject spirituality into our thanksgiving meal. Gathered at the table with the food ready to eat, she insisted that before eating we each name something for which we were thankful. She asked my father to start, thinking he would set a good example. “I am thankful,” he started “that there is no watermelon being served.”
One of my father’s life-long jokes was that every Lent he gave up watermelon. And just like Lent, my sister tried to remind him “there’s no watermelon this time of year.”
“Well, that gives me two things to be thankful for.”
With that example, my sister and I gave lackluster answers.
The next year my mother tried a different strategy. “Before we eat, I would like each of us to name something that happened in this past year for which you are thankful.” Thinking she had stated the question in a way that my father would comply, she again asked him to start. “I am thankful that in the past year I did not have to eat any watermelon.”
I assume there was some sort of conversation between my parents before the next Thanksgiving meal. Once again the table was set; once again my mother stated we were going to each identify something from the past year for which we were thankful; once he again she turned to my father and told him he would begin. What was new this year was a stern look in my mother’s eye. “I am thankful, oh so thankful,” started my dad, “ that in the past year Thom has grown up so much that now he can be first to name his thanks.”
I don’t recall my mother ever again presenting that particular Thanksgiving exercise.
Despite his snarkyness, I know my mother loved my father. I know she appreciated his humor, even when it came to finding ways to bend every one of her requests, even when it frustrated her intentions.
Every year as we near Thanksgiving, I struggle. Thanksgiving is not a one-day holiday: in its truest sense it has very little to do with a larger-than-normal meal. Thanksgiving is an attitude toward God, a response to God’s grace in our lives, and is something we should practice with regularity.
We’ve created this cultural myth of Pilgrims inviting Native Americans to a meal at which they gave thanks. Did you know there were twice as many Native Americans as there were European Pilgrims at that meal? Of the 102 Pilgrims that had left Europe on the Mayflower, only 46 survived that first winter and first year to mark the anniversary of their arrival. The other 56 died from disease, cold, and starvation. Consider the irony of the traditional Thanksgiving Meal and the historical reality of starving pilgrims. Consider how different our pictures should look as the represent the meal shared by 46 European pilgrims and 91 Native Americans.
As I pointed out in our Reformation Roots study, the first Thanksgiving for these Pilgrims was not on this continent. The night before they boarded the Mayflower to depart Amsterdam in 1620, their congregation gathered for a farewell banquet. Their congregation was splitting: some were heading to North America, but most were staying in Europe. At the dinner table, their pastor delivered a sermon imploring them to pay attention to God’s ongoing message, because “the gospel has yet more light to shine” than what any of us has seen.
So that November Thanksgiving meal in Plymouth Colony almost 18 months later probably held echoes of the thanksgiving meal in in Amsterdam, and those pilgrims probably reminded one another of the sermon they heard before disembarking.
I wonder if they also reminded one another how they took the name “pilgrim”? Before they left England in 1607 – yes, I am moving backwards through time – they preferred the name “congregationalist.” That represented their belief that discerning God’s will happened within the congregation who prayed together, who studied God’s word together, who discerned together what God was calling them to do and be. When they discerned they could not remain faithful to God while living in England, they changed their name to pilgrims: people on a journey of faith seeking God’s presence.
In Europe there had been traditions of pilgrimages going back centuries. We still recognize the names of major pilgrimage sites: Notre Dame, Chartres, Lourdes, Santiago, Prague, Rome, Canterbury, Glastonbury – places to go to observe evidence of God at work in the world. So these English Christians of the early 1600’s took that name, claimed that heritage to describe what they were doing: leaving the familiar in order to find God in unfamiliar places, to seek God how God was working outside the established structures of church and society so they could join with God in God’s saving work. They had to separate from a church where they could no longer conform to worship and prayer practices in order to seek God and live according to how God was at work among them.
This was not a private enterprise: these activities of discernment, prayer, worship, study of scripture occurred within the congregation. They had to be the church together in order to follow God together.
If this year my mother were to ask me for what I was giving thanks, I would reply “For the heritage of pilgrims which inspires us to continue seeking God’s will, which challenges us to consider to what portions of the church we can conform and to what portions of the church we cannot conform, and which calls us to do the work of faith as a congregation rather than as individuals. Those are big ideas, but it is why I give thanks this year.
Oh, and I’m also thankful there is no watermelon being served.