Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“On A Boat”
Rev. Art Ritter
November 18, 2018
Ezra 8: 21-23
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him. So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Don McCullough writes of a Middle Eastern tribal chief who told the story of a spy captured by a general from an opposing tribe. The spy was convicted by a local tribunal and quickly sentenced to death. The general had a rather strange custom of allowing the condemned under his watch to choose between two options for their demise: a firing squad or facing whatever was behind a big, black door. As the moment of execution grew near, the convicted spy was brought before the general and the choice of the method was given: firing squad or big, black door. The spy hesitated for a moment and they quickly shouted out, “Give me the firing squad.” He was then led away for his execution. Moments later an aide came into the general’s office to get some signatures and the sound of the firing squad rifles filled the room. The general turned to the aide and said, “They always choose the firing squad. They always prefer the known to the unknown. It is common for people to be afraid of the undefined. But we gave him a choice.” The aide asked the general, “What behind the big, black door?” The general quickly answered, “Nothing but freedom. But no one will take the risk of such uncertainty.”
Thanksgiving is our holiday. With the exception of the Fourth of July, it is as American as a holiday can get. Thanksgiving is our holiday, a time in which the
spotlight comes closest to our tradition and our history. Those of us who are life-long or long time Congregationalists know the story by heart but many of you may not know all the details. As Congregationalists, the Pilgrims were our religious and historical ancestors. They were known as Separatists, who believed that mandatory membership in the Church of England violated biblical teaching. They held that believers other than priests should be able to reach and interpret the Bible for themselves. They lifted up the idea of covenant above creed and maintained that the church was not an institution presided over by a pope or king, but a group of like-minded believers whose sole authority was Christ. They believed that worship of God must progress from the individual to God not through priest or books of prayer. These Separatists broke away from the established state church and formed their own independent congregations. Some were jailed. Some lost their vocation. Other died from harsh conditions. Eventually some sought their freedom of religion in Holland. Later, as Englishmen, as people seeking to worship freely, they joined with those who sought a profitable business venture and boarded a ship bound for the New World.
We know the story of the harsh and difficult journey of the Mayflower, we know of the quarreling between the religious Separatists and business driven strangers, and we know of the journey that took them not to their planned Virginia destination but to Plymouth, Massachusetts, and we know of the need to establish a common purpose and commitment thus bringing the Mayflower Compact into being. We know the statistics if not the reality of the first harsh winter, that 45 of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower died due to the cold and disease. We have heard stories of the Native Americans helping the Pilgrim plant their crops and sharing agricultural information that enhanced the harvest. Of course we know of the First Thanksgiving, the feast to offer gratitude to God for bringing them through that cold and bitter year, a feast shared with the Native Americans, incidentally, a feast without pumpkin pie.
Yet much of what we know about the Pilgrims has been romanticized or perhaps even watered down to suit our interest and our needs. There is an awareness of them in our popular culture. Children actually study about them in school- at least I think they still do. Sometimes we see them almost as cartoon characters. We picture them in black clothing with buckles on their hats and shoes, who spoke in the language of the King James Bible, although none of that was really true. It is easy to take pride in what they stood for: religious freedom, bravery of commitment, originators of American democracy, and colonists who throughout their early years in Massachusetts maintained a good and healthy relationship with the Native Americans- and all of that was probably true. As good Congregationalists we name our churches and our fellowship groups Pilgrim and Plymouth and Mayflower. The Pilgrims are our people and we are darn proud of it!
But can there be anything more to our connection to the Pilgrim story than an historical reference? I mean, we can point at our Separatist ancestors with pride but does that resonate with anyone who doesn’t know the difference between a Methodist and a Congregationalist? Does that mean anything to those who don’t care about denominational labels and history? And if the most significant contributions to our Congregational way of life were made by Pilgrims four hundred years ago, what does that say about our vitality today? If we market ourselves as the Pilgrim people, what can we do to make certain we are not just marketing cartoon characters or meaningless historical references? How can we use our Pilgrim heritage to inform the way we worship and serve within our present community and inspire our faith and life into our future?
Last spring I had the pleasure of attending the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches Ministers’ Retreat. The resource person was Dr. Kyle Small, the Dean of Formation for Ministry and Professor of Church Leadership at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. Small spent most of his presentation talking about examples of Biblical leadership and about how the church is to do in a corporate way what Jesus did individually. But at a question and answer session at the end of his presentation, Small offered some thoughts that really touched me as a Congregational minister. He spoke about how we are living in a world of ambiguity. There are no certainties anymore. Each day brings the threat of a new unknown darkness. Meaning can no longer be found in infallible principles, conclusive resolution and guaranteed outcome. Meaning must now be found in the midst of ambiguous journey.
Small said that as Congregationalists, we have the perfect metaphor of how to live in such times and we have it right before our eyes. The Pilgrims! The historic Pilgrims got on a boat without many or any assurances. They didn’t really know where they were going. They didn’t know what they would find when they got there. They could only trust that they would end up somewhere near where they thought they were going. That kind of sounds like life today, doesn’t it? They got on a boat trusting they would have enough food and provision for the journey, knowing that they really only had enough for a couple of months. They got on a boat trusting that they would be safe, all the while knowing that there was a certain danger in an ocean crossing in an old merchant vessel, and after hearing stories of hostile natives who might await them on the shores of a new land. They got on a boat trusting in their neighbors; trying to live a private life with strangers hearing every noise on the other side of a fabric curtain; hoping that the different interests of saint and stranger would come together to form a civil society. Small posited that the Pilgrims were the best example of how one could live the life of faith today. The unknown is the normal today. We can’t always find certainty before we are called to proceed. Faith is now found in the journey rather than in the collection of facts. The Pilgrims were a boat people, living by faith while moving through uncertainty; embracing change by being courageous enough to trust that God was always doing a new thing. We are on that same boat, navigating our way through a journey.
As Congregationalists we are not to plant our flag in the ground and ask people to stay fixed in a certain place or make choices to maintain certain beliefs. We are each to live by our faith, embracing the ideas of change and uncertainty and journey, knowing that God will provide what we need when we enter a new and different land.
There are a couple of old adages that fit sailors, people in journey on a boat. One is that “A calm sea does not produce a skilled sailor.” If one is to find joy and satisfaction in life, one must risk the occasional rough water. The other is “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” We cannot find God’s new possibilities if we stay in the same place, doing the same thing, walking the same path.
There is much truth to what we celebrate in our Pilgrim mothers and fathers. Their history is something to be admired, to never forget, and to even boast about from time to time. But we must remember that it was their tireless and firm faith that kept them moving forward and kept them alive. From them we can learn that one can try to escape complication and conflict, frustration and sorrow, but by doing so we limit the scope of our faith. When we trust only in certainty and depend on sure and evident answers, we will never venture forth on any journey that requires a larger compass or a bigger map. It is quite another thing to find the call of Jesus the Christ as a challenge to board a boat, to understand that life is an ambiguous journey that takes us to places where we never thought we would end up, a place beyond our compass and map and even our GPS. We are moved to take the risk of faith and see what oceans and lands are out there where we can have a part in God’s work. We are a Pilgrim people. We are on a journey. We are on a boat.
The year 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing on Plymouth Rock. The committee organized to help us celebrate that event wrote some word perfectly appropriate for us today.
We thank God…
For Grace and Love
For a fruitful land
For a faithful people
For a place for faith, freedom and fellowship.
We give thanks…
For those who have cleared the way before us
For those who inspire us
For those who serve us
For those who sacrifice for us
We are aware…
We are not all we can be
We do not do all the good we could
We too often submit to fear
We do not use the courageous examples before us.
We give thanks….
We continue to be called a pilgrim people
To go place we’ve not been before
To sing songs we’ve not sung before
To meet peoples we’ve not met before
To think things we’ve not thought before
In the year of our God 2018
We are a pilgrim people yet today
God still speaks to us today
God is still with us. Thanks be to God!