The Rev. Dianne O’Connell  

First Congregational Church  

November 21, 2010

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 

Philippians 4:4-9

John 6:25-35

Psalm 148:1-4; 13-14


Pilgrims’ Pride

Good morning.  Welcome to Pilgrim Sunday. I’ve been talking about possible sermon themes with a number of you during the past weeks, and someone reminded me that November was Pilgrim month for Congregationalists.  I wasn’t to forget the Pilgrims. So here it is the Sunday before Thanksgiving and I feel pretty certain that this coming week our children will be learning about the Pilgrims in classrooms around the nation.

But what about us adults?  Perhaps, we should reflect on the nation’s Pilgrim heritage, as well, and that of their spiritual descendants, the Congregationalists. This review and revise process is an important one, and one that today’s Congregationalists take very seriously.  I would not presume to speak for all members of the Congregational Church, but I would dare say that many, if not most, believe that God is still speaking to the world today and an individual’s spiritual development is an on-going process.  That means we have to review what we hold dear every so often so that we can make necessary adjustments based on what we’ve learned and experienced since our last evaluation. Pilgrim People are always journeying; if we stop the journey, we’re no longer Pilgrims, we’ve become settlers, possibly quite set in our ways.

As many of you know, First Congregational has an adult group that meets every other Tuesday evening for dinner and discussion.  The group has been watching a series of videos entitled “Living the Questions” and I’ve had the pleasure of attending a couple of these meetings.  The programs feature some of the most articulate and well-known progressive theologians of our generation, several of whom come out of the Congregational/Reformed tradition. Yesterday, I sat down and watched seven 20-minute episodes, all in one sitting.  I had already written this sermon, but after such an emersion process, I went back last night and tweeked a few things.

Nobody, at least in the first seven episodes, talked about the Pilgrims, but they did note that our Bible was written by people living in two different cultures, the ancient Hebrews of the Old Testament, and the people of the Middle East and Mediterranean living at the time of the early Christian Church.  I’m not going to tell you the whole story, but I do want to leave this part of the discussion with one thought. Jesus did not take the Hebrew Scriptures literally and considered the law open to amendment, such as when he healed the woman on the Sabbath. Paul ascribed to this point of view when he abolished the dietary laws and the circumcision requirement for becoming Christian.      

Back in the 1600s, our Pilgrim spiritual ancestors were determined to live according to the tenets of their faith which had developed quite differently from the traditions of the early Church of England. They were so determined that they crossed an ocean to establish themselves in a new land. 

Coming to what was a New World for them, the Pilgrims compared themselves to the Israelites of the Old Testament. Both groups felt led by God to a new Promised Land in which to settle and raise their families – but in both cases the land to which they felt led, was already inhabited by peoples who had lived there for countless generations and planned to continue to do so.  The biggest challenge for each group’s spiritual descendants is to learn to successfully live together, honoring each other’s rights and heritages.   Americans have been working on this goal for four hundred years and we’ve made some progress.  The folks in the Middle East have been struggling for four thousand years, and I think most would agree, they have not done nearly as well.

We all continue to have a lot to learn. The Pilgrims survived an incredibly harsh first winter; they would never have been able to do so without the help of their Native American neighbors; and to celebrate this relationship and most particularly to give thanks to God, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans feasted together for several days.

It is, indeed, an idealized remembrance. It’s the way it should have been; it’s the way it was for at least a few days; but it’s certainly not an accurate portrayal of the years that followed. The story does, however, represent our better selves. We keep celebrating the story because it represents the way we really want to be.  It tells our children that we value the fortitude of our spiritual ancestors; we value the cooperation and friendship between peoples as portrayed in the Thanksgiving story; and we want to instill in them the importance of gratitude, gratitude to God and for each other. It’s a part of our tradition I think we should keep.

In Dianne’s thumbnail sketch of American history, the Pilgrims were soon joined by Puritans, and Catholics, and Methodists, and German Lutherans, and persons of all manner of faith expressions and non-expressions. .As each group strived for its own success, communities continued to struggle with how best to live together in a diversified and ever-diversifying culture. The term Pilgrim was dropped fairly early and the Pilgrims’ descendants began to call their churches Congregational. And, as we all know, individual congregational churches are self-governing and can be quite different from one another.

All week I’ve been asking members of First Congregational Church Anchorage what they valued most about their religious heritage and this particular church. I’ve received answers from a variety of perspectives.

“Freedom,” was the one-word response of one church leader.  The fact that we gather in townhall-like meetings, hash out our issues, and vote. It’s not unlike the American form of government itself and, in fact, there were a number of Congregationalists who helped write the United States Constitution.

“Our social justice history,” said another.  Congregationalists were recognized leaders in the anti-slavery movement, and have been in the forefront of many efforts to improve society at all levels.

“Our non-creedal approach to theology,” said another church member. Our Puritan forefathers had a well-earned reputation for intolerance of dissenters. Today, their spiritual descendants hold as one of their most sacred values – the right to develop their own understanding of faith and God.

As I’ve talked with you, I’ve found that some have a long, multi-generational history with the Congregational Church; and others come from a variety of faith traditions.  Each of you found a welcoming, spiritual home at this church, regardless of any particular dogma or lack of dogma.

“That’s okay,” said another church member, “But what I value most about this church is more personal. When I couldn’t be reached one morning, three people were on the phone checking on me. I know the people in this congregation care about me.”

“I’m overwhelmed by the care I’ve been shown,” said yet another. “I don’t know why people have been so good to me, but I appreciate it.  When I walk into church, it’s like I’m coming home. It’s family.”

This, too, has been a reoccurring theme. You may not all think alike theologically or politically – and you certainly do not all like the same music. (laughter, I hope) But you do cherish the fellowship you share with each other. 

So here we are, twenty-first century spiritual descendants of the Puritans. And its Thanksgiving.  What should we keep from our heritage, what should we toss out, and what should our future look like together?  As I asked this question, I turned to the church website and realized that you have accurately identified yourselves as a Caring, Christian, and Non-Creedal Fellowship. I particularly like the statement on the front of the bulleting, too:  “Learning to live…with passion, meaning, and dignity in the presence of God’s love.” Those are beautiful, meaningful statements which I’d like for us to be able to share with the whole community.

The theologians of whom I spoke earlier talked of the challenges facing progressive Christians today.  Communicating who we are is one of the biggest challenges. We have something distinctive and good and we must be willing to talk about it.  Sometimes progressive Christians are a little self-conscious about talking about our faith.  We are more comfortable talking about our social service and social justice work in society than we are talking about our relationship with Jesus.  Yet, we are a Christian Church.  We are followers of Jesus Christ. It is because we are followers of Jesus Christ that we are so committed to loving our neighbors and improving our society.

The theologians offered an important observation.  There is something that our spiritual ancestors can still give us, an attitude of the early church which makes us self-conscious today. We need to rediscover the sense of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.  I’m not suggesting that the Spirit is NOT there, quite the contrary.  I’m suggesting that perhaps we don’t always recognize it and we certainly don’t talk about it. However we each may understand the mystical and/or historical Jesus, my guess is that He is the primary source of spiritual nourishment for each one of us.  “I am the bread of life, he tells us. “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry…”  I do hope we believe it.

Thanksgiving Day is a secular holiday and a day we can and should give thanks to our God for our material world, including the turkey on the table and the good we are able to foster in the world.  But Thanksgiving is also a spiritual holiday, a day when we can take great pride in our Pilgrim heritage – the freedom to think for ourselves, our social justice work, our form of government, our caring community, our music, ever-remembering that all is grounded in our spiritual quest to engage with the unknowable, transcendent God, and our deep desire to walk with his son, Christ our Lord.   


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