I know I promised you four sermons. How about just one...till next week's. This is from November 24, the eve of Thanksgiving.
A SERMON OF THANKSGIVING, PENTECOST 27, 2013
The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.'
Kind of simple, kind of sweet, this story of the first Thanksgiving…not unlike our own in Plymouth, Massachusetts…at least the way we learned it and will celebrate it again next Thursday with family and friends.
Like the Hebrew pilgrims fleeing Egypt's slavery, our Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution in England and Holland, were delivered into a land, if not of milk and honey, at least of maize, clams, and squash, and, in their case, a people willing to share their bounty with the newcomers.
"Welcome! Welcome, Englishmen!" cried Samoset, a Wampanoag Indian from Maine, as he walked alone into the Pilgrim camp. He soon returned with Squanto, who spoke fluent English and introduced the Englishmen to Massasoit, the Great Chief of the Wampanoag Nation. A treaty was signed and the Wampanoag opened their lands to the newcomers to farm and hunt on and taught them how to fish the local rivers and bays. And, together, they sat down that fall to share "the first of the fruit of the ground." An idyllic memory of what might have been had the Christian settlers been as Christian as the Indians who greeted them.
To be sure, relations between the two peoples remained good for the first fifty years or so. But, as the English colony grew in size and power…and arrogance, the Pilgrims increasingly insisted that their hosts – the Wampanoag -submit to English land transfer and criminal laws. In 1675 Indian suspicion and resentment boiled over into what became known as King Philip's War, a conflict named after Massasoit's son, who was then Chief of the Wampanoag. The war resulted in the defeat of the Wampanoag and, according to one source, the decimation of both sides and, "the virtual extermination of tribal Indian life in southern New England."
History I've learned is written by the victors, usually by those with the most and biggest guns. Thus we celebrate – rightly so – the camaraderie around that first Thanksgiving. But, oh, how easily we've forgotten the dirty little war and the two centuries of extermination that followed.
And pilgrimages, I've learned, don't always end in milk and honey and satisfied appetites. For America's Indians, their pilgrimage – the one they learned to call the Trail of Tears – ended on the Sacramento River in what Kit Carson called "a perfect butchery," with a collective heart and soul buried at Wounded Knee, with sacred burial grounds such as those in Emeryville paved over for parking lots and shopping malls…and hungry kids – out of sight, out of mind - on reservations dotting scrublands around the West.
And, for far too long, our courts and churches justified such genocide on the basis of the five-hundred-year-old, morally defective Doctrine of Discovery – a doctrine which accorded Christian colonists the right to claim and exploit any land inhabited by non-Christians, to convert the "pagans" encountered, and, if they resisted, to kill or enslave them.
To our credit – albeit a decade into the twenty-first century – the Episcopal Church, in 2009, passed a landmark resolution repudiating this abhorrent doctrine and urging the U.S. government to endorse the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For her part, our Presiding Bishop Katharine has called us to reconciliation and lamentation around America's collective guilt for the genocide committed in our name against its native peoples. This must begin by relearning our collective history in its totality; remembering; yes, reconciling and lamenting; then, repairing what we can.
Let me turn, then, to our reading from Deuteronomy, to that older pilgrimage from Egypt and that first Thanksgiving in God's promised land of milk and honey. It's a story that has long troubled me. In its truncated telling here it glosses over another genocide. It has been sanitized by our selective lectionary, by a victor's justifications, and by the collective amnesia of modern readers. The entry of the Hebrew pilgrims of the Exodus into "the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess" is a story literally dripping in blood. Worse yet, the sort of violence America's pilgrims slipped into out of greed and arrogance was, we find, embraced wholeheartedly, unflinchingly by the Israelites. Their justification? God commanded it.
In the line immediately preceding today's reading, for example, God commands those about to claim their inheritance to "blot out the memory" of the Amalekites, to erase them from the map. And a few verses earlier, the authors invoke a God that commands them to "annihilate…the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Prerizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites" and "not let anything that breathes remain alive." Talk about "perfect butchery!"
Over the years too many people wearing a collar and standing in a pulpit, have felt compelled to justify the slaughter or to say "Fuggeda about it." Forgive me. I can't…not anymore than I could ask you to forget the Holocaust or other crimes of genocide such as the forced "pilgrimage" of African slaves or the "Original Sin" of Europe's Jewish refugees to modern Israel - the ethnic cleansing of 1948 that created a Palestinian diaspora of nine million and left a pitiful remnant to fester in open air prisons called Gaza and the West Bank.
No, I won't ask you to forget such things or, washing our hands, blame them on a vengeful, destroying God more akin to Kali than to Christ…a God I just don't recognize.
Instead let me ask you to look at our histories – Israel's and ours – in their totality and sort out what is holy and what is profane…and sometimes obscene. As the commentators of our Oxford Annotated Bible tell us, Deuteronomy "does not permit itself to be read literally or passively. It challenges its readers actively to confront the problem of the relation between revelation and interpretation and breaks down conventional boundaries between scripture and tradition." This Thanksgiving I urge you to take up that challenge, to struggle with the sometimes bloody traditions of an ancient agricultural tribe and the ethical heart of a religion that made them a great people. I urge you to confront also the dark side of our American past, as you strive to live into the American Dream that calls us to greatness. I urge you to consider anew the intertwined stuff of pilgrimage, thanksgiving, and lamentation. If we do so honestly, we will be better for it, as Christians and as Americans. And that is something to be thankful for.
These are things that have been on my mind this week, as I prepare to embark on my own Thanksgiving journey – to my sister-in-law down in Ojai – a trip I plan to combine it with a pilgrimage of sorts into our American story, our California story.
John Steinbeck is my favorite author and next year will be the seventy-fifth anniversary of his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. It is the story of the 1930s pilgrimage of the Joad family from the tragic hopelessness of Oklahoma's Dust Bowl to the fertile fields of California. In the words Shayma' Abdul Ali Jasim, a Steinbeck scholar, it is the story of an "ironic Exodus from home to homelessness, from selfishness to communal love, from 'I' to 'we'"…to a "dream of a dignified society in which they can harvest the fruits of their labor." Instead, he says, the Joads find that their "new Eden is like the old land of bondage. It is filed with Californians who oppress the newcomers with poverty wages, intermittent work, vigilante deputies and strike-breaking violence." As I've said, not all pilgrimages end happily.
But, however sad the novel's ending in a boxcar north of Bakersfield, one has the sense that it's not really an ending…just a pause…God's semi-colon. Hope remains. The pilgrimage continues. Listen to the defiant Ma Joad: "We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people." And then there's Tom Joad's famous speech, a spoken dream really. Remember Henry Fonda in the movie?
I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.
The Okies were replaced in the fields by Filipino-Americans and by Mexicans on their own pilgrimage from places like Michoacan and Jalisco. Tom and Ma Joad were replaced by Larry Itliong, Cesar Chavez, and Dolores Huerta and, in 1965, "the people that live" - the farm workers of Delano - went on strike for a minimum wage and formed a union – the United Farm Workers. The struggle was long – five years – bloody, and hard. But this time the "people that live" won and they are now "eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the house they build."
And so – in an hour or so – I'll head south…to the scenes of strikes and strike-breaking at Delano's Forty Acres; to Government Camp at Weedpatch, once home to Okies and now Mexicans; to the grave of Cesar Chavez up the side of Bear Mountain at Keene; and, at last, to a Thanksgiving with Margo and her friends.
And, as I drive down 99, I'll reflect on all those other pilgrims and those they encountered – the Israelites and Canaanites; the Puritans and Wampanoags; the Israelis and Palestinians of today's Holy Land; and the Okies, Filpinos, Mexicans, and all the others who now call California home.
I'll reflect also on the universality of the pilgrim experience and on a plaque on the Pieterskerk in Leiden, Holland, from whence the pilgrims began their journey to America. It reads: "But now we are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners…"
I've travelled to many places that once seemed distant and strange and I've lived as a stranger and sojourner among their peoples. And, as I've done so, I've found that the distances have shrunk and that what once was strange has morphed into comfortable familiarity. I've found new intimacy in a common home grown small – "this fragile earth, our island home." And, on this tiny blue globe, we journey together through the darkness of space and the mystery of time, wondering always about our destination.
T.S Eliot, that most Christian of poets, has an answer very appropriate I think to this our Christ the King Sunday:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Having recognized the Alpha and Omega of our search, having found the bread of life and discovered that we need never again be hungry, never again be thirsty, never again be homeless, might we rest at last …and, gathering "the first fruit of the ground," might we then give thanks for the end of all our pilgrimages?
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