Rejoice All Ways
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Thanksgiving Sunday • November 20, 2016
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, “Rejoice!” -Philippians 4:7
Times to Rejoice
On a cold December night in Michigan, my granddaughter Maggie was first slipped into my arms and I was so happy: that moment defined the word ‘Rejoice’. A couple days before, her husband had called and told me my daughter, Amy, had complications from the delivery. Jacquelyn, May and I piled in the car and drove through a snow night to Michigan. When we got there, the crisis had passed and we had the joy of this beautiful baby girl. We rejoiced.
Of course, I can think of other things that have made me rejoice: the simple, honest purity of a good breeze on the water filling the sails and the boat lifting, making the special music of a perfectly trimmed sailboat as she burbles forward. There is the moment, captured in my memory like a diamond on a girl’s finger, when I looked up the aisle of my church and saw Jacquelyn glowing at the other end, beginning to walk toward me at our wedding. I know you have a list of such moments and today would be a great day to share some with others at coffee hour.
Julie Andrews famously sang in The Sound of Music about “…a few of my favorite things”. We all have them. They make us happy, they give us joy, and I suppose that feeling, those things, are the first things that come to mind when we hear Paul’s command to rejoice. But he isn’t content with happy: he expands the thought to say, “Rejoice always.” How can we rejoice always? Because we do not live only in our favorite happy moments: there are all the other ones as well. How can we rejoice in those?
Paul’s Call to Rejoice
Paul is not having a happy moment. He was in prison when he wrote this letter; historians disagree on whether he was in Rome or Ephesus, but there’s no disagreement that he had been imprisoned and probably, as he says in other places, beaten. Paul was a disturber of Jewish synagogues and communities. More than that, the language he and Luke were starting to use about Jesus was a direct confrontation of the Roman Emperor. It’s always important to remember Jesus was executed for political crimes, for proclaiming the rule of God. Now, Paul and Luke and others are using the language of the emperor to speak about him. So it’s especially curious in that setting that in his final summary to the church at Philippi, he calls on them to rejoice. What does he have to be happy about? What do they? What do we?
Doesn’t rejoicing often come from telling stories? We gather perhaps for dinner, we tell stories of other dinners, other times and the stories help us understand who we are together, how much we are cared for in the circle of that gathering. Now we have a story as Congregationalists as well. It’s the story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving.
The Story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving
There are many moments since Paul when the light of the love of God has become muddy with human rules and practices. Five centuries ago, a group of people in England just like us were searching for that light. They gathered, a few at a time, listened to the Bible, discussed it, prayed and began to imagine the churches they heard about there. They lived in a moment when churches had been hollowed out by human greed and jealousy. Bit by bit, they imagined and dreamed of a church that was purified and their opponents called them Puritans. Because the new church they imagined would have no bishops, it threatened the whole English establishment. So King James responded by arresting some, executing a few and pushing the others to emigrate. They moved to Holland, to Leyden. But the foreign customs and language there made them long for a new place, their own place and almost exactly 400 years ago, they began to arrange to create such a place in the new world.
Finally, in 1620, a group of them left their pastor and church, returned to England and made ready to sail. There were only 50 or so Puritans on board and another 50 people were recruited because they were carpenters or had other needed skills. They departed at the beginning of September; a sister ship, the Speedwell, went too but had to return when it was too leaky. They were at sea for 66 days. Two months, most of it spent below decks, with their goats and other animals. Two months where anyone over five feet tall had to bend because the ceiling was low; two months of the boat moving and rolling. They expected to land in Virginia; instead, they made landfall on Cape Cod in early November. Although they weren’t where they were expected, they rejoiced and their Deacon, William Bradford, led them in singing Psalm 100, the same Psalm we shared today.
After some exploration, they settled in the area we now call Plymouth, partly because it’s wide tidal beach made landing easy and it appeared vacant. In January—January in Massachusetts!—they began building houses, joining the single men with the 19 families to form groups. Over the next month, they built their community—and 31 of them died, a third of the company. By the end of that first winter, almost half the original community were gone. Did they have a reason to rejoice? Yet we find in their writing, a curious faith, a deep joy. Its source is their absolute conviction that, as Paul says, “The Lord is near”. Living near the Lord, despite the cold, the hunger, the sickness, they continued to rejoice. They made friends with local native people; they learned to plant corn. Children were born.
The Pilgrim Thanksgiving
That fall, with the harvest in, they set a day of community thanksgiving. They did what Puritans often did then, a tradition Congregationalists have mostly dropped: they held a day of fasting and humiliation. But at the end of it they had a party. And they did what we do with parties, they invited their friends and neighbors, in this case the local native chief. Much to their surprise, not only did he come, he brought 103 men with him. Now the Puritans, the people later generations would call Pilgrims, didn’t have a lot. They hadn’t figured out cranberries were good to eat but they had blueberries. They had corn prepared in various ways. Turkeys they had: these could be caught by hand. The native men looked around and realized that these people didn’t know about deer season; they left and brought several back with them. Perhaps that’s where the tradition of bringing something with you to thanksgiving dinner originated. After the feast, the native men did something else: they taught them a game we call lacrosse, a game that contributed to the beginning of football. So you see, even then they watched the game.
What Are We Celebrating?
The Pilgrim Thanksgiving was not the first by Europeans in America. But it spread throughout New England and then into places like Ohio and Michigan and across the north. During the Civil War, when President Lincoln was looking for a symbol of national unity, he was the first President to proclaim Thanksgiving as a national day, a day of unity, time to set aside political and social conflicts and celebrate our common gratitude for God’s blessings.
But what are we celebrating? At many tables this week, everyone will be encouraged to say something for which they are thankful. It’s a wonderful custom and I recommend it to you. But if our joy is measured by our prosperity alone, we will have missed the spiritual message. For thanksgiving is not pay back: get good stuff from God, say thank you like your grandmother taught you. Thanksgiving is a way to say, we know you are near God, we see you sustain us God, we know whatever happens, we can depend on you, we can believe in you, we can have faith in you. That’s why we can rejoice always: in prison, in freedom, in hunger, in prosperity: the Lord is near.
Paul points the way to make this thanksgiving a central part of our lives. He lists marks of Christian life: “..whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise”. And then in a part beyond the set reading for today he says,
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Phil. 4:11b-13]
God’s Presence: a Reason to Rejoice
It is his consciousness of God’s presence, a consciousness honed in all the ways of life, in prosperity and in need, in fear and in triumph, that allows him to rejoice.
So also let us give thanks, not as repayment, but as rejoicing, rejoicing in all ways, in all the ways God has led us. Let us share the stories that lead us to thanksgiving; let us remember the stories of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving. They set a table but had no idea who would show up; so also, our table is always left open, always has room. From their little community would grow a great tradition of freedom, of thanksgiving, of rejoicing in all ways. Today we are their inheritors; today we also are called to rejoice always.