So I’ve got pilgrims on my mind this morning. But not just the Thanksgiving kind. Back in January, a group from our church traveled to the Holy Land, and one of the first things our guide said to us has stuck with me. After a long journey to Israel, we got off the plane, made our way through customs, then loaded onto the bus that would carry us from one site to the next over the coming eight days. As we were driving to the hotel, our guide gave us a preview of the daily schedule for our trip, pointing out that each morning we would need to be on the bus by 8am, beginning the next morning.
He said (I’m paraphrasing), “I need you to get in the right frame of mind. You are not on a vacation. Our schedule will not be leisurely. You are on a pilgrimage, and we have a lot to see.”
I had never really thought of myself as a pilgrim before. But now, I can’t stop thinking of myself as a pilgrim. My American Heritage Dictionary defines “pilgrim” to mean, “A religious devotee who journeys to a shrine or sacred place.” That’s what our guide meant when he called us pilgrims on that first day in Israel. Trips to the Holy Land are frequently referred to as pilgrimages, in fact. And Christians have been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to lots of other sacred places for almost as long as there have been Christians.
But “pilgrim” also means, “One who embarks on a quest for some end conceived as sacred.” This is the second definition in my American Heritage Dictionary. And in this sense, I think, all Christians are pilgrims. Because what is the Christian life if not a quest to follow Jesus as best we can? To increasingly make his teachings the center of our lives. To continue to grow in our love for God and our fellow human beings. To grow in our practice of the Christian spiritual disciplines as we make Christ the Lord of all parts of our lives, even beyond what we do on Sunday mornings. And, of course, to know that when our time in this life is accomplished, our eternal destiny is secure. In this sense of the word, every disciple of Jesus Christ is “One who embarks on a quest for some end conceived as sacred.” We are all pilgrims.
And it seems to me that on this Thanksgiving Sunday, all of us Christian pilgrims would do well to learn from the example of the third definition of “pilgrim” listed in my American Heritage Dictionary: “One of the English Puritans who founded the colony of Plymouth in New England in 1620.” Because I believe they embodied a trait that can sometimes be elusive to us modern American Christian pilgrims.
The Pilgrims of Thanksgiving lore were a group of God’s faithful who believed that their Church of England had strayed from important founding tenets of Christianity. They wanted to separate from the church, but because the Church and State were so closely connected in much of Europe during this era, to do so was considered treasonous. So they fled at first to Holland, which was tolerant of their theology but too decadent for them. So the Pilgrims decided to emigrate to the New World.
On September 6, 1620, a ship named the Mayflower set sail across the North Atlantic with 102 passengers. Sixty-six days later, they landed in what is today Massachusetts, just in time for winter. Unable to complete the building of their settlement before the snow and frigid temperatures set in, the Pilgrims struggled to survive, at one point having only seven healthy adults to care for all the others. By spring, half of the Pilgrims had died.
But they were saved by the generosity of a stranger. The Pilgrims were befriended by a Native American named Squanto, who himself had been kidnapped seven years earlier by an English captain and sold into slavery in Spain. He had escaped and made his way back to America five years later, only to discover that his own tribe had been wiped out by smallpox.
Despite his misfortune and mistreatment at the hands of European settlers, Squanto became an interpreter for the Pilgrims. He showed them how to work the land so that the remaining half of them would not starve to death that first year. He even helped them negotiate a peace treaty with his adopted Wampanoag tribe that would last more than 50 years. William Bradford, whose writings give us an important glimpse into this era of American history, called Squanto “…a special instrument sent of God for their [the Pilgrims’] good…”
Because of the hospitality of Squanto and others like him, by the fall of 1621, the Plymouth Plantation was thriving. To celebrate the anniversary of their arrival, and in gratitude to God for their miraculous deliverance from being almost wiped out by cold, disease, and hunger, the 53 surviving Pilgrims celebrated the First Thanksgiving by inviting ninety of their Native American friends and benefactors to a three day feast. Their faith had sustained them in the midst of incredible hardship and heartache. Because they had an unshakeable belief through it all that God would provide.
We’ll get back to the Pilgrims shortly. First, we’ll turn to our text for today.
We don’t know with certainty very many details about the Prophet Joel, because he himself does not offer us many details. We don’t know who he was. What part of the country he came from. Even when he lived.
Scholars can and do make some educated guesses about who Joel was. For example, the book that bears his name includes lots of references to many other Old Testament books. This implies that Joel had read those books, which leads scholars to presume that he was writing relatively late in the Old Testament period. He also places a profound emphasis on religious practices in the Temple, leading scholars to presume that Joel is a Temple prophet. Putting this information together means that Joel probably lived some time after the rebuilding of the Temple in 516 B.C.
The book opens by describing a a locust plague, which was a common catastrophe in the Ancient Near East. The locusts would originate in what is today Sudan and move northeast through Africa into modern-day Israel. They could move across a thousand miles consuming everything in their path, killing crops and threatening entire populations with starvation.
Joel sees in this locust plague a metaphor for the various armies that had conquered Israel throughout its history. True to the theology of the prophets, he interprets these catastrophes to be signs of judgment on God’s people for their sins. (Our Methodist Christian theology would interpret this differently, but that’s a different sermon.)
Consistent with the message of the prophets, Joel calls the people to turn back to God, to repent through worship and fasting. And when they do, Joel promises, the barren fields will be restored. The crops will come in. The people will no longer be hungry. God will provide.
Our reading is the lectionary Old Testament text for Thanksgiving Day…
[Read Joel 2:21-27]
Prophesying to a people who had experienced profound hardship and heartache, the Prophet Joel offers Israel a comforting promise. Joel is a short book, only three chapters long. The first half is the proclamation of judgment and a call to repentance. The second half is a declaration of God’s promise, which includes our passage for this morning, and it takes a particular tone.
One of my Bibles is The Green Bible, which is a study Bible focusing on ecology and care for the earth. Containing essays from thinkers and theologians such as Wendell Berry and Saint Francis of Assisi, it emphasizes the more than one thousand references in scripture to God’s creation and our call to be good stewards of God’s creation. Its most unique feature is that it is a “green-letter edition.”
You may have seen or even own a “red-letter edition” of the Bible, in which the words of Jesus are printed in red. The Green Bible prints in green the passages that address one or more of four key criteria. How God and Jesus interact with, care for, and are intimately involved with all of creation. How all the elements of creation — land, water, air, plants, animals, humans — are interdependent. How nature responds to God. And how we are called to care for creation.
Well, our entire passage this morning from the Prophet Joel is in green letters, because it deals with an aspect of our theology that’s easy to lose sight of these days. It’s an idea that was part of the fabric of the theology of the Pilgrims of Thanksgiving lore. It’s the trait they embodied that I think can sometimes be elusive to us modern American Christian pilgrims. I’m talking about their faith in God’s provision. Their recognition that all that we have and all that we are ultimately is a gift from God.
In his first-hand account of the Pilgrims’ experiences titled Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford wrote: “May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: ‘Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice, and looked on their adversity…Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good, and His mercies endure forever…Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness, and His wonderful works before the sons of men.”
It was their unshakeable faith that God would provide that gave them the courage to come to America. It was their unshakeable faith that God would provide that sustained them that first terrible winter. It was their gratitude for God’s provision (with no small assist from their generous Native American friends) that inspired that First Thanksgiving in 1621.
Today, of course, Thanksgiving has taken on lots of wonderful connotations in our culture. It gives us a long weekend and a reason to eat more than we should. It kicks off the Christmas shopping season in earnest. It’s celebrated with parades and a day full of football. All of which I love — the week of Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite weeks of the year.
And yet it is more than a little ironic that Thanksgiving has become so defined by consumption — some might even say gluttony — when its original intent was to give thanks for God’s provision in the face of extreme deprivation and want. Very few of us modern pilgrims have experienced deprivation or want at all, let alone had to put our trust in God as completely as those first Pilgrims in 1621. Which means that we have to be more intentional in recognizing and giving thanks for God’s provision in our lives.
Sometimes it’s hard, living as we do in a land of peace and prosperity, to trust in the provision of God. Our context is so different from the Pilgrims who fled persecution and survived thanks to the hospitality of strangers. Today, we’re the ones who have the opportunity to welcome those fleeing persecution. We’re the ones who have the opportunity to provide hospitality to strangers.
And our context is so different from that described by the Prophet Joel. We are not at the mercy of locusts or locust-like invaders. We are citizens of the most powerful nation on earth with the most powerful military on earth. We have the blessings of peace and security and prosperity and comfort.
Which means that the challenge for us modern pilgrims is not so much trusting that God will provide for us in some undetermined future. God has already and continues to bless us abundantly and consistently. The challenge for us is to recognize and give thanks for the provision of God from whom, after all, all blessings flow.
It was in the midst of another time of hardship and heartache that Thanksgiving as we know it became an official national holiday. On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the fourth Thursday of November to be a national day of Thanksgiving. It had been a year of tremendous loss in our nation’s costliest war. In fact, three of the four costliest battles of the Civil War were fought in 1863. Well over 100,000 casualties had been suffered between the two sides that year, with another year and a half yet to go before the conflict would be decided.
Yet, trusting in the provision of God and looking forward to the promise of better days ahead, Lincoln proclaimed, in part:
“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God…No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States…to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens…”
Friends, this Thanksgiving, as we gather around tables overflowing with the blessings of God, surrounded by the people we love, in a country that has given us so much, may we remember that we are all pilgrims on a journey of faith. And may we place our whole trust in, and be ever grateful for, God’s provision in our lives.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The American Heritage Dictionary: Second College Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985), 940.
 The Green Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), p. I-16.
 Found at https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/156605.William_Bradford; accessed 16 November 2018.