Each year the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania holds an annual worship service in November to commemorate the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony in 1621 and in memory of those members of the Society who have died during the past year. What follows is the sermon delivered at the November 21, 1999 service by the Society's Elder, The Reverend Judith A. H. Meier, pastor of the Gulph United Church of Christ, in that church located in Gulph Mills, northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
By The Reverend Judith A. H. Meier
Today marks the culmination of a number of serendipitous happenings. Two hundred twenty-two years ago Sgt. Robert Peeling, my feisty Scots-Irish ancestor with the red hair and the temper to go with it, marched through these hills, probably right along the road outside, with his fellow soldiers of the Thirteenth Pennsylvania Regiment heading into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Two centuries later one of your beloved Mayflower Society members, Katherine Cummin, the State Historian who initiated the work on my papers, was an active parishioner of this church, drawn to it because of her Congregational ties back home in Connecticut. I feel there's a providential hand that brought me to this place. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about our being here today to commemorate our ancestors' first Thanksgiving is that this building, the quaint stone structure erected in 1895 to accommodate the growing congregation of Christians first gathered in the school next door in 1833 and then housed in the little building right behind our sanctuary wall, was designed according to the architectural plans of St. Martin's Church in Canterbury, England. That may not mean anything to most of you, but if there are any Chilton descendants here today, it should mean a lot. James Chilton and his wife Susanna hailed from Canterbury. At least two of their ten children were baptized at St. Martin's, and two of them were buried in the graveyard. James Chilton was about 64 when the Mayflower reached its destination, but he died on board, on December 8. His wife died a few weeks later during that first terrible winter. Thirteen-year old daughter Mary, the only child who accompanied them, survived, undoubtedly spending many hours with one of my own young Pilgrim ancestors, Elizabeth Tilley, who also lost her father to the winter sickness. So you see why we were just meant to be here today.
I cannot imagine how it must have been to be a 13-year old girl preparing to sail for a strange land. Already she had left her native England when she was just a toddler, had probably learned the Dutch tongue from the children in her new homeland, and now was faced with being uprooted again.
But today, as an adult, as a parent, now as an ordained minister of the gospel, I have difficulty imagining how it must have been to prepare that congregation of English separatists to leave the relative safety of their Dutch haven for the unknown waters and strange land known only from reports of Virginia adventurers. The Rev. John Robinson had known them from the early days in Scrooby; he had cared for them in the Leyden exile.
What went through Pastor Robinson's mind as he searched the scriptures for the godly word that would send his flock forth? What words would stay with them, encourage them, strengthen them, for he knew he was not going to be with them for a long time. Indeed, as it turned out, he would never see them again, for he died in Leyden a few years later.
The people who would come to be called pilgrims were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who had been pilgrims and exiles themselves. John Robinson looked to the Jewish people of the Babylonian exile for his inspiration. His text for his farewell sermon, preached at the Pieterskerk in Delfshaven on July 31, 1620, was Ezra 8:23, "So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty." After the fall of the Jewish kingdoms at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the destruction of the great Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the best of Jewish society went into exile in Babylon. Although they did rather well there, many of them even prospering, they maintained the hope for a return to Zion.
And so, in the first year of the reign of the conquering Persian king Cyrus, when the Jews were released from their exile, there was a rush back to Jerusalem, where that initial group of faithful leaders immediately set up an altar to the God of Israel and began rebuilding the Temple. It was an arduous task, however, not the poetry of Second Isaiah but the prose of a grim and bitter struggle. "The people of the land," those Jews who remained in Palestine while the upper classes went into exile, resented the influx of refugees who assumed leadership. The Samaritans to the north welcomed the return of the Jews and even offered to help rebuild the Temple. But the help was rebuffed, and the angry Samaritans, after creating as much mischief as they could, headed home to build their own temple on Mt. Gerazim. Enthusiasm for God and temple worship waned until many years later when Zerubbabel, at the urging of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, completed the job. But still the people's interest wavered.
And then Ezra the Priest, armed with the Torah of Moses, was sent from Babylon to Jerusalem by King Darius the Great to take charge of the situation and institute reforms that would maintain a sense of Jewish identity.
The eighth and ninth chapters of the book of Ezra are full of the names of the leaders Ezra chose to accompany him on this return from exile: families, priests, Levites, temple personnel, slaves, servants - a total of 1500 men plus women and children. In the book of Nehemiah we read that after all those people who came along with Ezra had stood in the market place before the Water Gate to hear the reading of the Torah, they made a firm agreement in writing, a covenant, and on that sealed document were inscribed the names of their officials, their Levites, their priests. If we get impatient hearing these lists of names, and we heard only a small portion of them in today's scripture lesson, let's remind ourselves how it felt to hear the reading of the names of the men who signed the Mayflower Compact this afternoon.
Pastor John Robinson knew how things would be with Ezra's band of pilgrims returning from exile to their homeland; he didn't know how it would be with his own band of pilgrims. The promise of a homeland is not always to be fulfilled in the life of a patriarch, but only glimpsed from afar. So it was with Abel, with Enoch, with Noah, with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. But they desire a better country. For them the better homeland is the ultimate goal of the people of the covenant, what has been described as salvation, glory, rest, or entry into God's presence.
Robinson saw his flock as the heroic figures of the Hebrew scriptures, as the wandering people of God, strangers, foreigners, sojourners, resident aliens in a place that perhaps they never could call home.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews spoke of someone else who was a resident alien, one who suffered and died outside the city gates, indeed, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He calls on us to go outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured.
It's hard to imagine ourselves as resident aliens - we whose ancestors ended their exile 379 years ago and established their homeland. But I don't think it was John Robinson's prayer for them that they should think of themselves as having arrived, exiles and aliens no longer, established and self-sufficient.
Ezra recognized the danger of self-sufficiency. Although he was leading a large group of men, women, and children, although he was transporting tons of silver and gold and bronze, although he and his party were at risk of being ambushed and murdered and robbed, he asked for no royal escort, no military protection. God would protect them and provide them with a safe journey.
And before they left, Ezra proclaimed a fast at the river Ahava, and they petitioned God, and God listened to their entreaty. What a great act of faith!
It is a great irony that we commemorate with a grand feast what John Robinson had begun with a reading about a fast. It's important to remember what it is to be an exile.
We can't pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing about exiles and refugees today. Every civil war and insurrection, every famine and earthquake and hurricane has produced exiles and refugees. A couple of weeks ago the Inquirer listed approximately 30 armed conflicts throughout the world, many with hordes of refugees. Here are just a few: Afghanistan, 2.6 million refugees; Angola, 1.5 million refugees; Burundi, 240,000; Colombia, 1 million; Republic of Congo, 1 million; Eritrea and Ethiopia, 200,000; Guinea-Bissau, 500,000; India, 300,000; Iraq, 4 million; Rwanda, 2 million; Sierra Leone, 2 million; Somalia, 2 million; Sri Lanka, 1.5 million; Sudan, 4 million; Tajikistan, 500,000; Turkey, 3 million; Uganda, 300,000.
It's horrible, isn't it? You were probably thinking, I wish she'd stop reading off all those numbers. Numbers without names or faces - not like all those names recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah - not like those names recorded on the Mayflower Compact.
But those numbers do have names. One of them is named Samaty Houndjogbe, a 32-year old refugee from Togo living in Ghana. He wrote a poem about his "Unhappy Life." Let his words put a face onto the numbers.
One day in rags you flee from home, for you are persecuted,
And then you run, you run, you run seeking a shelter,
With dry throat, empty stomach and torn body.
You reigned over empires
Now you stay in mice lairs
Imprisoned with thousands and thousands of your fellow-men.
You fed well your beasts
Today you must die starving
You left your wealth and eat sand here.
Every day while sitting in a little corner, hands taken into the legs
You plunge your glance into a far sky,
And wondering how the future will be: there's darkness
The seasons are the same
Like nights and days.
The sun never arises and the moon never appears.
The bees make no honey.
This land is utterly rocky
Infected with venomous snakes and its birds do not sing.
Little by little the suffering increases, you don't know what to do.
Children and babies quietly die in their mothers' arms.
Your eyes become red and full of tears.
You make up your mind,
The other world to find,
And leave this one where the lambs our the wolves.
You mourn over your men:
They were slaughtered somewhere.
You're alone, very sick and sorrowful.
We have a goodly heritage. We call ourselves pilgrims because our ancestors sought a better, more excellent way. They, like Ezra's band, were resident aliens in a strange land, dependent on the protection of our gracious God. In the comfort of our worship, in the abundance on our banquet table, let us not forget what it is to be strangers and sojourners.
Pastor Robinson left his flock in Delfshaven with these words: "We are now ere long to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether we shall see each other's faces again. But whether the Lord hath appointed it or not, I charge you before God and His blessed angels, to follow Christ, and if God shall reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be ready to receive any truth of my ministry. For I am very confident that the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break out of his holy word."
"Follow Christ," he said. My word to you today is to follow Christ, to go to him outside the camp, outside the city gates, to join him with the homeless of this world, to never feel satisfied and comfortable and complacent, to never feel at ease in the empire, to never accept citizenship in the kingdom of this world. Beware of pride of accomplishment, beware of feelings of superiority because we have come so far, beware of paternalism disguised as altruism. To be a resident alien, to go outside the gates to be with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, is to be in solidarity with Christ Jesus himself. Amen.