The next few days are precious ones for us Congregationalists.
These are that precious handful of days when people think about Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, and the Mayflower—when stores and schools and all night diners all over the country are decorated with the autumnal colors and the cultural symbols of New England Puritanism.
Now there are those who cringe at the papier mache pilgrim hats and the little white bonnets for women and girls. Not me.
It’s kitschy, I admit it. But as a Congregationalist, I still love it. Because what form of tribute could be more American than that? In America, if you’ve been turned into a Pez dispenser or a party costume, your place in the culture is forever secure.
Now there are questions we might ask about just what place we Congregationalists seem to have secured.
If you go to Party City in search of Pilgrim hats or one of those fetching white Pilgrim bonnets, you’ll see that they have them on sale, which is entirely right and proper.
However, right next to them, you will also find the ready-to-wear, adult-sized, gobble-to-claw turkey outfit, because what Thanksgiving could ever be complete without somebody’s brother saying “I say boy…..” over and over and over again.
I’m not sure what that says about the place of Thanksgiving in the collective imagination these days. Or about the cauldron of emotions it seems to stir whenever we return to our families of origin—who wears a turkey outfit?
Still, as a Congregationalist, I delight. If some of our legacy is to sponsor an annual conversation about where it is that people call home, and why, or about how traditions shape us, for good or ill, I am delighted.
That said, it’s interesting to me to note how a day whose beginnings were found in gratitude simply for having survived at all after a long and difficult year has softened quite a bit since 1621.
That first year at Plymouth was a hard, hard year, indeed. Many of the Mayflower settlers didn’t make it through the first winter. None of them would have without the pity of the local Wampanoag Nation—and the providential discovery of some food buried in a nearby abandoned native town.
But when we celebrate Thanksgiving, that’s not really what we celebrate, is it?
The day isn’t about eke-ing out an existence in a strange and physically punishing environment. It’s become a celebration of abundance. If it’s about anything, anymore, it’s about remembering how our forefathers once had to eke, and about how, comparatively speaking, now many of us don’t have to eke—and, well, thanks be to God for that.
And so, for all the conversations that Thanksgiving seems to generate, I don’t think it generates the right one, at least as far as abundance is concerned.
Actually, it used to do better.
Before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, in fact, there was a tradition of what were called “Ragamuffin Parades”—particularly in New York City, but also in other places.
Ragamuffin Parades were for children, especially working-class children, who would go into wealthier neighborhoods on the day before Thanksgiving, wearing elaborate costumes and going door to door, asking “Anything for Thanksgiving?”
If it sounds distinctly like Halloween to you, you’re absolutely right. It was.
Yet I would suggest that the Ragamuffin Parade was trying to make a different point.
Unlike Halloween, the Ragamuffin Parade was about abundance. About not forgetting our neighbors, and especially about not forgetting our children. It was about social divisions, yes, but also about how good will and kindness could help to bridge those divisions. It was about reminding the successful that the left behind were not far away.
At a time when so much of the popular rhetoric was about how to ensure that fellow Christians and other were transformed into reliable Americans, the Ragamuffin Parades were a reminder from fellow Americans and others about becoming reliable Christians.
It would not have been entirely cutesy. The line between “The Little Rascals” and “The Gangs of New York” was thinner than you might think.
But the point would have been hard to miss.
With the pies for Thanksgiving already in the oven, and the smells of plenty filling the house, the Ragamuffin Parade came by, and who was who and what was what would hang there for a moment, and the descendants of those first Pilgrims would lock eyes with someone trying to eke out his existence in a strange and physically punishing environment. Someone who was seven.
Imagine if we still had it.
Because what would it be like if, on the day before Thanksgiving—which is always a day when the grownups are cooking or cleaning or trying to load the car so we can beat the traffic—what would it be like, if a parade of ragamuffins suddenly showed up, to remind us of our abundance?
Because, yes, sure, you’re trying to make it to LaGuardia and you don’t need to apologize to anyone for the fact that if some yahoo gets in the EZ Pass lane by mistake, that means you can miss your flight, and good luck to you if that happens. But then the parade comes and you remember: you’re blessed.
Or maybe it’s the day before Thanksgiving and you’re chastising a houseful of kids: “Guys you cannot make a fort out of pillows in the living room right now because Uncle Fred’s new wife is like Martha Stewart on Steroids and I really don’t have time to get chocolate finger schmears off of the sofa.” But then the parade comes and you remember: you’re blessed.
Or maybe nobody’s planning on coming by and you’re sitting at home, debating about whether to go to Boston Market for the half-chicken special, or just not bothering at all this year. But then the parade comes and you remember: you’re blessed.
Abundance takes many forms. Nevertheless, with all the challenges of the living of our days, it can be easy to forget the many ways that we are blessed. And it’s become all too easy to forget the enduring claim of our neighbors upon us.
We don’t talk about that much as part of Thanksgiving, now.
But the fundamental understanding of the Pilgrims long ago was that unless you understand that, then you don’t understand much of anything.
They had a sense—a deep, abiding sense—that ultimately, all things come to us as gifts, that the world does not belong to us, but that it belongs to God.
They believed that there is a wisdom at work in our lives, even in adversity. They believed that wisdom is bringing the Universe together in ways that we can and in ways we cannot see, and they thought it was absolutely essential that we learn to trust that wisdom.
But they also recognized that this wisdom made claims on each of us along the way, and that loving God without loving our neighbors wasn’t really loving God much at all, because you can’t love God fully without coming to love what God loves.
Abundance was a grace, indeed, but it was never intended as a cloistered grace. It was a way to serve the Kingdom of God. They saw that, and tried to live it.
They were imperfect people, to be sure.
And yet their sense of thanksgiving was deeper and more challenging than ours typically is, and a lot more faithful.
But they understood that Thanksgiving had power in it. The power to make us much better Christians.
The Apostle Paul would have agreed.
Our reading this morning comes from his first letter to the Thessalonians, and he gives a series of moral exhortations.
“Encourage the fainthearted,” he says. “Help the weak. Be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (v. 15).
But then he brings it home, saying: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (vs. 17-22).
To me, the part that is really important is when he says “Rejoice always…give thanks in all circumstances.”
Because remember: Paul is writing to a church that’s very different than ours. He’s writing to what will soon become a fugitive church—a church that will choose to meet in graveyards and catacombs because even Roman soldiers wouldn’t go there after dark.
Paul is writing to a church that even already is seeing the beginning of dark times.
And in that context, what he’s saying is remarkable.
Because what he’s saying is that it’s not enough to believe that the Gospel is true. It’s not enough to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. It’s not enough even to be ready to see those beliefs through to the end…whatever that end might be…and whatever bravery we might have to summon.
Instead, what matters according to Paul is to be so immersed in the love and purposes of God that we learn to “rejoice always,” and “to give thanks in all circumstances.”
What matters is to remember just how very blessed we are.
That’s not to say our lives are easy. That’s not to say it’s wrong to ask God to heal what needs healing in our lives or in our world.
It’s saying that despite how things may seem, it is still right to trust the wisdom at the heart of it all.
It’s saying that whatever darkness we may find ourselves in, it is still right to believe in the power of light.
It’s saying that no matter what may come, God’s people are called to remember the words of the doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
Because the blessings do flow. And God is the source of all our blessings.
So I hope you are proud to be identified with Thanksgiving, this particularly Congregationalist holiday.
You may not choose to wear the costume.
I don’t know that a Ragamuffin Parade will pass by your house on Wednesday to remind you of your abundance, and of the enduring claim of our neighbors upon our love and care.
But I hope you will recall the many blessings that have brought you to the place you are, and sustained you in the great challenges of life, and given you hope for what may yet come.
I hope in these days that you will be mindful of those blessings, and give thanks for the abundant life we find in God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, the giver of all good gifts. And feel God’s urgent call to share them with a world so much in need.