It’s really too bad, but nobody thought to take any pictures with their cell phones when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
If you go to Plymouth, you can still see the actual rock…or in any case, you can see what people in Plymouth at the end of the nineteenth century had heard from somebody’s uncle was the actual rock.
Of course, nobody could really say why he was so sure.
Maybe it didn’t matter.
But in any case, because there are no pictures, nobody can really say. And because there are no pictures, nobody can really offer much by way of proof for what it was like there in Plymouth during those early days.
But that doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried.
You can go to Plimouth Plantation Museum, for example, which as imagining the Pilgrims goes, has to be the gold medal winner, hands down. It’s a whole recreation of the Plimoth settlement, and they’ve even gone so far as to reverse bioengineer livestock, so that the oxen look like seventeenth century oxen, in case you were wondering about that.
I highly recommend a visit.
But when it comes to imagining the life of the Pilgrims, a more typical approach has been through paintings—recreating scenes from their lives.
Every Thanksgiving, my Facebook feed fills up with those. They’re right next to all the snarky posts by fed-up historians, reminding us not to believe our eyes.
Do we really think that Chief Massasoit showed up with a big smile and a casserole dish full of corn? Come on.
Yet over the years, there is one painting in particular that I’ve come to think might really be getting it right.
It’s an odd sort of artifact.
You see, most of the great oil paintings about the Pilgrims came from after the Civil War, which is before people were really asking too many questions about what Plymouth was or wasn’t.
What mattered is that this was how America had started, and we were for the most part glad that it had, and so thank you for that…please pass the stuffing.
But this one picture I’ve never forgotten imagines a different chapter of the story.
It imagines what it was like for the Pilgrims on the day when the Mayflower finally weighed anchor and set sail for home, leaving them to it. Leaving them to this New World. Leaving them to get working on that city on the hill. Or in any case, leaving.
After wintering-over impatiently there in Cape Cod Bay, having lost many of his sailors to the same diseases ravaging the Pilgrims, it was early April, and the captain decided it was time to cut bait and get back to civilization.
And this particular painting imagines what it was like for the Pilgrims on that day, as they saw the Mayflower sailing away toward the horizon.
Some of them have gone down to the shore, to watch their ship get smaller and smaller.
A few are waving.
But if you pause for a moment and really look, you’ll see that one person is not exactly waving.
Her hand is outstretched, almost like it’s waving, but her face full of grief, as if to hold the receding ship in her hand until the last moment…as if, should someone somehow manage to throw her a line, she would grab on and let herself be taken back to the world she once knew.
I don’t know if any of you have seen “The Martian” or read the book. But I think that the Pilgrims would get the many emotions of that story—they would get its textured understanding of what it is to be left behind, training or no training. Mission or no mission.
The Pilgrims knew they had a mission. But even so.
And that’s something I find even more remarkable in this morning’s Gospel from John—this account of Jesus at the Last Supper, when he tells his disciples about how he is going to leave them behind, but that he is not leaving them destitute, because he’s going to send them what he calls an advocate, a holy comforter, to be with them, going forward.
What I find remarkable about that is that Jesus is telling his disciples that they will have a mission. He’s making it clear that they’re much more than just a cheering section or people who were lucky enough to score tickets for his show. He’s making it clear that, going forward, he has work for them to do.
He’s telling them about their mission.
But he’s also saying that he won’t be with them in the ways they’ve gotten used to.
He won’t be there, teaching and healing among them, going back and forth across the Sea of Galilee or ducking in and out of Jerusalem. There won’t be any more confrontations with the Pharisees—and that’s too bad, because who among them hadn’t come to enjoy a good confrontation with the Pharisees?
Well, no more.
That said, in a deeper way, he promises that he will still be with them.
This is where the holy comforter comes in.
The Greek word for that is “pantokrator,” and it means “one who comes alongside.”
So what he means is that, even as he departs, God will still be the one who comes alongside the disciples.
What they would come to see in time, of course, is that God would come alongside them, especially in those moments when they came alongside others who were hurting. Others who were in distress. Others who needed love and care, a sense of belonging, and someone who would speak up for them in ways large and small.
If you think about it, so much of what it is to be faithful is learning to come alongside—and in learning to see God when and wherever that happens.
Coming alongside. That’s what the Holy Comforter does.
And yet—can anyone really blame the woman in that painting of the departing Mayflower, reaching out her hand in a gesture that is half “farewell” and half “Oh God, please take me with you”?
I’ve been thinking about that.
And I think my answer is, well, it depends.
It depends on whom you’re left with.
We don’t have a companion picture for this. But it would be telling if right next to the picture of the Mayflower sailing off, with the eyes of the Pilgrims straining to watch it go, there were another picture.
The picture of when everyone turned around and faced the New World once again.
The picture of when they turned around and saw each other standing there.
What are the looks that would be on their faces then?
There’s a big difference between seeing ourselves as marooned, and seeing ourselves as building a world, isn’t there?
There’s a big difference between fighting to survive and creating a life, isn’t there?
There’s a big difference between trying to find shelter, and trying to build a home, isn’t there?
I’m reminded of the African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.”
This morning I would just say, simply, that this is what Pentecost is. It is a call to travel together. A call to see that this is God’s will for God’s people. A call to find the God who comes alongside us, particularly as we come alongside others.
That’s what all this is.
If you’ve attended a baptism here, then you know that there’s a moment when the child is led around the congregation, and I introduce a few of you in the pews by name. By name and with a little mention of something about you.
I’ll be honest: it’s kind of working without a net because I’m always afraid I’m going to blank on someone’s name—you know: “This is….uh…Liz Perry….she’s a…uh….a teacher…..”
Sometimes, I probably run the risk of naming an attribute that isn’t someone’s particular favorite about themselves.
I apologize if that’s actually truer than I realize and I’ve done that.
But the purpose behind it is important.
Because what I’m trying to affirm, by way of a few specifics, is that each one of us is someone you can count on.
Each one of us has something really important to bring to the table.
We each have ways that we are taking part in building that shining city on a hill that the Pilgrims only got to start.
That’s who we are. That’s what this is.
And I, for one, have come to believe that the world depends on it.
For those of you who are part of our Youth Choir, and especially for those of you who will hang up your red robes for the last time today, I have just this to say.
I think you know in your hearts what this has been.
Even if from here on out you are called to new pursuits, I think you know.
It was never about the music.
It was about the world you made, Wednesday by Wednesday by Wednesday.
It was about the people you were free to become here, especially if there was no other place where you knew that freedom.
It was about the ways you learned to come alongside one another, in good times and bad.
It was about learning how to offer hope, and energy, and joy together, even when any one of you might not have been feeling especially hopeful, energetic, or joyful on any given day. In fact, maybe especially then.
And I guess I would just say that, for all its flaws, for all its imperfections, for all the wrong notes it seems to hit, the church is the community—the commonwealth—where all that happens.
For wherever that happens, we in the church would say that something holy has come alongside, giving a deeper meaning to what is happening.
Lastly, our hope for you in your time here has been that you would start to see that each of you has something very important to bring to the table of the world’s becoming.
Each of you has a role to play in building the city on the hill.
Knowing you even just a bit, as I do, I have to say, what a wonderful city it will be.
And may this little city that dwells on this particular hill always be a home to you.
For those of us who remain, the work continues.
The invitation to come alongside still beckons.
Each one of us has a part to play, and much to offer.
The mission of loving and serving the world is still our mission.
On Pentecost, this call to travel together reminds that, for all its challenges, our mission also the source of our deepest joy.