Carlos Wilton, November 18, 2012; Non-Lectionary sermon; Genesis 8:1-12; Romans 8:18-25
“…the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf…”
– Genesis 8:11a

Well, this is going to be a different sort of Thanksgiving, isn’t it? Person after person I speak to says the same thing. Plans for Thanksgiving dinner are taking a back seat to more urgent matters.
A great many people in our local communities — some, even in our church — are no longer in their homes. Some of those homes are in evacuation areas and their occupants don’t know when they’ll get back. Others have seen their homes so damaged by floodwaters that they’re in tenuous, temporary circumstances: living upstairs while the downstairs is fixed, or staying elsewhere for a while: with family and friends, or maybe in a short-term rental or in a hotel.
I was talking with someone the other day who had to make a decision about a whole set of dishes — whether to keep them after they’d been submerged in smelly, black water. She decided to keep them, reasoning that a cycle or two in a good dishwasher would take care of the grime. But the problem is, she doesn’t have a dishwasher just yet, the electrical power’s still turned off, and the kitchen walls are stripped down to the bare studs. Even if she ordered a ready-to-eat Thanksgiving dinner, what plates would she serve it on?
Such are the decisions that must be made, after a certain unwanted guest named Sandy comes a-callin’.
For a great many of us, Thanksgiving has been stripped down this year to the bare essentials: as bare as those wooden studs that used to be hidden inside our walls. Once upon a time, the typical grace that preceded many a Thanksgiving feast focused largely on things: the material wealth and property that seemed to indicate both God’s favor and our own individual achievements.
A lot of that’s gone, now. So, what effect does that have on our sense of thankfulness?
Many of us have got the wrong idea about that first Thanksgiving, celebrated by the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony. We imagine it as a great feast of all the traditional menu items we’ve come to enjoy. But it was actually a lot more tenuous than that. The Pilgrims had been at Plymouth less than a year. The Mayflower had landed them way too late in the previous year — in late November — for them to do anything to feed themselves. If it weren’t for the Indians sharing or selling their own stocks of food with them, they would have starved.
By late September or October, though — the real time of the first Thanksgiving — they had just brought in their harvest of corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas. Several of those crops — the corn in particular, which was unknown in Europe — the Indians had taught them how to grow in the North American environment.
This was the time of year when large flocks of migratory birds were passing overhead. William Bradford seized the opportunity and ordered four men to take their muskets and go out “fowling,” as they used to say in those days. In a few hours, the hunters had brought down enough ducks and geese to feed the colony for a week.
But still, it didn’t look much like the idealized conception of the holiday most of us carry around in our heads. Listen to how Nathaniel Philbrick describes it in his bestselling book, Mayflower:

“Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding, the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other’s hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on. Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement with five freshly killed deer. Even if all the Pilgrims’ furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages — stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown — simmered invitingly.

In addition to ducks and deer, there was, according to Bradford, “good store of wild turkeys” in the fall of 1621[So, yes, there could have been turkeys roasting on those spits as well.]….

The Pilgrims may have also added fish to their meal of birds and deer. In fall, striped bass, bluefish, and cod were abundant. Perhaps most important to the Pilgrims was that with a recently harvested barley crop, it was now possible to brew beer. Alas, the Pilgrims were without pumpkin pies or cranberry sauce. There were also no forks, which did not appear at Plymouth until the last decades of the seventeenth century. The Pilgrims ate with their fingers and their knives.” [Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower (Viking, 2006), pp. 117-118.]

Imagine how it was for those Pilgrims. They were thousands of miles from home, in a strange land, with no ship to take them back home if their little experiment failed. They had nearly died of starvation the first winter, and now, as the second one was just beginning to settle in, they had no idea whether their meager stores would be sufficient.
There were way more Native Americans at the gathering than Europeans. Everything about their new neighbors would have seemed to the Pilgrims strange and different. Behind the Pilgrims’ genial reception of their guests there lurked a residue of fear.
So, far from being a smug, self-satisfied celebration put on by established farmers, who benevolently invited a few natives to dine with them, these were people who had lost much that was familiar in their lives, and were trying to come to terms with their “new normal.” Whatever had passed for a harvest feast back in England — or in the city of Leiden in the Netherlands, where they’d lived in recent years — bore little resemblance to this essentially Native American gathering, with its smoky fires, unfamiliar foods and large numbers of people wandering around who neither looked like them, dressed like them, nor even spoke their language.
If you’re living your life right now — no thanks to Sandy — with a great deal of uncertainty, hardly knowing where your next meal is coming from (let alone something to light the dark night or heat your home, if the power trucks still haven’t come to your neighborhood), you’re actually living a more authentic first-Thanksgiving experience than any of those prosperous, middle-class types who populate those Norman Rockwell paintings.
Another person who lived with constant uncertainty was Noah. We read a little of his story this morning. Immerse yourself in the details of that ancient tale. Imagine yourself aboard that huge and smelly ship, listening to the growls and cries and bellowings of frightened animals day and night, run aground on a shoal of rocks that will turn out, eventually, to be a mountaintop. Do you think that would have constituted any of “the comforts of home”?
Then, when Noah lets that dove fly out across the churning waves, unsure if it will ever come back, he’s desperate for some news — any news — of the sort of life he used to live.
That bird goes out, and comes back with nothing. But then, on the next trip, Noah and his family spy something they haven’t seen before: a little sprig of greenery in the bird’s beak, a precious piece of evidence that somewhere out there is a patch of dry ground, with vegetation growing on it, and the possibility that they will eventually get back something of the life they’d lost, before this terrible storm smashed its way into their comfortable world.
That’s what gets us through the tough times in life: the green promise of something sure to come, of waters receding, and winds dying down, and the opportunity to get something of our old lives back, at last.
If you look around carefully these days, you’ll see plenty of green promises. When the power finally returns, that’s a huge step towards normalcy. Much as the kids claim to hate school, I know for a fact that most of them quietly rejoiced when this long, unscheduled holiday finally came to an end.
They say the trains are going to start running again on Monday. I didn’t realize how much I missed the clamor of the horn and the rattling of the rails every couple hours or so. It’s been strange for me not to hear that familiar sound. When those sounds again punctuate our lives — and yes, even when we have to sit in the car and wait at a railroad crossing till those gates go up again, we’ll begin to feel a little more of the life we once knew is returning. A sprig of green promise.
If your or I wait until everything is restored, though, before we allow ourselves to be happy, we’re going to be subjecting ourselves to a whole lot more misery than necessary. For, just as Noah saw that sprig of olive and could envision not only a whole tree, but a whole grove of olive trees, yielding up their fruit in abundance, so too, as you and I glimpse those hopeful signs, we’ll know this strange and frightening interlude is slowly — very slowly — working its way to an end.
It’s all about projecting our thoughts out into the future. It’s all about seeing something that’s not here yet. It’s as Paul says in Romans 8, those marvelous words about the true nature of hope:

“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” [Romans 8:24b-25]

Ultimately, what gives us enduring hope in this life is not so much what we see, but what we don’t see. The occasional olive branches you or I may come across are mere pointers. They hint at a far greater and more beautiful reality yet to come.
So, reach out and take that little sprig of olive between your thumb and forefinger. Turn it over in your hand as you examine it, then over and over again. Remind yourself how God rarely gives us the big-picture view in life. All we get, most of the time, are these small glimpses, these mere hints of what’s to come.
Some of you are going to be submitting estimates of giving today. We’ve placed those purple pledge cards in the bulletin, for those who feel ready to do this (and if you don’t, please don’t worry about it; we know it’s a very hard thing to think about giving back, while you’re still grieving for many things that have been lost — some of them forever).
It may be hard to imagine the green promise (or should I say the purple promise) of those bulletin inserts, but try to think of them as a little bit of greenery springing forth, from out of a dry and barren landscape. If you can spare enough faith and hope in these troubled times to venture a guess as to your giving for the coming year, you will bear witness to the hope that is in you. For you will be delivering the sprig of hope, the green promise!
Let us pray:
Lord, we sometimes forget, in times of complacency,
how many certainties of our lives are not so certain after all.
There are things that are of this world,
and there are things that are not, things that endure.
Lord, give us eyes to see such hints all around us,
indications of your loving benevolence for all the earth.
Bring healing and hope not only to us,
your children striving to be faithful,
but even, in the name of Christ, to all the world.

Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.