Pilgrims and sojourners

Good morning, Friends! Thank you all for coming to worship this morning.

We just had Thanksgiving. I hope you all had a good time. Have you eaten up all your leftovers yet?

I want to start this morning by talking just a little about the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were a small group of English Protestants who left their native country and came to America seeking religious freedom. What you might not know was that a lot of it was about the Bible – which Bible people were allowed to read?

For over a thousand years, the only Bible available was in Latin. Ordinary people couldn’t read it. They knew some Bible stories, but ordinary people couldn’t actually read the Bible. Copies of the Bible were all made by hand, and they were very expensive.

Two things happened. One, the invention of the printing press made copies of the Bible affordable. And two, a big movement started to translate the Bible into peoples’ own language, so they could read it for themselves. So, the Protestant Reformation was partly a struggle about the freedom to read the Bible. And the Pilgrims were a part of that struggle.

The first Bible that was widely available in English was the Geneva Bible. It was translated by a group of English Protestant refugees who were living in Geneva in Switzerland.

The Geneva Bible was something new and special. It wasn’t just translated into English from Latin. They went all the way back to the original Greek and Hebrew, which made a big difference.

The Geneva Bible was also the first Bible in English to put in chapter and verse numbers, which made it a lot easier to find things. (There are no chapter and verse numbers in Greek and Hebrew Bibles.)

And the Geneva Bible also had lots of footnotes, which explained what things meant. For people who were reading the Bible in their own language for the first time, the footnotes were a big help.

The Pilgrims were among the people who read the Geneva Bible. I’m a direct descendant from two of the Pilgrims, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. One of my family’s most prized possessions is a battered old copy of it. It’s probably a copy which the Pilgrims brought with them from England to America, more than 400 years ago.

The new Geneva translation spread like wild fire over the English-speaking world. The only problem was, the king of England didn’t like it. Instead of talking about “kings”, in many places the Geneva Bible translated many of those words as “tyrants” and “despots.”

The footnotes in the Geneva Bible said that God made kings, and God could also unmake kings, or throw them out. The king of England didn’t like that.

So, King James ordered another new translation of the Bible, one which didn’t make kings look so bad. That’s the King James Version.

And because the king of England was also the head of the English church, King James ordered that only his translation could be used at worship. The Geneva Bible, which hundreds of thousands of English Protestants had used for generations by now, was banned. And if you didn’t toe the line, you could be imprisoned.

People being what they are, many of them resisted the king’s new translation. They wanted to read their own Bible, and they wanted to worship in their own way.

The Pilgrims were part of this religious resistance movement. They were persecuted and arrested and jailed, and finally they moved to Holland, which had a reputation for religious toleration.

The trouble was, when the Pilgrims moved to Holland, all their kids started growing up speaking Dutch, and the Pilgrims were rapidly losing their culture. So, they moved back to England, but they quickly decided to seek a new life in America. America wasn’t a country yet. There were barely even any colonies. They were moving into the wilderness, and they knew it.

It took more than two months for them to sail across the Atlantic. There were 100 people, crowded into a space 58 feet long and 25 feet wide. That’s about half the size of our fellowship hall. There were no windows, and the space was only 5 feet tall. It was cramped and crowded, cold and wet. There was no fire for them down below, and the deck over their heads leaked all the time.

The Pilgrims landed in the wrong place. They had intended to land farther south, in what’s now New York, but they were blown off course to what’s now Massachusetts. By the time they landed, winter was coming on. The captain of the ship was anxious to leave, before the food for his crew ran out.

They landed just as winter was starting. They had to tough it out that first winter. During the next year, almost half of them died. Thanksgiving was a celebration by the survivors.

The Pilgrims made friends with a group of Native Americans, who taught them how to raise corn and pumpkins. The first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast. People brought whatever they had – fish, game, produce. The Native Americans joined them, and it was an experience none of them ever forgot.

Anyway, that’s the background for Thanksgiving. The other part of the background, is our scripture for this morning. It’s from the Old Testament, from the book of Deuteronomy.

When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket.

Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God.

Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.

But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression.

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.”

Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

This morning I want to talk about pilgrims. I don’t mean the ones in my family tree who landed at Plymouth Rock back in 1620. Pilgrims in the Bible go back way earlier than that.

Actually, the Bible has two different ways to talk about people who move around and who don’t have a permanent home. There are pilgrims, and there are sojourners.

Sojourners are mentioned much more in the Old Testament. Sojourners were people who were driven to a different place by circumstances. It might be war and violence in their home. It might be famine.

The head of the family might have died, leaving the rest of the family with no support., as in the story of Ruth and Naomi. There might have been a change of rulers which caused people to become refugees and go into exile.

Whatever the cause, sojourners are living somewhere else, and it’s not their choice. A change in climate, a natural disaster, something has forced them to hit the road, with just what they can carry, and the clothing on their backs. We have a lot of people who fit that category in the world today.

The Hebrew Bible is constantly calling on God’s people to be mindful and compassionate towards sojourners. God says, “You shall not wrong sojourners or oppress them, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

We have to look out for people who have no home or place in society, because we were all like that ourselves once.

“The stranger that sojourns with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shalt love him as yourself; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

“‘If your brother has become poor, and his hand can’t support him among you; then you shall uphold him. As a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you.” (Leviticus 25:35)

Abraham was a sojourner. The founder of all the families in the Bible and his wife Sarah left their home, and wandered for years. No one accepted them. No one welcomed them. God had promised them a home, but they didn’t know where it would be.

Jacob was a sojourner, when he ran away from his angry brother who wanted to kill him. Moses was a sojourner, who fled from Egypt and lived for years in the wilderness. David was a sojourner – most of the greatest people in the Bible were refugees at one time of another.

God told them to say, “My father was a wandering Aramean, who went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.”

That’s the other side of the sojourning story. People who trust God and who walk with God as sojourners can be blessed beyond measure. God promises that people who have no home, who have no land, will have a place to call their own.

The Bible gives a tremendous amount of space telling us to care for the sojourner – much more space, by the way, than it gives to some of these other issues that people get all excited about. Caring for the homeless, seeing that refugees are treated fairly, looking out for the poor, all receive much more attention in the Bible.

On the Sabbath, God says that we are supposed to rest, and our families, but even the sojourners and the resident aliens shouldn’t have to work that day.

If they are given rest and included in the Sabbath, God says that they will give thanks and bless God and become a part of God’s people. We’re supposed to treat them as if they already are part of the family.

Pilgrims are something different. Pilgrims are people who choose to travel and move around. Pilgrims are usually going somewhere – to a famous holy place, to spend time with a spiritual leader, to seek for an experience they know in their hearts that they need.

Pilgrims are also different from apostles. Apostles are sent out, like messengers or ambassadors. Pilgrims and apostles are both travelers, but pilgrims are seekers.

During both Old and New Testament times, people made pilgrimages to Jerusalem. At Passover time, hundreds of thousands of people made their way to the City of David. Jesus went on that pilgrimage to Jerusalem himself, when he was only 12 years old. He listened to the famous rabbis, and he asked them questions.

In the Middle Ages, people often went on pilgrimages – to a place where a famous saint had lived, for example, or to a shrine which had a reputation for healing, or to a religious community where the prayer life was especially powerful.

Some people went on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Other people, who couldn’t afford the long and dangerous journey, would go to a cathedral which had a labyrinth or maze marked out on the floor. People believed that if you were poor, that walking the labyrinth while saying your prayers was just as good as making a pilgrimage all the way to Jerusalem.

In the New Testament, the Three Wise Men we read about at Christmas were pilgrims. They were following a star, without really knowing where it would lead them. When Jesus was doing his ministry, people sought him out. They made pilgrimages, wanting to see Jesus face to face, for themselves.

But the basic difference between sojourners and pilgrims is that pilgrims choose to travel, while sojourners are forced to leave their homes.

There may be points in our lives when we feel like sojourners or pilgrims. Sometimes we’re one or the other.

I never felt at home at the college I went to as an undergraduate. I enjoyed the classes, but the social life on campus was all about drinking. I had very few close friends, and I’ve never once gone back for a reunion. I was just a sojourner. The only real friends I made during those four years were at the Quaker meeting.

I’ve gone on pilgrimages at various times – to Kenya back in 2001, to see the missions I spent years supporting. I’ve been to the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived, and where a community of monks live with prayers and singing and silence. There are other places I’d like to see some day.

In one of the psalms, the writer says, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry: do not hold your peace at my tears, for I am a stranger with you, a sojourner, like all my ancestors. . .” (Psalm 39:12)

Many of us feel completely at home, right where we are. But other people today feel like strangers, even in the midst of our culture and our society.

Are we citizens, or are we aliens? Do we really belong here, or are we sojourners and strangers in the midst of our own land? Sometimes it’s hard to say.

And in the same way, many people feel they’re on a pilgrimage. We’re seekers. We want a deeper experience of the holy. Even if we don’t move or travel around, we’re seeking all the time.

Pilgrims always seem to have their eyes on the far horizon. They know there’s something more out there. Or they’re seeking within, seeking inwardly, heading for the deeper waters or the unexplored but promised territory.

There are churches and communities where everyone seems to be right at home. They don’t have too many questions, and somebody has all the answers. They’re comfortable, and safe, and contented.

Our meeting tends to be that way. We’ve got people who have spent most of their lives here. But we also have people who came here from somewhere else. Or they grew up here, but they moved away, and it feels like they’re always listening for the beat of a different drummer.

As pastor, I don’t make any distinction between those two groups. I try to treat you all the same, with the same welcome, the same care, and the same courtesy. I try to listen to you all. And I certainly love you all.

But I know that people are called in different ways. Our inward and outward journeys are different. And that’s all right.

I guess that the point of what I want to say this morning is just that. I want us to be aware of our differences, our different characters and dispositions. I want us to be sympathetic to each other, no matter who we are.

I’d like us to listen more, to each other’s stories. We have so many wonderful people here in our meeting, and we don’t know each other nearly well enough.

We mustn’t dismiss each other, saying, “Oh, he’s just a stay-at-home who’s been here for 40 or 60 years,” or saying, “Oh, she’s just a transient, someone who’s just passing through. . .”

We are all citizens of Christ’s new kingdom. We are all adopted sons and daughters of the family of God. We are sojourners, strangers in a strange land, refugees from our own society. And we are pilgrims, seeking for the Light, seeking for Truth, following a distant star.

So as we pray together, let’s pray for each other. And let’s give thanks for everyone who is here. Let’s consider how we can listen more to each other, how we can be more welcoming and more affirming.

And let’s always give thanks to God, and listen to the Spirit, and help each other along as we walk with Jesus.

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