I was in the Old City of Jerusalem, not far from the Lions’ Gate, when the reporter from CBS Radio found me. He got right to the point, “Are you a pilgrim?”
This was not first time I’d been asked this question. It was Good Friday, and I had come to walk the Via Dolorosa, spending fifteen minutes in meditation at each of the Stations of the Cross. Periodically along my journey, people would ask me, “Are you a pilgrim?”
I hadn’t planned this trip to Jerusalem in advance, but an unexpected business trip had brought me to Israel. So the first few times I was asked, I was able to answer quickly and easily. “I’m not a pilgrim. I’m just here by accident.”
But when you’re talking to a news reporter, you have to be a little more careful. If your remarks make it onto the air, all your friends will be calling you up to tell you what they heard, so it’s good to think things through before responding.
“No,” I wanted to reply, “I’m not a pilgrim. I’m just someone who got up at four o’clock this morning in order to drive an hour and arrive here before dawn, and then walk the ancient city streets of Jerusalem barefoot, spending fifteen minutes in meditation at each of the stations of the cross. Why would you think that I’m a pilgrim?”
After a long pause, I finally responded. “Yes. I’m a pilgrim.”
It seems strange that I should be so reluctant to identify myself as a pilgrim. After all, Jesus was a pilgrim. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, it is written that Jews should make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year: for Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (the Harvest festival) and Sukkot (the Festival of Booths). The Gospels tell us that Jesus observed these traditions, going to Jerusalem for both Passover and the Festival of Booths.
Christian pilgrimage has a long and rich history. In addition to sites like Rome and Jerusalem, there are places such as El Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James, in Northern Spain. El Camino de Santiago is more than a thousand years old. 690 pilgrims traveled it in 1985. The number of pilgrims has been steadily increasing since then, and in 2010, it hosted more than 272,000 pilgrims.
In France, there is the ecumenical Christian community of Taizé, founded in 1940 during the bleak years of World War II. Now more than 100,000 pilgrims come to visit it each year, most of them under the age of 25.
Outside of Christianity, many other traditions embrace pilgrimage. In the Islamic tradition, all Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lives if they are able to do so. In the Hindu tradition, the Kumbh Mela periodically attracts millions of pilgrims who purify themselves by bathing in the Ganges or Godavari.
Not all forms of pilgrimage involve a lengthy journey. Indeed, going to church on Sunday is a kind of pilgrimage too. Once a week, we travel to a holy place, seeking inspiration and spiritual nourishment. When we are done, we return to our homes and work places, hoping to be spiritually centered and strengthened for the coming week. Whether you come here every week or whether this is your first time in a church, everyone who is here today is a pilgrim.
So given the rich tradition of pilgrimage, both inside of and outside of Christianity, why was I reluctant to identify myself as pilgrim? Perhaps some of it has to do with the way the way the term “pilgrim” has become wrapped up in the way we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the United States.
As I learned it as a child, the Thanksgiving story is very beautiful. It tells of how the Pilgrims had a feast with the Native Americans to celebrate their first harvest. The food was provided by both the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. It is a story of friendship and sharing between people from radically different backgrounds.
This is an inspiring story. However, over time I’ve learned that there are some problems with it.
The first problem is that the story, as it is usually told, isn’t 100% historically correct. The Europeans in the Thanksgiving story didn’t call themselves “Pilgrims.” They would have thought that term was rather odd. And indeed, “pilgrim” is probably not the right term for what they were. One of the things that characterizes pilgrims is that they go on a journey seeking inspiration or spiritual nourishment, and then they return home. The European immigrants that we remember at Thanksgiving did go on a journey, and it seems fair to say that they were seeking spiritual nourishment. However, in terms of returning home, they are complete failures. It’s not what they were intending to do. So “Pilgrims” isn’t the right term for the Europeans in the Thanksgiving story. What they are is immigrants.
Getting this part of our history right is important. Recently I’ve been hearing things like, “We should be living in a Christian Nation! We should live in a Christian nation like the Pilgrims did!” It’s true. The Pilgrims did know what it was like to live in a Christian nation. The Christian nation that they lived in was called England. Their response to living in a Christian nation was that they wanted to leave, because it turned out that a Christian nation wasn’t a very good place for Christians to live.
As we explore our history, we may also find some more difficult stories. While there are beautiful stories of cooperation and caring between the European immigrants and the Native Americans, as a whole their relationship was quite troubled. One criticism of the Thanksgiving story is that it focuses on a time when the Native Americans and the European immigrants were living together in harmony, and it ignores the more troubling parts of their history.
So what do we do with this story that isn’t exactly accurate, that uses incorrect terminology, and leaves some important things out? One possible solution is to simply remove the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans from our Thanksgiving celebrations. We can continue to give thanks for our harvest, continue to share with those in need, and continue to gather together with people from radically different backgrounds. Perhaps the story of the “Pilgrims” and the Native Americans just isn’t a very useful story to tell anymore.
Certainly, for me, it’s easy to say that the Thanksgiving story isn’t really my story. I’ve been to Plimoth Plantation, a museum and historical site near where the Pilgrims built their first homes, and one of the things that they sell in their gift shop is a set of books listing every known descendent of the people who made that first journey on the Mayflower. I didn’t need to crack open their covers to know that my name isn’t written in any of those books. My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower. I’m not a Native American either. So when I hear the story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans, it would be easy for me to say, “I’m not a Pilgrim. I’m just here by accident.”
But I think that would be a mistake, because the story of the relations between the Native Americans and the European immigrants isn’t a story that is over. It’s a story that’s ongoing, and it still affects the lives of Native Americans every day. We need to remember the mistakes of the past, so that we don’t repeat them. And we need to be able to see ourselves in this story, because the next chapters in this story are going to be written by people who are alive today.
I don’t mind that the Thanksgiving story focuses on a time when the relationship between the Native Americans and the European immigrants was particularly good. We need stories like that to remind us of what can be possible. We need visions and dreams of a better future to help us move forward even when times are difficult and easy solutions cannot be found.
I want to close today by returning to the Gospel story of the Magi that we heard earlier in the service. This story is often heard around Epiphany, but I wanted to include it in today’s service because it is a classic tale of pilgrimage. Upon hearing of the birth of Jesus, wise people from the east leave their homes and travel to see the newborn child, bringing with them such gifts as they have. They visit the child, and then return home.
This story reminds us of several important things about being a pilgrim. Being a pilgrim doesn’t mean that you live in a perfect world. The Magi’s encounter with Herod and Herod’s later acts of violence show that the world through which they are traveling has real and serious problems. You can live in an imperfect world, and still be a pilgrim. The important thing is that you keep on moving.
Being a pilgrim, also doesn’t mean that you’ll never make a mistake. If the Magi had it all to do over again, I suspect they would have just avoided Herod altogether. Making a serious mistake was a part of their pilgrimage, and choosing not to repeat that mistake on the way home was an important part of their pilgrimage too.
Finally, being a pilgrim doesn’t mean that the story is over. The Magi visit Jesus as a newborn. Perhaps if they’d planned this better, they could have come a few years later and gotten to hear Jesus teach or see a few miracles. But the story of the Magi reminds us that a pilgrimage isn’t necessarily the end of a story. Sometimes, the end of a pilgrimage is where the real story begins.
This sermon was given on November 18, 2012 at College Heights United Church of Christ in San Mateo, California