Peter Gomes, the late great preacher and minister of Harvard’s Memorial Chapel, (and also, I might add, a brilliant, witty preacher at Calvary’s Lenten Preaching Series in the 1990s), had a unique perspective on Thanksgiving.
He lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the first immigrants, later called Pilgrims, landed in 1620, and where the first Thanksgiving meal is said to have taken place. In a memorable Thanksgiving Day sermon, Gomes described the marching bands that wind around Plymouth Rock, people cheering and children dancing in the streets: “Being in Plymouth for Thanksgiving,” Gomes writes, “is like being in Bethlehem for Christmas, only safer.”
But apparently not all the residents of Plymouth welcome so much to-do around Thanksgiving. One of his friends, a bona fide Pilgrim descendant, grumbles, ‘Just because they were cheerful and thankful in tough times, everyone thinks we should be, too. It was an ill wind that blew the Mayflower into Plymouth Harbor.”
Whether you agree with that cranky Pilgrim-descendant or not, he has a point. It is hard to be thankful on cue; hard to gather around a table when your heart is breaking and you are worried sick. I felt both of those things on Thanksgiving Day, 1971, when my mother was gravely ill in the hospital.
I remember having Thanksgiving lunch that day with my father and brother in a quiet corner of a local club. I didn’t want to go, but what else to do? We needed to eat, and after all, it was Thanksgiving. We were supposed to be thankful.
My mother died that night, and every Thanksgiving since then I remember that other Thanksgiving Day, when I was not thankful – not at all. Then I found Peter Gomes’s sermon, “Remember to Remember.”
The sermon is based on a text from Deuteronomy 8: 1-2a, a portion of Moses’s farewell address to the children of Israel whom he guided through the wilderness for forty years, while they whined and complained about sore feet and bad food. At long last, as they are about to enter the Promised Land without him, Moses gives them words to live by in their new home: “Remember to remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you.”
Remember to remember.
“This Thanksgiving,” Gomes says, “I invite you to remember not the usual good things, not the list of blessings you have received, like an audit at a stockholders’ meeting, but the bad things, by name, that have happened to you, the terrible things, the worst things. Think of your worst moments, your sorrows, your losses, your sadness.
“And then remember that here you are, able to remember them.
You got through the worst day of your life, you’re making your way out of the dark. But remember that it was the Lord who got you out of it, got you through it, and was with you in the middle of it. Remember to remember.”
Remembering to remember the long way God has been with me in good times and in terrible times, has become my key to living with deep thankfulness. Perhaps they can be for you as well.