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THE BLESSINGS OF FRUITFUL FIELDS

by Douglas Clark

based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11; John 6:25-35

Two of my favorite childhood memories have to do with gardening and Cape Cod. For many of my childhood years, my parents and my brother and I raised large vegetable gardens. When the harvest time came, we would enjoy fresh vegetables straight from the garden--and there’s nothing quite like sweet corn that you harvest and husk and drop immediately into a pot of boiling water on the stove. My mother also canned large quantities of green beans and tomatoes and corn, and I can remember shelves in the basement of our home in Springfield bending under the weight of food for the winter. And I remember peddling fresh vegetables in the neighborhood from my red wagon.

My Cape Cod memories have to do with family vacations. For several summers, we rented a cabin in Orleans for a week and spent much of our time at the beach, both on the bay side and on the ocean side. We would also visit Provincetown, and I remember one year we visited Nantucket Island and rented bicycles and rode the bikes up and down the moors of Nantucket. For the Pilgrims who crossed the north Atlantic ocean on the Mayflower in the fall of 1620, and who built the little settlement they called Plimoth Plantation, gardening and Cape Cod were also indelibly engraved on their memories. And these memories were mixed in tone. Here, for instance, is how William Bradford, who wrote his history Of Plimoth Plantation in 1647, more than 25 years after the voyage of the Mayflower, remembered the voyage and the landing at what is now Provincetown on Cape Cod: “After they had enjoyed fair winds and weather for a season, they were encountered many times with cross winds, and met with many fierce storms....In sundry of these storms the winds were so fierce, and the seas so high, as they could not bear a knot of sail, but were forced to hull, for divers days together....After long beating at sea they fell with that land which is called Cape Cod.... “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element....”

Even though Provincetown on Cape Cod was “firm and stable earth,” it wasn’t exactly their proper destination. The violent storms during the crossing of the north Atlantic had driven the ship significantly off course, far to the north of the mouth of the Hudson River, their original destination. Nor was Cape Cod in November a “land flowing with milk and honey.” This past summer, as I walked on the beach at Wellfleet and looked across Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown in the distance, I tried to imagine how barren the land must have seemed in 1620. As Gov. Bradford recalled: “Being thus passed the vast ocean,...they had now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor....And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast....For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue....If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.”

On the one side, the Pilgrims faced the cold, forbidding and uninviting New England wilderness, populated by natives of whom they had reason to be afraid, given the prior history of conflict between Europeans and native Americans. On the other side, they face the “vast and furious ocean,” and a crew of sailors who had cursed them regularly during the voyage and were now threatening to leave them to their own devices. In view of all the hardships facing the Pilgrims, wrote Gov. Bradford, “What could now sustain them but the spirit of God and his grace?” And he continued, in words that paraphrased verses from Deuteronomy 26 and Psalm 107: “May not and ought the children of these fathers rightly say: “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and he heard their voice, and looked on their adversity. Let them therefore praise the Lord, because he is good, and his mercies endure for ever. Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, show how he hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert wilderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry, and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord his loving kindness, and his wonderful works before the sons of men.”

The faith of the Pilgrims was a faith that was firmly grounded in the Hebrew Bible. Like the ancient authors of Deuteronomy 26 and Psalm 107, they were convinced that God had heard their cries for help and looked on their adversity and delivered them from affliction and brought them safely into a kind of Promised Land. For William Bradford, the voyage on board the Mayflower and the settlement at Plymouth were a new Exodus. The first winter in the promised land was a hard and bitter time. Half the people who came over on the Mayflower did not survive the winter; Bradford himself was gravely ill for a time. But by the time the fall of 1621 arrived, the Pilgrims, blessed by much assistance from Squanto and others in the matters of gardening and hunting and fishing, and by favorable weather conditions, were beginning to enjoy a time of prosperity and security, and the land was beginning to flow in milk and honey. In Gov. Bradford’s words: “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength, and had all things in good plenty....All the summer there was no want. And now began to come in store of [water]fowl, as winter approached....And besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of [corn] meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned, but true reports.”

So it was that the deep adversity of their first winter was gradually trnsformed into abundance. So it was that they celebrated a three-day feast of thanksgiving, to which many of their native American hosts and mentors were invited. And so it was throughout their years at Plimoth Plantation that they remembered the voyage across the ocean and the bitter first winter and the blessings of fruitful fields that they later enjoyed. For the Pilgrims, thanks-giving and thanks-living were grounded in their collective memory of how they were sustained by the spirit and grace of God.

More than two centuries later, the nation the Pilgrims helped to found was being torn apart by the Civil War. In the midst of that terrible war, President Abraham Lincoln issued a thanksgiving proclamation. He invited every citizen of the United States, whether at home or abroad, to set aside the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving and praise to God, and of humble penitence for the nation’s perverseness and disobedience. President Lincoln observed that the nation was prospering everywhere, except on the battlefields. He believed that this mixture of adversity and abundance was a clear sign of God’s judgment and God’s mercy on the nation. And he believed that all citizens, regardless of their religious persuasion, should pray to God to “heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it...to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.”

There is a common thread in all these memories and stories, and that common thread is the conviction that God is with God’s people, not only in times of abundance, but also in times of adversity. When the ancient Hebrews looked back on the liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, they were convinced that God had heard their prayers and seen their adversity and brought them into a land of abundance, a land flowing with milk and honey. And during the celebration of the harvest festival of thanksgiving, they recited and remembered this journey from adversity to prosperity.

When William Bradford looked back on the first twenty-seven years of the settlement at :Plimoth Plantation, he was convinced that God had heard the prayers of the Pilgrims and looked on their adversity and brought them into a land of abundance. And so he recited and remembered the Pilgrims’ journey from scarcity to abundance.

When President Lincoln looked at the condition of his country in the midst of the war between the states, he saw evidence of God’s judgment in the adversity of the battlefield, and evidence of God’s mercy in the abundance of “the plough, the shuttle, and the ship”; and he was convinced that God would hear the prayers of the people and heal the wounds of the nation.

When we as individuals or as a congregation look at our own experiences of adversity and abundance, what do we see? What do we sense? Do we sense the guiding and blessing presence of God? Do we find gratitude and thanksgiving welling up inside? And in whatever experiences of adversity or abundance that may greet us in the future, what will we sense? Will we also sense the guiding and blessing presence of God? Will we also find gratitude and thanksgiving welling up inside? The answer to these questions is, I am convinced, a resounding YES!

Last Sunday, when you brought forward your pledges of time and talent and treasure and placed them in the basket lined with prayer stones, it was a deeply moving celebration of gratitude and thanksgiving. Some of you who came forward last Sunday have been supporting this church for perhaps a half-century or more; some of you for a quarter-century or more; some of you for the last few years, when much was uncertain and in flux; some of you made a financial and personal commitment to this church for the first time. To all of you, whether you came forward last Sunday or have sent your pledges of time, talent and treasure to the office or plan to do so in the near future, thank you. Thank you on behalf of this wonderful, challenging church, with its heritage and its hope in equal measure. Thank you for trusting and celebrating the guiding and blessing presence of God in our lives and in our midst. Thank you for giving generously of your own resources to help bring our vision and our mission to fruition. To borrow from Paul’s words to the Thessalonian congregation: How can I thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that I feel before our God because of you? Amen and amen!