Since I will dashing shortly after this service to be with family and friends, I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a happy, a safe and a blessed Thanksgiving.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Americas were known throughout Europe to be a wild, untamed and unclaimed land of plenty. The common notion about the natives were that they were heathens and savages. This understanding informed that historic group of 102 European Pilgrims who on September 16, 1620, set out for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower. Of the 102 Pilgrims making that sea-sick voyage, only about half were religionist. The others were made up of those coming to the promised lands for various secular purposes or ideologies.
So the company of the first Thanksgiving that we celebrate today was comprised of three groups, radical English Reformists, those of economic or military interest, and the Native Americans, specifically the Wampanog. And we shall see the first Thanksgiving was not simply a gathering of European and native people, but rather it was an encounter of a particular people with particular histories.
The Wampanog tribe was a part of the Algonquin language nation with at least thirty subtribes, twelve thousand people distributed among forty villages. Their first contact with Europeans was in the 1500s, with fishing and trading vessels and their crews. Some encounters were indeed friendly. And yet others were those that brought about European sicknesses, such as smallpox. A few years before the Mayflower, three epidemics swept across the maritime areas of Canada and New England. By the time the Pilgrims arrived, 75 percent of the Wampanog population alone had died.
Traders and explorers would also increase their profits by capturing natives, selling them as slaves in Spain and in England. But the Europeans were not the only threat suffered by these peoples. Ten years before the Mayflower arrived, they were victims of warring tribes of other native nations. The Mixmac war parties from the north, the Croix invaders from the Northwest devastated their villages, and when the Mayflower arrived, these people already weakened by war, disease and kidnapping, had been oppressed by another tribe, the Noragasset, that they might be forced to pay extortion taxes.
But the Wampanog people, like most native peoples, were deeply pious and religious, and they were monotheistic. A very fine book on early native spirituality is An Archeology of the Soul, by Professor Robert Hall. They called the one God the Great Spirit. A common saying was, “The Creator placed his hands on the whole creation, so therefore, everything is spiritual.” Although they talked to nature, they prayed to the Great Spirit. They gave thanks though to the spirit of the trees that gave them sap and wood for fire, to the spirit of the deer for dying and giving its life that they might eat. Even before the Mayflower arrived it was their custom to have a celebration of thanksgiving to God after every harvest.
These were the heathen and savages whom the European settlers encountered at Plymouth Rock.
But who were the religionists among the settlers? The true Pilgrims? Well, they were a radical sect of Puritan Reformers called Separatists. They were dissidents against the Church of England, and much like the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Reformation in Europe and England brought about more than a century of brutal persecutions, of murders and wars, and displaced populations. And this was all in the glorious name of Jesus Christ.
States either became Roman Catholic or Protestant, or some form of Protestantism, and dissenters were not tolerated. The state governments saw the establishment of one church as a stabilizing political factor. And since religion was a nationalistic matter, people professing loyalty to another denomination, other than the state church, were seen as potential traitors. And the established churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, saw their establishment as a confirmation that they were the true religion. Thus they believed that it was their duty to force conformity, less dissenters delude themselves with false doctrines and their souls be damned.
One can only imagine how often the text was justified, “it is better for one to enter eternal life, maimed or lamed, than to be thrown into hell a whole body.”
This was true of the Church of England, which had sought to dispose itself of Roman controls, while keeping the Catholic faith, including bishops and sacraments. Puritans were those who felt the Reformation in England had not gone far enough, and they wanted to purify the church of its remaining popishness, mainly wanting greater Scripture warrant for worship, greater autonomy from bishops and for their local churches to have independent administrative authority.
But the most radical of Puritans protested against such things as church ornaments and vestments, organs and sacraments, and episcopacy both as an ecclesial office and a form of government. They believed that a Presbyterian form of government was more appropriate, more efficient and more biblical. The state and the Church of England, therefore, oppressed and suppressed these radical dissenters, not only with arrest and jail, but the most vociferous were even mutilated.
But most Puritans were not radicals, and they wanted local autonomy. That’s all. And today we know these moderate Puritans as the Congregational Church. But oppressed and with the conviction that the Church of England was too corrupt to reform, a minority fled to Holland and then to the New World as Pilgrims.
So on September 16, 1620, sponsored by the Virginia Company, they set out with other settlers for northern Virginia. Now, I’m not talking about Alexandria. I’m talking about a time when the Virginia Colony understood itself to stretch itself all the way to the southern border of Maine. At least half of the 102 on the Mayflower were non-Puritans. They were not Christian in their motivation. They were either going to the New World for political, economic, mercenary, such as Miles Standish, or some other secular reason.
After 65 days of sea sickness, they dropped their anchor in Plymouth Harbor. And in the cold of December, in a New England winter, they settled on the land site of an abandoned Indian village, and there they spent months in crude shelters, cold, sick and slowly dying. Historians say half of the settlers did not survive that terrible winter.
But a native chief from the area we now know as Maine was on an extended hunting party, and he came across this disaster. And after using some English he had learned from traders to assist them, he returned the next day with a person that school children know as Sqanto, who was a Wampanog chief. Now Sqanto had a story of his own. In fact, he had only returned to his native land after having been captured and sold as a slave in Spain and England. He returned only to discover that the European diseases had wiped out his entire family and his entire village. But this man placed aside the personal tragedy and reached out to the human need he discovered, and using his great language facility he nurtured relationships between local villages and the squatters. He taught the Pilgrims to shelter. He taught them to fish and to hunt and to farm. And they were so successful that their first harvest yielded twenty-six acres of crop, about half the size of this Cathedral campus.
So in 1621, August of that year, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanog to join them in a festival of thanksgiving. Familiar with such ideas, Sqanto arrived with ninety men and five deer, and the feast consisted of corn, peas, fowl, venison, and beer. It lasted three days. Some say, five. But it was a celebration, and it was a thanksgiving to God for survival and the kindness of strangers.
However, I believe that the first thanksgiving was about more than survival. I believe it was a rare moment of celebration in which a very diverse people celebrated a common gratefulness despite the contradictions of their culture and racial diversity. Despite the conflict of their stories of pain and tragedy. Despite the differences in religious and cultural practices and ideologies. For after all, they were of native religion, of Christian faith, of secular agendas.
But regardless of all this, grateful hearts brought them together acknowledging with thanksgiving one God and a common experience of interdependence and the blessing of a common land.
Is this not the picture of America? We are a nation of various cultures, life styles and races. We are of different religions. Buddhists. Muslim. Jewish. Sheik. Native. And Christian, to name a few. We are sects within religions. We are liberal and social gospel types. We are conservatives and evangelicals. We are Fundamentalists and Pentacostalists. We are uncategorized groups, such as Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. We are all of differing ideologies, too often polarized along social, political and economic agendas, and we have painful racial and social histories, often having been victimized by one another. In fact I would say in some way we are all guilty of one kind of bigotry or another, whether it be race, culture, gender, religion, orientation either in our past or in our present attitudes and relationships.
Yet, we are all survivors, and we have all been blessed with this good land, its bounty, its opportunity, its freedom and the founding democratic principles that undergird it. Yes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
So no matter what our particular group’s condition in this country, there is no other land or nation on earth that holds greater promise, greater privilege and security for its citizens than America. Although too often it is with muffled tone. The true spirit of America still calls forth, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and the wretched refuse of your teaming shores.”
In this moment of thanksgiving, I believe it matters not whether we have come by canoe, the Mayflower, or the Armistad, or cooley ships to San Francisco, whether we entered by Ellis Island or the slave blocks of Annapolis, it matters not whether we have come across the border patrols of southern Texas. For on this Thanksgiving we are America. And it should matter not whether our religious leaders wear turbans, miters or yarmulkes. For on this day, we are all children of God.
Yes, we are red, yellow, brown, white, black, and blends of tiger woods. But whatever we are, we are Americans. And as Moses challenged the children of Israel, we must all bless the Lord of God for the good land God has given us. Yes, the first Thanksgiving when across the divides of tribalism, history and human condition, there was a coming together, a sharing and a thankfulness.
Therefore, I have a hope for a new Thanksgiving that will not only be a time for family but will also be a time to share with Americans who are not like us, except that they share the hope and the blessing of this land. In ceremonies of our dinner table or liturgies of worship or gathering in our town halls, we must be intentional to share beyond our tribalisms if we are to lift up the beauty and the power of Thanksgiving.
I hope for a new tradition of Thanksgiving, one in which we are bold enough to remember that this is a shared land and that we are interdependent on the gifts, the labors, and the good faith of one another, not only for our prosperity, but for our survival.
I have a hope that we might each be bold enough even to share our stories, stories of our faith, our pain and our hopes, and even more, that we will be bold enough to hear with compassion the story of faith, of hope, and pain of others.
I have a hope that in a new experience of Thanksgiving we will understand that we are all children of God and citizen pilgrims of this nation.
Finally, I have an even bolder hope for those of us who are Christians. That as Christians, we will lead the way to this new celebration of Thanksgiving. That we will chose on this day to manifest the love of God for all people was we have come to know it in Jesus Christ. That we will show this love more than the judgments and condemnations that do not convict but certainly divide. St. James reminds us that every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from God, the Father of Light, and that Light is liberty. For the Kingdom of God that Jesus preaches is really a new possibility for human life. It is a good gift, a good gift of community and of justice. A good gift of caring, brotherhood and sisterhood. It is the foundation of our democracy. It is a dream that is not simply political or economic or social. But it is born of the Spirit of God, and that dream, that vision, must be alive in us, as we have seen it in our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Seeking the Kingdom of God is a pilgrimage of the heart. It is a pilgrimage of the heart to make a place where all belong. And so in that continuing search for community, for caring and for justice, I believe that we must lead the way,. For I still believe that America can be that place, and I hope that you believe that also. And if you believe it, we must all continue to pray, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee; and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”