Since today we are celebrating Thanksgiving with our church family, I thought my sermon should reflect that. Rather than start with scripture, I thought I would start us off by talking a little bit about our country’s very first Thanksgiving. Right away there is a problem, of course, As you are aware, it’s not clear where or when the first Thanksgiving actually happened. There are at least two different first Thanksgivings for us to consider: one is in Plymouth, New England and other is in Jamestown, Virginia. Actually there are THREE first Thanksgivings, if you count Berkeley 100—also in Virginia. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let us start with the First Thanksgiving as it was observed in Plymouth colony. The Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1619. In the two years that followed the Pilgrims ploughed enough, sowed enough—that’s s-o-w-e-d enough, and all the rest that they actually produced a sizeable harvest. It was enough of a harvest, in fact, that they shared some of it with their American Indian friends—and teachers. I say teachers because the Native Americans taught those naïve white settlers which seeds to sow, how to prepare the ground for sowing and all the rest. It was only right and fitting, then, that their American Indian neighbors shared the harvest with them. That harvest meal was in October, 1621. So, remember these two dates: October, 1619, the Pilgrims landing, and 1621, the year of the Pilgrims’ first harvest meal.
Now let us move down the Eastern Coast to Jamestown. We all know Jamestown, right? It was settled in 1607. 1619, Plymouth. 1607 Jamestown. UH hum…. We know for sure that there was a church in Jamestown. Recent excavations have uncovered the church’s foundation. Not only that, we have written documentation that the famous John Rolfe and his bride, Pocahontas, were married at that Jamestown church in 1614—so, before those Pilgrims even set sail for the new world! It almost goes without saying, that at least some of Jamestown’s settlers worshiped in that church on Sunday mornings. When they worshiped, it ALSO almost goes without saying that sometimes those Jamestown worshipers offered a prayer of thanks to God, right? So, we have a case! Certainly sometime BEFORE 1621, and the pilgrims’ first harvest feast, grateful Jamestownonians gave thanks to God, in their Jamestown church. Sound plausible? Of course it does. Take that, you New Englanders!
Of course, New Englanders will argue back at us, that giving thanks to God, in a church, is not exactly the same thing as observing Thanksgiving. There is truth in that, we have to concede. So with your permission, and with great reluctance, let us scratch Jamestown from our list of possible first Thanksgivings.
But we are not done yet. I said there were three possible sites for the first Thanksgiving. The third is Berkeley 100. You may not have heard of Berkeley 100, but maybe you’ve heard of Berkeley plantation. Berkeley plantation before it actually became a plantation, was a land grant. That land grant was called Berkeley 100. If you have traveled Virginia, then you have driven by it. It is halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg off Route 5. In September, 1619, thirty-five would-be settlers set sail from England to the new world. The company they sailed for, the London Company, had been granted land by King James the 1st. They landed at Berkeley 100 on December 4, 1619. The Pilgrims landed the same year remember, a few months earlier, in October.
Those voyagers climbed off their ship, no doubt legs wobbly from so long at sea. They were probably hungry, too. Their food stores were depleted. But they didn’t first stretch their legs and begin a serious hunt for food. Oh no! This is a quote from one of the 35 who was present at that landing: “As instructed by the London Company, [Captain] Woodlief prayed: “We ordaine that this day of our ship’s arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
The London Company, the company that financed the voyage, actually used the word Thanksgiving in its orders to the settlers. The following year, that is on Dec.4, 1620, the Berkeley 100 settlers observed yet another Thanksgiving. Then, sadly, the settlers ran into major difficulties. They abandoned their settlement and moved to Jamestown.
So, Dec. 4, 1619 is the date of the first Thanksgiving. The Berkeley 100 settlers put that date on their calendars as an actual day of Thanksgiving, and it happened not all that far from here. Plymouth Colony’s first Thanksgiving feast was in October,1621. Almost two full years’ difference. Hah!
We’re not done yet, though. A lot of this back and forth arguing between Virginians and New Englanders concerns food— Thanksgiving is certainly NOT Thanksgiving without food, THEY say. In the Berkeley 100 narrative, where’s the turkey? Where’s the corn pudding? Aren’t they critical components of any real Thanksgiving? The Pilgrims feasted in 1621. The Berkeley 100 settlers did NOT feast.
The New Englanders have a point. If I were to ask you about your own memories of Thanksgivings past, you would most certainly mention food. It is the thing our minds go to, right? Mostly we think about food disasters, I think. So for instance, a friend of mine tells me that when she was newly married, she and her husband hosted a big crowd of family and friends for Thanksgiving. Neither she nor her husband had ever cooked a turkey before. Lots of guests, no cooking experience. Right there, you have the makings for catastrophe. Some of their guests arrived late. The stuffed turkey was done early. To keep it warm, my friend turned off the oven, but she did not remove the bird. You know, right, that even if the oven is turned off, that oven is still hot. Yep, that stuffed turkey just kept on–a-cookin’. When, all the guests had arrived, husband Charlie slid the now desiccated and over-brown-stuffed turkey from the oven. Using prongs, he tried to lift it out of the roasting pan. Turkey parts and stuffing-- fell into the pan, soaking up unappetizing turkey grease and juice residue.
My friend, Emily, was so focused on that poor, imploded turkey that she forgot to check the peas, which were at that very moment burning on the stove. Discovering her smoking, blackened peas, my friend burst into tears.
Yes, that was certainly a memorable day as far as Thanksgivings go, and not exactly a day to be thankful for either. She’s told that story at least 100 times I am sure. I have heard her tell it more than a few times. Our Thanksgiving disasters get a lot of traction, don’t they?
But food does NOT a Thanksgiving make. We who are God-centered folk, like to believe, that Thanksgiving is primarily about thanking God. Even in this religiously diverse country of ours, on the next-to-last Thursday in November, we come together to remember that we ARE nothing, we DO nothing, without the unconditional love of our maker. We drop to our knees, either literally or figuratively, thanking God for making our families possible, for making our country possible, for making our living and breathing possible. A religious writer I appreciate, says that if the only prayer we ever utter is Thank you, thank you, thank you-- that is enough. We are so often at a loss for words when we pray—God is so great and we are so small, after all. But if IN our small and unholy state, all that comes to mind is thank you, surely God smiles and blesses us.
But there is more. If a group of tattered, hungry, cold, maybe sick, and no doubt smelly voyagers (they were two and a half months at sea)--if those voyagers could forget their own misery long enough to offer not a curse, but a prayer of thanksgiving to God? That IS REMARKABLE, don’t you think? I am proud that this country was founded on THAT. Whether you are from New England, or Virginia, Texas or California, you have to be proud that we have THAT in our heritage.
So, as I myself have reminisced about Thanksgivings past, I have tried to concentrate more on the giving-thanks part and less on the food, and the food disasters part. I share with you a memory from many Thanksgivings ago—one that maybe gets at the true meaning of the day. See what you think.
Before I tell you this, though, I need to confess, that in my younger days, I was prideful, or more prideful than I am now, and a feminist, too, or even more of a feminist than I am now—God help me! Every year my girls and husband and I celebrated Thanksgiving with the in-laws. My father-in-law was THE true head of the family—the pater familias, as it were. Every Thanksgiving Day, he mostly stayed in the family room holding court with his son and sons-in-law, The women folk, including me, and when they were older, my daughters, scurried around the kitchen and dining room, setting the table, mashing potatoes, and all the rest. Is Thanksgiving still a time of gender segregation? I don’t know.
Anyway, even though he had nothing at all to do with the dinner’s preparations, at least to my mind, my father-in-law always offered the Thanksgiving blessing. That’s just the way it was. After getting my Masters in Divinity AND graduating with high honors, thank you very much, I got it into my proud and feminist head that I should offer the Thanksgiving blessing. No one asked me to do that, though, and even I wasn’t enough of a feminist to raise the issue. I was an in-law, which is to say an out-law, at those Thanksgiving dinners, after all. My father-in-law continued to offer the Thanksgiving blessing, despite my internal grumbling.
It eventually came to pass that my father-in-law developed Parkinson’s disease. Skin cancer after skin cancer followed, and then a lot of other ailments. Once he had been a large, virile, energetic force. In his last years he was stooped and clumsy. His speech was halting. As we sat down to Thanksgiving dinner the year following a major decline in his health, I wondered if finally, finally, he would ask me to pray over the food. That year, though, I actually dreaded the possibility. It would be a show of defeat for a man, a father figure, who had given his family all the love and guidance he could muster.
We held hands and bowed heads around the dinner table as was our custom. Slowly, but determinedly my father-in-law offered his very personal prayer of thanks to God-- for us, his family, for country and for his life well-lived. It was absolutely stunning. Poetic, even. It was, as you may have guessed already, his last Thanksgiving with us—on earth at least. I cherish the memory. All to say, between and among states, as between and among family members, Thanksgiving is not a competition. It is, well, it is just a time of giving thanks. Amen