Thanksgiving

Every year during the month of November, we pause to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.  There are certain national stories that are important to our country.  There are certain Biblical stories that are important to our faith.  There is value in telling these stories again every year, to remind us of who we are and how we got here.  They help us reflect on why we do what we do today, and help us get “back on track” when we forget where we came from.

The first major British settlement in America was at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.  Jamestown was named after King James of England.  The first settlers came for political reasons (to expand the British Empire) and for financial reasons (to look for gold).  13 years later, the Pilgrims settled in Massachusetts, arriving in 1620.  They came for religious reasons.  Thus, we see that our nation originated from different groups who arrived at different times for different purposes – some political, some financial, and some religious.

The Pilgrims set sail from England on the Mayflower on September 6, 1620, with 102 passengers and 30 crew members.  Their goal was to sail to Virginia.  The Atlantic winds blew them off course.  Instead of landing in Virginia, they landed at Cape Cod, Massachusetts on November 11, 1620.  The trip across the Atlantic Ocean was a miserable one, with huge waves constantly crashing against the ship’s topside deck.  The passengers suffered from shortages of food and of other supplies.  There were two deaths on board the Mayflower, and there was one baby born, who was named Oceanus.

After landing at Cape Cod, the Pilgrims wanted to sail south to Virginia to reach their original destination.  But when the weather would not cooperate, they decided to spend the winter in Massachusetts.  To establish legal order and to quell increasing strife within the ranks, the settlers wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact.

On November 27, an exploring expedition was launched under the direction of Capt. Christopher Jones to search for a suitable settlement site. They were obviously not accustomed to, or prepared for, the bitter winter weather they encountered.  The expedition was forced to spend the night on shore in below-freezing temperatures with wet shoes and stockings that became frozen.

The Pilgrims spent the entire winter on board the Mayflower, suffering an outbreak of a contagious disease described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.  When it ended, there were only 53 passengers still alive. Half of the Pilgrims had died.  Half of the crew died, as well. In the spring, they built huts on shore, and on March 21, 1621, the surviving passengers finally disembarked from the Mayflower.

The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621.  This feast lasted three days, and was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”, which were days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.

Squanto, a Pantuxet Native American who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them. Squanto had learned the English language during his enslavement in England. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit had given food to the colonists during the first winter when the supplies brought from England were insufficient.  The feast was cooked by four adult Pilgrim women who survived their first winter in the New World (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White, along with young daughters and male and female servants).

When we read this story, we are reminded of a few key points:

  1. The first Thanksgiving was a time to give thanks to God for their survival. The Pilgrims were not ready for the harsh wintry conditions they encountered.  Half of their group died from disease.  This was a scary time.  The people who survived did not live because they were smarter or more talented or more prepared or because they had more faith.  They survived by the grace of God Who kept them alive.  They set aside three days to thank God for saving their lives.
  2. The first Thanksgiving was a time to give thanks for the grace and the hospitality extended to the Pilgrims by the Native Americans. The Pilgrims would not have survived without them.  God saved them through the Native people.  They had knowledge of the winter, the land, the crops that could grow, and how to survive, which the Pilgrims needed.  Thanksgiving was a time to thank the Native Americans for coming to their rescue.
  3. The Pilgrims were an adventurous people. They were willing to take a huge risk to leave England and journey thousands of miles to America, knowing that they might not ever see their loved ones again, and might not survive.  They were probably driven by a mixture of fear and hope, desperation and faith, uncertainty and adventure.  They were entrepreneurs.  They were willing to make huge sacrifices to find a better life.  They had a deep faith in Jesus and were moved to pray and thank God for saving their lives.

Their first year in America probably did not go as they had hoped or planned.  They had to adapt.  They had to learn lots of new things.  They had to adjust their lives to fit the new world they were now living in, while remaining grounded in their faith in Jesus, rooted in the scriptures, and interdependent on one another.  These are good lessons for us to remember today.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this month, what are we thankful for?  Are we still willing to make great sacrifices today?  Are we willing to set out on great adventures, stretching our faith, and willing to face new situations, like our Pilgrim forebears before us?  Do we realize that we need each other?  Thanksgiving is a story of people from different countries, different continents, different races, and different sexes working together.  Thanksgiving is a story of immigration where the first Americans welcomed some of the first Europeans with grace, generosity, and hospitality.  Thanksgiving is a story of success.

So, as we sit down to our Thanksgiving meals this year, we are reminded to be thankful to God, to be thankful for those around us who have helped us, and to take risks of faith and to make sacrifices for Jesus.  We are building on the story that began almost 400 years ago.  Jesus saves us to do something.  God rescues us to go somewhere.  The Holy Spirit is preparing us for something special.  Where will God lead us to go this year?

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