Five Kernels of Corn, Then and Now

Readings

The first reading was done by Director of Religious Education EB Baptista

Instead of the usual first reading this morning, we’ll have a story instead: the old story of Thanksgiving. This is a story that you already know. But even though you’ve heard it about a million times, we tell it every year anyway, to remind ourselves why we celebrate Thanksgiving.

The story begins in England. In England in those days, every town had only one church, and it was called the Church of England. You had to belong to that church, like it or not. It’s not like it is here today, where families get to choose which church they want to go to — back then, there were no other churches to choose from! But a small group of people decided they could no longer believe the things that were said and believed in the Church of England.

When they tried to form their own church in England, they got in trouble. They moved to Holland, where they were free to practice their own religion, but they felt odd living in someone else’s country. Then they heard about a new land across the ocean called America, a place where they could have their own church, where they could live the way they wanted to. They found a ship called the Mayflower, and made plans to sail to America. These are the people we call the Pilgrims.

After a long, difficult trip across a stormy sea, the Pilgrims finally came to the new land, which they called New England. But the voyage took much longer than they had hoped, and by the time they got to New England, it was already December. Already December — it was already winter! — and they had to build houses, and find food, and try to make themselves comfortable for a long, cold winter.

It got very cold very soon. The Pilgrims had almost nothing to eat. The first winter that the Pilgrims spent here in New England was so long and cold and hard, that some of the Pilgrims began to sicken and die. Fortunately, the people who were already living in this new land — we call them the Indians — were very generous. When the Indians saw how badly the Pilgrims were faring, they shared their food so at least the Pilgrims wouldn’t starve to death. Half the Pilgrims died in that first winter, yet without the help of the Indians, many more would have died.

After that first winter, things went much better for the Pilgrims. Spring came, and the Pilgrims were able to build real houses for themselves. They planted crops, and most of the crops did pretty well. The Pilgrims went hunting and fishing, and they found lots of game and caught lots of fish.

By the time fall came around again, the Pilgrims found that they were living fairly comfortably. To celebrate their good fortune, they decided to have a harvest celebration. They went out hunting, and killed some turkeys to eat at their celebration. They grilled fish, and ate pumpkin pie, and we’re pretty sure they had lobster, wild grapes and maybe some dried fruit, and venison. However, they probably did not call their holiday “thanksgiving,” because for them a thanksgiving celebration was something you did in church. At that first celebration, they did not go to church.

Their harvest celebration lasted for several days, with all kinds of food, and games, and other recreation. The Indian king Massasoit and some of his followers heard the Pilgrims celebrating, and dropped by to see what was going on. In a spirit of generosity, the fifty Pilgrims invited all ninety Indians to stay for dinner. Imagine inviting ninety guests over to your house for Thanksgiving! More than that, in those days only the Pilgrim women prepared and cooked meals, but there were only four Pilgrim women old enough to help with the cooking — four women to cook food for a hundred and forty people!

The Indians appreciated the generosity of the Pilgrims, but they also realized that there probably wasn’t going to be quite enough food to go around. So the Indians went hunting for a few hours, and brought back lots more game to be roasted and shared at the harvest celebration. At last all the food was cooked, and everyone sat down to eat together: men and women, adults and children, Indians and Pilgrims.

That’s how the story of Thanksgiving goes. As you know, the Pilgrims called their first town “Plymouth,” and as you know, they also started a church in the town of Plymouth. But did you know that a hundred and eighty years later, that church became a Unitarian church? That church in Plymouth is now a Unitarian Universalist church. So it is that we Unitarian Universalists have a very important connection with the Pilgrims, and a special connection with Thanksgiving.

The second reading this morning is from Mourt’s Relation, written in 1622. This reading gives the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration in the words of one of the Pilgrims who was actually there. The language has been modernized.

“You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Homily

You should now have in your hands an envelope. If you haven’t already opened the envelope, why don’t you do so right now. What you should find in the envelope are five kernels of corn. I hope you are wondering why on earth you got five kernels of corn during a worship service (and yes, it is organic corn). To tell you why you just received five kernels of corn, I have to tell you a little story about the Pilgrims’ first winter here in southeastern Massachusetts.

As you know, the Pilgrims and the other English settlers left England on September 6, 1620, because they wanted a place where they could freely practice their religion. After a long voyage they came to anchor off Cape Cod on November 11. The settlers did not immediately find a place suitable for building their houses, so they spent a month exploring Cape Cod Bay. They wanted a good deep harbor where they could anchor their ship, the Mayflower, close to shore. They wanted good land where they could plant their crops in the spring. And they were worried that the people who were already living here, the Wampanoags, might attack them, so they wanted a place that they could defend in case of attack. Finally they found a place that looked good, and they named it Plymouth. They landed in Plymouth on December 23, 1620, and immediately started cutting down trees to build houses for themselves.

That’s right — they didn’t start building their houses until December 23. Remember that the climate in Massachusetts was colder back then than it is now. Remember that in late December, there isn’t much daylight here, and they didn’t have electric lights, so they could only work during the short daylight hours. There was snow, and ice, and it was cold, and every once in a while a storm would blow in so that they couldn’t work at all, but just had to huddle together on their ship. They did not have an easy time of it.

Can you imagine arriving in Massachusetts at this time of year after a hard two-month voyage on a tiny ship? Can you imagine spending another month desperately trying to find a good place to build a house, while the weather got colder and colder? Can you imagine that while you’re trying to find a place to live, you had to row small boats to shore, and wade in frigid water, and explore an unknown land that was sometimes frightening? Can you imagine doing all that hard outdoor work, and not having enough to eat because the food you had brought on the ship was beginning to run out? At last the Pilgrims decided to build their village in the place they called Plymouth. Can you imagine trying to build houses in the middle of a really hard Massachusetts winter?

There were only about a hundred of them. Some of them were already sick, or so exhausted that they were getting sick. They divided themselves up into nineteen families, telling all the single men to find a family that they could live with, so that they’d have fewer houses to build. Only a hundred people, some of them already starting to die from exposure and illness, with their food running out, trying to build nineteen houses in the middle of a New England winter.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, on January 14 one of their new houses caught fire and burned down. Even though no one was hurt, they had lost one of their precious houses, that cost them so much labor to build. As if a fire wasn’t bad enough, wolves came out of the woods and chased after their dogs — there were still wolves living around here in those days. As if wolves weren’t bad enough, they heard mountain lions roaring in the forest — there were still mountain lions living around here in those days. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, they had to deal with all the nasty weather that southeastern Massachusetts can dish out — freezing rain, and bitter cold, and snow, and high winds.

They didn’t have much food, and they didn’t have adequate shelter, and because of that many of them became ill. Once someone was ill, they really didn’t have a way to take care of the ill person. No nice warm beds to lie in; very little food to give someone who was ill. The real problem was the lack of food. Some of them came down with scurvy, a disease you get when you don’t have enough fresh food. Others became ill because they were simply weak from lack of food. By this time, they had eaten all the food they had brought with them, and they depended on hunting birds and animals in order to have something to eat; but they did not get nearly enough food by hunting.

More than half of the English settlers died in that first winter. Many years later, some people said that they had so little food that each person only had five kernels of corn to eat per day. Only five kernels of corn to eat per day.

You might want to look at the five kernels of corn you have in your hand. Imagine if that’s all you had to eat for a entire day: just those five kernels of corn. That’s not enough food for anyone. No wonder so many of them died that first winter in Plymouth.

They made it through that first winter. By March, they had made friends with some of the people who were already living here, the Wampanoag Indians. In the early spring, the Indians came down to the sea near Plymouth to catch lobsters and shad fish, which is what they did every year in early spring. The Indians shared some of their food, and showed the English settlers how to catch lobsters and shad. The Indians gave the Pilgrims some of their seed corn, and showed the Pilgrims how to grow corn in this new world.

As spring turned into summer, the Pilgrims borrowed food from the Indians, and began to find sufficient food on their own. When October came around, they had enough food that they felt they should have a real celebration, a harvest celebration. As we heard in the story of Thanksgiving, some of the men went off hunting, and came back with wildfowl and deer. The four women who were still alive did all the cooking. Ninety Indians, all men, dropped in at the last minute, and were invited to stay for the celebration. At last the food was ready and everyone sat down to eat. We don’t know exactly what they had to eat, but they might have had corn and pumpkins and squash and venison and wild duck and goose and baked beans and codfish and mussels and lobster and parsnips and carrots and cabbage and lots of other kinds of food. And the story goes that, in addition to all the wonderful food that had been cooked by those four women, each person at that meal also got five uncooked kernels of corn — five kernels of corn, as a reminder of how bad it had been that previous winter.

The story of those five kernels of corn probably isn’t true, but it’s a pretty good story. Sometimes we need tangible reminders, to help us remember what we’re thankful for — and now you have five little reminders, five kernels of corn to help you remember what we can be thankful for.

That was back then. What might those five kernels of corn help us to remember today? Those five kernels of corn help remind us to give thanks that we are better off than the Pilgrims during that first winter. But they might also remind us that we can give thanks by giving to others. Because one of the most important parts of the story of Thanksgiving is that the Wampanoag Indians deserve a lot of the credit for saving the Pilgrims. Let me tell you a little bit of the story of the Wampanoag Indians.

Several years before the Pilgrims arrived, Europeans were already coming regularly to the coast of New England to take advantage of the huge numbers of fish that were then in oceans around here. In Nova Scotia, there were already some permanent European settlements. Those Europeans brought diseases with them, diseases for which the Indians had no immunity whatsoever. About four years before the Pilgrims arrived, some kind of epidemic — maybe it was smallpox, or it might have been measles — an epidemic swept through the Indians in Nova Scotia and continued down into New England. Throughout that whole area, nine out of ten Indians died. Nine out of ten people! Entire villages died off. Ninety percent of the Indians — dead! This was far worse than what happened to the Pilgrims — only half the Pilgrims died in that first winter.

And yet, when the Pilgrims showed up in 1620, the Wampanoag Indians helped them out.

That brings us back to the five kernels of corn. If the Pilgrims had only five kernels of corn to eat on some days during that first winter, there’s a good chance that they would have had even less to eat if the Indians hadn’t helped them out. If the story about the five kernels of corn is true, then when the Pilgrims put out five kernels of corn at everyone’s place on that very first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, it must have been more thann a reminder of the hard times they had seen. They must have recognized that without the Indians, more of them would have died. Today, those five kernels of corn thus remind us to give thanks for all the help we have received in our lives — remind us that one way we give thanks is to reach out in our turn, and help someone else.

That’s why some of us choose to put these Guest at Your Table boxes on our tables during the holiday season, because one way to give thanks for what we have, is by giving generously to others who have needs greater than our own. That’s why some of us bring canned goods and non-perishables to place in the food pantry boxes here at church — we’re giving thanks by helping others.

This Thanksgiving, some of us will put five kernels of corn at each person’s place oat the table as a reminder to give thanks. Perhaps those five kernels of corn can also serve to remind us that one way to give thanks is to give help to others — to contribute some money to your Guest at Your Table box at each meal between now and Christmas — or to remember to bring food each week to place in the food pantry box here at church. These are things that both children and adults can do — two tangible ways to give thanks by being generous to others.

There is one last thing those five kernels of corn can help us remember. I’ve already said those five kernels of corn can remind us to give thanks that we are better off than the Pilgrims during that first winter; and those five kernels of corn can also remind us that we can give thanks by giving to others. But those five kernels of corn also can remind us to give thanks for what we already have without worrying so much about what we don’t have.

I know the economy is in terrible shape right now. I know that many of us in this congregation are feeling the effects of the economic downturn — probably all of us are, to some extent. And that means that most of us are facing losses of one kind or another. Those of us with 401k retirement plans are watching those plans diminish daily. Those who are already retired may be watching retirement investments shrink. People are losing jobs, people are losing income. Many of us don’t have as much money, so we’re cutting back on spending. So it is easy to focus on what we no longer have.

But I suggest that the story about the five kernels of corn can help us to remember what we do have. First of all, we’re alive — whereas the Pilgrims watched half their number die in one year, and the Wampanoags watched ninety percent of their number die in one year. So we’re alive, and that’s worth something. Second, we generally have access to much better health care than did the Pilgrims or the Wampanoags. Even though health insurance is hopelessly expensive, even though the health care system is close to being broken, we’re not dying from scurvy, as did the Pilgrims, or from measles, as did Wampanoags. Third, even though we are seeing a growing divide between the super-rich and the rest of us, even though the rest of us may even be seeing our standard of living decline recently, even so we have a much higher standard of living than much of the world. Fourth, I enjoy a high degree of religious freedom, which is after all why the Pilgrims came to southeastern Massachusetts — for religious freedom.

I could go on, but you get the idea. We’re alive, we probably live twice as long as the Pilgrims did on average, we have a generally high standard of living, we have religious freedom. Yes, we should continue to improve the quality of our lives, but let’s also remember to give thanks for that which we already have.

Here’s what I’m going to do with my five kernels of corn. When I sit down to eat on Thanksgiving day, I’m going to take my five kernels of corn and put them beside my plate, and look at them for just a moment before I start eating. I have five kernels of corn, and I have four things to remember:

— Even though it might not be completely true, I’m going to remember the Pilgrim story of the five kernels of corn.

— I’m going to remember to give thanks that I am better off than the Pilgrims were during that first winter.

— I’m going to remember that I can give thanks by giving to others (and in the spirit of the Wampanoag Indians giving food to the Pilgrims, I’m also going put my Guest at Your Table box next to my plate, and remember to bring canned goods next Sunday for the food pantry box here in church).

— I’m going to remember to stop worrying so much about what I don’t have, and to give thanks for my religious freedom, my relatively high standard of living, and for just being alive.

That’s four things. What about that fifth and last kernel of corn? Do I even need to tell you that it will remind me to give thanks for the people around me? Just as the Pilgrims gave thanks for each other, and they gave thanks for the Wampanoag Indians — I want to remember to give thanks for all the people in my life who have helped me.

If you only remember one thing when you look at your five kernels of corn, remember this last thing — to give thanks for all the people in your life — to give thanks for the love each of us gives and receives.

A Box for Thanksgiving

This intergenerational worship service was conducted by Rev. Dan Harper, with Marybeth Truran, DRE, at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon, prayer, and story copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Prayer

This is an intergenerational worship service, and there are some children present. Therefore, this seems like a good time to talk about how we Unitarian Universalists do prayer and meditation.

When it comes to prayer, there’s only one firm rule for us Unitarian Universalists: you don’t have to pray or meditate if you don’t want to, but you do have to stay calm and quiet so you don’t disturb other people.

As a Unitarian Universalist child, I learned that when you pray, you just sit comfortably and quietly, with your eyes open and your head up. I learned that the most important thing is to be quiet and peaceful inside yourself. As you get older, you may discover other ways to pray or meditate, but this is a good place to start. So now let’s begin our prayer and meditation time by sitting quietly. If you’re sitting next to someone you love, you can lean up against them, and even put your arm around them if you want.

Let us join our hearts and minds in the spirit of prayer and meditation; first we’ll listen to some spoken words, then we’ll sit in silence for a short time; and we’ll end by listening to music.

Let us begin by remembering the American servicemen and servicewomen who will find themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan this Thanksgiving. We hope for them that they may have a peaceful Thanksgiving; and we give thanks for the service they offer to their country. And we give thanks for all those who work to make this world a better place: firefighters and social activists and doctors and social workers and teachers and everyone who works for peace and justice.

In this Thanksgiving season, may we give thanks for who we are, exactly as we are. Maybe we could be better, or worse for that matter, but we give thanks: that we are still breathing; that there are people who love us; that the sun moves steadily in its course; that we are who we are.

Reading

The reading this morning is from “Mourt’s Relation,” a journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, written in 1622. This reading gives the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration in the words of one of the Pilgrims who was actually there.

“You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

[Taken from a printed version of this early document. The language and spelling have been modernized.]

Story

Instead of the usual second reading this morning, we’ll have a story instead: the old story of Thanksgiving. This is a story that you already know. But even though you’ve heard it about a million times, we tell it every year anyway, to remind ourselves why we celebrate Thanksgiving.

The story begins in England. In England in those days, every town had only one church, and it was called the Church of England. You had to belong to that church, like it or not. It’s not like it is here today, where families get to choose which church they want to go to — back then, there were no other churches to choose from! But a small group of people decided they could no longer believe the things that were said and believed in the Church of England.

When they tried to form their own church in England, they got in trouble. They moved to Holland, where they were free to practice their own religion, but they felt odd living in someone else’s country. Then they heard about a new land across the ocean called America, a place where they could have their own church, where they could live the way they wanted to. They found a ship called the Mayflower, and made plans to sail to America. These are the people we call the Pilgrims.

After a long, difficult trip across a stormy sea, the Pilgrims finally came to the new land, which they called New England. But the voyage took much longer than they had hoped, and by the time they got to New England, it was already December. Already December — it was already winter! — and they had to build houses, and find food, and try to make themselves comfortable for a long, cold winter.

It got very cold very soon. The Pilgrims had almost nothing to eat. The first winter that the Pilgrims spent here in New England was so long and cold and hard, that some of the Pilgrims began to sicken and die. Fortunately, the people who were already living in this new land — we call them the Indians — were very generous. When the Indians saw how badly the Pilgrims were faring, they shared their food so at least the Pilgrims wouldn’t starve to death. Half the Pilgrims died in that first winter, yet without the help of the Indians, many more would have died.

After that first winter, things went much better for the Pilgrims. Spring came, and the Pilgrims were able to build real houses for themselves. They planted crops, and most of the crops did pretty well. The Pilgrims went hunting and fishing, and they found lots of game and caught lots of fish.

By the time fall came around again, the Pilgrims found that they were living fairly comfortably. To celebrate their good fortune, they decided to have a harvest celebration. They went out hunting, and killed some turkeys to eat at their celebration. They grilled fish, and ate pumpkin pie, and we’re pretty sure they had lobster, wild grapes and maybe some dried fruit, and venison. However, they probably did not call their holiday “thanksgiving,” because for them a thanksgiving celebration was something you did in church. At that first celebration, they did not go to church.

Their harvest celebration lasted for several days, with all kinds of food, and games, and other recreation. The Indian king Massasoit and some of his followers heard the Pilgrims celebrating, and dropped by to see what was going on. In a spirit of generosity, the fifty Pilgrims invited all ninety Indians to stay for dinner. Imagine inviting ninety guests over to your house for Thanksgiving! More than that, in those days only the Pilgrim women prepared and cooked meals, but there were only four Pilgrim women old enough to help with the cooking — four women to cook food for a hundred and forty people!

The Indians appreciated the generosity of the Pilgrims, but they also realized that there probably wasn’t going to be quite enough food to go around. So the Indians went hunting for a few hours, and brought back lots more game to be roasted and shared at the harvest celebration. At last all the food was cooked, and everyone sat down to eat together: men and women, adults and children, Indians and Pilgrims.

That’s how the story of Thanksgiving goes. As you know, the Pilgrims called their first town “Plymouth,” and as you know, they also started a church in the town of Plymouth. But did you know that a hundred and eighty years later, that church became a Unitarian church? That church in Plymouth is now a Unitarian Universalist church. So it is that we Unitarian Universalists have a very important connection with the Pilgrims, and a special connection with Thanksgiving.

Sermon

The Universalist poet Edwin Markham wrote a famous little poem that goes like this:

    They drew a circle that shut me out —
    Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
    But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that took them in.

If you had grown up in a Universalist church 50 or 60 years ago, chances are good that you would have learned that poem by heart. It’s still a good little poem to think about. And this week, I’ve been thinking about how we keep drawing larger and larger circles in our lives, drawing more and more people into the circle of Love.

When you walked into the service this morning, you received a small box with some objects inside it. You may be wondering what that box is for, and why there are some things inside it. I hope you opened your box and thought, as you looked inside, Why on earth have Dan and Marybeth given us such an odd collection of things? What on earth to a cranberry, a sticker, and a penny have in common?

The objects in that box are there so I can talk to you about five circles of love — five concentric, and widening, circles of love. Since it’s Thanksgiving time — and the whole purpose of Thanksgiving is to remember what we are thankful for — I’ll also talk to you about how you might feel thankful for these five circles of love.

First, pick up your box and hold it in your hands. OK, now stop looking at the box, and look at your hands instead, because the first thing I’d ask you to think about is your self. You are a sacred and special person. That is one of our fundamental religious beliefs: that each person is worthy of dignity and respect; that each person has infinite value. You are you, and that is a good thing to be!

When you look at your hands, I hope you will remember to love yourself. And I hope you’ll remember to be thankful for being you — thankful for being alive, for being human in all your imperfect and glorious being.

Now, if you have not already done so, open your box. Inside you will find a sticker with a flaming chalice, which is a symbol of our Unitarian Universalist faith. There’s a story about how the flaming chalice came to be the symbol of our faith community. Back around 1940, as the Second World War was spreading throughout Europe, the Unitarian Service Committee was hard at work in Europe. The Unitarian Service Committee got Unitarians here in the United States to donate clothing and food to send overseas to Europe, to give to refugees who were cold and hungry — our own church, First Unitarian, filled up a huge truckload of clothing to send overseas.

When they got to Europe, people from the Unitarian Service Committee discovered that almost no one over there had heard of them — even though there were Unitarians in Europe, the people they had to deal with had no idea what a Unitarian was. The head of the Unitarian Service Committee, a man named Charles Joy, had an idea. He got an artist to draw a very official-looking logo for the Unitarian Service Committee — a logo with a flaming chalice inside a circle. They stamped this logo on all the boxes of clothing, and on all the paperwork, so that everything looked more official, which made it easier to get things past suspicious soldiers and across borders. That is the origin of the flaming chalice: it was a logo that helped us Unitarians to help people in need.

That’s why you have a flaming chalice in your box: to remind you to be thankful for your church, to be thankful for a religious community that doesn’t care what you believe but does care that we all work to make this world a better place. And that is the second concentric circle of love: the love and care that can come from our religious community.

Next, take out the penny. On the penny, you will find the words: “United States of America.” The penny is there to remind us to be thankful for our country. Not that we have to be thankful for everything about our country — in fact, some of us are not at all thankful about the fact that our country is at war right now, nor are we thankful for the fact that we can’t seem to provide decent health care for many of our citizens, nor are we thankful that there is a lot of injustice in our country.

But we are thankful for the highest ideals of our country. Look at the front of the penny, and you will see a picture of Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps our greatest president. Abraham Lincoln lived in a time when there were still slaves in this country, but he finally realized that if we really followed the highest ideals of our country, we could not allow slavery to continue — and so Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which made slavery illegal.

We are thankful for the highest and best ideals of this country — the ideal that states that every person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — or the ideal that states that the government shall not tell us what religion to practice. And the third circle of love, in our widening circles of love, is the love of true democracy, a democracy that will affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all persons.

Now, if you haven’t already taken it out, take out the cranberry. If you are brave, you might even want to eat it — although I have to warn you, cranberries are tart and sour. I happen to like tart, sour, crunchy fruit, so I eat cranberries raw all the time — but I admit that I am unusual and not many people like to eat them raw. Most people cook cranberries with lots of sugar, and make cranberry sauce — a bright red sauce that’s sweet yet tart, soft and yummy.

Why is there a cranberry in your box? The cranberry is in the box to remind us to be thankful for the food we eat. When the Pilgrims first came to this part of the world in 1620, they did not have enough food to eat, and many of them sickened and died. There is an old story that the Indians who were their neighbors showed the Pilgrims cranberries (which they may have called “sassamanash”), and told them that these tiny bright red fruit were good to eat. In the first month or two, when they had so little food, the Pilgrims went out and found cranberries growing in the wild, and they dried some of the fruit to last all winter. Cranberries are full of vitamin C and other good vitamins, and eating cranberries probably helped to save the lives of some of the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were thankful for cranberries, and they were thankful for whatever food they could get, and they were especially thankful for the generous Indians who helped keep all of them from starving to death.

The cranberry reminds us to be thankful for all the people who help us to get the food we need. The Pilgrims were thankful for Indians, who first showed them the cranberries, and said they were good to eat. Today, we are thankful for the farmers and farm workers that grow the food we eat. And that is the fourth circle of love: the love that comes from all those who help us meet our daily needs; the love that grows out the interdependent web of all existence.

Now there’s one last thing that I would like you to look at, and that is the box. This box comes to us from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. You will see pictures on the box, pictures of people from several different countries. These pictures are there to remind us that we are part of a world community. There are pictures of people from Louisiana, from Sudan, from Latin America, from all around the world. These pictures remind us that we are part of a world community; and that is our fifth, and widest, circle of love: the love we extend to all persons everywhere in the world.

If you want to, you can take on a little social justice project with this box. If you want to, you can put this box on your dining room table, or your kitchen table, or wherever you eat most of your meals. Every time you sit down to eat between now and Christmas, you can put some money into the box. If you eat three meals a day, you’ll eat about a hundred meals between now and Christmas. If you put a dime in the box every time you sit down to eat, you’ll have ten dollars by Christmas time. (If you put a dollar in, you’ll have a hundred dollars!) If you decide to take on this little social justice project in your home, we will collect these boxes on the Sunday before Christmas — and we will send the money that we have collected to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. And the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee will take that money and send it around the world — to help people in South America have access to clean and safe water supplies — to help people who have survived natural disasters, including those who are still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana — to help people in Africa to ensure a safe food supply — and to help many more people around the world. The only thing that I would ask is that if you put lots of change in this Guest at Your Table box, could you please take the time to go down to the bank and convert that change either to bills or to a check? — otherwise, we’ll have a hard time counting all those coins!

Of course, you may have your little social justice project that you do at this time of year — so don’t feel that you have to take on the Guest at Your Table box, unless you really want to! The real point is to find a way to remember all these widening circles of love, and to give thanks for each one of them. Look at yourself in the mirror and give thanks for your self, for you are a person of infinite value. When you walk in to this church on a Sunday, give thanks for the love we all receive from this community of faith. Even when you are frustrated and outraged by our country, give thanks for the ideals of our country, ideals which, if we would but live up to them, would extend dignity and respect to all persons. When you sit down to eat, give thanks for the earth and the food that comes from the earth and all the workers who grow our food, and know that this is yet a wider circle of love. And finally, may we give thanks for the whole world and all the people in the world, and may we work towards a world community that truly does extend love everywhere.

    They drew a circle that shut me out —
    Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
    But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that took them in.

Giving Thanks — To Whom?

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading this morning is from Mourt’s Relation, a journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, written in 1622. This reading gives the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration in the words of one of the Pilgrims who was actually there [source of this version].

“You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Instead of the usual second reading this morning, we’ll have a story instead: the old story of Thanksgiving. This is a story that you already know. But even though you’ve heard it about a million times, we tell it every year anyway, to remind ourselves why we celebrate Thanksgiving.

The story begins in England. In England in those days, every town had only one church, and it was called the Church of England. You had to belong to that church, like it or not. It’s not like it is here today, where families get to choose which church they want to go to — back then, there were no other churches to choose from! But a small group of people decided they could no longer believe the things that were said and believed in the Church of England.

When they tried to form their own church in England, they got in trouble. They moved to Holland, where they were free to practice their own religion, but they felt odd living in someone else’s country. Then they heard about a new land across the ocean called America, a place where they could have their own church, where they could live the way they wanted to. They found a ship called the Mayflower, and made plans to sail to America. These are the people we call the Pilgrims.

After a long, difficult trip across a stormy sea, the Pilgrims finally came to the new land, which they called New England. But the voyage took much longer than they had hoped, and by the time they got to New England, it was already December. Already December — it was already winter! — and they had to build houses, and find food, and try to make themselves comfortable for a long, cold winter.

It got very cold very soon. The Pilgrims had almost nothing to eat. The first winter that the Pilgrims spent here in New England was so long and cold and hard, that some of the Pilgrims began to sicken and die. Fortunately, the people who were already living in this new land — we call them the Indians — were very generous. When the Indians saw how badly the Pilgrims were faring, they shared their food so at least the Pilgrims wouldn’t starve to death. Half the Pilgrims died in that first winter, yet without the help of the Indians, many more would have died.

After that first winter, things went much better for the Pilgrims. Spring came, and the Pilgrims were able to build real houses for themselves. They planted crops, and most of the crops did pretty well. The Pilgrims went hunting and fishing, and they found lots of game and caught lots of fish.

By the time fall came around again, the Pilgrims found that they were living fairly comfortably. To celebrate their good fortune, they decided to have a harvest celebration. They went out hunting, and killed some turkeys to eat at their celebration. They grilled fish, and ate pumpkin pie, and we’re pretty sure they had lobster, wild grapes and maybe some dried fruit, and venison. However, they probably did not call their holiday “thanksgiving,” because for them a thanksgiving celebration was something you did in church. At that first celebration, they did not go to church.

Their harvest celebration lasted for several days, with all kinds of food, and games, and other recreation. The Indian king Massasoit and some of his followers heard the Pilgrims celebrating, and dropped by to see what was going on. In a spirit of generosity, the fifty Pilgrims invited all ninety Indians to stay for dinner. Imagine inviting ninety guests over to your house for Thanksgiving! More than that, in those days only the Pilgrim women prepared and cooked meals, but there were only four Pilgrim women old enough to help with the cooking — four women to cook food for a hundred and forty people!

The Indians appreciated the generosity of the Pilgrims, but they also realized that there probably wasn’t going to be quite enough food to go around. So the Indians went hunting for a few hours, and brought back lots more game to be roasted and shared at the harvest celebration. At last all the food was cooked, and everyone sat down to eat together: men and women, adults and children, Indians and Pilgrims.

That’s how the story of Thanksgiving goes. As you know, the Pilgrims called their first town “Plymouth,” and as you know, they also started a church in the town of Plymouth. But did you know that a hundred and eighty years later, that church became a Unitarian church? That church in Plymouth is now a Unitarian Universalist church. So it is that we Unitarian Universalists have a very important connection with the Pilgrims, and a special connection with Thanksgiving.

SERMON — Giving thanks — to whom?

In a way, this sermon is the second in a series of sermons on Unitarian Universalist views on God, in which we will address the question: If Thanksgiving is for giving thanks, to whom do we give thanks?

For it is indeed time to celebrate Thanksgiving once again. Needless to say, those of us who are religious liberals know how to celebrate Thanksgiving; yet liberal religion can also lead to a certain amount of tension at Thanksgiving time. For example:– Of course we make the traditional turkey with stuffing and all the trimmings; yet many religious liberal families have at least one person who is a vegetarian or vegan as part of their spiritual practice, which means that we also have to have the traditional tofu with all the trimmings. Oh, and by the way, the vegetarians can’t eat the stuffing or the gravy either, because of the meat in them; which can cause further confusion in the kitchen, and a certain tension at the dining table.

Or perhaps the vegetarians and vegans in your household bow to peer pressure on Thanksgiving, which can lead to a different kind of tension: for them. I was a vegetarian for maybe fifteen years, because in college I read the book Diet for a Small Planet and learned that it took six pounds of grain to produce one pound of turkey, which meant that every time you ate a pound of turkey you were stealing five pounds of food from the mouths of starving people around the world. Being a good religious liberal, I immediately stopped eating meat, in order to save the world. Except at Thanksgiving. After a couple of years of being a vegetarian, I got sick of fending off the turkey, and I’d just quietly eat what was put on my plate. Feeling guilty the whole time: I’m taking food out of the mouths of starving people!

Turkey’s not the only food that can cause tension; other traditional Thanksgiving foods like mashed potatoes, winter squash, and turnips can lead to tension, too. In my household, part of our spiritual practice is to eat locally-grown food as much as possible, to remind us that we are rooted in the local ecosystem. But at Thanksgiving, we often run short of time and have to compromise our principles by buying at least some of our vegetables at the supermarket, which at this time of year generally means buying vegetables trucked or flown in from thousands of miles away. I have little doubt that Carol and I will find ourselves at one of the big supermarkets along Route 6 at eight o’clock this Wednesday evening; I will hold up a butternut squash, and Carol will hiss, “That was flown all the way from California, it might as well be soaked in diesel fuel”; and we’ll both feel horribly guilty. But we’ll buy it anyway, and eat it, and probably imagine that we taste the diesel fuel.

Tension also arises for many religious liberal families when it is time to say grace before the meal. I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and we never said grace before meals the rest of the year. At Thanksgiving, however, Mom or my aunt Martha or someone else would tell us kids, before we started eating, that we all had to say grace together. In our household it could be a little awkward, saying grace. Sometimes we just held hands and had a moment of silence, which I liked best. The awkwardness went on until the year our oldest cousin, Nancy, joined the youth group in her Unitarian Universalist church. “I’ll say grace,” she said that year. “I’ll say the grace we use in youth group. ‘Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay, God!'” We laughed, but it worked for us, and it reduced the tension around saying grace.

If your family includes rabid atheists, or those who follow more conservative religious paths, there can be even more tension. But even entirely Unitarian Universalist families that say grace before dinner every day can still feel a little tension at that moment. Why? Because in our culture, to say grace most often implies that we are giving thanks to a traditional Christian god. But we have such high standards for ourselves, we won’t settle for an unquestioned acceptance of traditional religious concepts. The Unitarian Universalist Christians do not have a traditional conception of God, and may not be willing to settle for the traditional understanding of saying grace; certainly the religious humanists, the pagans, the Transcendentalists, the pantheists and panentheists, and all the other Unitarian Universalist theological varieties, will not settle for a traditional understanding of saying grace. If we are giving thanks when we say grace, we would like to know to whom, or to what, exactly, we are giving thanks.

That is the question I’d like to explore with you this morning. If Thanksgiving means giving thanks, to whom are we giving thanks? –or to what are we giving thanks? We will not find one answer to this question; nor will we have time to explore all possible answers; it may be that there are as many answers to this question as there are people in this room. Yet let us outline a few responses to this question, as a beginning to deeper understanding.

Let’s start with those of you who are Unitarian Universalist Christians. If you’re a Unitarian Universalist Christian, it should be obvious that you give thanks to God — that’s God spelled capital-G, Oh, D-as-in-dog. It’s spelled the same way, but to the Unitarian Universalist Christian God probably does not look much like the orthodox Christian God. Because of our Unitarian heritage most of us don’t see Jesus as God; and because of our Universalist heritage we can affirm universal salvation for all beings (meaning that there is no such thing as hell). That idea of universal salvation comes about because the God of the Unitarian Universalist Christian is a loving God. This loving God, who will never damn us to eternal torment, is also a God who is active in our lives by helping us to create justice in the world — for what is justice, but an expression of radical love? The story of Jesus is important to Unitarian Universalist Christians, not because it tells that Jesus is God, but because it shows how God is concerned to help the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the downtrodden people of the world. And the story of Jesus shows us how God can provide personal support to those people who, like Jesus, advocate for the poor and the oppressed. If you are a Unitarian Universalist Christian, you are not giving thanks to a bearded man in a white robe up in the sky: you give thanks for the love, and for the vision of justice that God brings.

Next, let us turn to the Unitarian Universalist pagans. Unitarian Universalist pagans are a diverse bunch. For some Unitarian Universalist pagans the divine is manifested in multiple goddesses and gods, and for others there is a single Goddess. Yet even when there is a single Goddess, she manifests herself in more than one guise; for example, as three different stages of life: Maiden, Matron, and Crone. You don’t have to interpret this literally: the phases of the Goddess or the various goddesses and gods can represent different aspects of ourselves, such as the different stages of life represented by maiden, matron, and crone; or different aspects of the world around us, such as the seasons or the phases of the moon. This rests on good psychological common sense: you don’t have to take the goddesses and gods entirely literally; as Carl Jung pointed out, various goddesses and gods can serve as concrete personifications of abstract qualities like love and strength and wisdom and shared power.

In addition to embodying good psychological common sense, Unitarian Universalist paganism is explicitly feminist, and it is explicitly ecological. If you’re a feminist, paganism lets you say “Goddess” instead of struggling with that masculine pronoun for God. If you’re an environmentalist, paganism offers a religious outlook that find divinity in Nature, meaning there’s a religious reason for not wrecking the natural world. If you are a Unitarian Universalist pagan, you can offer thanks for the true equality of men and women, girls and boys; and you can offer thanks for the wonder and beauty of Nature.

A third major group among us is the Unitarian Universalist humanists. Humanists have no need for some transcendent being or deity, no need for God or Goddess, or gods and goddesses; humanists find no need to believe in supernatural beings that can’t be proven to exist. Unlike some humanists, Unitarian Universalists still think of themselves as religious; and as religious humanists, they see that religion can be an enormous force for good in the world. Religion offers a moral framework that can tap into the accumulated wisdom of the human race; divorced from ancient creeds and beliefs, a religious community can seek together for human answers to human questions. If you are a Unitarian Universalist humanist, you might offer thanks for the miracle of evolution, the gift of life, and the human community which is capable of doing good (if we work at it). But you don’t have to offer thanks to a being or personification; you can just be thankful.

If we had the time this morning, I could go on and talk about other Unitarian Universalist theologies: pantheism and deism and Transcendentalism and existentialism, and many other kinds of “isms.” We don’t have time; our potluck Thanksgiving lunch awaits us.

But remember this: the lovely thing about being a Unitarian Universalist is that we can draw inspiration from all these “isms.” We can give thanks for the God of justice and love; we don’t have to believe in such a god, but it’s a good concept if we would but truly live up to it! We can give thanks for the wonder and beauty of Nature and for the interconnected web of life; even if you see nothing transcendent in them, we’d die without an ecosystem, so why not give thanks for it! We can be thankful for the miracle of evolution, the gift of life, and the human community which is slowly learning how to do more and more good; even those who believe in God or the Goddess can also give thanks for evolution and human community.

We Unitarian Universalists should give thanks for the diversity of our theological viewpoints. This diversity can create tension in our life together as a religious community; but it is a good tension, one which furthers our quest for truth and goodness. Whether pagan, Christian, humanist, undecided, or none of the above, we recognize that no one of us will ever have the absolute answer. We have such high ideals for ourselves, we Unitarian Universalists; we worry about having theological tension; but the only way we can remove the tension is when we finally attain to ultimate truth, a day which may never come. In the mean time, the tension is good; the tension keeps us from being complacent; the tension keeps us moving ever onwards in the search for truth and goodness.

Someday perhaps we’ll get all the way to truth and goodness, and I like to think that day will come:– a day when there is no more poverty, no more injustice, no more racism, no more war, a day when every state recognizes same sex marriage as legal, a day when the prisons are empty because crime has ended. Someday, maybe we’ll get there; then we’ll really have something to be thankful for. In the mean time, let us give thanks for our high ideals for ourselves — and let us give thanks for the tension those high ideals create in this gathered community.