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.”
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.