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.


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.


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.]


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.


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.