How can you not like the story of the Pilgrims? They came to America to find freedom, we remember. Religious freedom. They were “separatists,” believing that the True Church must separate itself from the corruptions of the world, in particular the Anglican church and its state-supported status as an established church. They were known as “non-conformists,” as in non-conformity with
the state and with the book of Common Prayer as its guide. As in, “Hey, one of us needs to watch for the sheriff.”
First they went to Holland, where there was greater religious freedom. Amsterdam was a bit much for them, so next they went to Leiden. All was going well until they realized their children were speaking fluent Dutch and fitting in a little TOO well. They couldn’t go back to England—only jail and more trouble with the state awaited them.
So, after a lot of political and economic negotiation, they struck a deal to go to the New World. They set sail with two ships, but one had to turn back. Only the Mayflower made it.
During the trip there were divisions between the Pilgrims, who called themselves the Saints, and the others on the trip, designated “Strangers.” The Mayflower Compact was struck just to keep harmony among the differing groups.
There was great illness on the ship—at least one died en route. They left in September, went off course, and landed far off their destination—in November. Cape Cod in November can be, well, brisk, to say the least.
Over half died in that first winter. Only three of eighteen married women lived through it. Without an English-speaking “Indian” named Squanto, they would never have made it. According to church historian Edwin Gaustad in A Religious History of America, they considered Squanto “a special instrument of God for our good” (p.54)
But do you know the whole story of Squanto, or Tisquantum? He has become the folk hero of Thanksgiving, a reminder that the Pilgrims would never have survived without him. He was a Native American of the Patuxet tribe who acted as interpreter and guide to the starving Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth during their first winter in the New World.
While we know little about his childhood, we know that before he met the Pilgrims, he had been kidnapped by a ruthless English explorer who brought him to Spain and sold him into slavery. He ended up in England and eventually made his way back to the New World in 1619, only to find that his entire tribe had been decimated by smallpox.
That misfortune explains why he was fluent in English and was able to stand between the Native Americans, the Wampanoag tribe that he now lived with, and the newcomers.
The Wampanoag Chief Massasoit agreed in the fall of 1621 to assist the helpless Pilgrims, and the Pilgrims and Wampanoags celebrated the first Thanksgiving after reaping a successful crop.
The next year, Squanto help them find a lost boy, and assisted them with planting and fishing. His knowledge of the English gave him ability and power to stand between the natives and the immigrants who knew nothing of how to farm, survive, or live in this strange new place.
He was, in short, a mediator, without whom the two groups could not have grown crops or celebrated Thanksgiving. And, like Joseph in the book of Genesis, his journey began with an injustice, being taken from his home and sold into bondage. That he would help the very people who had stolen his life is remarkable. What a merciless explorer intended for evil, God used for good.
Squanto is a particular evidence of the evil of human beings turned to goodness. Squanto helped them know what was poisonous and what was safe to eat, and how to tap maple syrup from a tree, and how to plant, cultivate and harvest corn. By the next year, a successful harvest was cause for celebration.
The following fall, though, brought a drought. A proclamation by the governor called for prayer and fasting, and shortly thereafter the rains came. Thanksgiving may have begun in that lean and difficult year, when they barely made it through.
It is rather peculiar that a holiday so connected with abundance and the numbering of blessings would have begun as gratitude for bare survival, but fitting. Thanksgiving is the recognition of our dependence on God, not the congratulating of ourselves. We are blessed, but not deservedly. Life is a gift from Someone, not something to which we are entitled. It is a time to stop, take stock, and celebrate in the spirit of those early survivors.
As Squanto appeared to those desperate and misplaced Pilgrims so many years ago, so do Christians speak of grace. Jesus of Nazareth had a meal with a group of followers who would run off and leave him to die the next day, but still grace comes to us as a “special instrument of God for our good.”
He presided at the first Thanksgiving table, which is literally what “eucharist,” a word for the Lord’s Supper, means, and offered a way to God to us who do not deserve one. He himself, the victim of treachery, dishonesty, self-serving, cowardice and fear, still offered a meal to remember that God loves us anyway. Despite our oppression of one another, our injustices, our grudges and ignorance.
As we sit down to offer thanks this year, what if we gave thanks not for the abundance of our means, but of our poverty and need to which God supplied all the more grace? Thanksgiving is not congratulations, but a sober and joyful realization—without God and God’s gifts, we could not survive, even a minute.
It seems odd to me that for a generation now, the Christian church has worried about losing control of the culture and wanting to “take it back.” But what does that mean? And how will we regain our influence? There are two possible ways. The way of power, might and domination, or the way of Jesus, the way of reconciliation and peace. The way of forgiving love, not the holding of resentments and grudges. The way of contentment and gratitude, not selfish ambition and self-serving.
We are going to die without the rebirth of the spirit that made the first Thanksgiving possible, As families sit together this week, trying hard not to talk about the election, because everyone knows Aunt Jane voted for Hillary and Uncle Fred for Donald Trump, as a gay child wonders if they will be welcome at the house this year, as we come with our disappointments and dashed dreams and hopes about one another, think of Squanto, that special instrument of God’s providence.
Whatever else this meal means, it means a time to stop, give thanks, and hope once more, that even in the face of death, God can bring life. Even if Thanksgiving has an empty chair this year of one gone too soon, hope is not finished.
Hope is not about circumstance. It is something deeper and more elusive. It is a confidence for which you do not have factual basis. But it is rooted in something real.
I love Jesus because of that story where even on the cross, suffering his own wounds, could offer life to the one next to him who realized too late that his life had been squandered in all the wrong things and begged, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
I am grateful for Jesus. And for Squanto. And for generosity and hospitality. Without them, we will descend into meanness and madness. Here’s hoping for the best, and that the kindness of strangers might survive our frightened time.
This blog was adapted from my sermon at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church on Sunday, November 20. To all my readers and friends, the happiest of Thanksgivings. May their be peace around your table, our nation, and the world. May we never forget that ALL of God’s children have to eat. Make room for your neighbor. Forgive, share, be kind, reconcile, make peace, and if all else fails, take your medication (you know who you are). Blessings! GF