Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 18, 2007
A Thanksgiving sermon by Rev. Catherine Torpey
READING from William Bradford’s History of the Plimouth Plantation (1647) [note: some slight grammatical changes made for easier comprehension]:
In these hard and difficult beginnings they found some discontents and murmurings arise amongst some, and mutinous speeches and carriages in others; but they were soon quelled and overcome by the wisdom, patience, and just and equal carriage of things by the Governor and better part, which cleaved faithfully together.
But that which was most sad and lamentable was that in two or three months’ time, half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts. They were infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and their difficult condition had brought upon them; so there died sometimes two or three of a day in the aforesaid time. Of one hundred-odd persons, scarce fifty remained. And of these in the time of most distress, there was but six or seven sound persons, who (to their great commendations be it spoken) spared no pains, night or day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, drest them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, and clothed and unclothed them. In a word, they did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear mentioned. And all this without any grudging in the least, showing their true love unto their friends: a rare example and worthy to be remembered. Two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster (their reverend Elder), and Myles Standish (their Captain and military commander), unto whom I and many others were much beholden in our low and sick condition. And yet the Lord so upheld these persons that they were not at all infected either with sickness or lameness. And what I have said of these, I may say of many others who died, as well as others yet living, that whilst they had health or any strength, they assisted any that had need of them. And I doubt not but their recompense is with the Lord.
READING This is a recreation in the first person of Reverend John Robinson’s Farewell Address to the Pilgrims upon their Departure from Holland in 1620. It is based on the second-hand account by Edward Winslow in “Hypocrisie Unmasked” (1646):
My friends, as you begin the great work of plantation in New England, as your pastor, I give you these words. Hold them in your hearts.
We are now ere long to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether ever I will live to see your faces again. But whether the Lord has appointed it or not, I charge ye before God and his blessed Angels: Follow me no further than I have followed Christ. And if God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument, you must be as ready to receive it, as ever you have been to receive any truth by my Ministry. For I am very confident that the Lord hath more truth and light yet to breake forth out of his holy Word.
I miserably bewaile the current state and condition of the Reformed churches. They have come just so far, and refuse to go any further than went the men who brought them to their Reformation! The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw! Whatever part of God’s will was further imparted and revealed to Calvin, the Lutherans would rather die than embrace it. And so also, you see the Calvinists: they stick where Calvin left them: A misery much to be lamented.
For though Luther and Calvin were precious shining lights in their times, yet God did not reveal his whole will to them! Were they now living, they would be ready and willing to still embrace further light.
Let me remind you solemnly of your Church-Covenant, whereby you promise and covenant with God and one with another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to you from his written Word. Take heed what you receive as “truth.” Be very certain to examine and compare…; For it is not possible… that full perfection of knowledge should breake forth all at once.
Thanksgiving. I wonder how many of us actually take time during this holiday to cultivate in ourselves an attitude of thanksgiving. I know that your Board of Trustees took part of its meeting this past Wednesday to share with one another some things that they are grateful for. I didn’t hear any of what they shared because I was splitting my time between the Board meeting, and a meeting that the Religious Education Committee was having with Andrea Lerner, our District Executive. I, of course, was grateful to have such an abundance of meetings to attend.
Those pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation lo those many years ago had embarked on an unbelievable mission. Some of them came for no other reason than the hope of a better material life for themselves—a worthy enough reason—, but the leadership of the group came with a great religious mission: to begin society anew, to begin the church anew, to begin life anew.
When you joined this particular congregation, deciding to walk with this spiritual community in the particular faith traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism, you wittingly or unwittingly “stepped into the center of the Thanksgiving story.” You may not have known it or realized it; but it was from the Pilgrims that, eventually, Unitarians and Universalists made their way to Long Island in the 20th century. And though we may not have had ancestors on that particular vessel, the Pilgrim mothers and fathers are “wedded to our spiritual adventure,” as individuals and as a community.
Just as the story of Moses and the pilgrimage of the Hebrew slaves through the desert is the story of the origins of the Jews, the story of William Bradford and the Pilgrims making their way to Plymouth is the story of Unitarian Universalist origins. Just as the Jews of today would not recognize the religion of Moses if they were plopped into the 2nd millennium BCE; just as Moses, if he met a modern-day Jew would crinkle his nose and ask, “What are you doing?” so William Bradford and we have different specific beliefs and practices. Yet, even though our theology today may differ radically from the theology of the pilgrims and Puritans, this Thanksgiving story is the story of our origins as a religious people. And, just as Jews must share the story of Moses and the Exodus with Christians—sometimes freely and generously, sometimes begrudgingly—we UU’s must share our Thanksgiving story with Congregationalist churches and even the wider American society. But the fact that even before you became a Unitarian Universalist, you saw this story as your own, that makes it no less the particular story of the origins of Unitarian Universalism.
As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 19th century, “It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society.” In other words, it is we who gave birth to the U.S., even more than the U.S. gave birth to us. In a very real sense, it was our religion that founded this country. The congregation that was begun in 1620 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and which has met regularly for almost four hundred years, is a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It is so because in the year 1800, its members saw that Unitarianism was the expression of Christianity that was truest to the principles on which that congregation had been founded one hundred eighty years earlier. The line of descent from William Bradford and his little band of idealistic believers to SNUUC could not be more direct.
Not far away from Bradford’s Plymouth colony was the Massachusetts Bay Colony, led by John Winthrop, and founded on the same basic principles. Modern-day UU minister Forrest Church writes that “Winthrop knew that he and his company of Puritans were ‘doing a new thing.’ He believed that what they were doing was, literally, of cosmic importance. The community they were about to establish would be a beacon for the world, a model for societies everywhere. [This is remarkable] when one considers the modesty of the enterprise—and that this beacon would be shining three thousand miles away from where anyone could see it.”
Yes, the men and women who planted themselves on these shores truly and fervently believed that what they were doing was a fresh beginning for humanity, an unprecedented opportunity to live as they believed God wanted human beings to live. And at the heart of their grand experiment was the conviction that, as John Robinson had admonished them, “The Lord hath more truth and light yet to breake forth out of his holy Word.” If the truth of religion was to continue to break forth, we must be always ready to receive wisdom from any reliable source. We must not be like the Lutherans who say that there is no more to learn than what Luther taught. We must not be like the Calvinists who say that there is no more to learn than what Calvin taught. And the only way to prevent this kind of stifling of truth is to allow freedom in matters of religion. No state, no bishop must dictate religious truth to be passed down to the masses. The matter of belief is a matter of the heart. This was the radical notion on which our religious tradition was founded.
But the point is not individualism: The Pilgrims covenanted together as to how they would treat one another. By so doing, the Pilgrims set a standard for the ways human beings ought to treat one another. It was the distinctive mark of their spiritual life. This remains the distinctive mark of our spiritual life as a religious community. This is our great heritage from our forebears in 17th century New England.
When they covenanted with one another, obligated themselves to one another, and established a bond of affection towards one another as the form of spiritual community and the discipline of every individual’s spiritual life, they set the foundation for democracy. As Forrest Church, says,
Congregational polity—a priesthood of all believers—leads directly to the idea of democratic government. And the practice of religious liberty naturally suggests (and, to a degree, mandates) its correlate, civil liberty. If the Puritans failed to make these connections themselves, their commitment to congregational polity [that is, congregations governing themselves, in cooperation with one another, not being governed by an ecclesiastical authority such as a bishop] and their commitment to their own religious liberty certainly facilitated the speed and manner in which these connections to democratic civil government and civil liberties were later made.
This is the legacy that they have left us. It begins with the story—the story of a very motley lot of people who had traversed an ocean in a small ship, where they had to witness the deaths of half of their company, and fear their own deaths as well. It begins with a not-small dose of desperation on the part of some of them—so desperate with poverty that they would risk anything. I met a young man at Freeport High School the other day, only about 16 years old, who had walked for one month to get from El Salvador to the United States. He would understand the willingness that many on the Mayflower had to face the dangers of the wide ocean for the chance at a better life. The story of the Exodus of our Unitarian forebears is the story of people who were willing to bear much with courage, to plant spiritual seeds, which they themselves were unlikely to harvest, but which generations to come would reap. What is our vision today? What seeds are we planting today at SNUUC, in Freeport, in South Nassau, that we may never harvest, but which our children and grandchildren, the children and grandchildren of people we have never met, but who yearn for that same freedom you and I yearn for, that same freedom that our courageous ancestors at Plymouth yearned for? What seeds are we planting for them? For that is the greatest of the legacies of our pilgrim forebears—the call to plant seeds of hope and promise.
As with any story about origins, our spiritual ancestors were not perfect, neither as individuals nor as a group. We can and should be saddened that what was an exciting new beginning for us was the beginning of a tragic ending for the native peoples on these shores. Yet, our UU story of Thanksgiving is not one of triumphalism over the Native Americans, but a vision of peace and harmony. The history might not be all we’d want it to be, but in the telling of the story of that first Thanksgiving meal, we always emphasize that the native people here had dealt peacefully and generously with us, and we with them. The truth is, UU minister Brent Smith points out, that “that we don’t know for certain why the Pilgrims invited the nearby Wampanoag tribe, through their leader Massasoyt. Their intent may have been to thank the natives for their gracious hospitality in welcoming the Pilgrims and strangers to their land and ways. But maybe their intent was to placate a people they were afraid of. Maybe they felt if they did not express gratitude to these Natives, their Lord God would smite them; a response out of fear.” Our hope is that the invitation was out of a pure place of joy, generosity and genuine hope for friendship. What matters is that the vision is one of peace, harmony, mutuality and friendship.
What a beautiful ancestor story we have for our Unitarian Universalist faith! How appropriate that our origin story is one with a multicultural vision; how good that it begins with the giving and receiving of thanks.
It is built into our identity as a religious tradition to be grateful to God or to simply have a basic orientation that all that we have in life is ours only in the most tenuous way. Those Pilgrims knew that the simple fact that their hearts were beating and that they had breath was something for which to be deeply grateful. They had watched so many of their friends and family suffer and die.
They knew that the lack of hostility from the natives was something for which to be profoundly grateful. They had very little to protect themselves with, should the natives decide to attack.
They knew that the food on the table was a blessing. The hard, cold earth would yield very little for the next many months—and whether it yielded anything at all was so very dependent on the sun and the rain being in right proportion.
It is more difficult for us, who are so incredibly wealthy, to be grateful. The luxuries we enjoy, our forebears could not even have dreamed of. The luxury we are experiencing right now—a warm building, food in our stomachs (unless we chose to run out without breakfast), refreshments awaiting us when we are done, lights, carpeting, relatively comfortable seats. If the pilgrims could have even what we have right now, they would be overjoyed. And yet, we take so much for granted—at least, I know I do.
If I have to wait five minutes for almost anything, I begin to get agitated. If my computer takes more than a few seconds to download something, I say, “This computer is so slow!”
If we go to a restaurant or a store, and they don’t have the exact kind of food we want, we are disappointed. We should have what we want when we want it! How spelled so many of us are!
It is much more difficult when we are privileged to recognize how much we have to be grateful for. It is ironic but true, in my experience, that those who have suffered the most, or who have the least materially, tend to have more gratitude than those of us who enjoy plenty. If you have traveled to impoverished areas of the world, you may have noticed what I have: that where there is less, a culture of gratitude tends to be fostered. Where there is inordinate wealth, as we have here in the United States, a culture of entitlement can easily take hold.
So, how good it is to be reminded of this little band of Pilgrims, who had nothing more than their lives, one another, and a bit of food, which they shared not only with one another, but with their neighbors—and, they had a vision.
The heart of this religious tradition is the sharing of our gifts. The truest test of how well we are living out the spiritual path of Unitarian Universalism is whether there is thanks giving and thanks receiving—whether we are giving of ourselves to one another as well as receiving the blessings which so bountifully surround us.
How do we extend our bounty—our thanks—to one another here at SNUUC, and to those outside our walls? What would an expression of thanksgiving look like in the world in which we live now? I think about the situation now in Pakistan, which is under a sudden, sweeping military rule; the cyclone which has ravaged Bangladesh, and the droughts in the Southeastern U.S. How would thanksgiving express itself so that out of our bounty, we found ourselves because of our great generosity as a congregation, on the receiving end of thanksgiving in the world? How do we give in proportion to what we have received? How do we stop believing the lie that we are poor, when in fact, we are incredibly wealthy?
May we seek always to give thanks by giving of our bounty. May we both give and receive with abundance. May we recognize the great blessings that we enjoy and give freely of our bounty to one another, in the great tradition of this faith.
The American Creed by Forrest Church (2002)
Gratitude: The Spiritual Sentiment sermon by Rev. Brent A. Smith (2006)
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)