Four hundred years ago, a group of people set sails from Scrooby, England, for the new world. One hundred two passengers, including a man called Richard Warren, who is my 10th Great Grandfather, were seeking a new life in a new place as well as religious freedom. As they were called, these pilgrims, or separatists, had been living in Hollard for several years with the desire to worship as they saw fit. Since the mid-1500’s it was illegal to not attend a Church of England Church on Sunday, and for each Sunday missed, a fine was imposed equal to about $20 today, which was about a month or more wages.
We Congregationalists are the inheritors of the faith and order of that first church established in Plymouth in 1620.
These Separatists had moved to Holland, where they were able to worship as their conscience dictated. Still, the colony was losing the sense of being English, which is one reason they sought investors to finance their voyage to the new world. They were given a land grant by the King in Virginia, but because the journey took longer than expected, they put ashore at what would become Cape Cod near Plymouth. They set foot on dry land on November 11, 1620, by the calendar’s old style. On the calendar we use today, that date was November 21, 400 years ago yesterday.
The 41 male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact, which would lay down how they would govern themselves. The Compact states that they undertook the voyage for the “Glory of God,” “Advancement of the Christian Faith,” and for the “Glory of King and Country.” They agreed “in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.” And that would enact laws to promote justice and the “good order of the colony.”
After 65 days on board the Mayflower, the spotted land and gathered on the ship’s deck to give thanks that God had brought them safely to the end of their journey. I think they were just glad to get off the ship!
What we now call the First Thanksgiving was not held until the following year, sometime between late September and mid-November, and was in thanksgiving for the harvest. Just over 50 pilgrims attended because the others had died during that first winter in Plymouth. Along with being thankful for the harvest, they were grateful for being alive.
Although not as bleak or desperate as that first winter of 1620, these last seven months of the pandemic have been trying on all of us. We have been isolated from those we love, and we are unsure of what the future holds for us. This has been a very trying political season that has seen friendships lost or changed because of who we support. It has been challenging to find the things that we need for our daily lives. Many have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. We worshipped virtually for Easter and will do so again for Christmas, and as of today, 255,753 of our fellow citizens lost their lives due to COVID. Just like that first Thanksgiving, many tables will be missing loved ones this year.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asks where the others are? Why have they not come to give thanks to God? Jesus had just healed a group of people from a deadly disease that kept them separated from their families for years. For the first time, they would be able to sit at the table with them and feel their embrace, but only one returned to give thanks for the fantastic thing that had happened to them.
In this story, we find Jesus traveling along a road, and he encounters ten men with leprosy. Knowing how deadly this disease is, they stay at a distance from everyone. They knew that if they practiced good social distancing, they would help to slow the spread and not infect their loved ones. These men left all they had and isolated themselves outside of the city as a way to show love for others. They sacrificed all they had for the safety and wellbeing of others.
Along comes, Jesus and they call to him from a distance and ask him to have pity on them. He tells them to go and “show themselves to the priest.” The priest determined if someone were ritually clean or not, so they would have to present themselves for inspection. The story tells us that along the way, they were cleansed of their disease.
Sometime later, one of the men returned, praising God and thanked Jesus for what Jesus had done for him. Jesus was surprised that the others had not also returned and asked where they were. The Gospel points out that the man who returned was a Samaritan. The implication was the others were not but that this one man, the Samaritan, came back to give thanks for what had been done for him.
The point of the story is that we should give thanks for all that we have, even in the darkest times. The pilgrims lost more than half their number that first winter, yet they gathered to give thanks to God for a successful harvest and for the health of those that remained. Having been cleansed of the disease that has kept him separate from his family for who knows how long, the one-man came back to give thanks. We are to praise God and give thanks in season and out of season. We are to give thanks in good times as well as in the bad. Rather than focus on what we have lost these last months, focus on what we still have!
Our Pilgrim ancestors came to the new world to offer a better life for those that would come after them. They had a difficult time, but they did not give up. They persevered when all the odds were against them. Our ancestors in faith who founded this congregation sacrificed time and fortune to ensure that we had a place to worship, and we hope that the generations that come after us will as well.
On Thursday, we will gather, albeit in smaller groups than usual, to give thanks; let us not forget all that we have to be thankful for. Let us be thankful that through the magic of technology, we can still gather for worship and fellowship. Let us be thankful that we have had a stretch of good weather, for we know that soon, it will change. Let us be thankful that, due to smaller gatherings this Thanksgiving, we might avoid those political conversations around the table. But most of all, let us be thankful that God loves us and that we are forgiven.