by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
21 November 2021
Six ancestors of mine traveled on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620. Four of them died in the first winter. The teenager Elizabeth Tilley lost her parents, aunt, and uncle. The adolescent John Howland, who arrived as an indentured servant to the colony’s governor John Carver, survived the winter, but his master and mistress did not. John and Elizabeth later wed and lived long lives in which they produced a large family and gained wealth and status. I am rightly proud of my ancestors and draw strength from their example of endurance, courage, resilience, and faith.
Wanting to know more about these family heroes, I’ve read a lot in the history of the colony. I’ve gained a better understanding of the theology that animated them, of the great risks they encountered and overcame, of their roles in forming the values of democracy, representative government, and religious freedom.
But any reading of that history also informs one of the colony’s relations with the indigenous people and how that relationship was far more complex and ultimately violent and unjust than the Thanksgiving myth we learned as kids presented the relationship as being. Last week in our worship, we explored those critical questions and deconstructed the myth. Which leaves us asking: Once we’ve interrogated the myth with these critical perspectives, what value can this 400th anniversary hold for us? For me it is very personal—how to look at my ancestors with honesty—to value what there is to value, to honor what there is to honor, and to regret what deserves regret and remorse.
In biblical studies, in the study of how we interpret scripture, there is an understanding that we humans take three broad approaches to scripture, and these somewhat align with developmental stages. We first approach scripture with naiveté, accepting the stories at face value. Then, usually beginning in adolescence or young adulthood, we realize that there are critical questions we want to raise about the text. For some people, of course, these critical questions lead to a deconstruction of belief that results in disbelief. For others, the asking of critical questions can lead to no longer taking the stories at face value, but continuing to find some value and truth in them. Those folks then usually advance to the third broad approach, which is called post-critical naiveté. In this phase, we are aware of the critical problems and continue to interrogate the text with them, but we don’t get stuck in the critical mindset. We move on to embrace the stories again looking for what truths they tell, what values they hold, what meaning they might have for us.
It is this broad interpretative approach that has guided my study of the Thanksgiving story as I prepared for this worship series to mark this 400th anniversary. We can’t accept the Thanksgiving story that we once did with no exploration of the critical questions. Our commitments to fairness, justice, honesty, integrity compel us to ask those questions. But I don’t believe that means rejecting the story completely and disposing of it as having no meaning or value or importance to us. It is more than a relic. I believe we can still learn from and be inspired by it. That’s my goal in today’s sermon.
To help us in this exercise, I first want to turn to an idea from Hispanic theology. That might seem a little surprising when we are basically concerned about the interactions between a group of English people and Wampanoag Indians. But Mexican-American theology is derived from the colonial experience and the mixing of various races and ethnicities and the liminal spaces along national frontiers. It can enrich our understanding of how theology intersects with culture and identity.
And in particular I want to look at the concept of fiesta. This summer I read the book Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise by Virgilio Elizondo. Elizondo presents fiesta as one of the “symbols of new creation.” He writes, “The tragedies of [Mexican-American] history have not obliterated laughter and joy, warm friendship and the capacity to love.” He writes that in their culture there exists a “propensity for celebration.” This is the fiesta, which he then describes as “the mystical celebration of a complex identity, the mystical affirmation that life is a gift and is worth living.” And very importantly, this celebration comes in the midst of and acknowledging “the very contradictions that are of the essence of the mystery of human life.”
Elizondo then ties the concept of fiesta to some of Christianity’s oldest and deepest values. He writes,
From the very beginning Christianity saw itself living out a new universal love that would not be limited by cultural or religious boundaries. This new love came through many cultures but at the same time transcended them by opening them up to the wealth and riches of other cultures.
Elizondo concludes that this is part of God’s “new creation.” The new identities formed through the mixing of cultures represents the fullness of the kingdom of God which “bypasses human segregative barriers.”
For three days in the autumn of 1621 a group of Wampanoag and English sat down to eat together. They celebrated the harvest, which could only have come about from the Wampanoags helping the colonists learn how to farm in this new land. They were also honoring an alliance which had formed for their mutual benefit. They didn’t fully trust one another. They weren’t close friends. But, they were practicing the ancient rites of both people to honor one another with hospitality, generosity, and gratefulness.
And, so, that celebration we call “the First Thanksgiving” was an opening to a possible future. It was the beginnings of a fiesta and might have led to more learning from one another and true friendship and cooperation. And we know that for some English and Wampanoag it did. There are stories of true friendship, of cooperation, of mutual respect, even if the atrocities of colonial history are far more dominant.
So, can we still honor that moment in time as a moment when possibilities crossed boundaries? When a little of God’s plan for the world broke through fear and racism and skepticism, if just for a moment?
One reason I think we can is what Thanksgiving has come to mean across the centuries. In every community I’ve ministered in, Thanksgiving is the one time a year when people of various faiths and ethnicities generally come to together for worship and fellowship. Interfaith Thanksgiving services are common throughout this country. Omaha’s is today at 5 at First Christian Church. Why are those held this week? If not because we contemporary Americans see in that past event an opportunity. Maybe an opportunity that wasn’t fully taken then and still now isn’t fully taken, but we are trying. And so I love that this is the week every year when I’m most likely to join in worship with Jews and Muslims and even sometimes Indigenous people.
This is also the time of year when even the most secular Americans generally focus, at least some of their attention and dollars, on helping other people. Through this holiday and Christmas, Americans donate food and clothing and money and volunteer their time to help the poor and the hungry and unhoused. And we have a record of being one of the most generous of nations. Is that because we’ve spent centuries now practicing Thanksgiving? Being grateful for our blessings and then from that, sharing those blessings with others? Surely, the focus of this holiday has had a pedagogical effect upon us as a people.
So, there is much in the Thanksgiving story that requires critical questions and compels our regret and remorse, but there are also ideals to value. To pick up and develop and do an even better job of living into them.
And maybe that’s how we Congregationalists, at our best, have used the story. I mentioned last week that Margaret Bendroth, the longtime Congregational archivist, has claimed that the way we embraced the Pilgrim story is what helped us to avoid fundamentalism and to become the progressive denomination we have.
Bendroth writes that Congregationalists used history to unite them, rather than shared doctrine, biblical interpretation, or denominational structure. And all along they edited out aspects of that history and embraced others. The values they embraced from the Pilgrims were adventure, freedom, and an openness to possibilities. Obviously that romanticizes and maybe even white-washes a group that was rather dogmatic. But it’s not like those values are absent from the Pilgrim story, they are present.
She writes that Congregationalists at their best learned to study and reflect on their history and to ask questions about it. Which led to living with ambiguity and embracing the new. That enabled Congregationalists to be more open to liberal interpretations of scripture when those arose and to embrace modern advances more easily.
She writes that the focus on history also meant that Congregationalists understood that there’s wasn’t only one story, one perspective. That there were others. Which led to Congregationalists being at the forefront of ecumenical developments.
And in recent decades the UCC has been open about embracing the moral complexity of its past and trying to learn from it in order to create a more just world and a better future. Bendroth concludes her book by writing:
The past is as real and as consistently challenging as the people who created it, and its demands are not easily satisfied. The most important work of any religious tradition is to recognize—sometimes to celebrate and other times to fiercely mourn—its enduring power.
What, then, does this 400th anniversary mean for us?
It’s a chance to examine our story, to ask questions about it, to realize the ways it has shaped us for good and bad. And to then learn from it.
To learn what was wrong. What we don’t want to embrace. What we don’t want to follow. What we want to repent for.
But also to learn what was of value. What can inspire us and make us better.
To learn what opportunities and possibilities it did present. And how we can emulate those in our time and our place. And do better.
So, we need a fiesta—a celebration, that crosses the boundaries of identity and culture, and helps to imagine and embody the kingdom of God.
400 years after that meal between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, we can do that. And what better holiday than this one? Happy Thanksgiving.