“Thanksgiving Meditation”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

November 22, 2015 – The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 95:1-7


They had embarked on their journey more than two months earlier. Between malnutrition, exposure to the elements, and the dangers of a wind-blown, wave-tossed sea crossing, it had been a harrowing voyage. Not everyone who set out had survived—and there were harder days yet to come. But really, their hardships had begun long before they set sail into the unknown.

Some of them were fleeing religious persecution. They had been attacked, arrested, and condemned for their beliefs and the ways they practiced and didn’t practice their faith. They longed to live in a place where they were free to worship in the way they saw fit without the threat of harassment or attack.

Others were fleeing economic hardship. They had found themselves in a situation where it was impossible to provide for the basic needs of themselves and their families. Work was unavailable. Food was inaccessible. Shelter was unaffordable, and the social safety net was essentially nonexistent. Their children, seeing no alternative, were being pulled into military service, risking their lives for an army that did not represent their best interests. So they gathered what resources they had and spent them all to set out on this journey toward the possibility of greater opportunity and better life.

Religious minorities, poor folks, and indentured servants—they were a rag-tag band. Some were friends, and others were strangers. But together they set out, crammed into an overcrowded ship called the Mayflower, bound for the New World.

When they landed in what is now Massachusetts, first at Provincetown and finally at Plymouth, those who had survived the journey set about building their new community. But after months of misadventures and delays back in Europe, they had begun their journey much later than they had intended, and as a result, they had arrived in mid-December—not exactly the most hospitable month here in New England (and that was before climate change!). Weary, sick, and worn out by the treacherous ocean crossing, they found themselves in an unfamiliar place, with very little in the way of resources, in the dead of winter, unsure of what kind of reception they would receive from the land’s current inhabitants.

This story is a familiar one. You’ve heard it any number of times. It’s the one we’ll commemorate as we celebrate Thanksgiving later this week. And while reality was certainly more complicated than the romanticized version I learned in elementary school, the fact remains that without the help of the Native Americans, the Pilgrims all would surely have perished that first winter. And without more help the next spring, they would not have had seed to plant, let alone the specialized agricultural and ecological knowledge that the Wampanoag people had developed to help crops thrive in that particular place.


Samoset and Squanto and Massasoit and their Wampanoag and Massachusett brethren did not know the Psalms. They did not know any part of the Bible. They had probably never heard of Jesus or his followers (this was decades before John Eliot began his work of Biblical translation into indigenous languages). But their actions make it clear that today’s reading from Psalm 95 would not have sounded unfamiliar to them.

In God’s hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are the Lord’s also.
The sea is God’s, for the Lord made it,
and the dry land, which God’s hands have formed.

The first inhabitants of this land knew the same truth that the Psalmist knew: that the earth and all its bounties are not an object to be owned but a wonder to be held in trust, not an item to be possessed but a resource to be stewarded, not a treasure to be hoarded but a blessing to be shared. And the first inhabitants of this land knew another truth that is also written all over our scriptures: that strangers, foreigners, immigrants, and wanderers are not a threat to be deterred but a gift to be welcomed. Not a gift without risk, for the Native Americans were already familiar with the conflict and violence that had characterized some of the European colonists. We might even call some of those colonists “religious extremists.” But in spite of the risk, those new arrivals were seen nevertheless as a gift, a gift that comes with a sacred obligation of hospitality.


In light of this text we heard this morning, and in light of this story we celebrate this week, I cannot help but think of another group of people who have left their homes and are journeying through inclement weather, across treacherous waters, to an uncertain reception in a foreign land. Some are fleeing religious persecution, afraid of assault or worse because of their beliefs and the ways they practice and don’t practice their faith. Some are fleeing economic hardship, beaten down by the struggle to make ends meet in a country where everything is unstable and uncertain. Some are fleeing violence and terror, bombed-out cities and overcrowded refugee camps.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than four million Syrians have fled their country, and another 6.5 million plus are displaced from their homes but still in Syria. Many who cross the border into Jordan or Turkey eventually try to cross the Mediterranean, crammed into overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels. Untold numbers perish on the way. Those who make it are faced with an increasingly hostile reception from the European nations where they seek asylum.

Here in the United States, the reception is, perhaps, even colder. Thirty governors have declared that their states will not accept Syrian refugees. The House of Representatives passed a bill this week that would block resettlement of Syrians in the United States. The sorrow that flooded our national consciousness in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris twisted itself into fear, and that fear made the easy slide into racism and xenophobia, and somehow our leaders seem to have forgotten those truths that the earliest inhabitants of our land, and the Psalmist, both knew.

In God’s hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are the Lord’s also.
The sea is God’s, for the Lord made it,
and the dry land, which God’s hands have formed.

What kept the Pilgrims alive to celebrate that first Thanksgiving, and what we must remember now, is that the earth and all that is in it belongs not to us, but to God. We are but temporary stewards, holding these gifts in our hands for the blink of an eye. And both our heritage as Americans and our vocation as Christians dictate that when people in need wash up on our shores, it is our obligation and it is our privilege to take them in.

For we worship a God who cherishes the last and the lost and the least. We follow a Christ who embraces widows and orphans, sinners and strangers, the ones seen as nobodies (or worse) by the rest of the world. We are led by a Spirit who breathes in every lung, who shines in every face—who gathers in this ragtag band of friends and strangers and makes of us a people, who sends us forth to see the image of God in the unlikeliest of places, who inspires us to dedicate our voices, our actions, our resources, our very lives to the work of Thanksgiving, which is to say, to recognize the blessings and privileges we have received, to see clearly the places where those gifts are lacking, and to broaden and lengthen and extend the table until all can share at the feast.

Let’s get to it.


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