400 years ago in 1621 the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians gathered together to celebrate their first successful corn harvest. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony had hunted wild birds and held a feast that was attended by the Wampanoag Tribe who contributed five deer. Most American history books refer to this as the “First American Thanksgiving.”
Except it wasn’t!
Fifty-six years before the pilgrims ever thought about coming to Massachusetts, the Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed on the coast of Florida. When he stepped ashore on September 8, 1565 he decided to name the place Saint Augustine, because the day they first sighted land was his feast day. The records they wrote tell us that the very day they landed, in gratitude for the safe arrival, they celebrated a mass of Thanksgiving. After their religious celebration was over, Menendez ordered a feast laid out for himself, his shipmates, and the local Timucua Indians who had come out to greet them when they arrived.
Today a 208 foot cross rises high above the Saint Augustine seashore marking the spot of the Spanish mass. According to Michael Gannon’s book “The Cross in the Sand” it was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement on the American continent.
If Menendez’ ship carried the typical fare of most Spanish ships on that day, the first Thanksgiving meal probably had a stew made from beans and salted pork, hard sea biscuits baked before the ship set sail, and plenty of red wine. The Timucua Indians probably contributed from their food to this communal meal. And, given what we know about how they ate, along with the grains and squash and fish was probably included a sizable portion of alligator. YUM!!!
Sometimes we get lost, sometimes the normal commemorations of our holidays get polluted. When a society turns its back on God and yet continues to gather for what began as annual religious celebrations, certain significant elements are very easily overlooked. That’s very much the case with the celebration of Christmas, for example, which in many places now gives only a passing glance at the birth of Christ and focuses instead on celebrations of gift giving and historical fables . Those with no view towards Christ even like to cross his name out of the celebration itself. Many now call it “X-mas.”
Today’s verse concludes with two words. GIVE THANKS
Let me share two observations in that light.
The first is this is a celebration being honored today in America founded upon the principle that those who receive things should be thankful for receiving them; and that thankfulness ought to be expressed. What are you thankful for?
If you are reading this, you’re alive. That may be a place to start. GIVE THANKS.
If you are reading this, you probably are wealthy enough to have a phone with an Internet connection, or possibly an iPad, or conceivably even a whole computer! GIVE THANKS.
You’re likely sitting in a home with walls, windows, a roof, and perhaps electricity. GIVE THANKS.
You may be able to smell your turkey or your ham already cooking in the oven. GIVE THANKS.
And if you look outside the window of your home you may even see an automobile or two. GIVE THANKS.
Of course if you are seeing all these things, you have been given the gift of sight. GIVE THANKS.
And if you are reading these words, you have been given the gift of education. GIVE THANKS.
Most of you will be able to look outside your windows from your warm and dry homes past the car and not see enemy tanks or enemy soldiers. You’ve been given the gift of peace and safety. GIVE THANKS.
I could literally go on for hours, but time in space forbid it.
My first question is this: WHAT ARE YOU THANKFUL FOR ?
Many of us will have family gathering together with us today. Are you thankful for your family? Of course you are. Are you thankful for the strength to face the challenges of this past year, strength that has brought you to this place where you actually have a day set aside to give thanks? One would think so.
But that brings us to my second question.
If you were going to give thanks, logic insists those thanks be given to someone. No one in his right mind simply looks at a rock or a tree or a wall to say thank you to some inanimate object. According to the Bible, no one in his right mind thinks of themselves as the sole source of all of the good and blessings that have been bestowed upon them; as if there is no God who has given these blessings. (The Bible declares clearly that it is the fool who says in his heart there is no God.)
Here’s my second question: TO WHOM WILL YOU GIVE THANKS?
There is a God. He is not silent. He has not totally distanced himself from the affairs of the men and women on this planet. He came, he lived among us, he paid an incredible price for us to know him, and to experience his blessings.
Today is the day set aside in the United States of America as a national holiday for us to give thanks. But today in America, there are many who have no idea to whom those thanks should be given.
John Hancock, one of the heroes of the American revolution and one of the signers of our Declaration of Independence, knew full well. In 1780 Hancock was then Governor of Massachusetts. The Revolutionary War was still being fought, the outcome was far from certain. And yet his excellency the governor issued a proclamation for a day of thanksgiving. The opening sentence begins as follows. “Whereas it has pleased Almighty God, the father of all mercies, amidst the vicissitudes and calamities of war, to bestow blessing on the people of these states …”
Hancock knew to whom these thanks ought to be given! He goes on to recommend in his proclamation that all people assemble to celebrate the praises of our divine benefactor. He encourages them to offer fervent prayers to God, whom he calls “the God of all Grace,” that it might please Him to “pardon our heinous transgressions and incline our hearts for the future to keep all his laws.” Yes, Hancock knew.
Amidst the suggested topics of prayer listed in his proclamation, the final one may seem strange to people who have been told that there must be a wall of separation between the government and its people. Because the final thing Hancock encourages the people of Massachusetts to pray for in his official proclamation is that God will cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread all over the earth. Yes, Hancock. He knew.
The final words of Hancock‘s proclamation are very different from the words one hears from so many American politicians today when they finish their public speeches and meetings. Even the most secular and godless politicians often close their remarks by saying “God bless America.” Not Hancock. His final sentence is much more pointed. He writes “God save the people of the United States.” Yes, Hancock knew.
Today is a day where the United States has stopped all government operations, closed all banks, delivers no mail. Almost every business in our country is closed today. Because today is the day to stop, and to focus on the answers to two critical questions.
WHAT ARE YOU THANKFUL FOR ?
TO WHOM WILL YOU GIVE THANKS?
If you can think of nothing else to give thanks for today, be thankful you’re not eating alligator. (Or at least be thankful that an alligator isn’t eating you!)
And when you DO give thanks, give them to the God who loves you and has invited you to another banquet you won’t want to miss.