When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, New Revised Standard Version
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Then Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."
John 6:25-35, New Revised Standard Version
The story of the first Thanksgiving. Once upon a time – well, in August 1620 – two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, set sail from England with 102 English Pilgrims as passengers, en route to the New World. The Pilgrims were Protestant Christians who separated from the established church in England. This was a dangerous time to dissent from the official religion; when I was in England I saw monuments to martyrs who had been burned at the stake only a hundred years before the Mayflower and the Speedwell sailed. The Pilgrims wanted to start a colony overseas where they could live in religious freedom.
But after three months at sea the Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod. The Pilgrims eventually went to Plymouth, now in Massachusetts, to found their colony, but had to live on board ship for the winter, where half of the passengers and crew died during those terrible cold months. The rest survived mainly because the Native people, the Wampanoag, donated food. When it came time to plant in the spring, the aboriginal people showed the Pilgrims how to grow corn and catch eels. So in the fall of 1621 the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag to come for a thanksgiving celebration as they ate fish, game, and the corn from their first harvest in the New World.
If there is anyone who should be into the Thanksgiving holiday and all the imagery of Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving dinner, it would be me. I just received my certificate from the Canadian Society of Mayflower Descendants showing that I am a descendant of John Alden, who came with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. He was the cooper on board ship, looking after wooden barrels of supplies. Now, it seems that his main job concerned the kegs of beer, because water was unsafe to drink and even children drank beer then. John Alden married Patricia Mullins before that first Thanksgiving in 1621, and their great-great-great granddaughter Anne Burrill and her husband were Loyalists who came to New Brunswick after the American Revolution.
So our Canadian Thanksgiving gets mashed up, so to speak, with the American Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims, although the first Thanksgiving service in Canada was celebrated by John Frobisher on Baffin Island in the Arctic in 1578. There, you can mention that at dinner later today.
These seventeenth-century Pilgrims knew their Bible. They had no music in worship other than singing psalms, and they memorized most of those. And they knew the Bible stories. The Pilgrims would have known our reading from the book of Deuteronomy today. Maybe they even read it out at that first Thanksgiving: "When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground" and set it before God and celebrate the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you.
Our Deuteronomy reading recaps the story of Israel, the story told in the first books of the Bible:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
We have this story, in our Bibles, and if we don’t read it there, we can see it in movies like Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments, if anyone remembers Charlton Heston as Moses. He may be on TV somewhere this weekend, or on Netflix.
The Pilgrims didn’t only read and know this story – they believed that in a sense they were living this story. They would make connections between their story and the Bible story. The Israelites were treated harshly in Egypt; the Pilgrims felt persecuted for their faith in England. The Israelites were brought out of Egypt through the sea; the Pilgrims left England and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The Israelites made a covenant with God; the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact in the name of God and called it a covenant. The Israelites came into the wilderness; the Pilgrims found North America to be a wild, forested land. The Israelites found their land flowing with milk and honey full of people too, who resisted their entry; the Pilgrims came into conflict with aboriginal people, and today we see this sad, violent part of both stories differently than when the Bible was written and the Pilgrims read it.
And, so, knowing this story, knowing that this is their story, the ancient Israelites and the seventeenth-century Pilgrims gave thanks to God, bringing the first portion of the harvest, celebrating the bounty God gave them. But if you know the rest of the story, and the Pilgrims would have, this is not the only way the Israelites responded to their deliverance by God from slavery in Egypt. This is not the only way they expressed their gratitude. The story is used throughout Deuteronomy and the rest of what are called the books of the law to underline how the Israelites are to act in their new land as they remember their story of rescue and give thanks.
In the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are constantly reminded that God brought them out of Egypt, guided and fed them in the wilderness, and made a covenant with them. In return, Israel must keep God’s commandments. Which means what? What does God tell the Israelites to do?
From the tenth chapter of Deuteronomy: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
From the fourteenth chapter: “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year; the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”
And in the next chapter: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted against your neighbour. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’”
And in the twenty-fourth chapter: “When you reap your harvest in the field, or beat your olive trees, or gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this.”
These are just a few from Deuteronomy alone. There are over 2,000 verses in the Bible like this, about justice for the poor and vulnerable.
The Israelites’ remembering that God rescued them from slavery didn’t stop at offering the first of the harvest and celebrating a thanksgiving feast. They were to continue to act out their thanksgiving through caring for the poor, because God had cared for them when they were suffering in Egypt.
The Israelites knew that liberation and new life was their story. The Pilgrims knew that liberation and new life was their story. And, brothers and sisters, it is our story. We have been set free from slavery by sin and sinful systems. In the New Testament, the letter to the Galatians says “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” We have been brought to freedom through the waters, not of the Red Sea or the Atlantic, but of baptism. We have been guided, not into a new land, but into life with Christ, by God’s grace. And there we are given, not bread in the desert, not corn in the New World, but the true bread from heaven, Jesus Christ.
This is our story. And we give thanks. Like the Israelites long ago, we are to remember our liberation and show our gratitude for all of God’s gifts, by celebrating Thanksgiving. And we are not just to celebrate our bounty, but share it. We are to open our hands and our hearts to the poor and needy, and to work for a world where no one is need. God is saying to us, in the way God spoke to Israel: "Remember that you were slaves to sin and Jesus set you free by his death and rising again; therefore I am commanding you to do this: to love the stranger, to welcome the immigrant, to share with the poor, to feed the hungry." And, sisters and brothers, if we don’t do this, if we don’t share the blessings of our land with the world, then we can’t justify our own Thanksgiving dinners. For our God is the God of Israel and the God of the Pilgrims, the God who executes justice.