Virginians, being Virginians, like to claim that the first Thanksgiving took place not at Plymouth Rock, but at Berkley Plantation in Virginia in 1619. The ships that arrived from England had a charter that required that the day of arrival be observed yearly as a “day of thanksgiving” to God.
“We ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” So, on that first day on Virginia soil by the James River, Captain John Woodleaf held the first service of thanksgiving. We carry on this tradition at Christ Church this morning!
Thanksgiving, of course, has become an annual celebration of food and family. Many families have longstanding traditions. When I was I child, my family traveled every Thanksgiving from Richmond to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where both my parents had grown up. The undulating rhythm of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge brings back the anticipation of arrival. We rushed to get out of the house, because my Aunt Mary Hamilton held a High Noon Champagne Cocktail Party for all her family and friends on the Shore. This part of the day became more interesting to me as I became an older teenager.
After the friends had departed, we gathered together for the meal. Sometimes we ate at Winona, my Uncle Herman’s home overlooking Hungars Creek. Winona was built in the late 1600’s, just 60 or so years after Captain Woodleaf’s first Thanksgiving service. Aunts and great aunts, uncles and great uncles, cousins and second cousins were seated around the table (or the children’s table) together. Uncle Jim always said the blessing. Neenie’s Pecan Pie always finished the feast. And, the meal was always followed by the annual backyard football game.
There was much that was wonderful about our Thanksgiving gatherings. And yet, no family is immune to the difficulties that beset us all. Divorce, disease, death and estrangement disrupt even the most hallowed traditions. My own parents divorced after I graduated from college. There are cousins I haven’t seen in years. I officiated at my Uncle Jim’s funeral 2 years ago. Such is the nature of life.
Families break apart because people are broken. Most families are no different than this priceless description of William Faulkner’s family by his niece, Dean Faulkner Wells:
“Over the generations my family can claim nearly every psychological aberration: narcissism and nymphomania, alcoholism and anorexia, agoraphobia, manic depression, paranoid schizophrenia. There have been thieves, adulterers, sociopaths, killers, racists, liars, and folks suffering from panic attacks and real bad tempers, though to the best of my knowledge we’ve never had a barn burner or a preacher.”
Sounds like my family and I would guess, your family, although now my family does have a preacher. But Dean Faulkner Wells is just describing the human family. We’re pretty much all the same. Just think about God’s family as described in the Bible. Noah was a drunk, Jacob was a liar, Rahab was a prostitute, David had an affair and was a murderer, Elijah was suicidal, and the Samaritan woman was divorced 5 times and shacking up with her current boyfriend!
So on this “day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God,” no matter what permutation of friends or family we find ourselves in, what old traditions we maintain or what new ones we forge, or whether we’ve decided to bypass the whole affair and enjoy a quiet day alone, we might pause to give thanks that we are a human family, all connected to one another. And the comforting news is this: the God to whom we give thanks is the God who accepts us exactly as we are.
This, of course, is because of Jesus Christ who is, as we read in today’s gospel, the true bread from heaven, which gives life to the world. He died for our sins that we might be totally accepted as we are. His forgiving grace will outlast any tradition and is stronger than any divorce, disease, death or estrangement. And even if you are alone today, or feel alone in the midst of difficulty, you are not alone. He is with you.
I’ll close with a prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It’s called a Prayer for the Human Family.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen and Happy Thanksgiving.