A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer on November 19, 2012, at the Tri-City Interfaith Council’s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, held a St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Fremont, California.  Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I feel a rather large degree of ownership of the holiday we call “Thanksgiving.”  Yes, I know it’s a national holiday and that America is not the only country that has a Thanksgiving holiday, but I have a deep, personal connection to Thanksgiving.  My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (I think that’s the right number of “greats”) was part of that group of people we teach our children about who supposedly celebrated the first Thanksgiving.

John Alden, my great-great-great … grandfather, was one of the roughly 130 people who came to the Americas on a pilgrimage aboard ship called the Mayflower to establish a new British colony.  These Pilgrims had a charter to establish their community in northern Virginia, but storms sent their boat off course and they ended up making landfall in what is now called Massachusetts.

There are lots of legends about this group of Pilgrims – like the legend that my great-great-great-great- … grandfather was the first to set foot on Plymouth Rock.[1]

Or the legend that their first winter was so harsh, they had only five kernels of corn per person each day to eat.    We do know that many of their party died of malnutrition and disease.

The next spring, they got to planting.  While they had limited success with wheat and barley, their corn crop proved very successful, thanks to Squanto who taught them how to plant corn in mounds, using fish as a fertilizer.[2]

                That autumn, Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag Indians, his wife, and 90 men made the two day journey to visit the Pilgrim settlers (including my great-great- … grandfather, John Alden).  Their arrival coincided with the Pilgrim’s harvest feast and the colonist invited the Wampanoag to join them.[3]

                Years later, these Pilgrims became Congregationalists, and the Congregationalists eventually became a part of the United Church of Christ.  And the United Church of Christ is the Christian denomination I grew-up in and was ordained in.  So, between my great-great-great- … grandfather and my faith tradition, I feel a sense of ownership of this holiday.

However, it wasn’t until years later that this first Pilgrim harvest feast was looked at as the first “Thanksgiving” in the history of the United States.  You see, it took a long time to get from that feast to our present annual holiday.[4]  Along the way, certain days were declared to be national days for giving thanks.

  • In 1777, the Continental Congress proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving after the American Revolution victory at the Battle of Saratoga.
  • Twelve years later, George Washington proclaimed another national day of thanksgiving in honor of the ratification of the Constitution.
  • Washington requested that the Congress make it an annual event; they declined.

It wasn’t until near the end of a Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be a national day of Thanksgiving – and it took another 40 years, into the early 1900s, before the tradition really caught on.  You see, Lincoln’s official Thanksgiving was sanctioned in order to bolster the Union’s morale and many Southerners saw the new holiday as an attempt to impose Northern customs on their conquered land.

History is never quite as clean as we would like it to be.

We like to think that those first Pilgrims came seeking religious freedom, but that’s not quite accurate.  They came to establish a colony where they would be free to worship God as they thought appropriate, but they had no interest in welcoming people who had other ideas of how to worship God.

We’ve come a long way as a nation with regard to freedom of religion from those days in the early 1600s.  While my Christian denomination descended from those close-minded Pilgrims, we are not nearly so close-minded any more.

I subscribe to a point of view that was articulated quite well by Professor Marcus Borg:  “Religious pluralism is a fact of life in North America, and in the world.  To absolutize one’s own religion as the only way means that one sees all of the other religious traditions of the world as wrong, and dialogue, genuine dialogue, becomes impossible.  Conversion can be the only goal.

“I affirm, along with many others, that the major enduring religions of the world are all valid and legitimate. …  To be Christian means to find the decisive revelation of God in Jesus.  To be Muslim means to find the decisive revelation of God in the Koran.  To be Jewish means to find the decisive revelation of God in the Torah, and so forth. …  [So,] To be Christian [or Sikh, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Baha’i or earth-based, or Unitarian] in this kind of context means to be deeply committed to one’s own tradition, even as one recognizes the validity of other traditions.”[5]

So I strive to be a good Christian even as I hope you strive to be a good Jew or Muslim or Sikh or Baha’i or whatever your religious tradition calls you to be.  And wouldn’t it be nice if we could all embrace our own religious traditions while recognizing the validity of other traditions.  Sadly, we’re not there yet.  We know that in the past few months, there have been tragic attacks against people of faith because of their faith.  A Mosque torched in Joplin, Missouri, in August.  And in August, a gunman killing 6 people and himself at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  It took two years for the Islamic Center of Murphreesboro, Tennessee to open its doors because neighbors didn’t want to have a Mosque in the neighborhood.  And just last week, in Norcoss, Georgia, vandalism occurred at the Gurdwara, cars in the parking lot were damaged and religious bigotry is the suspected motivation.  We have so much more work still to do here in this land of freedom.  We have so much more work still to do here in the United States of America.

I firmly believe that, whether we’re talking about religious zealotry here in the United States or if we’re talking about zealotry around the world, this kind of hate and fear will not be overcome by legal demands or military might.  Fundamentalist of any religious tradition actually flourish when faced with aggressive, forceful campaigns against them.  Nor is the way to undermine fundamentalism to use increased secularism.  Trying to remove religion from the public square is equally viewed as an attack by fundamentalists.  The way to undermine fundamentalism is with better religion, a genuine faith tradition that is alive and well in most of the world’s religions.  What we are doing here, tonight – being together and praying together – is the best antidote to bad religion.  The more we can find common ground with one another, the less ground religious zealots will have.

One place where I believe we can find that common ground is in the spiritual practice of giving thanks.  We have so many reason to be thankful.  Think about the reasons you have to be thankful.

The legend says that during that first winter in America, my great-great-great- … grandfather and the other Pilgrims were rationed to five kernels of corn a day.  I invite you to pause for a moment and think of five reasons you have to be thankful tonight.  Think of one reason for each finger on one hand.


With a show of hand, how many of you included your family as one of the reasons you are thankful?

How many of you included something about having your basic necessities taken care of, something about having food to eat or clothing to wear or shelter at night?

How many of you included something about freedom on your list?

Look at how much common ground we have.  Look at how our gratitude helps us see our common humanity.  Look at how our gratitude unites us.

Most people are baffled by what we’re doing here today.  Some are concerned that members of their faith tradition would dare to gather in one room under one roof with people of other religious traditions to pray.  They fear corruption and contamination.  Others are stunned that there are people of any religious conviction who will gather with people of other religious traditions in worship.  They assume that all people of faith are so exclusive in their approach that there aren’t any who would do what we are doing.

And still, here we are.  Here we are, gathered in one room, under on roof, offering God our thanks, and finding a gratitude unites us.  And for me, that is one more reason I give thanks.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[2] The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, http://www.pilgrimhall.org/f_thanks.htm, Plymouth Hall Museum (17 November 2007).

[3] The First Thanksgiving, http://www.scholastic.com/scholastic_thanksgiving/feast/, Scholastic (17 November 2007).

[4] The following facts/timeline is from “All The More Reason To Give Thanks,” quoted without attribution in an email from eSermons.com, dated 13 November 2007.

[5] Marcus Borg, quoted on explorefaith.org, http://www.explorefaith.org/questions/credence.html (18 November 2012).