Note: This sermon was delivered at a ecumenical Thanksgiving service in Scottsville in which Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians (and a smattering of Episcopalians(!) participated.
I don’t know if Jamestown women actually swooned when the REAL John Rolfe walked by smoking his pipe—but if they did, too bad for them. John Rolfe had his eyes and heart set on, and indeed he eventually married, the beautiful, and brave Pocahontas. I say brave, because as you probably also know, especially if you were raised in Virginia, Pocahontas was an American Indian tribal princess who saved John Smith’s life—but that is another story.
Even though WE who are Virginians know without a shadow of a doubt that our state hosted the first Thanksgiving, New Englanders, specifically Massachusetts’ New Englanders, believe that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated there. (HISS) Those first New Englanders were Puritans, that is quasi Presbyterians. So even if Virginia wasn’t the site of the first Thanksgiving which it was, we Virginia Presbyterians still have a reason to boast, or better one more reason to boast. right? You Baptists and Methodists will need to get busy creating a special national holiday if you want to get in the game.
Laying aside geographic and denominational divisions regarding Thanksgiving, though, today I want to talk about one particular Puritan, aka Presbyterian. This Puritan would not have been present at the very first Thanksgiving, if in fact it was in Massachusetts, which it wasn’t. This Puritan, and devout Christian was nine years late to that first New England celebration. He didn’t arrive on Massachusetts’ shores until 1630—and the the first New England Thanksgiving is 1621.
This Puritan was an Englishman. His name was John Winthrop. The Puritans and Anglicans in England could not get along. Since the Anglicans were in the majority, the Puritans felt persecuted. So in 1630 he and some 699 other Puritans set sail for the New World. His ship, the Arabella, was one in a fleet of 11 ships.
John Winthrop was not a clergy person, but he was as I have said, a devout Christian. We can imagine that spirits flagged on the long three-month voyage across the Atlantic. Sometime on that trip, then, John Winthrop felt moved to preach to his shipmates. The sermon he preached still survives. It is entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity.” The words are archaic, plenty of thus’s and thines, haths and hath nots that make for difficult reading today. But his basic ideas still resonate. They are based on scripture. The scripture passage John Winthrop draws from is the text I chose for today, Matthew 5:14-16 about the city on the hill.
Jesus coined the term, city on the hill, of course. He delivers that line while speaking to his disciples. It’s at the end of a much longer scripture reading called the Beatitudes. We all know something about the Beatitudes right? Beatitudes simply means blessings. Not to be confused with Jesus’ Woe-itudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are those who mourn, and so on.”
So Jesus delivers the Beatitudes and then he moves on to the image of the city on a hill, “You are a lighted city built on a hill that cannot be hid,” he tells his disciples. In other words, Jesus says that they have been especially blessed because THEY have the Word of God—What greater gift, right?
I almost always go to commentaries when I am studying a scripture passage. I am sure that Katie and Bruce do, too. One of the commentators I read this week, says, “This text calls [the disciples] not to more self-exertion, but to believe Jesus’ word and to accept and live out the new reality it has already created in the call to discipleship.” We Presbyterians call that discipleship, unconditional election. Don’t have to do anything. You are just chosen. Methodists and Baptists believe in the concept, too, even if they don’t use that exact phrase, “unconditional election.”
John Winthrop wanted his shipmates, Puritans all, to know that they had been chosen, unconditionally elected, just like Jesus’ disciples. From their new geographic location, they would be able to be an inspiration to others—other believers, and other nations just by living out the Word of God. A shining light on a hill.
I say JUST by living out the word of God. But it’s not so easy is it? That is because with chosen-ness comes responsibility—that can be a bummer, can’t it? We are a shining city, yes, but we don’t just bask in the glow.
In his sermon preached to other Puritans on the Arabella, John Winthrop identified three virtues that they WERE and by extension we ARE to practice: love, unity and charity—and if we have to choose one virtue over all, John Winthrop said it would be love. In fact, he said that the Puritans were “knit together in a bond of love” that ultimately derives from God’s love.
That idea, if not those archaic words, still preaches well, I think, and are worth reflecting on this week as we enjoy our turkey and cranberry sauce. Our nation is founded on Christian principles: We remain united in a Godly vision, even if divided in our politics.
This Thanksgiving, then, let us remember and give thanks to Jesus Christ, John Winthrop, and even John Rolfe, who in some remote way maybe, made Thanksgiving possible. Amen