This week the Prayers and Poems tab has prayers which can be used as table graces, if you are looking for a blessing for your Thanksgiving meal. And there is a new tab, Hymns, with a hymn for Thanksgiving as its first entry.
Thanksgiving. Some call it the best of the holidays, because it centers on sharing a full plate and a warm pie, not on gifts that make both giver and receiver anxious, or on religious practices that divide us. It’s a day I love for its many connections to people I cherish and people who have cherished me. But in some important ways Thanksgiving fails at its task.
Holidays exist to draw us together as communities of shared memory and shared hope. But the Pilgrims don’t work as that shared memory. Their story isn’t everybody’s story. They weren’t the first Americans and we all know that. Our stories are diverse and we all need our own details, not just theirs, so we need a story that isn’t finished yet, a story we can keep adding to, a story in which we are moving forward but not to victory, for many get lost and most are hurt and few can see the road ahead. We need a story about the long and winding road.
The Pilgrims would likely be the first to say that is their story, but the way it gets told omits their anxiety, the pain they caused one another, the broken dreams and disillusionment they knew. Their courage, confidence, clarity and victory are the things told about, but to the extent they had those qualities, they were always mixed, as they are in us, with fear, doubt and confusion.
Here’s just one example of a part of their history that needs remembering:
Rev. JonathanWheelwright arrived in Boston in 1636.
He was much heralded, for he was a preacher people loved to hear, considered handsome, an athlete, a graduate of Cambridge University. His wife’s sister, Anne Hutchinson, was already here and very influential in the town. She ran a school in her home, for children and women, and she taught them the Bible, her own interpretation that is, which she had developed with Jonathan Wheelwright back in England.
When Wheelwright arrived an election, for Governor of the Colony, was looming. There were some stark issues in it. John Winthrop, a candidate for Governor, was pretty conservative. His job had been to keep trade flowing with England and that meant appeasing King Charles. Charles didn’t trust the Puritans, and in particular he didn’t trust Wheelwright, who had been banned from preaching by the bishops of England, for his strange view that truth and authority came from the Holy Spirit and not from human laws. Anne Hutchinson also held this view, and used it as her rationale for teaching, in her home and to women, a theology independent of the church.
Henry Vane, who was the Governor at the time, was running for re-election. Vane supported the view of Wheelwright and Hutchinson, which essentially was an argument for freedom of speech. Winthrop knew King Charles hated the idea of that freedom, and wanted an established social and civil process of authorizing official public views.
Wheelwright, already banned in England, was unwilling to undergo a process of examination of his theology by the local clergy, who would then authorize him, or not, to preach in this colony. People begged Wheelwright, but he would not bend on this. He and Anne Hutchinson supported Vane. And Winthrop won the election.
Winthrop’s revenge was swift. Vane returned to England to escape it, but Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson were imprisoned and tried for sedition, at Winthrop’s request. Both were found guilty, and both were required to leave the colony for non-conformity of thought.
The Hutchinsons went first to what is now R.I., then to what is now Rye, N.Y. The Wheelwrights went to what is now N.H, and founded Exeter in 1638. Five years later, when Winthrop expanded the Massachusetts Colony north to land abutting Exeter, Wheelwright decamped to get away from him, settling in Wells, ME. Soon after, the Hutchinsons were massacred by the Natives, an event that raised tremendous fear in the English settlements. Wheelwright wrote to Winthrop asking for military protection for the people of Wells. It was granted. A few years later, when King Charles was beheaded, Wheelwright returned to England, where he could now preach freely, and be clear of Winthrop. But when the monarchy was restored, Wheelwright, all of whose children had remained in the colonies, returned to Massachusetts Bay, vowed to preach no more, and undertook farming in Salisbury, MA, where he died and is buried.
Immigration was vastly harder than Wheelwright had imagined, hoped. He had invested his money and his life in a risk that was at best, harrowing, and at its worst, imprisoning. His miseries mounted, few came to his defense, in many ways, he failed. Yet in our Bill of Rights, the inclusion of freedom of speech was done in memory of him. And Anne Hutchinson’s statue stands next to the State House in Boston, in remembrance of her.
Nothing frees people like the truth, and nothing leads them as falsely as the claim of the powerful to absolute truth. That’s what Jesus is saying in this week’s gospel reading, outside the Temple. His followers remark on the massive building, how solid and substantial it is, and by association all the teaching that comes from it. Jesus warns them not to put their faith in stone, for time will take it down. Unrest will come he says, even wars and rumors of wars, but do not be afraid, he urges them, for this is just the beginning of the birthpangs.
And Jesus’ wisdom is born out: the world Winthrop established is entirely gone. King and nation, boundaries of the colony and rights of the citizenry, all have changed. But the speech and spirit that Wheelwright defended at such cost remains, and belongs to us all. We may all tell the story, each in our own words and way, of what, in this journey, brings thanksgiving to our hearts and minds, fills us with hope, and is wonderful to remember.
On Wednesday, re-elected President Obama teared up, when he thanked a room full of campaign workers, young men and women many of whose names he likely did not know. From his heart he said to them that they, in their commitment as well as in their work, had made his work meaningful, and that his hope lay in them, in the unknown years ahead of us all, for he believes their great spirits will do wondrous things, wherever they go. The video went viral. Why? Because we heard the wisdom of Jesus in his words, that life comes forth from birthpangs, not from monuments, nor from kings. And we heard President Obama say to these young folk what the German mystic Meister Eckhart said many centuries ago, Every creature is a Word of God.
So we are all campaign workers, for Christ, whose spirit fires us up and readies us to go on journeys we need to take, and for freedom, whose speech is the truest voice of God in our time. Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!