November 18, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
We have an early Thanksgiving this year. I believe it is always held on the 4th Thursday of November and since the first of November fell on a Thursday, this is the earliest date that this national holiday falls. We know the story of that first Thanksgiving, or at least we know some version of what took place. We don’t know exactly when, but we can imagine a gathering in Plimouth, Massachusetts, with the early settlers and some of the native Americans who helped save their lives. In John’s Gospel, we hear again of the feeding of the five thousand and how Jesus gave thanks and blessed the bread and then had it shared throughout the crowd. These are stories of giving thanks and sharing the gifts of abundance and of sustenance. Let us pray, O God of love and light, we give you thanks this day for this time to come together and be renewed in faith by your Word and by the community of support and care with which we gather. Amen.
The Pilgrims were a religious community, the ancestors of those we came to call Congregationalists, early Puritans. They had fled England to the Netherlands and then made their way, brave and hearty souls all the way to the coast of Massachusetts. I understand that they lived on the boat for most of the first year as they constructed houses and a settlement and figured out ways to clear the land together. They were prayerful people; they read the Bible, they wore simple clothes, and many, many of the earliest settlers died due to illness, cold, the elements, so much.
We can only imagine how hard it was for them to share quarters on the boat for safety and protection and how grateful they felt that they had survived, that with the help of some of the Wompanoag people, that they learned how to farm the soil and grow the food which would help them survive.
This was no easy undertaking; they had suffered a great deal and were not sure whom they could trust. Faith was the true centerpiece of their lives, a communal sense of faith, a more democratic kind of faith, far different than the hierarchical church they had known previously. And so they understood that it was important to give Thanks to God for all that they had survived and to pray for the days ahead. They also needed to share their gratitude with those who had helped them, the local native peoples who also chose to risk their lives, to teach these people settling on their land how they might grow the food they desperately needed.
Earlier this year, some of you may have followed the coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Ice Storm of 1998. Were any of you living here at the time? I was working in Boston, but I had purchased a condo in Kennebunk and had come to Maine that weekend and I remember my mom came to stay with me there after my parent’s home lost power. My dad stayed at the house to keep the generator going so the pipes would not freeze and they would not sustain too much damage.
Last January, the Portland Press Herald ran a story looking back at that ice storm. At the time, it was the greatest power outage in the history of our state. That record was actually broken just a little over a year ago in October 2017 with the storms that hit the state then. Here is part of the article, “When dawn broke on Jan. 8, 1998, every bush, branch and blade of grass was sheathed in ice. Trees bowed under the weight of the ice and snapping limbs echoed like rifle shots across Maine. Downed power lines and trees littered roads coated in sheets of ice. And thousands of Mainers began their first of many days without power.
Twenty years later, the ice storm of 1998 still stands among Maine’s greatest natural disasters. More than half of the state’s population lost power, some for more than two weeks. All 16 counties were declared federal disaster areas and 11 million acres of forest were affected. In total, the storm cost the state $320 million and led to at least four deaths.
In communities across the state, neighbors banded together to keep warm, clean up fallen limbs and cheer the utility crews that arrived to restore power.”
“It was an extraordinary coming together. It really was the best of Maine in the sense of people reaching out to one another,” said Sen. Angus King, who was governor in 1998. “I always tell people in Washington that Maine is a big small town with long streets. This was the best example of that.”
Despite the name, the 1998 ice storm wasn’t actually one big storm, but a prolonged weather event with very cold surface temperatures and warmer air above. Precipitation fell as rain and froze as it hit the ground, trees and power lines. The ice proved too much for the power lines and poles that crisscross the state. At the height of the storm, 275,000 CMP customers had no power, though more than 600,000 people across the state lost power at some point during the storm. Many had no water, heat or telephone. It wasn’t until a wind and rainstorm in October 2017 that a weather event would knock out electricity to more Mainers.
Utility workers came from all over to help the overwhelmed power companies here in the state. “It was like the cavalry arriving,” King said. “There were all these guys from North Carolina in skimpy little jackets. LL Bean gave us parkas for those guys.”
Those utility workers from North Carolina joined crews from other states that headed to Maine to help get the power back on. The storm caused some $81 million in damage to the state’s electrical utility system. Everywhere the linemen went, they were greeted by Mainers thankful to see the bucket trucks turn down their streets. They put signs in their yards – some saying they didn’t have power, others thanking utility workers for their help. At restaurants, diners stood to give standing ovations to linemen who stopped in for food. “The out-of-state linemen who came up here were astonished at the reaction of Maine people. I remember one of them saying ‘If the power is out (at home), people swear at us.’ Up here, people came out of their houses with coffee and doughnuts,” King said. “The next summer, we had a lobster feed in front of the State House for all of the out-of-state people. Hundreds of them came back.”
When the utility workers had restored power across Maine and many began to leave the state to go home, I recall people hanging big banners saying Thank you from the overpasses along the Maine Turnpike. And when they returned the following summer, banners were again hung out saying, ‘welcome back and thank you.’
They had worked very hard in impossible conditions, especially in the more rural parts of the state where lines had come down in forested areas with little access for trucks. That storm caused great hardship for many people across the state, especially those with no alternative heat sources of a fireplace or generators. And yet, many people shared what they had, worked hard to take care of one another and our neighbors from the south arrived to pitch in and help restore the power. There was a tremendous outpouring of gratitude and love. People came together to give thanks to those who helped them and to share some of the best of Maine hospitality, not to mention seafood!
John’s Gospel today is an important one, because it reminds us of the large crowds who would follow Jesus seeking some kind of spiritual sustenance. They were looking for hope and not just on a spiritual level. Many of the followers of Jesus came from the countryside and certainly were often among those who struggled economically. Jesus understands that his words will provide comfort and hope but then he is told that they are hungry and he doesn’t say, ‘well, let’s finish up and send them on their way.” No, he knows that this is an important moment to not only feed their spirits but also to feed their bodies. We can’t take in any good news if we are feeling hungry; we can’t learn anything if all we can think about is food. For John, there is an important connection between Jesus’ ministry, his message and actually taking care of others by feeding them. After all of his preaching, Jesus models the importance of thanking God and giving praise to God for the everyday gifts of our lives. Then we hear that the bread was passed around and everyone got their fill. No one took more than they needed, at least from what we hear. In the end, there is still food leftover.
It is interesting to see how a community reacts when it is facing difficult times. We know that the Pilgrims suffered immensely and sustained a great deal of loss, but they knew how important it was to gather and to celebrate what they had come through, to thank those who had helped them and to thank God for the blessings of their lives. The sharing of a meal, whether it is squash and corn, lobster, or loaves and fishes is a great way of gathering to give thanks for having come through a difficult time and of reminding ourselves that our God is with us in the times of struggle as well as in times of celebration.
Years ago when I was teaching, I recall a student who shared a great observation. He said that when times are going well, we often take them for granted and move through our days. But suffering, suffering makes us pay attention. We can’t ignore it. Often, in our suffering, we become much more aware of our dependence on others in our lives, our need for support from loved ones and from God. Those relationships often help us get through very difficult times. In the aftermath, it is always important to thank those who have been supportive, who have walked with us, who have helped us get through and that includes giving thanks to God for the many blessings, large and small. I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving. May we all take a moment to give thanks for the blessings great and small that have graced our lives. Amen.