First Congregational Church
November 22, 2015
26th Sunday after Pentecost, Thanksgiving Sunday
“Let Us Count Them Now” from Western Star, Stephen Vincent Benét
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I’m not positive, but I think I got this morning’s illustration from a member here who moved to Arizona, Marvelee Kneisel. I think. It’s been sitting, waiting, so long, I just don’t know any more. But do I know that given this season, and given the time in our world’s history, it seemed like it was time for this piece to be read aloud into the air and atmospheres that surround each of us.
“Let us count them now, the beginning of New England. There were thirty-eight grown men, From Brewster and Carver, both of them in their fifties, To young John Alden and other bachelors, Eighteen married women, three of them with child, Twenty boys, eleven girls (And seven of these were parish waifs from London Or seem to have been and no one knows why they came, But five of the seven died ere they were grown) Nine servants, five men hired for various tasks, Including two sailors who would stay a year, A spaniel dog and great mastiff bitch. And that is the roll. You could write the whole roll down On a single sheet of paper, yes, even the dogs. And when you have written them down, you write New England.
So think of them through the sixty-five long days of tempest and fair weather, calm and storm, They were not yet Pilgrim Fathers in steeple-hats, Each with an iron jaw and musketoon, They were not yet Pilgrim Mothers, sure of their fame. They were men and women and children, cramped in a ship, Bound for an unknown land and wondering. The godly prayed, the ungodly spat overside, The sailors jeered now and then at the pious speeches, the Billington boys behaved like limbs of Satan, And the three pregnant women walked the decks or lay in their cabins, wondering at night What hour their pain would strike and what would be born. In fact, there were human beings aboard the Mayflower, and not merely ancestors.
And yet there is An unforced, almost childish sweetness about the whole - The sweetness they could muster with their rigor, The honey of the iron, the naïve Devoted, confident wonder that made them Pilgrims. (1) Were they sick? They staggered up to the decks and the air And felt better. (2) Did the tempest break And the ship’s planks strain and leak? They braced the main beam With an iron jackscrew they’d brought, and all was well. They might long for the bliss of God and groan at his Judgements,
But they brought with them butter and pease and beer - And scurvy did not strike - and the voyage was healthy. Only one boy died, a servant of Doctor Fuller’s, While the crew lost four or five, and one most profane, So God be with them - God must be with them here, On the sea as on the land, ever present God, With his great right hand outstretched like the Winter cloud.
And Elizabeth Hopkins labored and bore child, (The cries in the narrow cabin, the women waiting) And they named the son Oceanus and rejoiced For that was surely a sign of God’s mercies too, A fine strong boy and the mother alive and well. And Susanna White and Mary Allerton Knew their time was soon to come, And wondered, seeing the child, when it would be.
And so, at last, on the nineteenth of November, On a clear, crisp morning, at daybreak, With a slice of old moon still bright in the dawn-sky, They saw the long dim outline of Cape Cod.
Then Christopher Jones tacked ship and made for the Southward, For they thought to settle, perhaps, where the Hudson flowed, If they might reach it, at least in a milder clime, But they got among white water and tangled shoals, They got in the broken part of Pollack’s Rip, Where currents run like a millrace and veer and change, The bitter water, The graveyard of ships to come. They knew they were in danger from the grim Faces of crew and captain - but they were landsmen. There were roaring waters. That was all they knew. But Christopher Jones and his sailors knew the truth And he must have wiped his brow when at last, Toward evening He worked the clumsy Mayflower into deep water, Hove to the night and knew he’d not lost his ship. He had not done badly, Captain Christopher Jones, Though you’ll find no statue of him in Plymouth Harbor And to him, no doubt, ‘twas a day’s work and no more.
And next day, they looked at the land, and it was good, A fair land, wooded to the brink of the sea, Washed with blue, biting air and brave in the sun, A land for God’s plantation. And suddenly They were sick of the ship and the ship’s smells and the sea.
They had come so far. They were within sight of land, Not where they had planned - but land - and the look of it! Earth after long waters, solid peace in the hand. They were ready for harbor, now. And the sixty-seventh Day out of England, they let go anchor at last In Provincetown Harbor, just inside Long Point, And their firewood was spent and they sent a party ashore, And there, not on Plymouth Rock, was the first landing. They searched. They found neither person nor habitation. But the wood they cut for their fire was juniper And it smelt very sweet and strong. Look, if you choose, at the large iced wedding cake We have built, at great expense, over Plymouth Rock (or over a rock that happened to be at Plymouth) Look at it well and buy your souvenirs. But it does not tell the story.
It does not tell The silent emptiness of the Winter land, The smell of juniper - and breathless wonder As they splashed ashore for their first discovery, For they couldn’t wait for the shallop to be mended. How could they wait? It was dangerous of course. But Captain Standish led them - and you can see them, The sixteen breathless men, The staid husbands, the sober fathers of families, Who had been wool carders and printers, hosiers and tailors, With sword and musket and corselet, warily treading, The new wild shore, where there might be anything. And sure enough, they were hardly well on their way When they saw five red men or was it five or six? They were not quiet sure - but there were men and a dog - You couldn’t imagine a dog, but he was there. They all ran away the moment they were seen, Swift naked figures, their dog pelting after them,
And the English gave pursuit but could not catch up, But they had seen Indians And a little later They came to a flowing spring, “And sat us down And drank our first New England water With as much delight as ever drank drink” Wonderful to drink water in a new land! To taste the bright nipping air! They were bolder now. They went on. They would not be Stayed.
They found where a house had been, found a ship’s kettle, Found a heap of sand, of course And they found A little old basket of Indian Corn Real grains of corn, you could hold them in your hand. They dug further - and, oh, there was a fine new Basket! With thirty-six ears in it, yellow and blue and red, And they looked at the ears and passed the ears around. (And the corn was to help to save them from starvation, But they did not think of that then. They were busy digging.
Have you ever dug in the earth and found something hidden? Penny or corn or pearl, it is all the same. It is a treasure trove, it is a gift of the ground) And after all of them had looked at the ears, They wondered what to do with what they had found.
But they took them along, of course. One always does. You will carry a stone ten miles, if you found it so, And tell everyone about it, once you are home.
And that night it rained. But they camped by a great fire. (in the house of the wild wood) They were safe to be sure. They had set up a palisade. They had their muskets And a Sioux war party Could and would have quietly cut their throats in spite of sleepy sentry or barricade Ere the morning came. They were ten times more fortunate than they knew For, the year before, there had been a plague in the land And the tribes who might have slain them were dead or broken Except for a scattered few And at dawn the next day Having slept all night, yea verily, on the ground, (And some, no doubt, the first time they had ever slept so)
These men of streets and children of settled ways, Went wandering again through Somebody’s house With the pure excitement of boys at their first camp, For somebody had been there and wasn’t home, Though they found the traces - two canoes of his (You wouldn’t have thought they were canoes at first, But they were for we looked them over) A noose made of sinew, aye and cleverly, too, Somebody had been there. They gathered around it, staring please to the bone. ’Tis a deer trap, Aye. Does not think so, Neighbor Hopkins? Aye a deer trap and it worketh so! And William Bradford boldly investigated And caught himself in it neatly by the leg And they all agreed ’twas a very pretty device.
A very pretty device for Somebody. They couldn’t leave it. They had to bring it along. It wouldn’t be any of use, but they had to bring it. And when they got back to the ship and their wives greeted Them, Heard all about the things they had to tell And were shown the corn and basket and the deer-trap, They had the pride of all hunters, from Nimrod on.
Humility Lanyard saw them coming home, The small black, distant figures, walking the beach, And the women dropped their washing and counted quickly, Counted with the quick dread, But there were sixteen. It was well. God had spared them all.
The first of all the endless waitings and counting, The long, sick waiting, the count of the frontier. When your eyes try so hard to see what is far and small And you tell the children, “Yes, it’s all right - it’s Father.” And you make your face as it should be when they come. For you must not show fear. It is bad for them To have their women show fear.
Even if one has to look up a lot of the words in that piece of prose, it is certainly worth the effort - to catch the drift of that important part of our history. It’s a great story, but it is weak, and almost inconsequential, until we put the motivation behind it. And the gospel reading for this day, reminds us.
33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” 35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” 36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” 37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Thank you, Andy. As we give thanks this week, it’s important to remember that one of the strong influences in that group of adventurers, perhaps their main influence, had to do with their faith, most especially that they would not be governed by a king, but by the resurrected Christ, who not only showed us how to live, but gave his life for us, that we might know a life and place and time greater than this little old earth. As we count our blessings this week, let us remember to include those that give our life meaning and substance, greater than that of this world, even if we don’t fully understand all that.
Gracious, Giving God, thank you for creating the hearts you’ve given us, that we can have a sense of you and all that which is you. Thank you, most certainly, for our earthly treasures, for those things that make our lives easier and nicer. And thank you, too, for those things that lift us from the soils of this earth - things like love and the arts, health and emotion. But most of all, Most Loving God, thank you for giving us glimpses of what our new homes with you will be like, where we will not want, where there will be no tears and sadness. And thank you for your son, who loved so much, that he offered the ultimate gift for us. And all your children say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.