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Going Back and Saying “Thanks”

November 21, 2016

“Going Back and Saying ‘Thanks’” Luke 17:11-19 © 11.20.16 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was a boy, one of my favorite TV shows was Twelve O’clock High, based on the novel and movie of the same name. It was about a B-17 squadron based in England during WWII. One episode was called “Leper Colony,” which was the name painted on the nose of one bomber. Whenever there was a bombardier who couldn’t hit the target, a navigator who got lost, a gunner who couldn’t shoot straight or a pilot who failed in command of his plane, that man got assigned to Leper Colony. It was a B-17 full of incompetent misfits, stigmatized and shunned for their lack of skill in their tasks.

The actual lepers Jesus encountered were looked down on and marginalized not because of their lack of motivation or ability, but because of their horrific physical malady. People with leprosy were shut off from the mainstream of society because they suffered from that loathsome, feared, deforming disease. Lepers of that era had to wear torn clothes, leave their hair uncombed, and cover the lower part of their faces. On those rare occasions when they did venture into some village or town, they had to ring a bell and shout “Unclean!” so all would be warned that lepers were near.

The stigma and pain of their disease was surely enough to bear, but society imposed other sanctions as well. Lepers were considered ritually unclean, so they could not participate in the religious life of the day. What a lonely existence that must have been, cut off from contact with family and friends and with the community of faith! So they banded together, forgetting for a while the other differences that under normal circumstances might have, would have made them shun each other’s company.

That’s how nine Jews came to be in the same group as a single Samaritan. In any other social or religious context, the latter would have been branded as a half-breed heretic, the product of the blending of religions and the intermarriage of Jew and Gentile. Samaritans had a different scripture and a separate temple, though both they and the Jews worshipped Yahweh. Such disagreements had to be put aside in their common need, and all now cried out to Jesus for mercy.

His response was to command them all to fulfill certain ritual obligations, namely, to show themselves to the priests. That meant they were to be healed, since the priests were the ones who certified that a cure had indeed taken place. They were not disappointed. All ten were cleansed.

But only one came back to say “thank you.”

Jesus naturally wondered what happened to the other nine, and why the only one to show gratitude was a foreigner, the Samaritan. Who knows? Perhaps the others felt they had suffered enough, and God owed them some reward for their endurance. Maybe they considered healing their due, since they were chosen of God. As so many folks do, they took their blessings for granted.

While doing their research for their now classic book Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues spoke time and again with people who apparently believed that they and they alone were responsible for their successes. Their own hard work had gotten them ahead of the competition. Bellah reports in the volume that seldom did those interviewed mention the contributions of their friends, their families, their professors. Nor did they take into account that they started with a great many advantages others did not and do not have.

This Thanksgiving, it’s fitting and right that we reflect for a few minutes on how we have benefitted from the help of those who have gone before us and of our contemporaries who have come to our aid and comfort. And then we need to figure out how we can go back and say thank you to them, as that lone leper did to Jesus.

Let’s consider for a moment the unsung heroes of our democracy in this time of bitterness and division and think about the sacrifices they made and the lessons they taught. How about the first colonists at Jamestown? True, they came seeking profit on behalf of the Virginia Company. But the colonists were lured to this land under false pretenses, having been told stories of great riches awaiting them. They quickly ran afoul of the Powhatan Indians, whose empire they had invaded. Death rates were high from disease in the unhealthy marsh on the James River. The government was often brutal in its punishments.

Despite these hardships or maybe because such things make freedom even sweeter, the first representative assembly in colonial Virginia, in fact, in any British overseas possession, was elected at Jamestown in 1619. The first Anglican church in America was built on the site. We stand on the shoulders of those colonists who knew such deprivation but also were the first to experiment with liberty in our land.

Fast forward now about 150 years. We know of course about the contributions of Thomas Jefferson to the political, cultural, and scientific life of this nation. But are you aware of George Wythe, his mentor? Born in 1726 and living long enough to see the birth of a new nation, Wythe was probably the first great American law teacher. In his home in Williamsburg could be found not only Jefferson, but also John Marshall and Henry Clay. It was Wythe who in 1764 drew up a forceful objection to the oppressive Stamp Act. He signed the Declaration of Independence and was a member of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

We can imagine the influence of Wythe on Jefferson as the young man read law in his home in the 1760s. The conversations they must have had, the people to whom Wythe introduced Jefferson, the sharpening of Jefferson’s intellect all led to that day when Jefferson wrote the Declaration. They influenced him as an ambassador to France and in his presidency. We owe a great deal to Thomas Jefferson, but we must remember the one who taught that great man and know that we stand on his shoulders as well.

We owe a debt to of gratitude to all who through the years have defended the liberty so loved by Wythe and Jefferson and do so even now. Men and women who have done and are doing their difficult duty at the risk of their very lives. Those family members who remained and remain at home, waiting, wondering, contributing to a war effort by their own kinds of sacrifice. Men like Susan’s late dad Neal and women like her late mother Elaine. From the time I knew him, beginning in 1980, Neal told only humorous stories of WWII, perhaps because of the many intervening years. But there was no smile on his lips as he dove with the rest of his aircrew into a foxhole on some Pacific island as Betty bombers roared overhead, the explosions from their bombs lighting up the night. There could have been only a chill up his spine when he heard that the bomber he was scheduled to be on, but was bumped off of at the last minute, was shot down, and all aboard killed. There could have been no pleasure for Elaine as she waited in La Jolla, California for word of and from her husband, with whom she was joined on December 26, 1941, just short of three weeks after Pearl Harbor.

And there have been so many others since. Those who fought in Korea. Or Vietnam. Or the Gulf wars and Afghanistan and the battle against ISIS. People stationed around the world in trouble spots, subject to danger from terrorists. Those whose names are written on tombstones in Arlington or monuments honoring veterans who gave their lives. Those who have suffered trauma from their experiences. And those, too, whose solemn and painful duty it was to tell families that their sons had been killed. People like Col. “Ziggy” Sears, from my congregation in Kentucky. We hear the Tom Hanks character from Saving Private Ryan saying to us all: “Be worthy of this.”

We owe a debt of thanks to those whose accomplishments have given us the tools and technological advances and advantages we take for granted day after day. We don’t know their names, but we could go far, far back to the primeval person who discovered how to make a fire anywhere or the one who first fashioned a stone tool or fitted a wheel to a cart or set down thoughts in cuneiform writing. In modern times, would we have space travel without the work of Copernicus or Newton or the firm stand of Galileo against superstition and dogma? Or DNA testing or genetic engineering and therapy without the discoveries of Watson and Crick in the late ‘50s? We owe those who invented the computer or the MRI or the laser.

The last named, the laser, is used now in everything from surgery to weaponry to entertainment to Christmas decorations. Its origin was in 1917, when Albert Einstein recognized the existence of stimulated emission of radiation from atoms. It took until the 1950s to find ways to use such an emission in devices. During that decade, the American physicists Charles H. Townes and A.L. Schawlow and two Soviet colleagues paved the way for the first laser to be constructed in 1960 by Theodore Maiman. These guys are not exactly household names, but we owe them a debt.

We might say we collectively stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and owe them a debt of gratitude for our freedom and for the kinds of technological advantages we enjoy. But so also does each of us personally owe someone gratitude for who and what we are today. Maybe an additional image is helpful here. Did you ever as a little kid sit on the shoulders of your mom or dad so you could see a parade as it passed by? Without their help, you would have been struggling to see what was so fascinating, what could thrill your imagination, even change your life if just for a day. I like to think of mentors like that. They help us have a fresh or an added perspective on life.

My mentor was a minister named Tom Walker, the senior minister of Central Presbyterian Church in Mobile. What seems like a lifetime ago, he and I were both in that city. You already know I had a difficult time as an associate pastor in a divided church. After being asked to leave my position, I was so fed up and disillusioned with ministry that I thought of quitting it completely and going to law school. By that time I had actually had gone to work for a Presbyterian elder’s law firm as a clerk. To keep a connection to the church, I was teaching a class for leaders at Government Street church.

Tom and I met at a class party one night. I was sitting by myself, as usual, and he came over to talk to me. Somehow he sensed I was floundering, unsure, hurting. He took me under his wing and guided me to people and resources that could help me. He got me on staff at his church and helped me have a positive experience with a congregation. He drove with me to Columbia Seminary to speak personally with the President of the school about their doctoral program. He performed the wedding for Susan and me.

I had countless conversations with Tom over pecan pie and coffee on Sunday nights. I trusted him implicitly. He always told me the truth and also helped me find the truth about myself. I can’t eat a piece of pecan pie without thinking of him. Tom Walker literally saved my professional life and is the reason I stayed in the ministry.

I suspect you could tell similar stories of someone who guided you in your work and world. Someone who took time when time was his or her most precious commodity. Who answered questions even when they were of the most fundamental sort and did not criticize or chastise you for being so slow to learn. Who became your example and your inspiration. Maybe still is.

How do we go back and say “thanks” to such folk? A workshop I went to near the beginning of my years in campus ministry suggests a possibility. The event was led by the famous educator Sidney Simon. He asked us to do an inventory of the people who had given us a “leg up in life,” as he put it. Then he had us decide with which of those we had “unfinished business,” that is, those we had not adequately thanked. In the words of the text, he wanted us to go back and say “thank you.” We were also asked to compose a letter of appreciation to each of the people in our life inventory, which would be a useful exercise even if someone is no longer living. Wow! How many people would that be, only limiting the list to those who have done something for us personally, not to mention all those who have made the nation secure or built our physical and digital infrastructure or founded a university we attended or started a business for which we worked or did a job we didn’t want to do or couldn’t do or made sacrifices so we could pursue a dream unhindered? How many would that be?

So, a message or a personal word or some action to show our thanks, maybe to someone from our past or somebody whose role in our lives we have not respected or recognized enough. But we can’t forget the geniuses and entrepreneurs who gave us technology we take for granted. Maybe we show our gratitude by using the many tools we have responsibly and for the good of our neighbors and the planet. And how about leaders like Jefferson and Wythe or service members who gave their lives? Could it be that we thank them by standing firm for the freedoms they fought and wrote and risked all to give us, by being involved and informed citizens and making sure others are also involved and educated? Maybe we advocate for someone who has no voice or ensure that everyone is treated with dignity or do something to end bullying or speak up and take action when we learn a veteran is not being accorded the honor he or she deserves or the help he or she needs with trauma. Those of you who are veterans can help the rest of us with that last one.

We’ve got so much to be thankful for this holiday. At the top of our list, let there be those on whose shoulders we stand, who have made it possible for us to be and do what we are today. I feel confident that none of us will be part of the ungrateful, take-it-for-granted crowd, like the nine who went their way. Instead, like the grateful leper of old, healed on his disease, we will be distinctive, and go back to say “thanks” in whatever way we can.

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