Giving Thanks

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A number of years ago Barbara and I got involved in a church project to sponsor a family of Vietnamese refugees at a church here in South Buffalo.  A refugee coordinator from Genesee Ecumenical Ministries came to our church and gave an account to a group of us about the appalling conditions that refugees faced in the camps set up in the Philippines after the fall of Saigon.  She spoke of large families with small children being the most difficult to place; whose  chances of escape were extremely limited and whose chances of dying in the camps was extremely great.  The talk moved us so much that our group decided to sign on for the largest family that could be found.  Barbara and I decided that we would be their official U.S. sponsors.  At the time, it was a giant leap of faith into something that we had no idea we could do.  But with the support of our group, we had faith that we could do it and perhaps more importantly, we believed we had to do it.

When word got out to the church proper, we had expected great support for what we were about to do.  But to our surprise the reviews were quite the opposite.  There were many veterans in the congregation who had mixed feelings about helping Asian people.  Many had fought a war in the Pacific to keep Asians from coming here – they referred to them all as ‘chinks’.  There were others who worried the newcomers would expose us to exotic oriental diseases.  There were still others who felt we should be helping those in our own neighborhood instead of importing strangers from a foreign land to an uncertain future.  There were of course the rest who said ‘we never did that before’ and refused to get involved.  But Barbara and I and our group of about five stood firm in our belief that this is what had to be done.  If it split the church then we would have to deal with it after.  For now, we were resolved to save as many of these people as we could  . . . no matter what.

From Paul’s letter to Timothy today our cause was affirmed  . . . “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; . . . . Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things. . . . And our faith was justified  . . . “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”

And so they came . . . a family of eleven men women and children  who we still have contact with some 30 years or so later.  When we visit them they often recount again for us the story of their ordeal on the high seas in the Indian Ocean as they escaped from Vietnam.  They tell us of people who fell overboard and who died on the way.  They recount for us the Thai pirates who came onto their boat and stole their food and jewelry and raped some of the women on board and assaulted some of the men.  They remind themselves again about the horrible storms and lack of water for days as they drifted with no gasoline on the ocean currents and how, miraculously, they landed on a beach in the Philippines after 14 days at sea.  They tell how they lived in a refugee camp for two years waiting for some one to sponsor their family of three adults and eight small children.  They tell of their learning English as a new language and how to flush a toilet and their plane ride to Honolulu, Chicago, and finally to Buffalo in mid-winter.  They tell how they froze in our winter climate but were grateful for the freedom and opportunity in this new land. They tell of a story of faith, of courage and of hope for a better future.  They tell the story of an exiled people who left their homes and families and put their lives and futures into the hands of the Unknown.

In Jeremiah today, the prophet tells the Hebrew exiles seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The Book of Ruth recounts the raw emotion of this same struggle as she also commits herself to the unknown with her mother-in-law as they begin their journey to a foreign land.  Ruth pledges her life to her friend in one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible as she begs Naomi to let her come with her and face the unknown together . . .

“Do not press me to leave you

or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

Where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die–

there will I be buried.

May the LORD do thus and so to me,

and more as well,

if even death parts me from you!”

And so, for those of you who don’t know the rest of the story Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem where Ruth marries Boaz and becomes the great great great grandmother of King David, Joseph, husband of Mary, and finally Jesus, the son of God.

And what of our Vietnamese friends? . . . the parents who came with nothing but high hopes owned a small store for twenty years and are now retired and living in Florida.  Their children grew up to become a medical doctor, a dental surgeon, a physical therapist, a pharmacist, a financial office, a retail manager, a nuclear medical technologist and a teacher.  Each year they get together at New Years and invite all those who helped them along the way to recount their struggles and successes and to give thanks.

Today in the gospel lesson there is another who gives thanks.  You may recall that this is the story of ten lepers who are told by Jesus to go show themselves to the priests.  He did this because of the Levitical statute that those were healed of leprosy needed to show themselves to the priests before they were cleared to go back to their friends and families.  But the one who turned back was not a Jew like the others but a foreigner in the land.  He was an unbeliever and had no priest to show himself to.  He knew only this Jesus who had changed his life forever, and so . . . “when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan”.  Jesus of course asks what happened to the other nine who were healed and probably continues to ask, even in our own day, why so many are missing out on the opportunity to give thanks to God.

Giving thanks, of course, is what church is all about.  Through the sacrificial Lamb of God we have been given the gift of eternal life.  Many of us don’t exactly know what this means for us, but we are satisfied to recognize that it must be a good thing.  But to those on the front lines, like the soldier serving in the army of God in the epistle today or the farmer who does the hands-on work and who receives the first fruits, or the athlete who runs the race by the rules and wins the crown . . . it is a ‘no brainer’ . . . it is a life changing experience far greater than being healed of a dreaded disease or leaving one’s family forever or crossing an ocean on little more than hope and a prayer.

Jesus said he came to give us life so that we might live more abundantly . . . even through failure, sickness and family struggle.   But how can he expect us to remain thankful in adversity and in sickness you might ask? . . . .  At times God uses very convoluted and mysterious ways in order to get his point across to us.  Sometimes he uses our greatest weakness to overcome obstacles to His grace in ourselves and in others.  Sometimes he uses preachers and evangelists  to send messages.  And sometimes, people actually listen to those preachers and are touched by them.  Sometimes God needs to give us all a little shake to bring us back in the fold.  Sometimes it seems more like a hit in the head.  Sometimes God forgives others, even if we don’t.  And just sometimes, maybe, we will admit in the end that, He was right all along.

All of us have our struggles, our failures and our victories in life.  It is what life is all about.  We learn from our struggles to be resourceful, and to stay the course.  We learn from our victories, to always trust God for a happy ending.  But most of all, we learn from our failures that God is always with us and able to help us, especially in the darkest moments of our lives, if only we would look for him there.  From Paul’s letter to Timothy today we read.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he will also deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful–

for he cannot deny himself.   Amen

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