I heard a story the other day about Charles Plum, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. After 75 combat missions Plum’s plane was shot down. He safely ejected but after parachuting to the ground he fell into enemy hands and spent six years in a POW camp. He survived that ordeal and now Mr. Plum lectures around the country about lessons learned from that experience. He tells the story that one day when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, “You’re Charles Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!” “How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb. “I packed your parachute,” the man replied. Plumb stared in surprise and gratitude. The man shook his hand and said, “I guess it worked!” Plumb assured him, “It sure did – if your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here.” Plumb couldn’t sleep that night, thinking about that man. Plumb says, “I kept wondering what he might have looked like in a Navy uniform – a Dixie cup hat, a bib in the back, and bell bottom trousers. I wondered how many times I might have passed him on the Kitty Hawk. I wondered how many times I might have seen him and not even said ‘Good morning, how are you,’ or anything because, you see, I was a fighter pilot and he was just a sailor.” Plumb thought of the many hours the sailor had spent on a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship carefully folding the silks of each chute, holding in his hands each time the fate of someone he didn’t know. Now, Plumb asks his audience, “Who’s packing your parachute? Everyone has someone who provides what they need to make it through the day.”
I love that question and it seems to me the right one for each of us to be asking this Thanksgiving Day. Who packs your parachute? Who is it in your life that keeps you from crashing? Who provides the support, the safety, the leg up that you and I need everyday just to make it in this life? Nobody makes it alone for very long and the great lie of our culture is that any of us can really be self-sufficient. We all have someone and most of us have many people whose love, care, and dedication make our lives work.
Of course, we gather this morning to give thanks first and foremost to God, and appropriately so. The older I get, the more I realize what a miracle it is that my heart beats, my blood flows, my mind works (limited though it may be), and all of these things I take for granted are pure gift. I was reminded of this last month when Dana, Whitney, and I went to the diocesan clergy retreat at Shrine Mont. The retreat was led by Brother Curtis Almquist, Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Brother Curtis is a deeply gifted and spiritual man who started our Tuesday morning session by saying – “My brothers and sisters I have some very, very, good news today.” He then paused for a long moment before he said, “God has seen fit to give us another morning of life, perhaps even another afternoon, just maybe another whole day. We have been blessed.” His words really brought me up short. Obvious though his message was, it made me realize that I was starting the day with the wrong attitude. Just a few minutes before I had been sitting in my chair grumbling to myself about having to sit through another lecture and wishing I was still in bed. Brother Curtis’ simple remarks made me realize the deeper truth that it was a miracle I was there at all. I had been given the gift of another day and there was nothing to complain about. Immediately, his gentle words transformed my grumblings into deep gratitude for the gift of my life.
Yes, God is the ultimate packer of our parachutes and it is meet and right that we should gather this morning in thanks and praise for every breath we take. But there are others as well. Who is it that keeps you afloat in life? Who is it that helps to sustain you, comfort you, and support you? Who is it that cares for the big or little things in your daily existence? The people who quietly and perhaps behind the scenes contribute to your wellbeing? Besides our God, these are the people who deserve our thanks today. Do you realize how much they have blessed you? Have you told them so? Living or dead there are so many people who have packed our parachutes in this life. People who have equipped us to handle life’s stresses and strains, people who have helped us through life’s struggles and challenges. People who stand beside us in spite of the fact that they know us all too well, people who love us in spite of ourselves.
I would come crashing down without my Melissa. For twenty years she has made me a better person than I have a right to be. My professional life would be in free fall without my colleagues in this place. The good people I work with day in and day out do everything that makes this church a success. Who are the people who pack your parachute and have you told them how grateful you are for all that they do?
Finally, I am reminded of a quote from John F. Kennedy who once said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” Real gratitude is more than words. Real gratitude involves blessing others as we have been blessed. In this sense, whose parachute are you packing? Are you doing all that you can to support and bless the people around you? Are you a giver or just a taker? The kind word, the thoughtful gesture, the anonymous donation, the supportive phone call – it’s often the small things we do that go a long way to improve the lives of others. I am always amazed at the number of little gifts Dana and Nancy receive for their ACTS ministry. A few dollars from one person, a couple of checks from a few others, each given because folks have been blessed and they want to bless others. These small gifts allow Dana and Nancy to help pack the parachutes of many around our city who are literally on the edge of disaster. Or the way so many people work to care for the children in our Children’s Center. They raise money; buy books, read to the children, because they know that Geraldine and her staff help so many young kids whose families are barely hanging on. They give because they don’t want to see these special children fall, fall through the cracks.
I am grateful for all of you today and for this special community we call St. James’s. I am grateful for the love and support we offer one another and for the good work we strive to do in God’s name. Thanks for all that you give to me and my family; we are blessed here beyond measure.
This Thanksgiving, say thank you to God while you are here and then later on today as you gather with family and friends take a moment and let each one of them know how grateful you are for their presence in your life. We couldn’t make it if we didn’t have one another and it’s a shame if we don’t realize this truth. But it’s an even bigger shame if we know it but don’t share our gratitude with the people who deserve it the most. Amen.