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During this Thanksgiving Day week here in the United States, I am reminded of an anecdote I ran across some years ago. The true story not only provided a zinger of an illustration for a T-Day sermon, it provided deep insight into what so often goes wrong with gratitude.
The story comes from actor Anthony Hopkins and the research he did ahead of his playing a chief butler in the splendid film The Remains of the Day. Hopkins said that he interviewed a few real-life butlers and in the course of these conversations he discovered that the perfect butler is the one who is adept at achieving a high level (or would it be a low level?) of total obsequiousness. The goal is to blend into the woodwork, to be indistinguishable from table lamps and andirons. The goal is to re-fill water glasses, set down plates of steaming food, and whisk away empty plates and flatware all without being noticed.
Hopkins claims he will never forget the quintessential summary of the good butler provided to him by a man who was himself a chief butler for a wealthy family. “If a person is a good butler,” this man told Hopkins, “then the room seems emptier when he’s in it.”
The room seems emptier when he’s in it.
Here is an observation at once startling and troubling. The latter because in so many ways this highlights a problem of modern society. Perhaps it’s always been a problem of the super rich who believe they so deserve their lofty social station as to be beneath noticing–much less thanking–those servants who make it all possible. But more and more it seems this is true of lots of people. We just don’t see the waitress, the grocery bagger, the cab driver, the middle-aged man who loads filthy dishware into tubs at the restaurant. We don’t see them. We may notice them a bit but we don’t see them as real people with real feelings much less as people who are worthy of our thanks for whatever it is they are doing for us. Nevermind that it’s their job, nevermind you may be paying for whatever services you get. These are still real people, images of God worthy of notice, worthy of love, worthy of respect, and–if they are doing something to help you–worthy of gratitude.
As many biblical commentators and readers have noted across the centuries, in the New Testament again and again before he extends a word of forgiveness or performs a deed borne of compassion, Jesus is again and again depicted as “seeing” the person. Jesus sees the ones on the margins past whom everyone else is rushing. Jesus sees the too-short tax collector up hiding in that sycamore tree. He lifts up his eyes and sees the harried and restless crowds who look to his divine eyes like sheep in need of a shepherd (and finally of also a meal).
Jesus always saw people AS people. We often don’t. Maybe it’s an urban Facebook legend but I have in recent days seen another version of the restaurant receipt signed by a pastor (because he identified himself as a pastor) on which the pastor had crossed out the 18% tip automatically assigned to a table of 6 or more diners. The pastor left no tip in the end but did scrawl “I give God 10%–why should you get 18?” This pastor’s eyes may be fixed on Jesus but if he looks more closely, Jesus’ finger is pointing at the people around this man whose real humanity he needs to get busy noticing.
In this Thanksgiving week, I reflect on all the social forces that prevent us from noticing each other or that tilt us in the direction of treating people as somehow doing for us no more than we deserve anyway and so why say a word of thanks? Jesus often invoked the ad minior maius line of argumentation: “how much more?” If you cannot be faithful in little things, how much more could anyone ever entrust you with big things?
Or in this case: if you cannot give thanks for the little acts of kindness done by servers and baggers and clerks, how much more won’t it become likely that eventually you’ll forget to say “Thanks” to even God, the Giver of all good things, starting with the “good things” of all the people in your life whose presence in a room should never make that room seem to you to be emptier.