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I Was Sick and You Looked after Me

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Nov 23 2014


Thanksgiving – A season of giving thanks. This year, I am giving thank for many things … but today, here, in this Meeting House … I give God thanks for Old South Church’s first minister: the Astonishing Thomas Thacher.

Proficient in the ancient tongues (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Syriac), a skilled logician and debater, a most excellent physician, an admirable clock-maker, a father of five, and an eminent preacher: I give God thanks for the Astonishing Thomas Thacher.

There is a portrait of Thomas Thacher. He was not handsome. He had a long face, concave … downturned lips and wore a severe black cap and a severe black gown … The portrait portrays the very image of the stern, sour-faced, unsmiling, party-kill, wet-blanket, Puritan.

But there is more, so much more, to the Astonishing Thomas Thacher than meets the eye. During a public health crisis of catastrophic proportions, Thomas Thacher served this city and its people, admirably and sacrificially … courageously … tenderly, as tenderly as a mother cares for an ill child.

The year is 1677. English ships infested with a lurking, silent, invisible killer … small pox, dock at Boston’s warf. Without knowledge or intent, small pox is unloaded and comes to shore in blankets and clothing. In no time, it has spread and oozed throughout Boston, into homes and into bodies. Within months of its arrival, among a total population of 4000 souls, many hundreds are dead, many hundreds more are ill. Cotton Mather writes into his diary, “Boston burying places never filled so fast.”

Small pox in the 1600’s was a fearsome thing. Those who were infected, who didn’t die … who managed to survive, were often left blind, scarred or permanently disfigured.

This outbreak of the small pox in 1677 is nothing less than an epidemic. A public health crisis.

And, to make matters worse, there are precious few doctors in this town of 4000.

Enter: the Astonishing Thomas Thacher, minister of this church … and skilled physician.

Now a man of 57 years, at the first sign of epidemic, Thomas Thacher, stired to action. He authored and, at his own expense, had printed and published many copies of a medical broadside, the first of its kind. The first medical broadside or patient information brochure on this soil.

Then with hammer in one hand, the broadsides in the other, and with a pocket full of nails, Thomas Thacher walks throughout Boston, up and down the lanes, posting it in public places. An antidote to hysteria and misinformation, Thacher’s medical broadside, is the next best thing to a doctor’s visit.

But even more than that … it is a tangible communication to those who are ill and terrified: Someone knows your pain … understands your terror and is reaching out … You have not been abandoned … You are neither a leper nor a lost cause … but a human being who is wounded and vulnerable and worthy of our kindliest ministrations.

In addition to posting the broadside, the Astonishing Thomas Thacher continues to practice medicine … continues to visit bedsides … continues to place himself in harm’s way. He does not run from the wounded and vulnerable. The broadside is not an excuse for him to stay home and safe … but rather a supplement and an extension of his tender and courageous attentions.

And, here is the thing … Quoting again from Cotton Mather “For visiting a sick person, he got some harm, which turned into a fever, whereof he did expire on October 15, 1678.”

Thomas Thacher was fifty-eight years old.

I give God thanks for our first minister: the Astonishing Thomas Thacher

Boston – preparing for an epidemic, for Ebola. I give God thanks for the physicians and nurses, for all the medical personnel who are putting themselves in harm’s way to help others. I give God thanks for medical institutions and personnel in Boston who are preparing this city, should Ebola arrive here.

… thanks for Old South members, Drs. Maren Batalden, Allen Gifford, Holly Gooding and Deb Washington, who recently hosted an information session on Ebola.

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, I should like to express my thanksgiving specifically to the descendants of Thomas Thacher:

Doctors … stand and remain standing … Thanks be to God for you
Psychiatrists, psychologists … thanks be to God for you
Nurses and all medical personnel … thanks be to God for you
Everyone who works or volunteers in a hospital, hospice or nursing home. Thanks be to God for you.
Everyone who has kissed a child’s ouchie or placed a Band-Aid on another human body. Thanks be to God for you.

In this season of thanksgiving, I give God thanks for you … you descendants of the Astonishing Thomas Thacher. For you who minister to body and soul.

Please be seated.

But I have to tell you – I am worried, desperate about another public health crisis, one that is infecting Boston today … also silent, lurking, invisible, and deadly.

Nearly two months ago, on a dark Wednesday evening at 6pm, all the people on Long Island, an island off of our South Shore, everyone: the 1500 people, including those in active detox, or living in shelters, or serving those who lived there … at 6 pm one evening nearly two months ago, without warning, notice, or any reason given … they are evacuated. And they are terrified.

They are not able to gather their belongings … they are herded into buses and driven off the island over the bridge … some of them in pajamas … and then, on the other side of the bridge, they are told the bridge is in imminent danger of collapsing … and here, on the mainland, they are deposited into cramped, makeshift shelters … and told they cannot return to the island … to their programs and beds or belongings, to their cell phones, medicine bottles, family photographs, or insulin … to their homes.

One of the refugees, Lisa, told her story at Old South Church on Thursday. Lisa could not bear the loud, cramped, one-room, make-shift shelter into which she was placed. With no privacy, not enough toilets, no showers, with people crowded on top of each other … so she is sleeping out of doors these nights, in the woods. And each morning she scrambles to make herself presentable enough to get to work.

56% of Boston’s addiction treatment beds were on that island.

Half of Boston’s shelter programs were on Long Island, including the largest shelter in the city.

Half of the city’s rehab programs were on Long Island.

Most of the 12 programs that served the people of Long Island are in such disarray – trying to operate without office space, computers, phones, beds, medical charts – that they simply cannot serve their clients, the neediest people among us.

This is today’s public health crisis. People, who were in the midst of detox, had their programs vanish.

People already vulnerable … are now facing a bitter and killing cold winter.

I am thinking of the astonishing Thomas Thacher. Of what he would do … or of what he would have us do.

As we gather in this ancient and venerable house, I am thinking of our ancestors … who cheer us on from heaven … who ache for us to carry on Thacher’s legacy.

I want to be worthy of the ancient poet, John Greenleaf Whittier … who was thinking of us, of Old South Church, when he wrote these lines:


So long as Boston, shall Boston be
And her bay tides rise and fall
Shall freedom stand,
at the Old South Church
And plead for the rights of all

I want John Greenleaf Whittier to nod and see that we are doing just that … pleading for the rights of all.

As we are gathered in this house of agitation … let us get on with it. Let us agitate Old South. Let us make some noise. Let us make this old Mouth House come alive with our voices. Let us plead for the rights of the Long Island Refugees.

Here is what we can do.

Join us, join over sixty Boston churches and service organizations at Brewer’s Fountain on Boston Common on Tuesday at 12:30 pm for: Boston Warm: A Call to Prayer and Action for Long Island Refugees.
Write to our new Mayor and tell him the current circumstances of the refugees is unacceptable.

You see, our new mayor, he does not know us yet. Not really. He does not know what matters to us. Not what really matters to us. And, how can he know, if we fail to tell him?

We need to show him that Boston Strong means Boston Strong for everyone … not only Boston Strong for world class events involving elite runners. That Boston Strong means Boston Strong at all times … not only when the whole wide world is tuned in. That the designation of Massachusetts as a Commonwealth means something to us ... and that we back it up with the common concern of our common humanity.

Plead for the perishing as Thomas Thacher once did. Take your stand with him, carry on his legacy … that we might be worthy of his courage and kindliness.

Proficient in the ancient tongues, a skilled logician and debater, a most excellent physician, an admirable clock-maker, a father of five, an eminent preacher … and, and, a brave and kindly human being. I give God thanks for Old South Church’s first minister, the Astonishing Thomas Thacher.