Preaching Thanksgiving

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I don’t know about you, but I find preaching on Thanksgiving to be one of the most difficult preaching assignments of the year. I mean, other than saying, “we ought to be thankful,” what is there to say?

And right there’s the problem, don’t you think. Thanksgiving — that is, the genuine expression of gratitude — can’t be commanded. It’s like your mom, after you forgot to say “thank you,” prompting you with the oh-so-patient, “You’re welcome.” Sure, you say “thanks” then, but it doesn’t quite mean the same thing.

So how do we preach Thanksgiving? I can’t say I’ve got the whole thing figured out, but I’ve found a few clues in Luke’s story of the 10 lepers that’s often our reading for Thanksgiving Eve (Luke 17:11-19). Most of us are probably familiar with the story: ten lepers are healed; one returns, and it’s a Samaritan no less. Okay, so one way to go is to lift up the Samaritan as an example. Trouble is, most of us hate examples like this, because they just make us feel guilty.

What’s more interesting, I think, is the fact that all ten were healed. All ten, even the nine who didn’t return to say “thanks.” So what made the Samaritan different? He noticed. That’s pretty much it. Oh, I know, he returned to say thanks once he noticed. But I think that was kind of inevitable, or even almost involuntary. I mean, once you notice some thing spectacular, it’s hard not to say something. “I’ve got good news; the cancer is in remission.” “He proposed; look at my ring.” “I just saw the best movie.” “I can’t believe you came! Thanks!”

I think it was like that for the Samaritan: once he realized he’d been healed, he couldn’t help but turn back and share his joy and thanksgiving with Jesus.

Thanksgiving is like that. When it’s genuine, it’s spontaneous, even involuntary — you recognize you’ve been blessed and can’t help but sharing your joy through thanksgiving.

So the Samaritan turns back to say “thanks.” He knows he’s been given a gift and can’t help turning around to saying something. And in doing so he’s given a second gift, as he leaves his encounter with Jesus not only healed but also blessed — blessed in his own recognition of healing, blessed at being drawn into deeper relationship with the one he thanks, blessed at hearing himself commended for having great faith.

Imagine the difference that must have made in his life. He, a Samaritan, being commended by a Jewish rabbi for having great faith, faith sufficient to effect healing.

That’s the way thanksgiving always works — in giving thanks for a gift given we are blessed again.

So how does all this help us in preaching thanksgiving? Two things. First, after teaching about the nature of gratitude and thanksgiving — which is certainly worth doing, if briefly — then move to this issue of noticing. For those with eyes to see, God’s blessings are all around us. And as we give thanks for them, we notice even more and are blessed yet again. We live in an age governed by a sense of “scarcity” and an ethos of “looking out for number one.” A simple word of gratitude opens us up to world of abundance, mercy, and grace. It may seem a small thing — noticing and thanking — but it’s the first step to setting in motion a cycle of gratitude and grace.

Second, after teaching, try modeling. That is, try noticing for your people. Share with them some of the things you’re thankful for, some of the places you’ve encountered God’s blessing. Even more, notice your people. Tell them what you are thankful for about them, about your life together, about this congregation and community and world you share. Having been noticed with gratitude, they will find it easier to gratefully notice in return.

Which leads me to a last word, which is to notice you. Look, I know preaching can sometimes be a thankless task. And it can feel all the more so around holidays like Thanksgiving when you don’t have quite the time you’d like to spend preparing for and celebrating the holiday because you’ve got this tricky little sermon to write. I know how hard it is…and I’m grateful — for your work, for your fidelity to God’s Word and people, for you as a preacher. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Blessed Thanksgiving!