Thanksgiving is not an explicitly Christian holiday, but our faith in a God to whom we owe so much gratitude makes the holiday an excellent opportunity to gather as a community of faith to praise and thank God together. In planning your sermon for a Thanksgiving service, the day (the Sunday before or a weeknight gathering) and your approach to scripture selection (lectionary or non) make a difference.
Here are a few sermon starters to help you decide and prepare. The complete versions of these sermons (and many, many more) are available in the Ministry Matters premium subscription.
(Year B Proper 28, First Reading, 1 Samuel 1:4-20)
Hannah thought she would scream if one more person invited her to a baby shower! Once she had looked forward to gathering at the well every morning, seeing her friends, and hearing all the latest news. Now she dreaded those encounters, wondering who would be the first to ask her, “So, Hannah. How’s it going? Are you ‘with child’ yet?” At last summer’s tribal reunion, Hannah lost count of the number of relatives who kept asking when she and Elkanah planned to start a family. One after another they had inquired, “Well, Hannah, you and Elkanah have been together for years now. Don’t you think it’s about time? Your mother is counting on some grandbabies, you know. We could use a few more cousins, too. Here, let me show you my latest brag book. Are these babies cute, or what?” Hannah kept stealing glances at the sundial, counting the hours until that event was over and she could escape back into the comfort of her solitude.
She and Elkanah had been taking her temperature every morning for eons and faithfully plotting the fertility graph. Elkanah had tried so hard to be encouraging, and to let her know how much he loved her, but all she could hear was the ticking of her biological sundial.
She felt guilty for resenting her friends and relatives who had children, but those negative feelings were inside her just the same. Hannah tried not to be angry with her friends, and found herself turning her anger toward God instead. Did God think she was unworthy of motherhood? Was infertility some kind of celestial punishment she had earned?
Hannah mourned the absence of the baby she longed for. She felt so alone and lost. Her head told her that God was close to her in her sorrow, but her aching heart simply could not feel it. Hannah knew she had much to be thankful for, but under these circumstances, she didn’t feel grateful for much of anything. Finally, in her desperation, she did what people of faith do when they are at the end of their rope. She went to church and had a heart-to-heart talk with God. She prayed one of those “let’s make a deal” prayers that we have all prayed at one time or another. Hannah poured out her heart to God. “God, if only you will do this for me, then I will do that for you.” If God would only give her a son, she would give that son back to God to be in service to their Creator. This seems like a strange prayer, since Hannah is promising to return to God what she wants most in all the world, a son, if only God will give her that son.
Finally, God grants Hannah the desire of her heart, and a son, Samuel, is born to her. Hannah proclaims her joy and gratitude in a song to God. “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God,” anticipating Mary’s song in Luke 1 as Mary waits for the birth of a savior. Hannah is the madonna of the Old Testament. We rejoice that Hannah’s story has a happy ending.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for all those who desperately want children. More than five million people of childbearing age in our country experience infertility. It is important to recognize, when preaching this text, how personal the story is to so many couples, and how a simple message of "count your blessings" can be dismissive of their pain. Thanksgiving can be an appropriate time to acknowledge that it can be hard to give thanks to God when your deepest desires and most desperate prayers have gone unanswered.
Excerpted and adapted from Sermons on the First Readings.
Kernels of Thanks (Colossians 2:6–7)
The theme of this message is simple: be thankful for all that God has done for you, and let your thankfulness overflow to those around you. Gratefulness is the state of the heart most pleasing to God. Gratefulness occurs when we recognize our status as forgiven and renewed, when we recognize our need for God's faithfulness in our lives, and when we have such joy that it can't help but spill over and influence others. This is the rooted and grounded faith of a thankful heart.
Tell about a time when you were truly grateful for something in your life. It could be when you got married or had a baby, or when someone helped you cope with a difficult situation. Let your story show heartfelt thanks. Expound on the scripture passage. It is interesting to note that a grateful life comes out of obedience, rootedness, nourishment in faith, and staying in the truth that we were taught. From this we find that our hearts are overflowing with thanks for all that God has done. The passage seems to be saying that the deeper we are, the more grateful we will become.
Explain the tradition of five kernels. The Thanksgiving kernel tradition dates back to the year 1621 when the Pilgrims endured one of the harshest winters. The people were cold and starving due to a lack of resources. According to tradition, the people were so hungry that at one point, they were given only five kernels of corn on their plates! Later a ship came in, and they were able to trade fur pelts for corn. Placing five kernels of corn on the Thanksgiving dinner plate is a way to remember God's past goodness during a hard time.
Have bowls of corn kernels (unpopped popcorn works well) ready to pass at the appropriate time. Invite people to take five kernels from the bowl, bring one kernel to the altar and pause for a prayer of thanks to God. Then encourage them to take the four remaining kernels and pass them out to the people in their lives for whom they are thankful, stopping to tell each person exactly why they are grateful.
Excerpted and adapted from Sermon Seeds: 40 Creative Sermon Starters.
(Year B Thanksgiving Gospel Reading, Matthew 6:25-33)
In 1635, the Puritan clergyman, Roger Williams, was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony for promoting ideas of religious tolerance and for urging the separation of church and state. To escape deportation back to England, Williams made his way to Narragansett Bay, where he purchased land from the Indians who lived there. Together with a few friends, he established a settlement that he named Providence, a naming that Williams said was in gratitude “for God’s merciful providence to me in my distress.” This settlement eventually became the capital of the colony of Rhode Island.
Williams gave that settlement a great name, for providence refers to the care and benevolent guidance of God. It comes from the same root word as do “provide” and “provisions.” In Williams’ day, providence was a word commonly used in speech, and our ancestors were not shy about attributing good things that happened to them to God’s care for them.
The word is seldom used in our vocabulary these days, and that’s too bad. Providence means that everything that happens, however bewildering, is ultimately subject to God’s purposes, but today, we are sometimes quicker to attribute the things that happen to fate, luck, our own hard work, or the intervention of other people. Our ancestors believed in those things too, but they were often quicker to see the hand of God at work in the background.
The Gospel Reading for today comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and one of the themes Jesus addresses in these verses is providence. He begins by referring to the worry many people feel about the future — about whether they will have enough of the essentials of life. Jesus confronts that worry with three examples. First, he asks his audience to consider how God cares for the birds, which are individually creatures of lesser value than human beings. If God cares for them, will he not also care for humankind? Second, he challenges his listeners to think about how little worry can accomplish. It can’t add even one hour to the worrier’s lifespan. Third, Jesus points to the beauty with which God clothes the lilies of the field, which bloom only briefly. How much more will he clothe his people!
Some Bible readers have wondered if Jesus was saying, therefore, that those who trust him should not make arrangements for their future. In fact, there are Christians who have made that assumption. But what Jesus was talking about was being careful about what monopolizes our lives and energy, about having our priorities in the wrong order. He said that we should “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and all these necessities of life will come along as well. To say it differently, the more we recognize our dependence upon God as the giver and sustainer of life, the more we can be independent of anxiety about the future.
Unlike such notions as fate or luck, providence is understood as a positive and intentional working of goodness in life. We live our lives differently according to whether we see ourselves in the hands of God or the hands of fate. Christianity does not claim that God always manages the minutiae of our lives, but it does say that at root, our lives are in God’s hands. And the word for that is “providence.”
It means that in an ultimate sense, nothing happens that cannot be subject to God’s purposes. You will recognize that that is something quite different than saying that God plans everything that happens to you. Providence says that this is God’s world, and he, not luck, fate, superstition, astrology, or any other so-called force determines the meaning of this life of ours. It also means that no matter how terrible the things are that may happen to us, none of them can separate us from the love of God.
Providence means that there is a creating, saving possibility in every situation that cannot be destroyed by evil or by anything else. That is a Thanksgiving affirmation, and true thanksgiving is a recognition of God’s Providence.
Providence is a word that needs to be spoken more often today. Our society, though, places great stock in luck. Hence the proliferation of lotteries and casino gambling. Chance is a reality, but unlike providence that favors everyone, luck reserves its benefits for a favored few. Everybody else loses. Providence rejects that notion. God’s goodness is for all.
Providence also challenges the idea of fate, the belief that certain things in life are predetermined and nothing we can do will change them.
Why do some people die in plane crashes and others happen to miss the flight? Was it just "not their time"? Were they spared for a reason? Providence doesn’t buy the idea of predetermined fates. It declares that neither victims nor survivors are separated from the love of God. Even if God intervenes for some reason to save a life, that doesn’t lessen his love for those who were not spared.
Providence is sometimes used as another name for God, for you see, when we declare our faith in providence over luck, fate, astrology, and superstition, we are expressing our conviction that the agent behind the events in our lives is not the devil, not blind, uncaring fatalism, not even something called “the odds.” Rather we are declaring that we are in the hands of one who loves us, cares for us, guides us, provides for us, and never lets us go. In that way, Christ really is the answer, for he points us to God.
A few years ago, a woman in Costa Mesa, California, found on her doorstep a car key and a note. The note quoted a few Bible verses and ended by saying, “This is a gift for you because I love you.” It was signed, “An Angel of the Lord.”
The key fit a newer car that was parked in her driveway, just what she needed to replace her unreliable old clunker. Naturally, the woman was thrilled, and in response, she hung a large poster on her garage that read, “Thank you, God.” She did not think, of course, that God had personally dropped the car out of heaven onto her driveway. But notice that her sign did not say, “Thank you, anonymous friend.” She knew some friend or acquaintance had given her the car, but she also understood something about providence. Ultimately, all good things come from God.
Providence. It’s a great word and an adult perspective on life. Use the word. Live the faith. God is at work in his world and he will win.
Excerpted and adapted from Sermons on the Gospel Readings.