Thanksgiving Day provides the occasion for a happy union of Christ and culture. Even those of us who are most diligent to guard against all forms of cultural captivity of the gospel are willing to call a one-day truce to permit Christ and culture to sit together at the festive table.
To be sure, there are those in both pulpit and pew who have taken the unalterable position of setting Christ over against culture, those who refuse, even for a single hour, to leave their posts. For these, more than a principle or a conviction is at stake; rather, it is a matter of identity, for the gospel, they say, is defined in part by what it opposes. To be faithful to the gospel is to rise from the breakfast table every morning to spend the day in combat with Herod.
And to be honest, such a posture is not without its reasons. Reflect on what culture has done to Hallows Eve, Christmas, and Easter. Recall how frequently culture breaks into the room where the church keeps its vocabulary, running off with treasured words such as charismatic, grace, love, and even our beloved charity, only to leave them abandoned on the street, used, overused, and misused.
Who among us has not been repelled by Thanksgiving festivities in which Uncle Sam and not the Creator was praised, when sheer abundance was celebrated with no thought, no twinge of guilt, no resolve to act relative to the inexcusable gulf between Lazarus and those who fare sumptuously every day? Yes, even Thanksgiving, with all its warmth and joy, has a shadow side and can seduce the unwary.
Even so, most of the faithful come down from the wall, sheathe the sword, and join the larger society on this holiday, which is as much “theirs” as “ours.” The realms of creation and redemption enjoy their overlap. The nation pauses to remember benefits forgotten.
Families get together as at no other time of year. Airports and highways are more crowded than at Christmas, everyone bent on going home. Churches discard the competitive spirit and join in ecumenical services of praise. The people of the street are invited to banquet tables, and the more reflective among both rich and poor tarry after the meal to get some distance from things, to lament relationships neglected, and to make quiet vows of adjusted priorities. Our hearts agree. “It is meet (fitting) and right to give God thanks and praise.”
However, when an act such as giving thanks or a quality such as gratitude is so widely applauded and universally embraced, some of us grow nervous. It is not simply a case of being unable to celebrate the positive or enjoy the triumph of a good. Rather, our uneasiness is due to the sense that unanimous approval of a value tends to blur the distinctive features of that value, to permit it to soften into a vague sentiment, to slip slowly from the list of convictions to the pile of assumptions. The words and music of gratitude left unattended can become for both church and society only a tune hummed now and then, here and there, a tune everyone knows and yet no one knows.
What is gratitude anyway? What is it to be thankful? The comments below are intended to offer to the minister suggestions along two lines: (1) explorations into the meaning of gratitude as a quality of character, a virtue, a grace; and (2) occasions in the life of the church on which giving thanks can well be the central thought and act.
Perhaps it should be said at the outset that gratitude is not a quality that submits totally to examination. There is a depth, a complexity, a mystery about thankfulness that remains after even a careful investigation. In both experience and observation we know this to be true. One does not become grateful by an act of will, nor does one seem able to create the quality in others. Persistent and repeated instructions by parents have not guaranteed grateful children. Preachers exhort gratitude and all agree we ought to be grateful, but ….
We cannot recall how many times we have shown up for union Thanksgiving services only to find that we were not going to get a glimpse of our inheritance as children of God, we were not going to be permitted to run our fingers through the unsearchable riches of God’s grace. Rather, we were excoriated for our ingratitude: “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” (Luke 17:17). Apparently it is easier to chasten ingratitude than to generate gratitude.
Certainly thankfulness has no direct correlation to abundance or to want. Prayers of thanks are said over bread and water while feasts are consumed in arrogant indulgence. And vice versa: the banquet is received in gratitude while the crust of bread is swallowed in bitterness. One traditional mealtime prayer asks, “Lord, make us grateful for this and all your bounty.”
“Make us grateful”: perhaps that is the heart of the matter; God provides not only the food but also the grateful heart. If so, then gratitude is a grace in the true sense of that word. A sketch of biblical terms providing us with the cluster of words such as thankful, thanksgiving, grateful, and gratitude should confirm or correct such a conclusion.
The Roots of the Matter
The central word in a number of related New Testament terms translated “to give thanks” is a Greek verb transliterated eucharisteo. From this verb comes one historic term for the Lord’s Supper. Eucharist, so named because of the formula “and when he had given thanks” (1 Corinthians 11:24-; Mark 14:23). So central was the thanksgiving to the church’s understanding and observance of the meal that Eucharist had become a name for the Lord’s Supper early in the second century (Didache 9).
The root from which the word “eucharist” is derived is charis, most often but not always translated “grace.” Closely related are “charisma,” gift, and “charismatic,” one who has received a gift. But we should not move too quickly to find theological meanings for these words and leave behind the affective force and social uses of the basic stem word and its derivatives.
Charis comes from a verb common in Greek culture meaning “to delight, to charm, to give pleasure, to favor, to cause to rejoice,” a verb that easily and naturally became a pleasant word of greeting (James 1:1). This force of the term, along with its more theological meaning, can be seen at Acts 11:23, “When He [Barnabas] came and saw the grace of God, he was glad” (emphasis added).
This flavor of the word which, at the hands of New Testament writers, came to have such rich and varied theological and liturgical uses, should not be lost. Thanksgiving is by its very nature joyful, pleasant, and an occasion for delight. Gratitude is not sad, grudging, or mean. Some of this affective force of charis, and hence eucharist, is still preserved in our culture in the word “gracious,” as in, “Our host was most gracious.”
However, when charis moved into the web of social and political discourse, it lost some of its freedom and its joy. Such is the sad history of so many great words, a history sometimes chronicled in the New Testament itself. While Luke no doubt wished to retain some of the pleasure in charis when he reported that the church in Jerusalem had “favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47, emphasis added), he also records the corruption of the word in the hearts and on the lips of those who scheme for advantage. Felix left Paul in prison, “desiring to do the Jews a favor” (Acts 24:27, emphasis added), and the same motivation prompted Festus to attempt to return Paul to Jerusalem (Acts 25:9). Only the naive would miss the political strategy here, such acts of charis later becoming IOUs.
This is not to say that charis is totally devoid of all expectation from the recipient of the favor or gift. On the contrary, the word may actually refer to a favor shown or a favor received. In other words, charis, or “grace,” may define an act of giving or an act of receiving; if giving, the word means “gift or unearned favor”; if receiving, then the word is best translated “gratitude.”
Since the same term represents both sides of the act, it is natural to expect that grace as gift would be met with grace as gratitude. In fact, according to some Greek moralists, gratitude in response to any favor was regarded as a duty and was listed among the ethical qualities. Such reciprocity is not objectionable when it pertains to the normal flow of healthy relationships: giving thanks is a natural and appropriate response to a favor. But in an unhealthy relationship, gifts or favors can be given for the purpose of getting a desired response from the recipient. Such gifts become means of manipulation, actions intended to gain power over another.
Favors or apparently gracious acts thus degenerate into a way of saying, “I did you a favor; now you owe me.” Such debts are never fully repaid, especially if the benefactions are poisoned by frequent reminders of the debt now due. It is often fear of such manipulation and dehumanizing inevitable in such transactions that causes even the very hungry or the very cold to reject offers of food or clothing. There are conditions worse than being hungry or cold. Recipients who must show their gratitude are not free to be truly grateful.
This point is central to the dynamic of thanksgiving. Since charts means both gift and gratitude, the freedom of the giving must be matched by freedom in the receiving, else the relationship is diseased. When freedom characterizes the entire dynamic of giving and receiving, both participants experience the beauty and the profundity of “grace.” Totally foreign to what takes place is calculating and quantifying.
Even if the exercise urged by “Count Your Many Blessings” has some value, it is totally unrelated to our present consideration because of two implications unbecoming to gratitude: (1) that there is a direct correlation between gratitude and the number of one’s blessings and (2) that counting blessings will reveal that one is faring better than many others and therefore should prompt gratitude. Comparing one’s life with that of persons less fortunate should move one to action but certainly not to gratitude for the difference.
To speak, then, of gratitude is to speak of grace. Even though we began this discussion with the expanded form eucharisteo as the principal New Testament word for thanksgiving (Mark 8:6, Matthew 15:36); John 6:11; Acts 27:35; Romans 16:4; 1 Corinthians 1:14; to list but a few examples), we have also seen that the root word charis, most often translated “grace,” in numerous texts is best translated “thanks.”
The familiar Pauline formula “thanks be to God” makes us of charis (Romans 6:17; 7:25; 1 Corinthians 15:57; 2 Corinthians 8:16). Perhaps Paul wants to remind himself that his gratitude is made possible by God’s grace. Grace given by God flows back to God. Notice Paul’s double use of the word at 2 Corinthians 9:14-15: “They long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (emphasis added). So understood, grace prompts gratitude which expresses itself in generosity toward others (2 Corinthians 8:1; 9:8) while informing, infusing and guiding all other Christian qualities, all of them flowing together in praise of God.
In fact, Paul understands the basic posture of the Christian to be that of giving thanks, whether one eats or abstains (Romans 14:6), and he characterizes those alienated from God and darkened in their minds as persons who do not give thanks to God (Romans 1:21). If one is making a request of God, let it be done with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6). If one is engaged in witnessing to resistant outsiders, let it be done with thanksgiving (Colossians 4:6). If one is watching and waiting expectantly for the Lord’s return, then do so with thanksgiving (verse 2). In sum, says Paul, “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
This does not mean that negative feelings are to be suppressed or pain and death denied. What it does mean is that the grace of God to which we respond in gratitude is broader, deeper, and more mysterious than any spontaneous good feeling we may enjoy on any given day. The point is, we are not tossing words of gratitude into empty space, nor are we “thanking our lucky stars”; we are thanking God. Gratitude to God is attuned to the attributes of God as creator, sustainer, and redeemer. Thanksgiving searches after God to know God, even while confessing inability to penetrate the thick cloud of God’s glory.
The believer, often baffled by the weals and woes of the human community and of the whole created order, still stands before the mystery in gratitude, for “from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be glory for ever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
The discussion thus far has been in the service of the first suggestion to the preacher: Explore with the congregation the meaning of thanksgiving. This can be done in a single message or it may be sprinkled appropriately through a number of sermons in which giving thanks would be one but not the only line of thought. The avenue taken here has been to explore the single root word in the richly nuanced Greek language that expresses joy, grace, and gratitude, the word early Christians used to convey the essence of the gospel and the believer’s response to it. But this is by no means the only way to explore the act of giving thanks.
One could as easily turn to the Old Testament and examine ways in which the believer in Israel understood thanking God to be blessing God and to be praising God. In fact, in the comments below we will look at some extraordinary texts in the Old Testament that prompted a saying among the rabbis: “In the future all sacrifices will cease, but the offering of thanks will not cease to all eternity.”
Preaching on Occasions of Thanksgiving
We turn now to the second suggestion, which pertains to occasions when the giving of thanks is central not only in the entire service of worship but also in the sermon in particular. Appropriate texts are abundant but attention will be called to only a few among them.
It is true but not sufficient to say that the giving of thanks is fitting at all times and in all places. Such general truths tend in practice to become at no time and nowhere unless we are aided by specific occasions of thanksgiving. And such occasions often call for messages that inform, encourage, and inspire expressions of gratitude. The following selections of occasions and texts are offered as but hints and promptings to those responsible for those messages.
The annual Thanksgiving Day (or Eve) service.
In many communities this service is ecumenical, without a fixed tradition of time, place, liturgy, and participants. However, certain features are not optional: the purpose is to express thanks, not to complain about widespread ingratitude; the service is a single act of worship, not a collage of offerings from participating congregations and ministers; and thanksgiving is offered to God, not vaguely nondirectional in case there is someone present who does not believe in God.
The message in this service (whether or not it is ecumenical) may be one of two general types. One type is that of recital in which the preacher recalls the great acts of God which prompt the thanksgiving of the community. Such messages are not marked by exegetical detail but by broad affirmations of the power, goodness, and grace of God.
Psalm 107 is especially appropriate for such a sermon. It is a psalm of thanksgiving of several stanzas, each including a repeated call for response. All kinds of conditions of human distress are imaged: lost in the desert, in prison, deathly ill, caught in a storm at sea, and oppressed by the powerful. In each case appeal is made to God, the distressed are rescued, and the narrator calls for a response of thanksgiving. With but little elaboration at each stanza the listeners will identify their own past or present experiences and give thanks to God.
Psalm 136 is also a psalm of thanksgiving containing a recital of God’s activity and a refrain praising God’s steadfast love which endures forever. The recital is in three parts: creation, history, and personal life. So sweeping are the stanzas that the preacher can bring into each references from the knowledge and experience of the listeners so as to evoke gratitude and confirmation of the narrator’s claim that God’s love is steadfast and enduring.
A second type of Thanksgiving Day sermon involves the exposition of a particular text having to do with giving thanks. Here one may be exploring more carefully the sources; the nature, the forms of gratitude. The discussion in the first section of this article is similar to what might be done here. Consider, for example, Philippians 4:10-20. Most commentators agree this is a note of thanks from Paul to the church at Philippi, a note that may have orginally been sent prior to the letter itself.
Look at it as literature: It opens with a joy formula and closes with a doxology. It is filled with language from nature, from business, and from the liturgy of the church. It is obvious that Paul is grateful, but why does he not say so? He is both warm and detached, intimate and distant. He insists he did not need the gift and yet is glad they sent it. This text provides an opportunity to examine the difficulty in saying thanks and to explore the fragility, the depth, the beauty, and the meaning of a seemingly simple act of giving and receiving a gift.
The celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Here the texts are firmly set in the tradition: Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, to which may be added Luke 24:13-35 and John 6:25-59. The meanings are beyond a lifetime of explorations; here is a table of food and drink; here is participation in the body and blood of Christ; here is fellowship in shared bread; here the Passover is recalled, the covenent renewed, and the Parousia anticipated. But strikingly, the church since the second century has given strong attention to the celebration as Eucharist, thanksgiving.
All the biblical traditions of the meal include the thanksgiving formula. In John’s record of the feeding of the multitude, which is clearly a eucharistic meal, the location of the feeding is referred to as the place of the thanksgiving (John 6:23).
For what was Jesus grateful on the eve of His own passion? Why has the church judged thanksgiving to be the heart of the sacrament, so much so that eucharistic prayers became great thanksgivings, recitals of the gracious acts of God? To reflect on this central meaning of the Table is appropriate not only to Communion meditations but also to the pulpit and full sermons which point to the table of thanksgiving.
Fellowship meals.
In some congregations, fellowship meals are hurried affairs, serving as incentive to good attendance at choir practice and committee meetings which follow immediately thereafter. No one is of a mind to hear a sermon. However, there are fellowship meals that are meals and they are for fellowship. Such an occasion would be most appropriate for a message on giving thanks. The time, place, and purpose would call for informality and brevity but the importance of what was being said and done could actually be enhanced thereby. It is a meal shared by the family of God, over which a prayer of thanks is said.
Reflect on the relationship of this table to the table in the sanctuary, how this meal informs the eucharistic meal and how the Eucharist informs this meal. Could not this fellowship dinner be a eucharistic feast? If so, what would make the transformation? Texts abound that record prayers at meals (Mark 8:1-10: Matthew 15:32-38: Acts 27:33-36).
What is most noticeable is that the eucharistic formulas appear here also, as though the Lord’s Supper had reinterpreted all meals. In such a message the fellowship hall can be joined to the sanctuary in ways which may have been missed by some of the congregation.
Likewise meals in our homes could be united with those at church. Again, one does not want to be too lengthy or require too much work on the part of the listeners, but seriousness of purpose does not require heaviness of manner. For example, one could ask for those in attendance to recall prayers at meals which were learned as children. Or, one might inquire as to whether prayers at the table in our homes are designated as “returning thanks,” “asking the blessing,” or “saying grace.” This could lead to a brief presentation on how grace, gratitude, and blessing are related.
As to thanksgiving as blessing God, Psalm 103 would be most helpful. Or one could call attention to the eucharistic formula at Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:35-44, and Luke 24:28-35 in which blessing is used instead of thanksgiving. The similarities and differences could also be noted by reading the three prayers (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish) found on cards at the tables in some restaurants. The point is, we often grow in grace by bringing to the conscious level the frequent and familiar, perhaps learning for the first time what we already know.
Occasions of special providence.
In every community there are special times when it is good and right to gather in worship and express thanks to God. A long drought ends, flood waters recede, a person ravaged by disease is healed, a missing child is found; at these and countless other times the congregation wants to gather, embrace each other, and thank God.
While the service of thanksgiving is prompted by a very present occasion of divine favor, it is important that it not be viewed in isolation but rather be set in the context of the larger story of God’s providence. The message can do just that, adding the present event to the recital of God’s activity and enrolling the present beneficiaries of divine favor in the larger family of God.
Psalm 107, discussed above, would be an excellent text for such an occasion. A beautiful text for a service of thanksgiving for recovery from grave illness is Isaiah 38:9-20, although the message of this text could properly extend to any deliverance from crisis. This passage is also a psalm, “a writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness” (verse 9). Hezekiah speaks of his pain and the strain put on his relation to God. He calls on God for restoration and in his recovery he begins to see some redeeming value in the illness. In unrestrained gratitude, he vows to witness to God’s faithfulness and to sing God’s praise in the house of the Lord.
Whether the occasion for thanksgiving be restored health, a broken drought, or a found child, the appropriateness of this text lies in its movement from depression and doubt to thanksgiving and praise.
A series of sermons with a common theme.
This suggestion does not focus on any particular occasion but on a format for preaching which many ministers and congregations find helpful. Whether or not one follows a lectionary, there are major themes vital to the Christian faith that can be treated helpfully in a series of sermons, the subject matter being of a size too large for a single message. The semicontinuous readings during ordinary time following Pentecost provide the texts for the consideration of some such themes, but not always.
If a matter is judged to be of such importance as to warrant a special series, then the preacher might well pursue that judgment. This option is mentioned here because our present subject, giving thanks to God, is of such importance.
The preacher who agrees with this assessment might well consider for one such series the thanksgiving that occurs at the beginnings of Paul’s letters. The thanksgiving was a constituent part of epistolary style prior to Paul and he took it over in his letters to the churches. The thanksgiving follows the salutation (signature, address, greeting) and moves from a personal note to and about the recipients into the subject matter of the letter. In the thanksgiving, personal relationship joins pastoral concerns and theology, all in a spirit of grace and gratitude. Here readers are affirmed and instructed, praised and exhorted, and all this at the altar in thanksgiving before God.
All the undisputed letters of Paul open with thanksgivings (or blessings) except for Galatians. That these are all genuine expressions of thanks, full of the substance of the gospel of God’s grace, is beyond question; whether they are appropriate for the extended attention of a particular congregation, only the minister of that congregation can judge.
These suggestions are but hints and promptings, touching on times, places, and texts. Behind and beneath all these variables is that which is central and constant: It is fitting and right to give God thanks and praise.
Chapter 9, “Preaching About Giving Thanks — Giving God Thanks and Praise,” by Fred B. Craddock. Reprinted from Preaching In and Out of Season, Edited by Thomas G. Long and Neely Dixon McCarter. (c) 1990 Thomas G. Long & Neely Dixon McCarter. Reprinted by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press.

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