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Sermon illustrations

Thanksgiving

The Gift That Inspired a Lifetime of Giving

Tracy Autler’s life changed in a very unexpected way on Thanksgiving Day, 1993. Tracy was a single mother, living in an apartment in a rough neighborhood, she was doing her best to raise a three-year old while preparing for the birth of her second child, at that point, 8 months pregnant. Living off of welfare and food stamps, her Thanksgiving dinner would not be the sumptuous feast many Americans at that time were preparing. Hers was primarily comprised of canned food. Or at least, that is how she expected to “enjoy” her Thanksgiving dinner.

Staring at the canned food on her shelf, Tracy heard a knock at the door. “Who could that be?” she wondered. She wasn’t expecting any company. No friends, no family would be joining her and her three-year old. At the door was a man from a local restaurant, holding what would be a full Thanksgiving meal, given to her by an anonymous donor. Tracy was so surprised; she spent the rest of the day crying. But more than anything she wanted to know who had given such a thoughtful gift.

Years went by and Tracy still hadn’t figured out who had provided this mysterious Thanksgiving meal. After a period of time, Tracy was able to move out of the apartment, and at the same time began working as a nurse at a nearby hospital.

Seven years later, working at the hospital, Tracy Autler was to discover who had provided that amazing Thanksgiving meal. That day, an elderly woman named Margo appeared at the hospital. It was clear Margo did not have long to live. Margo had lived in the same apartment building as Tracy all those years back, and three days before the end of her life, she took Tracy’s hands, and whispered, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

As author Brad Forsma describes:

In that moment Tracy knew who had given her that Thanksgiving dinner. She would never have guessed that Margot—the unassuming neighbor with multiple sclerosis—was behind that generous gift.

…That one gift had a massive impact on Tracy’s life. Moved by the anonymous donor’s generosity, Tracy purposed in her heart to do generous things for other people too. The very day she got off assistance, she took a basket of gifts down to the welfare office for anyone to take. The welfare officer was stunned. Can you imagine the look on his face? Who does something like that? And that was just the beginning.

Since then, Tracy and her husband have become foster parents and adopted a son. She regularly looks for opportunities to give. The last time I heard from her, she was getting ready to volunteer her Saturday afternoon at the local Humane Society. One of her latest ideas is to leave five-dollar Starbucks gift cards with little notes for her coworkers to find, just to make their day better.

This year Tracy and her family made a New Year’s resolution to find one hundred opportunities to give to other people. How inspiring is that? What I appreciate most about Tracy is that she doesn’t do her giving to be noticed by others. Since that Thanksgiving Day in 1993, she has discovered the joy that comes from giving. Now she’s hooked. She doesn’t give to make herself look good—she gives because she likes giving.

 Brad Formsma, I Like Giving: The Transforming Power of a Generous Life, The Crown Publishing Group.

The Nine Men and the Goat

In Budapest, a man goes to the rabbi and complains, “Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?” The rabbi answers, “Take your goat into the room with you.”  The man in incredulous, but the rabbi insists. “Do as I say and come back in a week.”  

A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before.  “We cannot stand it,” he tells the rabbi. “The goat is filthy.” The rabbi then tells him, “Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week.”  A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, “Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there’s no goat — only the nine of us.” 

George Mikes, How to be Decadent.

The Lost Art of Thankfulness

Thankfulness seems to be a lost art today. Warren Wiersby illustrated this problem in his commentary on Colossians. He told about a ministerial student in Evanston, Illinois, who was part of a life-saving squad. In 1860, a ship went aground on the shore of Lake Michigan near Evanston, and Edward Spencer waded again and again into the frigid waters to rescue 17 passengers. In the process, his health was permanently damaged. Some years later at his funeral, it was noted that not one of the people he rescued ever thanked him.

Our Daily Bread, February 20, 1994.

Packing for Passage on the Mayflower

Many of us struggle to know exactly what to pack when we go on our various travels. The Pilgrims in their voyage to the new world were no different. As Bill Bryson describes in his book Made in America:

It would be difficult to imagine a group of people more ill-suited to a life in the wilderness. They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip, They found room for sundials and candle snuffers, a drum, a trumpet, and a complete history of Turkey. One William Mullins packed 126 pairs of shoes and thirteen pairs of boots. Yet they failed to bring a single cow or horse, plow or fishing line.

Among the professions represented on the Mayflower’s manifest were two tailors, a printer, several merchants, a silk worker, a shopkeeper, and a hatter—occupations whose indispensability is not immediately evident when one thinks of surviving in a hostile environment.

Their military commander, Miles Standish, Was so diminutive of stature that he was known to all as “Captain Shrimpe”—hardly a figure to inspire awe in the savage natives, whom they confidently expected to encounter. With the uncertain exception of the little captain, probably none in the party had ever tried to bring down a wild animal. Hunting in seventeenth-century Europe was a sport reserved for the aristocracy.

Even those who labeled themselves farmers generally had scant practical knowledge of husbandry, since farmer in the 1600s, and for some time afterward, signified an owner of land rather than one who worked it.

They were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigors ahead, and they demonstrated their incompetence in the most dramatic possible way: by dying in droves. Six expired in the first two weeks, eight the next month, seventeen more in February, a further thirteen in March. By April, when the Mayflower set sail back to England, just fifty-four people, nearly half of them children, were left to begin the long work of turning this tenuous toehold into a self-sustaining colony.

They were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigors ahead, and they demonstrated their incompetence in the most dramatic way possible: by dying in droves. Six expired in the first two weeks, eight the next month, 17 more in February, a further 13 in March. By April, when the Mayflower set sail back to England, just 54 people, nearly half of them children, were left to begin the long work of turning this tenuous toehold into a self-sustaining colony.

Bill Bryson, Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, William Morrow Paperbacks, 2001.

Thanksgiving As a Communal Act

Given the Hebrew Bible’s merging of liturgical and social circles into a single infinite circle, it is not surprising that most of the instances of the language of gratitude in the Old Testament are in liturgical contexts. Thanksgiving is offered primarily and above all to Yahweh, and is offered for Yahweh’s benefits toward Israel as a people .

Thanksgiving is a communal act of covenant remembrance. It is as forward-looking as it is backward-looking. The Psalms recount God’s benefits to Israel, and express hope that in the future he will continue his faithful care of his people.  Since Yahweh is seen as the ultimate Giver of all good, a failure to give thanks to him is idolatry, forgetfulness of the true God. Though the terminology of “ingratitude” is not often used, the narratives of Israel often describe their complaints and grumbling in the face of Yahweh’s gifts.

… An offering of thanksgiving was a feast, particularly a feast of bread. An Israelite who offers thanks prepares a “great bread” for those who celebrate with him. Thanksgiving is expressed by distribution of food.

Gratitude: An Intellectual History, Baylor University Press, 2014.

See also Illustrations on Gratitude

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Thanksgiving. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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