Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Two ways to read this passage in worship:
Tell the back story. Imagine Moses with all the people on the edge of the Promised Land. Recall the escape from Egypt, the 10 Commands, the 40 years in the wilderness. Point out that Moses is old and has appointed a new leader to take the people into the Land God promised them. This is Moses’ goodbye speech. Then read the text, or ask an elderly man who is well known in the congregation to read it.
Invite children forward and meet them on the steps with the big Bible. Ask how many of them have been told to make good choices. After briefly talking about what people mean when they give you “the good choices lecture,” point out that the first good choices lecture is in the Bible. Briefly tell the story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt and through the wilderness. Recall God’s opening the sea for their escape, providing food and water when it was needed, and giving them the 10 Commandments to show them how to live. Explain that the people are now right on the border of the Promised Land. Before he hands leadership over to Joshua, Moses gives the people some advice about living in their new homes. Then read the Deuteronomy text using your voice and facial expressions to emphasize the choices Moses is offering the people. This is best as the “real” reading of the text for the entire congregation.
The hard part about “choosing life” is that instead of making one big choice that you make once and then go about your business, you have to choose life in lots of little choices that you make every day. For example, given the choice between getting and A or an F on your report card, most people would choose the A. But to get that A requires lots of choices every day, like, "should I do my homework or play a computer game?" The only way to get the A is to choose to study every day. In the same way, if we want to live in a happy family, we have to choose to help out sometimes rather than do we want to do all the time. Likewise, if we want to choose God’s ways, we have to make that choice over and over again every day.
This is the first of two readings from Psalm 119, a long alphabet poem made up of sections of lines beginning with the same letter. All the lines in this week’s section begin with the Hebrew letter aleph. It can be read by a group of children or by the congregation following the plan for Psalm 112 for Psalm 119 in the Fifth Sunday in Epiphany.
Psalm 119 is a poem praising God’s Law. It is filled with lots of big words that mean the same thing as Law. Since these words show up other places in the Bible and in worship, use this as an opportunity to introduce the words. Try one or more of the following:
Make a poster of the words. Introduce each word simply as another word for God’s rules. Invite the congregation to say them with you. Leave them on display for the rest of the service. (This poster is based on NRSV. Be sure your poster matches your translation.)
If the text is printed in the bulletin, after presenting the word poster, suggest that worshipers underline each word they see in the text.
Then read the text aloud with worshipers following along in their bulletins.
To join the psalmist in pondering the value of good rules, explore the importance of rules to games. Good rules are what makes the game fun to play. Consider the mess that results when soccer or checkers players don’t play by the rules of the game. Don’t expect children to make the jump to the rules for life.
Since the subject of both this psalm and the gospel reading is God's Law, think some about how children understand and use rules: Children first see rules as indisputable givens ordained by the adults. The youngest follow them to avoid punishment from the enforcing adults. By kindergarten they are using the rules to get rewards and win approval from the adults. During early elementary school children begin to understand that rules can be negotiated. We can decide the rules we live by. At this time, children will often spend more time vigorously debating the rules of a game than they do playing the game. They also insist that once agreed on the rules must be enforced strictly and apply to all. “That isn’t fair!” is the outraged cry of this stage. As adolescence comes, young people begin to see the difference between literally enforcing a rule and following the spirit behind the rule. That is a big jump that many never make, or make with some rules but not others.
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Paul is addressing a complex adult situation in a church long ago. It would take a lot of explaining to get children to understand what was going on then; and once they understood they wouldn’t much care. Two points do speak to children without understanding the rest of what is going on.
Paul says that people who are jealous and who quarrel are acting like babies and need to grow up. Jealousy means wanting everything someone else has or is that you like. Jealous people can’t see anything they like without wanting it for themselves. One description of a two year olds law of possession is “I see it. I want it. It’s mine!” Grownups can see something beautiful that someone else has or something wonderful that they can do without thinking, “That should be mine! I want it!” None of us, even when we are 90 years old, are totally grownup, which means all of us have to work on not being jealous of others and what they have. Similarly, nobody agrees with everyone else all the time. We want different things. We understand things differently. "Babies" want everyone to agree with them all the time and fuss (or quarrel) with anyone who does not. “Do it my way!” they insist. Grown-ups know that people are different and work to get along with people who disagree with them.
Paul says that each person has an important contribution to make to the whole church. God knits all those contributions together. For children (and adults) today that means that everyone in their church has something to offer. Some sing in the choir, some work at the soup kitchen, some teach church school, some coach church sports teams, and so forth. Each one is needed and no one is better than the others. God uses everyone’s contribution.
This reading includes Jesus’ sayings about four separate laws.
To keep them separate, have each one read by a different reader.
Or, If the preacher is going to comment on all four of them, consider reading the sections one at the time with the preacher commenting on each one as it is read. The back and forth between the reader and the preacher will keep the attention of younger worshipers.
The sayings about anger may be the most challenging for people of all ages. Jesus begins by setting aside the belief that it’s OK to be angry as long as you don’t act on it in a way that hurts someone. Fortunately he also seems to assume that everyone does get angry and then offers a suggestion about coping with anger. The specifics of his suggestion are foreign to children today, but the idea behind them is still the best advice available to children. To today’s children Jesus says,
Everyone gets angry. It just happens. Good people get angry as often as bad people do. Adults, teenagers, and children all get angry. So the question is what do you do when you get angry.
First (and Jesus doesn’t suggest this in Matthew), take a little break. Give yourself time out, count to ten, do something physical (shoot baskets, scrub a floor), enjoy your favorite music, whatever works for you. If you feel like shouting and calling someone names, do it where no one else can hear.
Next (and Jesus does say not to wait too long to do this), name the problem that makes you angry and figure out something to do about it. The Bible says, “be reconciled” with the person who made you angry. That means work it out with It with them. Figure out how to solve the problem between you. That is not easy. Frequently it helps to get advice or help from other people.
If you need examples of things that make children angry, try some of the following.
Your little sister just drew pictures all over your homework…
Your brother borrowed your ball glove and left it outside in the rain…
Your father blamed you for something you did not do…
Your mother insists that you babysit your little brother instead of play with
A biblical example of the danger of unaddressed anger that may be familiar to children: Joseph’s big brothers were angry (Joseph was dad’s favorite, got a special coat, told them dreams he had in which they bowed down to him). The brothers let their anger build. Then when they got the chance, they threw Joseph in a pit and were going to leave him there (murder), when they had a chance to sell him to passing slave traders (definitely a sin).
The section on adultery with its unfamiliar vocabulary will fly over the heads of most children and that is just fine.
The sayings about divorce are aimed at the adults, but the children know all about divorce. All the studies say that parental divorces cause deep pain to children and leave lasting scars. So in addressing this issue with the adults, do remember the children are listening, some quite intently. Name some of the pain divorce inflicts on children – two houses with two different sets of rules, upended holidays, loss of image of themselves set in a sturdy family. (Many therapists say older children and youth actually lose their sense of identity when their parents divorce and must be helped to recreate a new identity that fits the new situation.)
Build around Jesus’ insistence that divorce is a sin, the grace that he offers all sinners. But don’t expect children to grasp that general statement and apply it to their parents. Name a number of common sins such as lying cheating, stealing, jealousy, fighting. Describe in specifics the damage they do. And, note that God forgives us for all these things – and forgives people when their marriages become so broken that divorce is the only way out. Make sure the children know that God still loves parents who get divorced and the children whose parents get divorces.
The verses on swearing oaths address the complicated ways people of that day were trying to avoid telling the whole or real truth. Children today are familiar with “stretching the truth,” telling white lies, fish tales (how big was that fish?!), and crossing your fingers behind your back while telling a lie. Jesus says all of these ways of avoiding telling the truth are wrong. We are to tell the truth always.
One of the best known stories about the problem with not telling the truth is “The Boy who called Wolf!”
Once there was a boy who spent his days taking care of the sheep near his village. When he was bored one day, just to see what would happen, he yelled “Wolf!” All the villagers stopped what they were doing and ran to help him protect the sheep. “Fooled you,” he laughed. A few days later, thinking about how funny everyone looked running from the village, he cried “wolf!” again. And, again the villagers left what they were doing and ran to his aid. “Fooled you again!” he laughed long and loud. So, the following week, when a wolf really did appear slowly circling the sheep, and the boy cried, “Wolf!” the villagers stayed where they were and kept on with their work. Without the help of the villagers the boy could not keep the wolf from killing and dragging off several sheep, sheep the villagers could not afford to lose.