LITURY OF THE PALMS
First, a word about the palms distributed to children and other worshipers. The single strips of greenery often distributed to the congregation are not palm branches. They are at best leaves from palm branches or even sections of leaves. Children handed one of them and told to wave their palm branches are puzzled. For good reason, they cannot imagine people waving such a thing to welcome Jesus. So, to help them join the crowd on Palm Sunday provide them with real palm branches. (They can be ordered from the same distributors at not that much greater a price.)
The only reason to order the little strips of palms is to use them as Bible bookmarks or to make them into palm crosses. To do the latter follow the directions with photographs at http://www.kingofpeace.org/resources/ .
I heard about one worship leader who walked the whole congregation through making palm crosses of their own during the worship service, projecting the step by step photographs. Worshipers were urged to take their crosses home to post on the refrigerator, a bathroom mirror, or some other visible spot where it can dry during the year.
Or, save palm Sunday crosses made today to make ashes for next Ash Wednesday. Burn the crosses then crush them in a small bowl with a pestle and mixed the ashes with a little oil for use at the imposition of ashes. The worship leader who described this suggested that the majority of the ashes be prepared before the service, setting aside a few to be crushed during the service while the significance of ashes made from last Palm Sunday’s palms is explained. It would also be possible to prepare the ashes with an older children’s class during the church school hour to both teach them about the ashes and encourage their attendance on Ash Wednesday. (Warning: ashes mixed with water may form lye which will burn the skin. So, mix ashes with olive or any other kitchen oil.)
Palm Sunday processionals at the beginning of worship are a tradition in many congregations. Often children lead or follow the choir/s waving palm branches. Adults love these parades. As children age, they can become uncomfortable and feel “on display” in them. For them, the best parades are those that include worshipers of all ages mixed together. It is possible for the entire congregation to begin worship outside or in “the hall” and then process into the sanctuary together. When they process as a group, older children appreciate having a stylized way of carrying their palm branch such as help across their chest and pointed up toward their shoulder.
In my book Sharing the Easter Faith With Children there are scripts for two calls to worship led by children. One has children yelling set lines from several corners of the sanctuary. The other has a group of children at the rear of the sanctuary answering a worship leader in the front and is based on Psalm 24.
Though Matthew does not mention children participating in this parade, other gospel writers do and most worshipers imagine children present. That makes this a good opportunity to have the gospel read by a well prepared child.
The Palm Sunday parade is all about what kind of king Jesus intended to be and how he would use power. This leads many preachers to speak about political power and how it is used today. Though they miss some of the details of such political discussion, older children are quite ready to explore the theme. While younger children simply want power and insist they will use it well. Older children are becoming more aware of the difficulty of using power well. They are beginning to recognize that some leaders claim power and privilege for themselves and other leaders use power on behalf of others. They have heard enough of the stories of people such as Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and Mother Teresa to know the importance of their contributions and to realize that being a servant leader has a price. For these older children, Jesus entry into Jerusalem is both about Jesus and about the leader they hope to become.
One way to explore these two kinds of leaders is to display two crowns: a crown of thorns and a king’s crown. Pick each one up and ponder the differences in the people who wear them. This could be a children’s sermon, but would be more effective if done within the “real” sermon. A gardener can probably create a crown of thorns and very presentable royal crowns can be purchased cheaply at party shops or borrowed from a local theater group.
Even if you are observing Palm rather than Palm/Passion Sunday, consider reading Philippians 2:5-11 to explore its description of Jesus’ kingship. A trained dancer could take the directions below as a starting point to creating movements that interpret the psalm as it is read. Or, children could be asked to come forward to help present this text to the congregation. Introduce the passage as the words to a very old song about the kind of king Jesus is. Before reading it once, suggest that they listen for movements. Then, reread it inviting the children to join you in the movements below.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
Raised hands and face upturned toward heaven
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
Rock a baby in your arms
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Arms out to the side as if on cross
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
Raised hands and face upturned toward heaven
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
Kneel and bring hands together in prayer
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Stay on knees and raise hands and face to heaven
Psalm 118 echoes the parade story in Matthew. Many of the verses could be shouts from the crowd. To bring it to life, prepare readers to be scattered throughout the congregation to stand and shout one verse. Reader 1 who reads the first and last verses is a worship leader standing in the lectern. Remaining readers could be of many different ages or could be the members of a teenage church school class. (Teenagers with practice can read loudly enough to be heard without a microphone. Older children are likely to be too soft even after a shouting practice.) If 11 readers are too many to gather, settle for fewer assigning two or more verses to each reader. This reading could be a call to worship or it could immediately follow the reading of the gospel lesson.
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Reader 1: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
Reader 2: Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
Reader 3: Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
Reader 4: This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
Reader 5: I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
Reader 6: The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
Reader 7: This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Reader 8: Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
Reader 9: O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Reader 10: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
Reader 11: The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
Reader 12: You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
Reader 1: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
LITURGY OF THE PASSION
Vocabulary Heads Up: for children passion is kissy, icky, mushy stuff. Few have even claimed passion as an intense enthusiasm, as in “she has a passion for the cello.” So, it is probably best to simply introduce “Passion with a capital P” as the title given to the stories Jesus betrayal, trials, and crucifixion.
Matthew 26:14-27 or Matthew 27:11-54
The chief question children ask about the passion narrative is “Why did people hate Jesus that much?” They simply cannot fit this story with all the others about Jesus being a friend, a healer, and a helper. In one kindergarten class a boy posed this question and was answered by another boy thoughtfully, “Jesus said they had to share and they didn’t want to.” Right on target! Jesus called people to share, to forgive each other, to take care of each other, even to love people who do not love us back. None of this is easy on either the personal or national level. Because people did not want to do those hard things, they wanted Jesus to stop saying them or go away. Since he wouldn’t stop saying them, they got rid of him – they thought. It is a stretch but worthwhile to explore the possibility that they hated Jesus because they knew he was right, but did not want to do what he asked.
If you have a good history of public conversations with children, explore this with the children during a children’s time. Open by reminding them of all the wonderful things Jesus did. Mention three or four well known stories about loving, kind Jesus. Then present a rough wooden cross or a picture of the crucifixion and ask, “How could that have happened to him?” If no answer is immediately offered, note that this is a question people have puzzled over for many years. Then, recall some of the hard sayings about sharing and loving enemies. Talk about how hard they are to keep and how bad it feels when you know you don’t do what Jesus said. If you have history of talking about such things in worship, children will start weighing in and together you can move to some conclusions.
If you state this question at the beginning of the sermon, many children will be hooked and will stay with you as long as they can. Be sure to get the simplest answers out first (before you lose the children), then move on to the more adult answers to the question. This is both safer than public conversation in a children’s time and teaches children that sermons might be interesting – at least in bits.
Often the entire passion story is read during worship. It is powerful, but long. To keep worshipers of all ages tuned in, read it in sections. Have each section read by a different reader and separated with music, perhaps a mix of short choir pieces and verses of appropriate hymns sung by the congregation. (“Go To Dark Gethsemane” is a good choice for children. Matching the verses with the biblical accounts helps children understand both more clearly.) Select readers of both sexes and all ages. A teenage boy might read Peter’s part. The Burial and Posting of the Guards at the Tomb can be read by two older children who come to the lectern together and read without a pause between them. Because it is the longest reading, the Crucifixion requires an especially dramatic public reader.
Mat. 26.14-16 Judas Reader Judas agrees to betray Jesus
26:17-30 Reader 1 Last Supper
Judas Reader interrupts to read vv. 21-25 about Judas
26:31-35 Peter Reader Jesus predicts Peter’s denials
26:36-46 Reader 2 Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane
26:47-57 Judas Reader Arrest in the Garden
26:58-68 Reader 3 Trial before Caiaphas
26:69-75 Peter Reader Peter’s Denials
27:1-26 Reader 4 Trial before Pilate
Judas Reader could interrupt to read vv. 3-5
Consider omitting vv. 6-10 for sake of time
27:27-56 Reader 5 Crucifixion
27:57-61 Child Reader 1 Burial
27:62-66 Child Reader 2 Guards at the tomb
Go to http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_the_passion_story.htm for a script in which the congregation takes the part of the crowd declaring Jesus guilty and calling for his crucifixion.
Peter’s First Easter, by Walter Wangerin Jr., has Peter telling his experiences from the Last Supper through Jesus forgiveness at the fish fry on the beach. Older boys especially appreciate his straight-forward, strong but emotional account of what happened. The art depicts Peter and Jesus as strong believable men. The book is too long to read in its entirety, but a single story could be read from this book at children’s time during a service with a sermon rather than reading of The Passion.
Adult worshipers know that Easter follows this horrible story. But, children, especially younger children may not. Even if they have heard the Easter story, they may not place it after the passion. Older children who may be tuning into this reading of the full passion story for the first time, often respond strongly. So, it is important to end with a reminder that God has a wonderful surprise waiting. If you buried the Alleluia in a box, bring out the box, refer to what is in it, and invite the children to come next week to celebrate God’s wonderful surprise ending. It can be worth the effort to call the children up front briefly to be sure they hear this promise of a better ending.
Use the movement of this great hymn about Christ to summarize the Passion. See the directions for a trained dancer or for the children to come forward to move to this reading. (Directions are in the Palm Liturgy section at the beginning of this post.)