Thursday, March 31, 2011

Year A - The Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 15, 2011)

Did you know that Psalm 23 and a gospel about the Good Shepherd are read on the fourth Sunday in Easter every year of the lectionary cycle?  I read one commentator who referred to it as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  There’s always something to learn!  Now that I know that, I’m rearranging the order of today’s texts.  We’ll explore the Good Shepherd texts first, then go to the Epistle (which actually has a very small good shepherd connection) and Acts which is about community.

Before digging into the details, it is important to recognize that the Good Shepherd is a metaphor and children have a hard time with metaphors.  Studies show that most children do not develop the brain skill of transference that is necessary to understand metaphors until they are into adolescence.  But, the Bible and our worship are filled with metaphors.  I suspect that we help the children claim them when we carefully explore the details of a few key ones, expecting them to become familiar with the concrete part of the metaphor and some of the spiritual realities it embodies, but not fully making the connection until later.  The Good Shepherd is definitely one of those key metaphors.  Maria Montessori reports that while working in a children’s hospital she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the shepherd figure and held onto it “for keeps.”  So the Good Shepherd made sense to them in some way.

This week we have Psalm 23 which is packed with shepherd images and Jesus’ claim in the gospel to be the gate of the sheepfold.

Psalm 23

Psalm 23 appeared on the Fourth Sunday of Lent and will appear again in Proper 23 (28) on October 9, 2011.  Go to The Fourth Sunday in Lent  for a coloring sheet to print out and notes about child friendly hymn versions of the psalm.

Read through the psalm one sentence at a time, thinking like a sheep.  At the risk of stating the obvious, below is a copy of the psalm with sheep references as children understand them.  Many church school attending children know a lot about sheep and in a conversational setting can help you with this.  Other children may be clueless about sheep and their care.  After working through the psalm, point out that we look to God to care of us in the same way a good shepherd takes care of sheep.  Note that many people learn this psalm for memory so that they can pray it whenever they need it – in hospital rooms, in scary times, when they are worried.  Consider offering a small prize to anyone who can recite the whole psalm to you in the coming weeks.


The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures;
Sheep eat grass
he leads me beside still waters;
Sheep drown in running water.  So, shepherd's must keep them
out of streams and lead them to safer ponds.
3     he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Sheep wander and get into places they can’t get out of
4     Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
Name animals that eat sheep and
imagine their eyes shining in the dark.
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
Describe using a rod to beat off animals and
staff to pull sheep back from dangerous places
5     You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
Remind of the animals watching as sheep graze
you anoint my head with oil;
Oil was first aid for cuts and thorns.
my cup overflows.
6     Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

                            New Revised Standard Version

R Show this picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and identify it as the first painting we have of Jesus.  Explain that it was painted in the ceiling of the catacombs where the first Christians hid to worship God.  Briefly describe the Roman practice of feeding Christians to hungry lions.  Ponder why the artist chose to paint Jesus as a strong young shepherd.  List some situations today in which we need a strong shepherd. 

To take it another step provide children with paper and crayons with which to draw pictures of a good shepherd.  Invite them to show you their drawing as they leave or to post it on a prepared door or bulletin board.

John 10:1-10

Jesus is making a fairly sophisticated point about true and false shepherds.  Verses 2-5 lay the foundation for children.  That foundation consists of information about sheepfolds and shepherd’s calling sheep who know their shepherd’s voice.  It introduces the idea of non-literal voices that call to us.

R Present information about shepherding using a small cardboard sheepfold, a shepherd figure (maybe from a crèche), and some toy sheep.  Demonstrate how the shepherd would gather the sheep into the fold, counting as they came in and checking each one for injuries, then sleep across the gate so no animal or human thief could get to the sheep at night.  Show next how in the morning the shepherd would call the sheep to the gate and lead them out into pasture.  After showing this, reread verses 2-5 and comment that just as the good shepherd takes care of the sheep, Jesus takes care of us.

R Stretch the understanding of older children by telling them that lots of voices that are not actually “I can hear you” voices call out to us every day.  To illustrate, describe a beautiful sweater.  When you see it, it is almost as if it says to you, “Look at me.  I am so soft, such a great color.  You would look so cool in me.  You have to have me.  You will be nothing without me.”  Name other things without the ability to speak that call out to you, e.g. sports equipment, a plate of cookies, a hot cheesy pizza, a sports team that you want to play on, a part that you want in a play, and put what they say to us into words.  Point out that we have to decide which of these voices to listen to.  We have to be like smart sheep who follow only the voice of their shepherd.  Then read verses 2-5 again.  Preschoolers and early elementary schoolers can’t make this stretch, but some older children can respond to the challenge.

1 Peter 2:19-25

Children need to hear this message in other words.  The message is, don’t fight back and don’t try to get even when people treat you wrong.  Jesus is the example here.  Imagine what he could have said and done to the soldiers on Good Friday or to all the disciples who ran and hid when Jesus was arrested and killed.  Then remind listeners that he forgave the soldiers and the disciples.  Be honest about how hard it is to be like Jesus on this AND challenge even children to try to do so anyway. 

                                       REVENGE or REPAIR

R With older children define the word revenge as hurting someone who hurt you.  Define the word repair as fixing things between you and a person who has hurt you so that neither of you will hurt each other again.  You may want to print the words on two posters.  Use a fist fight as an example to explain the differences in the two.  A bully pushes you down accidently-on-purpose.  You go for revenge bumping into him and his lunch tray.  Then he gets revenge by wiping his spilled food on your face and…. soon you are both wrestling on the floor and are finally sitting in the Principal’s office.  Nothing has been repaired for anybody. 

After pointing out how hard it is to find alternatives to seeking revenge, recount the story “The Karate Kid” which tells of a boy who chose to learn Karate and challenge his bully in a Karate tournament.  He won the tournament and the respect of the bully.  That took a lot of work.  This letter dares us to figure out ways to repair rather than take revenge.

R The shepherd reference in verse 25 assumes full understanding of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb as well as Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  And, it blends the two so that Jesus is seen as both lamb and shepherd.  Other lectionary years provide readings that make quicker sense to children, so I'd not try to unpack this one for the children.

Acts 2:42-47

Exploring the value of community is a logical thing to do during Easter season.  It is also a hard sell during May in North America where everyone is hanging on for dear life looking forward to summer and a let up or at least a change in community responsibilities and activities.  Still, maybe especially in that situation, it is good to ponder the importance of community in our lives as Christians.  This text provides a list of activities in the early church that match those of most congregations today.  The list is also a list of good activities for Easter people.  To explore the importance of community and the list of activities, try some of the following:

R As you read the text, ask worshipers to raise hands every time they hear an activity.  Stop to identify the activity in the text and to identify ways you congregation does that.  (Be sure to include activities in which children as well as adults participate.)

R Tell worshipers that it is test day.  Each of them is to recite the 23rd Psalm (or Lord’s Prayer) on their own.  Ask how many think they can do it.  Then, ask the congregation to recite it together.  (See if they can do it if you start it with them, then leave them on their own.)  Note that while no one may have been able to recite the whole thing perfectly on their own, with the whole group working together, they got it.  Use this to explore one benefit of living all of life in a community.  Whenever we don’t know what to do or say next, there are people around to help us out. 
R Display a large bag of wrapped candies (maybe Easter candies?)  Suggest that you might put the bag in your desk and eat one candy a day.  Guess how many days your bag would last.  Imagine eating it each day.  Then, say “OR, I could keep one to enjoy right now and give one to each of you.  That would be fun.  The whole church eating candy together!”  Decide on the latter and pour the candies into a couple of baskets for children to pass to the congregation.  While eating together, reread the phrase “they ate their food with glad and generous hearts” and note that you think you had more fun sharing that candy with everyone than you would have eating one piece a day by yourself and applying that lesson to everyday living.

A twist on this would be to give each worshiper two candies and the instructions to find someone in the next day or two with whom to eat the candies with “glad and generous hearts.”

R Connect community to the congregation’s prayers of intercession.  Before the prayers walk the congregation through your congregation’s practice.  Explain how concerns are gathered.  If there is a time when worshipers can identify prayer concerns, invite worshipers of all ages to offer requests and explain what is appropriate.  Also speak about why you pray for others.  Describe both asking God’s care for them and committing ourselves to care for them (e.g. sending a card or taking a meal to one who is sick). 

It would be possible to do this with children seated around you at the front.  Involve them in identifying people they want to pray and shaping those prayers.  Then hear prayer requests of the congregation and keeping the children around you lead the prayers of intercession.  There would also be wisdom in sending the children back to their seats before gathering congregation’s prayer requests.  The latter avoids having to respond to requests that you don’t particularly want to address with the children or for worshipers with such requests to not state them out of consideration for the children. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Year A - The Third Sunday of Easter May 8, 2011

R As you begin:  Heart shows up repeatedly in today’s texts.  “Cut to the heart” in Acts; “Slow of heart” and “our hearts burned within us” in Luke.  “Love one another deeply from the heart” in Peter.  To help children understand this metaphorical language, early in the service display a picture of a human heart, a valentine heart, and a copy of “the real me” poster.  Discuss the similarities and differences in the three hearts.  Take time to introduce “heart” as another word for “the real ME,” i.e. our minds, feelings and actions all rolled into one.  Read the heart phrases that you will use in worship and urge worshipers to listen for them.

R At the benediction, pick up the poster again and build your charge and promise using the key heart phrases of the service.

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

R To bring this reading to life, set the scene at 50 days after Easter and either summarize or read verses 22-24 to flesh out Peter’s message about Jesus.  One reader then reads Peter’s message from the pulpit.  A second reader rises from the congregation to read how the crowd responded.  This reader may be seated on the first row and turn to face the congregation or may be seated (probably with a radio mike) in the middle of the congregation rising to read in place.

Acts 2:14a, 22-24, 36       Reader in the pulpit
Acts 2:37-41                     Reader rising from the congregation.

R People responded to Peter’s message.  They didn’t just listen, they did something.  They believed and got baptized.  It is a good day to walk children and the congregation through the believing rituals of your congregation – infant or believer’s baptism, confirmation, and such practices as first communion rites or Rite 13. Describe them and illustrate them by having a prepared person who has recently undergone each ritual stand as you describe it.  In some congregations you may be able to ask the person to say briefly what was important about that ritual for him or her.  Try to include people of all ages.  (This may be helpful for many adult worshipers who are new to your traditions as well as lead children to look forward to their rites of believer’s passage.)

Psalm 116:1-4,12-19

This psalm could have been prayed in gratitude by the converted on Pentecost, but it is identified in Psalms as the prayer of one who has recovered from serious illness.  It is filled with word pictures that children do not understand as presented.  So, given all the other texts have to offer children, I’d leave this for the adults.

1 Peter 1:17-23

R The sacrificial language (ransom, blood of Christ, lambs) made quick sense to everyone in the first century.  It does not make any sense to children today.  The animals they know are pets - really friends- or humanized characters in loved stories.  They are offended by the idea that God would required the death of an animal or the shedding of any blood to forgive us.  Actually, many modern adults do not find this language a particularly helpful description of Jesus death and resurrection.  “God loved us and forgave us even when we crucified Jesus” or “God loved you so much that God would rather die than stop loving you” make more sense.

 R Bring out or point to the “The Real Me” poster and reread the phrase “love each other from the heart.”  Talk about the difference in saying you love someone, but then not treating them well (for example, saying you love a sibling, then being mean to them in front of your friends) and loving them with your whole heart all the time in all situations.

R One theme that children will not hear as the text is read is that it is important to know what lasts (is imperishable), what doesn’t last, and to live paying attention to the things that last.  Parents work on that all the time trying to help children see that what they think they gotta have or do right now may not be so important in the long run.  Peter was encouraging the Christians in Turkey to think the same way.  What lasts is God’s love and forgiveness especially as Jesus showed it to us.  It lasts even beyond our death.  So, remember that when you can’t have some of the things that do not last right now. 

Start by identifying things that don’t last.  Shoes and clothes, electronic gadgets, toys or games etc.  Then name things that do last.  Parental love is basic.  (Most children count on the love of at least one parent, even if there has been a divorce.)  And, most important is God’s love and forgiveness that last forever – even after we die.  Point out that we need to remember what doesn’t last and what lasts forever. 

Luke 24: 13-35

R Invite the children to help you present the gospel reading by coming forward and joining you at a corner of the front of the sanctuary.  Take your Bible with you to join them.  Explain that today’s gospel is the story of a trip.  It began with a walk of seven miles.  Identify a local landmark that is 7 miles from the church.  Then invite them to walk with you around the perimeter of the sanctuary (or down the center aisle and back if there are no side aisles) as you read the story.  Follow the directions on the script below.  (The script can be enlarged and printed in two columns on a letter size page that lays on an open Bible providing larger print for reading ease.)  This can be done with all the children without rehearsal or with a pre-enlisted and rehearsed group – maybe one or two church school classes.


The Road to Emmaus

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”


They stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 


He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.  Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  
Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 


Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.


As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”
So he went in to stay with them.  When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem;


(probably breathlessly) and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

FOLLOWED BY  “The Word of the Lord…” or any response that follows the gospel reading.


R Especially if it is a Communion Sunday, connect this meal to the sacrament.  Point out that the two travelers understood who Jesus is when he broke bread and said their hearts burned within them.  The same is sometimes true when we celebrate communion.  Tell an example of this for you.  (I would probably tell of sharing communion with a Jamaican youth group our youth group worked with on a mission trip.  Suddenly everything I had ever said about the worldwide family of God became much truer.  These kids were different from us in many ways, but we shared Communion.  We were brothers and sisters in Christ.)  Note that sometimes when we celebrate communion it seems that the bread is just bread and the juice just juice.  But sometimes at communion we understand something about Jesus in an entirely new and important way.

R      Sing “Open My Eyes That I May See.”  Introduce it as a song the travelers should have sung – the first verse on the trip with Jesus and the third on the return run to tell the other disciples what happened.  We can join them in singing all three verse every day. 

R A couple of tidbits that might interest the children:

According to Luke, Jesus chose to appear after the resurrection first to a couple of unimportant women and then to two all but unknown disciples rather than any of the 12.  It’s another case of Jesus’ attention to those who like many children are often overlooked.

The two travelers’ questions echo those of Thomas last week.  Once again Jesus says it’s OK to ask questions.  He does chide them gently for not figuring things out more quickly, but then he patiently explains exactly what happened with Jesus and what it means.

Jesus’ gentle treatment of the travelers echoes his treatment of the disciples in the locked room last week.  The resurrected Christ does not ask “where were you?” or even “where do you think you are going now?”  Instead he meets them where they are and helps them figure out what is going on and where they need to go – back to Jerusalem.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Year A - The Second Sunday of Easter May 1, 2011

For many congregations this, being the first Sunday of the month, will be a Communion Sunday.  Given that, it might be worth swapping this week’s texts for next week’s texts in order to read and explore the story of the road to Emmaus and celebrate Communion on the Sunday after Easter.  Children especially are drawn into this combining of an important Communion story with the sacrament.

If you make this swap, remember that today’s texts will be used on Mother’s Day.  I’ll be making some connections for both sets of lections with both Communion and Mother’s Day.

Acts 2:14a, 22-32 (New Revised Common Lectionary)

This long sermon deals with generalities which are hard for children to follow and is long.  When so much in the other texts attracts children, I’d be inclined to work with those texts and leave this one for the adults. 

Acts 2:42-47 (Roman Catholic Lectionary)
(Read on the Fourth Sunday of Easter in the Revised Common Lectionary.)

If  you read this description of the life of the early church on Mother’s Day/Festival of the Christian Family, it offers the opportunity to compare life in the early church with life in your congregation and life in families which have been referred to as “domestic churches.”  Specific examples of your congregation and current families doing the things that the early church did help children and parents see their family life as part of God’s larger family. 

If you read this on a Sunday when Communion is celebrated, point out that “breaking the bread” is a reference to communion and note that soon after Jesus death and resurrection, his disciples began to celebrate Communion.

If you use the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, highlight the phrase “… joining our voices with the heavenly choirs and with all the faithful of every time and place...”.  Either walk the congregation through the entire Great Prayer explaining the flow of the ideas with emphasis on this phrase and the way it leads to the congregation’s response or point to and explain only this phrase.  (For many children and adults this traditional prayer is only known as “that long prayer before communion.”)   Then, suggest that today worshipers imagine themselves joining Peter, the women who found tomb empty, and all the early Christians at the Table.  Pause just before praying the phrase this morning to call attention to it.  If you do not use The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, simply explore the idea of the great feast at which God’s people of all ages gather around the Table.

Psalm 16 (New Revised Common Lectionary)

As I write, the international coalition has begun firing on Libya and the Japanese are reeling from triple disasters.  It is impossible to guess how any of this will have played out by the time we worship using this psalm.  But, I suspect the first line, “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge” may be the key phrase.  It could be well used as the congregational response to prayers for specific people in need of refuge.  Before doing this, do explain the phrase “in you I take refuge” for the children.  The TEV translates it “I trust in you for safety”.  The CEV emphasizes the fear with “I run to you for safety.”

Psalm 118 (Roman Catholic)

Children will quickly get lost in this long psalm that even the Biblical commentaries describe as rather disjointed.  They more easily focus on one of the sections of the psalm.

Turn verses 1-4 and 29 into a responsive call to worship with the congregation repeating “His steadfast love endures forever.”  Consider adding calls to groups and nations today to say…


One:    O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good;
All:      God’s steadfast love endures forever!
One:    Let Israel say,
All:      “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
One:    Let the house of Aaron say,
All:      “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
One:    Let those who fear the Lord say,
All:      “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
One:    O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
All:      God’s steadfast love endures forever.


Read only verses 21-25.  Describe the function of a cornerstone in laying the foundation of a building.  If your sanctuary has a cornerstone, describe it and tell any stories about it.  Then introduce Jesus as the cornerstone of the church.  Retell the Holy Week story as the rejection of Jesus and Easter as God’s insistence that Jesus is indeed the proper cornerstone.  Don’t expect children to make the connection between Jesus and the cornerstone on their own.  It will be a stretch for them to grasp even if you tell them.

Verse 25 is the Hebrew word “Hosanna!” that was shouted to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday.  On the Second Sunday of Easter recall how the phrase was used on Palm Sunday and celebrate how right the people were when they shouted it.  Then shout it in a responsive reading or sing  the Palm Sunday hymn “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna” celebrating it with an after Easter perspective.

1 Peter 1:3-9

Children will not understand all the abstract language of this passage as it is read and most of its message is beyond their understanding.  I can think of two possible ways for them to connect with it.

Point out that this is a letter Peter wrote to Christians living in what is now Turkey two thousand years ago.  Then read or tell in your own words verses 3 and 6.  Briefly describe the persecution Peter’s readers were facing and how Peter was trying to encourage them.  Then, imagine or ask for a list of people today who might like to receive Peter’s encouraging letter.  People of Japan and Northern Africa come to my mind this morning.  If worshipers join in the conversation expect to hear  as well about individuals in tough situations.  Close the conversation by restating or rereading the two verses.

Read verses 8-9 as a follow up on the story of Thomas to recognize the fact that though we cannot actually touch Jesus as Thomas did, we still believe as Thomas did.

John 20:19-31

Invite children forward for reading the gospel.  Set the scene with the fearful disciples locked in a room on Easter evening.  Then read verses 19 -23.  Another worship leader steps up from the side with a Bible to read verses 24-25.  The original reader then takes up the reading with “A week later the disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them” and reads the remainder (perhaps omitting verses 30 – 31).

This gospel text is the strongest reading of the day for children (and probably adults, too).  It includes two stories that can be explored independently or in relationship to each other.  The first is Jesus meeting the disciples on Easter evening.  Laura Dykstra summarizes that story as follows.

“When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were hiding upstairs in a locked room—the friends who knew him best, who had betrayed him, who had pretended they didn’t know him, who had run away when he was dying, who hid when he was arrested, who were frightened and ashamed. He appeared among them and greeted them. He didn’t say, ‘What happened?’ ‘Where were you?’ ‘You screwed up.’ He greeted them saying, ‘Peace.’  (Laurel A. Dykstra, Sojourners, March 2008)

For the children, name the people in the room and recall how they had behaved during Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  Imagine their fears of what Jesus might say or do to them if he really was alive again as the women who came back from the tomb said he was.  My guess is that they had nervous lumps in their tummies.  Then, translate Jesus’ “Peace” as “It’s OK” or “I understand,” even “You are forgiven.”  That then opens the door to Jesus’ command that as he has forgiven them, they are to forgive others.

This is a good opportunity to highlight and explore the Lord’s Prayer petition “forgive our debts/trespasses/sins, as we forgive…”  Write

“forgive us our debts  (or your word)”

on one poster strip and

“as we forgive our debtors (or your words)”

on a second poster strip.  Present them first in the order they appear in the Lord’s Prayer.  Connect the first strip to Jesus forgiving the disciples on Easter evening and the second strip to his command that they forgive others.  Then flip the order of the phrases and point out that we often have to pray this prayer backwards when we have someone to forgive.  Note how hard it is to forgive people who have treated us badly.  The only way we can do it is by remembering how Jesus forgave the disciples and forgives us.

Create a responsive prayer in which a worship leader describes situations in the world and in personal lives that need forgiveness and the congregation responds with “forgive us our YOUR WORD, as we forgive YOUR WORDS.”  Pray this prayer after having explored it’s meaning in light of today’s story.

The story of Thomas is important to children who already ask lots of questions about everything and to those who will ask deep questions as they get older.  The story insists that asking questions is OK.  Any honest question is OK with God and Jesus.  God can handle any question we can ask.  Thomas wanted to know exactly what had happened to Jesus and what he was like now that he was resurrected.  Some questions children want to know include:

Why didn’t you make me taller or prettier or smarter or…..?
How can God pay attention to everyone in the world at every minute?
Why did you let that (awful thing – like someone dying) happen?
Why don’t you make this (wonderful thing – like a sick person getting
         better) happen?
Why can’t I see you or at least hear your actual voice like people in the
         Bible did?

Suggest some questions and let worshipers add questions.  Be clear that all the questions are OK to ask.  Some of them we don’t get answered immediately.  Lots of them people have lived with and asked about for centuries.  Asking them is part of being human and loving God.

Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1573-1610. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 21, 2011].

There are two especially interesting paintings of Jesus and Thomas.  Show one or both of them. 
Look first at Thomas’s face and imagine what he is thinking and feeling as he touches Christ’s body.  Then, look at the faces of the other disciples and imagine what they are thinking and feeling.  (I suspect they are glad Thomas asked his question because they really wanted to know the same thing but were afraid to ask.  It does take courage to ask some questions and Thomas had it.)  Then, look at Jesus’ face and posture and imagine how Jesus felt about Thomas and his question.  (This could be a conversation with worshipers or could be the ponderings of the  preacher in a sermon.)

Both of these paintings can be downloaded in many sizes at no cost when not used to make money.  Click on the link under each picture.

JESUS MAFA. Jesus appears to Thomas, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 21, 2011].

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Year A - The Fifth Sunday in Lent (April 10, 2011)

The key words today are resurrection and hope.  They are challenging for children in different ways. 

HOPE in daily conversation refers to what you wish will happen, e.g. I hope it does not rain on our game tomorrow or I hope Grandma does come to visit this weekend.  In today’s worship theme HOPE is living through difficult situations knowing that God is in control, loves us, and takes care of us always.  It is like living every day knowing a wonderful secret.  This version of hope is very hard to explain to children.  So, tell and enjoy the Exile prophecy of the dry bones that exhibits hope and use the word hope in songs and prayers.  But, do not try to explain this kind of hope to children.  Let them just live with it for a while.  Putting it into words will come when they are older.

RESURRECTION is a very long, strange, interesting-sounding word that children hear mainly at Easter.   Many children do not recognize it in the “off season” and learn it anew each year. Talking about it today gives everyone a head start on using it on Easter.  So, practice saying it together.  With older children work on spelling it.  For today, for the children, define it as “dead people being alive again.”  Point to today’s story about Jesus making Lazarus alive again.  Note that people thought that was pretty awesome.  But, really it was just a hint about what was to come when Jesus rose from death on Easter.  Encourage young worshipers to get ready to celebrate that resurrection in two weeks on Easter. 

Unless they have experienced the death of a close family member or a friend, most children do not grasp the finality of death.  Cartoon characters constantly bounce back from being run over by bulldozers or falling from high places with a splat.  Fairy tale princes and princesses sleep as if dead for years under magical spells that are finally broken.  Video game characters kill and are killed repeatedly only to reappear in the next round.  Given all this, children are not all that excited about resurrection.  Our job is to introduce the possibility so it will be familiar when they do experience death close at hand and are ready to value resurrection in a new way.

The word RESURRECTION can bring us worship today (ala the sponsoring letters on Sesame Street).  Before the call to worship, present the word on a poster, practice saying it, define it, alert worshipers for a story about the resurrection of a man named Lazarus, and urge them to listen for the word in the songs and prayers of our worship.  Older readers can underline the word every time it appears in their worship bulletin.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ezekiel’s vision is an extended metaphor.  Just as the dry bones come together and come back to life, God’s people can rise from bad situations to live again.  Children have trouble making the jump from the literal vision to its spiritual meaning.  The youngest simply enjoy the details of the vision.  Older children can hear both the details of the vision and the message about God bringing new life in hopeless situations.  But, don’t expect them to get the connection.  For them simply hearing both sides of the metaphor is a good start.  During adolescence the connection between the sides will click into place.

Before reading the vision, set the scene. Either,

Ask the congregation to imagine that your town has been invaded and destroyed.  All the churches were burned to the ground.  All the leaders were killed.  People who weren’t killed in the battle, were rounded up and taken to live in the invading army’s country.  Then tell them, that is exactly what had happened to Ezekiel and the people to whom he was speaking.

Or, simply take time to tell the historical back story of the destruction of Jerusalem and Exile.

Illustrate the story with sounds.  Provide castanets, rain sticks, rattles of all sorts, cans filled with dried beans, or anything that rattles for the verses about the bones.  Then several people blow on live microphones  or rub sandpaper blocks together to produce the wind sound for verses about God’s breath.  A children’s class could be enlisted to serve as a sound choir practicing in advance.  Or, children could be invited forward to provide sounds as the scripture is read.  In either case, they will need a director leading them during the reading.  It will also help to read the passage twice, first without the sounds, then with them. 

Accompany one or more spirit songs with the rattles and wind sounds.  “I’m Goin’a Sing When the Spirit Says Sing” is a rollicking choice.  But, it would also be meaningful to sing “Spirit of the Living God” or “Breathe on Me Breath of God” quietly with gentle spirit background sounds on one or all verses.

Sing “The Lone Wild Bird” (probably without the background sounds) after introducing it as a song the Exiles might have sung with feeling in Babylon. 

Psalm 130

Verse 1 pose
Invite children or all worshipers to make 4 simple movements to the psalm.  The “a” set is more likely done by children invited to come forward to help present the psalm for the day.  The “b” set is to be done by the entire congregation in their seats.  In introducing the movements walk people through the feelings of the psalm.

Verses 1-3      a. kneeling with head bowed
                          b. sitting with head bowed,
                               face in hands
Verses 4-6       a. raise head to look up
                          b. raise head to look up
Verse 7            a. sitting up on knees
                          b. hands turned up and out to the sides
Verse 8            a. stand
                          b. stand

Read the first verse of the psalm.  Stop.  Take time to introduce the phrase “out of the depths.”  Explain that it is often used in prayers and songs.  Point out the difference between a bad day or little things that are hard and the really big things that are “the depths.”  Identify as depths such things as someone in your family being seriously sick for a long time, living in a place where you are afraid to go outside, your parents fighting all the time, etc.  Note that we will read a story about some people whose home had been invaded and destroyed by an army that took them prisoner and identify that experience as a “depths” from which people might have prayed this psalm.  Then read the entire psalm.

Romans 8:6-11

Paul’s argument here is dense and abstract.  Children simply do not get it.  Fortunately for the worship planner, the other texts include two fascinating stories and a psalm that explore some of the same themes in more concrete ways.  Meet the children in them.

John 11:1-45

This is a long reading!  The Roman Catholic Lectionary shortens it to

John 11: 3-7, 17, 20-27 and 33-45

I would add verse 1.  This omits some of John’s dense arguments, but presents the entire story.  It keeps the attention of young listeners who tend to get lost in the verbage of the longer reading.  It can be read from the lectern or be pantomimed using the directions below.

Because this is a long story with complex action, consider having it pantomimed by older youth or adults as it is read.  There are three locations:  (1) Jesus on the road with his disciples, (2) on the road near Bethany where Jesus meets Martha and then Mary, and (3) Lazarus’ tomb.  They could be in a line across the front of the sanctuary or the first could be near the back of the sanctuary, the second in the central aisle and the tomb scene at the front of the sanctuary.  Mimes could wear biblical costumes or a simple group costume such as jeans and a dark colored tee or polo shirt. 

This could be simply the presentation of the gospel for the day.  Or, it could become the sermon with the preacher interrupting the reading to freeze a scene here and there, walking among the mimes to comment on some of what is going on, then allowing the reading to progress. 

Note: The majority of the mimes need to be older youth and adults who can communicate with their faces and bodies.  But, since this was a community event which included people of many ages, it would be appropriate to include mimes of many ages, including one or two children.  Mimes could be enlisted as individuals or as families.

JESUS MAFA. Jesus raises Lazarus to life, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 9, 2011].

Explain burial customs today to set the stage for this story and for the Easter empty tomb story.  Using a painting to describe the wrapping of the body and burial in caves with a large stone pushed across the door of the cave.