Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Year A - Fifth Sunday in Lent (April 6, 2014)

The key stories for today are Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones and Jesus’ raising of Lazarus.  Both stories fascinate people of all ages and make this a great day for savoring important stories of the faith community. 

Two words, resurrection and hope, are at the heart of both of the stories and set the stage for the Easter story in two weeks.  The words challenge 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 and God loves us and takes care of us.  It is like living knowing a wonderful secret.  This version of hope is very hard to explain to children.  So, tell and enjoy the Exile prophecy that exhibits hope and use the word hope in songs and prayers.  But, do not try to explain hope to children.  Let them just live with it for a while.

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 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, then Jesus topped it with his own resurrection on Easter morning. 

Unless they have experienced the death of a close member of their family 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 that they will know about it later.

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.

The Texts

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.

When the biblical account is read with dramatic flair, older children follow it and enjoy the story.  For an even easier version turn to “Dry Bones, Come Alive!” in The Children’s Bible in 365 Stories, by Mary Batchelor.

Before reading the biblical version, 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.  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. 

Just for fun, sing or watch the YouTube video at of the spiritual “Dem Bones.”   It makes no great theological points, but celebrates the coming together of all those bones in the vision. 

If you are collecting a display story props during Lent, a big rubber or plaster bone is the prop to add for this story.  The dog toy section of a pet store might be your best source.

Psalm 130

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.  A panel of seminary professors even suggested that given the other rich story texts today, they would save this for another time – maybe an adult education setting.  Children simply do not get all the talk of flesh and body and spirit.  The stories explore much the same message but do so in much more easily understood ways.

John 11:1-45

This is a very long reading!  One preacher wryly noted that “with a story this long, I need a 2.5 minute sermon.”  She had it about right.  So the first challenge of the worship planner is to figure out how to read the scripture so that worshipers can hear it all.  There are several possibilities

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.

Read “Lazarus Is Alive!” from The Family Story Bible, by Ralph Milton.  It does not include all the intricate conversations, but follows the main action of the story and can be read aloud in 2 minutes.

Read it in sections interspersed with songs, prayers and/or sermon segments.  

Have 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 at 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 discuss 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 some mimes of many ages, including one or two children.  Mimes could be enlisted as individuals or as families.

Present the text as reader’s theater with a Narrator, Jesus, Mary and Martha, and several disciples (all disciple parts could be read by the same person).  Again it could be an uninterrupted reading or it could be interrupted by the preacher to comment on the separate scenes.  Either way it will require one rehearsal so readers know where to stand and can work together on using their voices to communicate what people are saying and feeling.  (Possibility to ponder:  I did not include Lazarus in this script because he has nothing to read.  But, it would be possible to include a non-reading Lazarus who simply sits in a corner near Mary and Martha at the beginning then rises at Jesus' command and walks down the central aisle.  I can see advantages to doing it either way.)


John 11:1-45

All readers have their scripts in folders (maybe choir folders).  They move around to indicate the traveling people in the story do.  The Narrator reads from the lectern.  Mary and Martha stand together at one side of the chancel.  A messenger sits beside them until sent to Jesus.  Jesus and two or three disciples stand together off to the other side of the chancel maybe on the floor level.


Narrator:  Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.   Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.  So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,

Messenger crosses to where Jesus and several disciples are standing on the other side of the chancel.  After delivering the message, s/he leaves.

Messenger:  Lord, he whom you love is ill. 

Narrator:  But when Jesus heard it, he said,

Jesus:  This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

Narrator:  Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  Then after this he said to the disciples,

Jesus:  Let us go to Judea again.

A disciple:  Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?

Jesus:  Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.  But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.  Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him. 

A disciple:  Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.

Narrator:  Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly,

Jesus:  Lazarus is dead.  For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.  

A disciple to the others:  Let us also go, that we may die with him.


Jesus and Martha move to stand near the center of the chancel.  Mary stays on the other side.  The disciples stay to their side behind Jesus.

Narrator:  When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.  Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.

Martha (to Jesus): Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.

Jesus:  Your brother will rise again.

Martha:  I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.

Jesus:  I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

Martha:  Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.


Narrator:  When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately,

Martha (turning to Mary):  The Teacher is here and is calling for you.  

Mary and Martha turn toward Jesus.

Narrator:  And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.  Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him,   

Mary:  Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Mary, Martha, an Jesus reach out to each other standing with arms around each other's waists or a hand resting on another's shoulder (leaving one hand free to hold script) while Narrator reads below.

Narrator:  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus began to weep.  So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”  But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  Jesus said,  Jesus steps away from Mary and Martha a little.

Jesus:  Take away the stone.

Martha:  Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.

Jesus:  Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?

Narrator:  So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said,

Jesus:  Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.  (With a loud voice), Lazarus, come out!

Narrator:  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them,

Jesus:  Unbind him, and let him go.

Either the Narrator or all the readers together turn to the congregation to say, “the Word of the Lord.


JESUS MAFA. Jesus raises Lazarus to life, from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. 
http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48269 [retrieved March 3, 2014].

Use this painting to introduce the biblical burial customs mentioned in this story.  Point out the cave in which Lazarus was buried, the large stone that was rolled across the entry to the cave, and the way his body was wrapped.  Not only will this help young worshipers understand today’s story, it helps them understand how Jesus was buried and so prepares them to hear the empty tomb story on Easter. 

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