In many congregations this will be Rally Day or the beginning of the church school year. In the USA it is Labor Day Weekend, but everyone is still in the Back to School mode settling into new commitments and disciplines. Many of the themes of today’s texts speak clearly to both children and adults at this time. The people standing on the edge of the Promised Land are not unlike children and adults stepping into the beginning of the school year. Especially those who have been in school for a week or two are beginning to realize that there will be choices to be made and that some disciplines will require more work than we might wish. But, we also remember as we settle into all the work that God made us and is with us always. In short, there is lots to work with this Sunday.
Texts for the Day
Jeremiah 18: 1-11
> Even with all their experience with clay, children – especially the younger ones – need a little help with this image. Literal thinkers that they are, children imagine God punching and pulling us into the right physical shape. (Visualize God pulling out three arms, then mushing one back in knowing that two in the right places are enough.) The challenge is to help them imagine instead God working grabbiness into sharing or meanness into kindness. God has to work hardest on the invisible parts of us. Also, be specific about how God reworks us. God does not punch us down, but gives teachers, books, even experiences that help us learn and grow into the people God means for us to be.
> Working with clay is the best accompaniment to a sermon on this text. Either set up a potter working at a wheel while you preach. Or, give the children (or all worshipers) egg size lumps of clay to work with as you preach. You might even work with a lump as you preach pondering the process as you work the clay.
Playdough is probably clean enough for most sanctuaries. But if you are worried about clay bits on plush pew cushions, get plasticene, polymer clay or sculpey at a craft store. It costs a little more, so give out smaller lumps. Whatever kind of clay you use, provide buckets to which it can be returned upon leaving the sanctuary. Any of these clays can be recycled!
If you cannot have actual clay and/or a potter, read about a potter to help children understand Jeremiah’s message.
> Start by asking what a potter does. Show the photograph of jars Dave made on the last page of Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, by Laban Carrick Hill. Use the picture to note that this is a real story about a real potter. Then, read the story (or selected pages from the story) which describes Dave’s loving creation of one large pot. (4 minutes to read it all thoughtfully aloud.) Then, encourage children to listen to what Jeremiah said when he said that God is like a potter. Challenge them to figure out what God makes.
> James Weldon’s Johnson’s poem “The Creation” pictures God very physically making the whole universe. To get the feel of God shaping and forming everything read the entire poem. Or, start with “God thought and thought, until He thought, ‘I’ll make me a man.’” To read just about God shaping people out of the clay. Find a copy HERE.
> “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” is an old hymn that is not in many newer hymnals. But, if it is in yours it almost demands to be sung with this text. Since the second verse adds the totally separate washing image and the third verse is about healing rather than molding, either delete them or introduce the hymn by focusing attention on the first and fourth verses. Read through them and introduce them as an important prayer asking God to keep working on us.
If you are displaying quotes from prophets today add
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
> Explain that when Middle Eastern people write poems they rhyme ideas rather than sounds. A poem is a collection of ideas that may repeat each other or build on each other or say the opposite of each other. Psalm 139 is a poem about how well God knows each one of us. To help children hear each rhyming verse and to emphasize that God is with us at every age of our lives have the passage read by a collection of readers of all ages using the script below. Readers stand in a line stepping up to a microphone to read their verses if amplification is needed. There are enough verses for 11 readers. Smaller groups of readers could read two or more verses each if needed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Reader 1: Lord, you have examined me and
you know me.
you know me.
You know everything I do;
from far away you understand all my thoughts.
Reader 2: You see me, whether I am working or resting;
you know all my actions.
Reader 3: Even before I speak,
you already know what I will say.
Reader 4: You are all round me on every side;
you protect me with your power.
Reader 5: Your knowledge of me is too deep;
it is beyond my understanding.
Reader 6: You created every part of me;
you put me together in my mother’s womb.
Reader 7/1: I praise you because you are to be feared;
all you do is strange and wonderful.
I know it with all my heart.
Reader 8/2: When my bones were being formed,
carefully put together in my mother’s womb,
when I was growing there in secret,
you knew that I was there-
you saw me before I was born.
Reader 9/3: The days allotted to me
had all been recorded in your book,
before any of them ever began.
Reader 10/4: O God, how difficult I find your thoughts;
how many of them there are!
Reader 11/5: If I counted them,
they would be more than the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.
Good News Bible (TEV)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
> To further explore this idea, share St. Patrick’s Prayer. Children savor all the concrete places Christ is around us. To emphasize them and the closeness of Christ, have worshipers follow hand motions you add as you read. Turn your hands to the various directions as they are named. Then point to the parts of the body as they are listed. Or, have a partner make the motions for the congregation to echo as you read. Because it is a simple prayer, print it on card stock, perhaps featuring a cross or picture of Jesus. Give cards to children to put some place they will see it often – maybe in their backpacks or lockers at school or in their room at home.
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Christ Be With Me
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Two somewhat similar 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 better as the “real” reading of the text for the entire congregation rather than as a children’s time.
> Behind all this talk about making choices is the fact that what we do matters. Children need to hear that message repeatedly. It matters when they do good things that make life better for the people around them. And, it matters when they do selfish, mean things that cause trouble. What they choose to do and not do does make a difference. Knowing this is one of the building blocks of self-identity and healthy self-esteem.
> 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 an 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.
> The over simplification of the difference between good people and bad people in this psalm appeals to children who do not yet realize that almost no one wears a totally white or black hat. So direct the psalm to children. The adults, who struggle with the nuanced differences between the good and evil, will listen and get the psalmist’s point too.
> To make the comparison visual, have the psalm read by two readers. Reader 1 (the “good” reader) wear light or white clothing and Reader 2 (the “evil” reader) wears dark clothing. They begin standing back to back in the center of the front of the sanctuary. Each one turns to read or recite their verses facing the congregation then returns to the starting position. This is most effective if the readers recite their verses from memory, but good readings are OK too.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Reader 1: Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
Reader 2: The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand
in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
Reader 1: for the Lord watches over
the way of the righteous,
Reader 2: but the way of the wicked will perish.
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NOTE: I used the NRSV in the script because this psalm is well known in this version. For a translation with an easier vocabulary for children look at Today’s English Version.
> Scornful, scoffers, and chaff are unfamiliar words to most children, so choose your translation carefully and point out the strange words before reading if needed. (There is no translation that includes none of these words. So, choose the one that fits your congregation and introduce its “hard words.”)
> Alice in Wonderland is not all that familiar to children today. But, Alice’s problems with choosing the bad advice of signs that said “EAT ME” and “DRINK ME” could be explored as examples of what happens when we follow the advice of the wicked.
> Consider reading the whole book in worship for the sheer joy of having read a whole book of the Bible. Invite worshipers to follow along in their pew Bibles as you read.
> Before reading the book, introduce it and set the stage so children can follow:
Name the characters briefly describing their relationships to each other
- Paul who wrote the letter.
- The runaway slave Onesimus who had
become a Christian and a friend of Paul, and
- Philemon, the Christian owner from whom
Onesimus had run away.
Explain the punishment for runaway slaves
Then read the book with dramatic inflection to emphasize the greetings and all the ways Paul tries to get Philemon to do what he wants.
> A preacher friend pointed out that this letter is filled with family words (including love). Paul wants Philemon to treat Onesimus not as a slave but as family. Before you read challenge worshipers to listen for family words and ideas. Even invite them to raise a hand every time they hear one, thus alerting others to the word. (Particularly in the USA right now, seeing everyone as family is one way to get past the racism that divides us too often.)
> Enjoy the fact that we do not know how this story ended. List reasons Philemon might welcome Onesimus back but still as a slave or welcome him back and free him or punish him as a runaway slave. Help children understand how much money Philemon would lose if he freed Onesimus. Imagine what Philemon’s slave owning friends might say to him if he welcomed Onesimus. Be sure the children know that this was a very hard choice.
> This story might be presented as a case study in the choice making called for in Deuteronomy or for the discipleship described in the gospel. Just as Philemon is called on to make a hard choice, we can expect to face similar hard choices. It is just part of being a follower of Jesus.
> Children hear little else in this passage as it is read beyond the call to hate your mother and father, wife and children, sisters and brothers. That call scares them even more than it scares adults because children are so very dependent on their families – especially on their parents. The challenge is to find a way to recognize their fear without saying “Jesus didn’t really mean that.” One way to do this is to introduce the reading as one of the scariest things Jesus ever said. Tell them in advance that Jesus said that if we want to be his disciples we must put Jesus first even it first before our families, our own safety, or our stuff. Admit that people have struggled with this ever since Jesus said it. Suggest that everyone hold hands for courage as you listen to Jesus’ words. Promise that you will talk together about what they mean.
> Use this passage to insist that being a disciple is not easy. It is NOT about just being nice or sweet. It is about loving people, even enemies, and forgiving people who do awful things to you and people you love, and taking care of people who are not nice to you. Disciples must be brave and strong. Sooner or later every follower of Jesus has to do something hard. We don’t often tell children this. But it is true and they need to know it.
> It is a good Sunday to tell the stories about brave disciples making hard choices.
> Rosa Parks sat down on a bus in Montgomery Alabama and went to jail for it. For 382 days black and some white people refused to ride the Montgomery buses until the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was illegal. Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni, is a Caldecott Honor book about this. It takes about 10 minutes to read. To shorten it, delete some of the early pages starting with “I said give me those seats” and shorten pages with extraneous details here and there. (Another book that would be more appropriate with younger children is Rosa’s Bus, by Go S. Kittinger, which tells the story about the bus on which Rosa rode.)
> Eric Liddell was an Olympic runner who refused to run the race he trained for because it was scheduled for Sunday morning and he believed running on Sunday would dishonor God. (I am writing this before the Olympics and suspect that some of the athletes will have to make hard choices. They usually do. The 2012 Summer Olympics took place during the fasting month of Ramadan. Muslim athletes had to decide whether and how to keep the fast as they competed.)
> If you did not do this on July 31 (Proper 13, 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 11th Sunday after Pentecost), today totally cover the Table and the usual symbols displayed on it with all sorts of stuff – clothes, hats, electronics, sports equipment, books, video/CD, board games, fast food containers and fancy cooking equipment, and whatever else are “hot items” in your congregation this summer. Be sure to include things that appeal to worshipers of all different ages. At some point in the service, remove the items one at the time discussing ways we get too attached to them. Leave a clear Table dominated by the appropriate symbols. Savor it publicly noting that everyone probably feels a little relieved to have it cleared of the stuff that got in the way of the symbols we love. This could be done as a call to worship (a call to clear away all the stuff to focus on what is really important), the lead up to prayers of confession about our misuse of our stuff, a children’s time, part of the real sermon, even as a response to the scripture and sermon. One worship leader did this at the beginning of the service by moving the entire sermon there. All the liturgy then was response to the experience and conversation about all the stuff on the Table.
Back to School !
Some children do not go back to school until the first week in September, so there are a few Back to School ideas here, but not many. For more general ideas for recognizing the return to school in the congregation’s worship, go HERE. And, expect this to be the last Back to School post of this year J.