This Sunday is 15 years since the 9/11 attacks. Other attacks are being reported with alarming regularity throughout the world. This Sunday might also be Rally Day in many churches. If Rally Day is focused on children, one has to remember that none of them lived through the 2001 attack, but are struggling to deal with today’s attacks and with the racism and sectarianism that underlie all the violence. That is a challenging convergence of themes for worship. If you go with Old Testament or Epistle texts, sin and repentance are key words with which children, as well as the adults, can explore the problems and evils in the world. If you go with the gospel you can build hope around the fact that God comes looking for us and looking after us even when we mess up terribly.
If you use a wide variety of sin and forgiveness words – sin, repent/ance, mercy, forgive/ness, pardon, grace, saved, remember that many of them are unfamiliar to children. So, select one or two familiar ones to explore in some depth or spend time introducing them as a group.
> Write one or two on big posters to display during the whole service. Before the call to worship, introduce the word/s with brief definitions. Give children stickers or marking pens with which to note in their bulletin every time they hear, sing or pray the word/s.
> Select two or three words to present as a word family defining each word and telling how it is related to the others. For example, SIN is all the bad stuff we do. REPENTANCE is deciding to stop doing that stuff. And, FORGIVENESS is God saying, “I’m glad you can see what you did wrong and are going to be different. I’ll help you on that.”
> Use the word discipline rather than punishment to describe God’s response to sin and sinners. Children hear punishment as getting back at the sinner or revenge. With help they can hear discipline as helping sinners change their ways.
> Frances Woodruff posted the following summary of Where the Wild Things Are on her “On the Chancel Steps” blog (HERE). Read and discuss the book during worship or count on many children and parents knowing it well enough that a summary of it will set you up to make some of its points about sin and forgiveness. Frances summarized it thusly,
Today I want to talk to you about some wild things…specifically Where the Wild Things Are. For 50 years now, we have been reading this story of Max. One day, Max and his mom have a quarrel. His mother calls him, “Wild Thing!” And Max says, “I’ll eat you up!” So Max is sent to his room without any supper at all. From there, Max goes on a great journey to Where the Wild Things Are. The monsters are excited to have Max; they make him their king, celebrating with a wild rumpus…that’s a big, loud party! Max enjoys all of this, but he comes to miss being at home, comes to miss being loved by his family. So Max returns home. At first it seems that all is the same as when he left, but then Max sees his dinner is there waiting for him. Max’s mother has forgiven him. And by coming home and eating his dinner, Max, too, forgives his mother. See, forgiveness is not just about excusing each other and going our separate ways; forgiveness is about letting go of the hurt so that we can rebuild our relationships.
REPENTANCE could be a key word today, and it is a little tricky. The usual understanding of repentance (especially among children) is that you say you are sorry and God or a person you have hurt forgives you, i.e. says that it’s OK. In today’s stories repenting is more than that. It is changing your ways. Paul changes from killing Christians to being one of the biggest leaders of the Christians. David asks God to help him change his ways, “create in me a clean heart.” God decides not to abandon the Hebrew slaves in the desert, but to help them become the people God called them to be. Jesus eats with “known sinners” because he believes they might change and calls on the Pharisees to do likewise. Even children have trouble believing they or anyone can repent/change. “That is just the way she is.” He’ll always….” “I’ll never be … I’m just too….”
> Use your bodies in a prayer of confession and call to repentance. While a worship leader prays aloud the prayer below, all members of the congregation stand to pray with their bodies. Each time the worship leader prays “Great God, we are sinners,” everyone faces the back of the sanctuary. Each time the worship leader prays “Turn us around,” everyone turns to face the front of the church.
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Prayer of Confession and Call to Repentance
Great God, we are sinners. We get everything wrong. It is like we are facing the wrong way, dreaming the wrong dreams, working toward the wrong goals.
Turn us around so that we face you, dream your dreams, work toward your goals.
Great God we are sinners. Too often we are selfish grabbing the most food, the prettiest clothes, and the coolest games for ourselves.
Turn us around. Teach us to share what we have. Give us generous hearts.
Great God, too often we think only of ourselves. We think about we want, what we like, what we think.
Turn us around. Teach us to see all the people around us. Help us recognize what people in our families and our friends want and need and hope. Help us learn to take care of them and their needs.
Great God, too often we hate. We hate people who are not like us. We hate people who make our lives even a little harder. We hate people who get in our way. We hate people we just do not like.
Turn us around. Teach us that people who are not just like us are your children and worthy of our friendship. Show us how to make friends with those who do not agree with us.
Great God, we are sinners. We know it. We admit it and want to change.
Turn us around to face you, to become your children, to be part of your kingdom.
We bring our confessions of sin to you and ask for your help in turning around in Jesus’ name. AMEN.
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> Maybe the best song for today is the second verse of “Jesus Loves Me.”
Jesus loves me when I’m good,
When I do the things I should.
Jesus love me when I’m bad,
Even though it makes him sad.
Texts for the Day
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
With all the other texts about sin and forgiveness today, leave this grim judgment one out. Children are mainly scared by it. Also, because they take it literally, they often misinterpret it as God’s response to (or the natural consequences of) environmental sin. It is not. It is an indictment of national sins.
Or, read a children’s book that presents Jeremiah’s basic message that meanness and evil can pile up and build on each other until the whole world is destroyed in terms that make more sense to children.
> Oops, by Arthur Geisert, is a story about one bad thing leading to another. A pig spills his milk which runs through the seam in the tabletop and down a drain in the floor. From there it triggers a series of events that end with the whole house and most of a hillside totally destroyed. Because there are no words, you may need to help the children identify what is going on in the first few pictures. After they catch on to the story line, simply show the next picture with a groan or “oh no.” Point out that we often talk about how kind deeds create more kindness, but that it is also true that mean deeds trigger more meanness.
> The Quarreling Book, by Charlotte Zolotow, describes a series of events in one member of the family’s unkindness to another triggers their unkindness to yet another and so forth. Ripples of meanness fill the day UNTIL the dog who has been kicked off a bed responds with a wagging tail and licking the kicker. The dog’s response triggers a reverse series of kind events that undo the morning’s unhappiness. The positive last half of the book may make it a more attractive choice.
> Given the choice of this general psalm and David’s story-based confession in Psalm 51, choose Psalm 51 for the children.
> If you do read this psalm remember that in it “there is no God” is not a statement about God’s existence. Instead it is a statement that God does not care about what we do. It means “I’ll get away with it” or “It won’t matter.” The psalmist says that God does care and that people who say those things are fools.
> If you will be focusing on this text, spray paint a plastic toy cow metallic gold. Before reading this story place it beside the Bible from which you read and encourage worshippers to listen for one in the story. (The golden calf in the picture is a wonderful gift my preacher husband received from a Kerygma Class. Sorry you don’t each have one of them, but thought you might enjoy seeing this one.)
> To explain the problem with the golden calf to children start by pointing to commandment #2 of the Ten Commandments. Reword it, “I am bigger than anything you can imagine. So, don’t make anything that you think looks like me. You will get it wrong.” Laugh about God not being a cow. But then, admit that you don’t think the people were that dumb. They just wanted something they could see and touch and decorate with flowers and dance around and eat near to make them feel that God was with them and that they understood God. A god they could not see was just too scary.
> Sing “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise” to celebrate God who is “more” than any one or thing the Hebrews in the desert or we can imagine. Before singing it, point out the big words in the first lines and rephrase them, “God who lived before the universe was created and will still live after the universe dies, God who is invisible, God who is wiser than any person who ever was or ever will be. God, you are some amazing we can’t begin to understand you.”
> This is a long reading especially if you add the story of making the gold calf in verses 1-6. To keep worshipers’ attention, use three readers. Reader 1 might sit with the children at the front of the sanctuary. Readers 2 and 3 stand to read behind them with children naturally turning to watch the conversation between them then turning back to Reader 1 as vs 14 is read.
Reader 1: Reads or tells verses 1-6 story
Reader 2: Reads vss 7-10 with dramatic fury
Reader 3: Reads vss 11-13 in best negotiating style
Reader 1: Read vs 14 “And the Lord changed his mind….”
> If you are exploring repentance today, this story becomes proof that even God repents or changes God’s mind. The fact that Moses would argue with God about the plan to destroy the people who worshiped the calf and that God would change the plan in response to Moses both impresses children and gives them the confidence to talk to God honestly about anything. God can take whatever they have to say. God will listen. God may even change the plan.
The story of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane that did not get God to change the plan is a good balance to Moses’ story. It proves that this story is not a promise that God will change the plan to suit us every time we ask.
> ”Create in me a clean heart, O God…” is a basic prayer that most Christians pray frequently in their lives. David prayed it after he had stolen Bathsheba from her husband and had him murdered. Paul might have prayed it after he realized how wrong he had been about Jesus and the Christians. And, we need to pray at different times for different reasons. Most children have little grasp of their own sinfulness. They know they do the occasional bad thing, but are not overwhelmed by it. Insist to them that this is a prayer they will need, practice saying it together and briefly explore its meaning.
> Remember that children hear the poetic images in Psalm 51 literally. So, “create in me a clean heart” sounds like “cut me open, take out my heart, scrub it down, and then stick it back in me.” Ouch! Point this out and then explore what it really means. Describe how dirty and yucky we feel when know we have done things that are wrong and that have hurt other people. We feel so rotten that we want to hide. Then describe how clean and fresh and new we feel when we admit what we have done and do whatever we can to fix the hurt we have caused.
> Use verses 1-4 and 10 as the prayer of confession for the day. Before praying them, with the congregation (or children) identify all the sin words (sin, iniquity, transgression, and evil) in verses 1-4. Have each word printed on a piece of poster board and display it in turn. Briefly tell that David who first prayed this prayer had just had a man murdered so that he could marry his wife – that IS… list each of the words for sin!. Note that most of us have not done anything that bad. Then, list specific examples of sin of which your worshipers might be guilty (lying to get out of trouble, saying mean words to or about someone, making another person’s life really unhappy by the way you treat him or her, being greedy, selfish, etc.) Finally, read and explain verse 10. Only, then invite the congregation to pray the prayer with you.
> The prayers of confession generally come early in worship. It would be possible to pray them this week without comment at that time. Then, pray them again after a sermon in which their meaning has been explored in detail. During the sermon you might walk through that part of the liturgy explaining the sequence of confession, assurance, response, and passing the peace. You might even practice sung or spoken responses. Repeating the whole process after this explanation will give it more meaning today and help worshipers of all ages participate in it more fully in the future.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
> A little vocabulary thing: Children will understand you if you speak of Paul “killing Christians” rather than “persecuting the church.”
> To make sense of this text, you have to know the story of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-22). Just before the epistle reading invite the children forward to hear you tell that story in your own words, then tell children that the epistle is the beginning of letter written by Paul years later.
“Saul Learns About Jesus” from The Family Story Bible, by Ralph Milton, is one good telling of this story. Use it as a guide or simply read it from the book.
> If you are focusing on God’s acceptance of all sinners, tell the story of Paul’s conversion paying extra attention to Ananias’ role and his willingness to believe that Paul could be OK. “God, are you sure you have the right man? I mean, this is Saul. Saul, who is rounding up Christians and putting them in jail. Are you sure you want me to bring him into my Christian home and heal him and introduce him to other Christians?”…”OK, I’ll give it a try.”
> If all the talk of sin and forgiveness and the story of Paul’s conversion lead you to sing Amazing Grace, remember that it is filled with abstract words that are hard for children. Before singing it today, point to “wretch” in the first verse. Define wretch as “a really awful person” and identify Paul and maybe the ex-slave trader who wrote it as wretches. Insist that most of us at times in our lives know we are wretches too. Next, point to grace in the title. Define it as “God loves us anyway. Insist that when we sing Amazing Grace we remember that we all mess up AND that God loves us and forgives us anyway. That is “amazing!” Only then, sing it together.
> Today’s gospel includes two separate but related parables. To help young listeners hear each of them, have the passage read by three readers. The usual reader reads verses 1-3. Then a second reader reads the first parable (vss 4-7). The usual reader adds “and he told another parable” after which a third reader reads verses 8-10. The two guest readers might be a parent –child team, two older children, or two individuals of different ages. The reader of the parable of lost coin should be female. For visual appeal give the first reader a shepherd’s staff and the second a broom to hold as they read. If these props are left near the pulpit, the preacher might pick them up when referring to that parable in the sermon.
> To get the feel of 100 sheep, count worshipers. If there are more than 100 worshipers present, gather 100 people at the front of the sanctuary. If the choir is in the front, start counting them then counting people coming forward from the congregation until you have 100. Or, count people in their pews. If there are fewer than 100 in the sanctuary, count the whole crowd and figure how many more you would need to make 100. However you do this, enjoy how many 100 is. Then wonder aloud what it would be like if you had to move around all day as group. Imagine how easy it would be for one of you to be left behind. Then send everyone back to their seats or simply announce that Jesus told a story about a shepherd who had 100 sheep. Read it.
> Remember several things about being lost from a child’s point of view. First, lost is being physically abandoned and alone. Being lost in sin is a metaphor that requires explanation. Second, fear of being lost (as in abandoned) is one of the deepest and most common fears of childhood - and most of life. (Ever have dreams about being lost in an airport running to catch a plane?) Third, when children are lost they assume that it is the adults around them who have wandered away from them. They were doing reasonable to them activities and suddenly find themselves abandoned. “I was looking at all the candy bars and mom was gone!” “I decided to go back to the car while you shopped, but I couldn’t find it.” So children assume the lost sheep was an innocent victim rather than a willful strayer – UNLESS you suggest the second possibility to them with examples of a sheep intentionally ignoring the shepherd’s call in order to chase a butterfly or eat more of a great patch of grass.
> The first decision worship leaders must make is who are the lost. Most often readers assume that they are the lost ones sought out by God and celebrate God’s persistence in finding them. But, Jesus told these stories to the Pharisees who were unhappy that Jesus was eating with known lost sinners. His message to them is that God is more interested in the lost than in them – and they should be too.
> Explore the idea that God cares for everyone, not just me and the people I like, but people I think are “sinners.” How many people are at your school? (Probably no one will know this, so move to the next question.) How many in your class? (Some will know or be willing to take a guess at this.) Then do some math to see if there are ten classes at your school and ???? in each class, there must be about ???? children in your school. That is a lot of people! Add to that all the teachers, principals, cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers. That is really a lot of people. Now, I want to tell you something about every one of those people. Jesus says God knows and loves every one of those people. That of course includes each of you. Nice, isn’t it? No matter how good or bad the day is going, God knows YOU and keeps an eye on YOU and loves YOU. That makes us feel safe and kind of special. But try this, think of the meanest kid in the school. God knows THAT KID and keeps an eye on THAT KID and loves THAT KID just as much as God loves you. Think of the hardest teacher you ever had. God knows THAT TEACHER and keeps an eye on THAT TEACHER and loves THAT TEACHER just as much as God loves you. Amazing, isn’t it? God loves the smarty pants kids, the stuck up kids, the grumpy adults, the pests, (add terms that are used in your area)... Amazing! And you know what else? God wants us to know them and keep an eye on them and even LOVE them too. Actually, God is counting on us to be God’s partners in this. God thinks we are all one big family and wants us to be happy together. Close with a prayer for all the people in our schools.
Classic children’s stories about being lost and being forgiven.
> Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown, is a conversation between a young bunny who asks his mother what she would do if he ran away from her in a variety of way and his mother who insists that she would always come after him. At the end the little bunny decides he might as well stay home.
> Mama Do You Love Me, by Barbara Joosse, is a similar conversation between an Inuit girl who asks her mother if she would still love her if she did all sorts of naughty things and her mother who replies to each that she would be sad or angry, but would still love her.
> Many children saw Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, when it came out this past summer. It chronicles the adventures of Dory, Nemo, and Nemo’s father Marlin as they searched for and found Dory’s parents. They ran into all sorts of problems and Dory had no short term memory which made their search even harder. At times Nemo and his dad wanted to give up, but Dory insisted that they keep looking. Compare the shepherd looking for the lost sheep, the housekeeper looking for the lost coin, and God looking for us when we lose our ways. God never gives up on us – or on anyone else. Go to HERE for a summary of Finding Dory.
> Celebrate Jesus the Good Shepherd who comes after one lost sheep by singing your congregation’s favorite musical version of the Twenty-third Psalm.