Friday, March 4, 2011

Year A - The Fourth Sunday in Lent (April 3, 2011)

Today’s texts are filled with images of light and vision.  Poetry and metaphor abound.  To avoid losing the children entirely, think carefully about the images you use.  Select one or two rather than include every  one of them.  The images that make most sense to children include

Ø  God sees us.  God saw the overlooked David.  Jesus saw the blind beggar.
Ø  God sees us as we are “on the inside,” not just the way we look “on the outside.”  (See the David story)
Ø  John’s word play about the Pharisees “not seeing” works well in English.  In everyday English, “I see” or “I get it” means “I understand.”  When it is laid out in detail, children enjoy the joke that the Pharisees, were blind or couldn’t see (understand) what happened to the blind man.  The joke continues in the Old Testament reading when “Samuel, the Seer” fails to see the one God has chosen to be king.
Ø  “Children of the light” or “children of darkness” are simply titles for God’s people and those who are not God’s people.  They are more like team colors than a meaningful description of the team.

Children get overwhelmed by some light images.

Ø  “I am the light of the world.”  For literal thinkers, the sun, the moon, the stars, and electricity are the lights of the world.  It is almost impossible for them to grasp light as spiritual understanding or moral guidance.  Forget lighthouses, searchlights, flashlights, etc. as object lessons.  The children just don’t see the connections.
Ø  Spiritual blindness is an idea that will simply have to wait for young brains to develop more fully. 
Ø  “Doing deeds in the light” is doing them where they can be seen. 

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Children who are shuttled off to eat in the kitchen while the grownups eat in the dining room, children who  get left at home when older family members do interesting-sounding things, and children who feel themselves always “less than” their older siblings love in this story!  It promises them that God does not overlook them, sees them as they are, and appreciates them.  The story was probably set on the fourth Sunday of Lent as encouragement to those who are struggling with keeping Lenten disciplines.  And, there are similarities between the fourth Sunday in Lent and this point in the school year.  To those who are struggling, the end of the year is very distant.  Teachers and other students have decided who you are and what you will do.  They don’t seem to see the real you and all your efforts.  In such a stuck situation, hearing that God knows and appreciates the real you is Good News indeed!

To bring this story to life, have it read and pantomimed by a group of men and boys.  The seven brothers can simply step forward and stand in place (maybe in the military “at ease” pose) as the story is read.  Old Samuel looks at each one shaking his head with surprise.  Finally, younger David is brought in, kneels to be anointed, then goes back to the sheep.  A rehearsal will be needed and should be a fun connecting time for the group.

One lectionary commentator explained the British Mothering Day custom of families worshiping together on the fourth Sunday of Lent.  He suggested building the entire service, including a child friendly sermon,  around this story so that children who are often sent away from the sanctuary can remain and worship with their mothers.  He rightly contends that people of all generations respond to this message.  Those who celebrate Mother’s Day in May might want to save this story and his idea for use then.

Psalm 23

Children who are regulars in church school are usually well versed in shepherds and recognize most of the shepherd references in this psalm.  For other urban children shepherds are fierce guard dogs.  They need a more thorough introduction.  A walking stick (rod) and shepherd’s crook (even one from a swimming pool) can be used to demonstrate the shepherd’s work and to explain why having a shepherd with those tools handy would be a comfort. 

After he was anointed, David was sent back to take care of the sheep.  When his brothers got sent to fight the Philistines, David had to say behind.  He made it to the front lines only to carry food to his big brothers.  When Psalm 23 is read as a David’s prayer while he was back with his sheep, it is possible to hear you anoint my head with oil” more as a memory of what happened and an appreciation of the fact that God has plans for him than as a reference to first aid for sheep.  Children can imagine David back with his sheep, happily recalling being singled out and wondering what that anointing would mean for him.

Remember that for children a cup that runs over is a disaster, not an over abundance of the good things in life.

Print the words of the psalm in large print at the center of a piece of paper. Give copies and crayons to children inviting them (and other worshipers?) to illustrate the psalm during worship.  Suggest that they either underline one or two phrases to illustrate or that they surround the psalm with pictures from their own lives of times when they need to remember the psalm.  Ask children to show you their work as they leave the sanctuary or invite them to post it on a door or bulletin board near the sanctuary.


Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3     he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4     Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5     You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
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


There are many musical versions of Psalm 23.  Many however use the King James vocabulary that few children know.  Probably the first choice is “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want” (Scottish Psalter) because the tune is familiar to the congregation and because the words are closest to today’s English.  “The Lord’s My Shepherd, All My Need” (Christopher L. Webber, 1986) has easier vocabulary but the tune is less familiar.  Finally, “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought” is a meditation on the theme of the psalm with an easy to read and understand repeated chorus. 

It is also a fact that each congregation has its favorite Psalm 23 hymn which is sung with a passion children hear.  If you select such a song knowing that children will have trouble with some of the vocabulary, in a brief introduction explain one or two key words or phrases before inviting the congregation to sing it.

Ephesians 5:8-14

The light and dark images here keep children from Paul’s point which they need to hear.  Simply put, Paul is telling us not to do or say anything that we don’t want everyone in the world to know we did or said.  This is one time when straight talk is most understandable.

John 9:1-41

A call to worship is supposed to get people ready to worship.  If you will be worshiping using vision vocabulary and images, begin by alerting especially young worshipers to that fact.  Together brainstorm words related to vision (eyes, see, light, vision, watch, etc.).  Add any words you will use, but that no one else mentions.  Encourage worshipers to watch for them in the readings, prayers and songs of the days.  Suggest that they underline all the vision words they see in their bulletins.  Then sing one or more verses of “Open My Eyes That I May See” to call yourselves to worship.

This is another of those long, complex stories that are more easily followed when they are pantomimed by actors and actresses who can show what is going on with their faces and gestures.  Older teenagers and adults do this best.  A worship leader reads from the lectern as the actors work.  They may work in a confined space front and center of the sanctuary.  Or, following the story, they might move to different parts of the sanctuary for the scenes of healing, community response, discussion with the Pharisees, and final scene with Jesus.

Much of the discussion about light and seeing in this story is beyond children.  But, the way people did or did not really see the blind man offers older children an appropriate  challenge. 

Though the blind man had been begging outside the Temple for years, the Temple leaders had paid him so little attention that they did not recognize him when he was not in his usual place.  They had seen him with their eyes, but not paid him any attention. 

Jesus on the other hand, saw him and paid him attention.  He treated him as a real person.  In response to his need, Jesus healed him.  Later, when he went looking for the man after he got thrown out of the Temple, he did not need anyone to point him out.  He remembered what he looked like. 

The challenge is to be like Jesus, i.e. to really “see” people.   Encourage children to think of people they meet everyday such as bus drivers, school cafeteria workers, the library lady, grocery store cashiers, even beggars by the road, etc.  Identify some ways they can let those people know they are important to you, e.g. learning their names and then calling them by name, smiling at them, thanking them for what they do for you… 

This could be a children’s sermon, but will probably lose the younger children.  It is better as part of the “real” sermon in which children as well as adults are challenged and children learn that sermons might be for them, too. 

One way to enable people to “see” the homeless in their community is to give them a specific way to respond.  Make meal coupons or gift cards to local fast food restaurants available for purchase by church members.  Members keep them in their cars to give to homeless people they encounter begging by the side of the road.

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