Fifty Years ago on the fifteenth of September men threw a bomb into the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama during the church school hour. Four young African American girls were killed. 17 others were injured. The girls were to participate in a Youth Sunday service built around the theme of forgiveness that day. Congregations in Birmingham are working together to remember this event and use it to take further steps toward more justice among the races. They invite congregations in other cities to do the same. Amazingly, the lectionary texts for this day deal with repentance and forgiveness so there are many connections. Go to 50th Anniversary of Birmingham, Alabama Church Bombing for my ideas about how to recall this event with children and links to lots of worship resources being gathered by the Birmingham churches.
These texts use and lead worship leaders to use a wide variety of sin and forgiveness words – sin, repent/ance, mercy, forgive/ness, pardon, grace, saved. It is tempting to enrich the service by using as many as possible. If you do, 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.
N 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.
N 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.”
N 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.REPENTANCE is a key word today. 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 change. “That is just the way she is.” He’ll always….” “I’ll never be … I’m just too….”
N 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.
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.
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.
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
With all the other texts about sin and forgiveness today, leave this grim judgment one out. Children are simply 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.
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 to children “there is no God” translates “I’ll get away with it” or “It won’t matter” and that people who say those things are fools. God knows and God cares.
If you are exploring repentance today, this story becomes proof that even God repents or changes God’s mind. When the people break Commandment #2 (Don’t worship idols) almost immediately after agreeing to keep it, God is really angry. Moses talks God out of abandoning the people as hopeless sinners. The fact that Moses would argue with God about this 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 is not a promise that God will change the plan to suit us every time we ask.
N ”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.
N 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.
N 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.
N 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
N A little vocabulary thing: Children will understand you if you speak of Paul “killing Christians” rather than “persecuting the church.”
N 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.
N 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.”
N 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. F or 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.
N 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.
N 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.
N 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.
N To make Jesus’ point about reaching out to “the sinners,” read John Jewell’s story about church officer dressing as homeless man and sitting near door on Sunday morning then becoming part of the dialog sermon. Or, reenact it with one of your officers. Find it at The Man Who Slept on the Church Porch .
N 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, principles, 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.
N Classic children’s picture books 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.
N Celebrate Jesus the Good Shepherd who comes after one lost sheep by singing your congregation’s favorite musical version of the Twenty-third Psalm.