Friday, February 28, 2014

Year A - Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 30, 2014)

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 
  •  God sees us.  God saw the overlooked David.  Jesus saw the blind beggar.
  •  God sees us as we are “on the inside,” not just the way we look “on the outside.”  (See the David story)
  •  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.
  •  “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. 
  •  “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.
  •  Spiritual blindness is an idea that will simply have to wait for young brains to develop more fully. 
  •  “Doing deeds in the light” is doing them where they can be seen.

If you are worshiping around vision themes and are displaying props to recall the stories of Lent, an over-sized pair of glasses is the prop of the day.  Find them at a local party or costume shop.

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 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.  But, there are some 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 and savor it, 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 and suggested building the entire service, including a child friendly sermon, around this story in a way that allows children who are often sent away from the sanctuary to stay for the day 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.

Most children have read and/or seen How To Train Your Dragon.  Though it is true to the general drift of the books, the movie takes lots of “artistic liberties.”  If you do not know either, start viewing the movie which more children have seen.   Then refer to it as a sermon illustration.  Hiccup is a young Viking, son of the great chief, and is a disappointing prospect for future leader.  He is not BIG and does not like to FIGHT.  But, when he tames the dragon that is terrorizing the village and teaches the other Vikings how to tame dragons, people see him as a leader in a whole new and appreciated way.

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 stay 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.  They prefer a cup that is constantly refilled.

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 it during worship.  Suggest they might underline one or two phrases to illustrate or they might surround the words with pictures from their own lives 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, in a brief introduction explain one or two key words or phrases before inviting the congregation to sing it.

As a Lenten stretch your understanding exercise, share with the congregation this Bobby McFerrin’s version of the psalm using feminine pronouns and images.  Click on for a YouTube video of it.

Ephesians 5:8-14

Today’s stories make more immediate sense to children.  But if you want to explore Paul’s message, start by exploring the images “children of light” and “children of dark.”  Then read or reread Paul’s message and put it into your own words based on the conversation about children of dark and light.

Name the two images then ask, “What is good about being children of light?”  (You can see where you are going, who you are with, and what you are doing.)  Then ask “what is it like to be children of the dark?” (You can’t see, dark is a place to hide what you are doing, when it is totally dark about all you can do is sleep.)

Write light and dark behavior on separate small posters.  With help from the children (or the whole congregation) sort them into light and dark piles.
Use such words as hate, kind, bickering, greedy, loving, cruel, gentle, sharing, etc.

Paul instructs his readers to expose acts of darkness by shining light on them.  Andrea Davis Pinkney in Sit In: How four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down tells the story of the Greensboro college students who challenged the “Whites Only” laws that forbad them to eat at a Woolworth’s lunch-counter.  The book is a bit long and complicated to read in worship.  To shorten it: read first four pages, skip the green pages about the recipe for segregation, pick up reading about the police officer and read through the purple pages about all food that was dumped on the protesters.  As you flip through the following pages, note that it took a long time, but… then conclude with the page about Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Rather than explore Paul’s images, go straight to his message – which children do need to hear.  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 can be 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 the key ones if no one mentions them.  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 (to one side of the front of the sanctuary), community response (maybe in the center aisle), the discussion with the Pharisees (front and center), and final scene with Jesus and the blind man (at the front of the center aisle with the two leaving down the aisle as the story ends).

Because this story is 41 verses long and involves some complex theological conversations, merge the presentation of the scripture with the sermon.  Read the story in sections stopping at key points to comment then returning to the story.  The story might be read by a reader holding a large Bible or it might be presented by pantomimers who freeze in place during the preacher’s interruptions.  One commentator says there are seven scenes in this play.  Not all of them will speak equally strongly to children, so it would be possible to select one or two that do to comment more directly to children

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 every day 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 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.


  1. I recently used the book The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig for our church's Family Worship Time It tells and illustrates the story of a little boy who feels invisible at school. It would fit well with this Sunday’s themes. –Amy, HUMC, Raleigh NC.

  2. I love your idea! I checked out the book from the library and plan to use it at Children's Chapel tomorrow. The children who come are on the young side and will relate well, I think. - Madison, WI


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