Saturday, February 15, 2014

Year A - Second Sunday in Lent (March 16, 2014)

Today’s texts include two good stories and two commentaries on those stories.  The trick is not to lose the children in discussing the stories by using too many of the abstract theological terms in the commentaries.  Faith, salvation, and grace are key words.  If they are all used in subtly different ways, children will get lost.  So, select one of them to highlight this week.  My choice would be faith.  Faith is living like you are God’s person.  Faith is living your life trusting God every day.   Faith includes living by God’s rules and trusting God to love you and forgive you when you mess up.  Faith means living like Jesus. 

+ If FAITH is your key topic, present it in a poster or banner at the very beginning of worship.  Briefly define the word and challenge worshipers to listen for the word in your songs, readings and prayers.  If you do a poster for faith, consider drawing big shoes or boots for people of all ages across the bottom of it or surrounding it with real shoes for people of all ages to illustrate the fact that faith is about what we do and where we go.

+ One way to use these stories is to compare Abraham and Nicodemus as God’s faithful adventurers.  When God called Abraham, Abraham left everything he knew to move to a place that had not been named.  That is brave and bold.  Nicodemus on the other hand had heard Jesus, thought he was right about a lot of things, but was very cautious.  He brought his questions to Jesus at night when no one would see him and maybe make fun of him.  That is not very adventuresome.  Abraham is the hero.  While wanting to be like Abraham, we are encouraged to know that Nicodemus did later act more bravely.  He stood up for Jesus at his trial and he helped Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body after he was killed. 

+ If you are collecting a line of props for the stories of lent, add a pair of sandals today.

+ There are lots of hymns about living faithfully. 

Probably the best for children is “Open My Eyes That I May See” in which we are called to use all the parts of our bodies to pay attention to God and what God is doing in the world.  

When the image of God’s Spirit as wind or breath is briefly explored, children sin “Spirit of the Living God” as the prayer it is meant to be. 

“The Lone Wild Bird” is a poet’s song about trusting God.  Before singing it invite worshipers to imagine themselves flying in migration like a bird or to remember times they have felt as “on their own” as a bird flying alone.  Any of these hymns could also have been sung by Abraham or Nicodemus.

Genesis 12:1-4a

+ Abram (and Sara) are examples of faithful living.  They are God’s adventurers.  In their old age they set out for a new life in an unknown country. 

Suggestion: unless you really want to explain about the name change and decide when to speak of Abraham – as Paul does – and when to speak about Abram as this text does, simply call him Abraham today. 

+ Think about who reads this story:

Ask an elderly man who is active in the congregation’s ministries to read this passage.  (For fun, find one who is exactly 75 years old and note his age before he reads.) 

Or, to explore God’s call to us at all times in our lives, ask individuals of several different ages and life situations to reread this short story.  You might include an older teenager, a middle age parent, and an elderly person.  Women could replace “Abram” with “Sara.”  Then ponder how God’s call feels different in different situations, but is always challenging.

Or, print the text in the bulletin and invite the entire congregation to read it together substituting their own name for Abram’s.

+ Mark Gellman’s Does God Have a Big Toe? is a delightful collection of midrashim, stories about stories in the Old Testament.  In “Finding the Right Man” he suggests that God might have called several people who turned the offer down before Abraham accepted it.  The reason for rejecting God’s offer that children can understand is “what’s in it for me (rather than for my great grandchildren)?”  The other reasons make more sense to adults.  Using Gellman’s approach, explore other reasons for turning down God’s offer that children will understand.

Abraham might have said, “I’m too old!  I am 75 years old.  I’m not as strong and able as I once was.  I have aches and pains.  Thanks for asking, but I do wish you had asked maybe thirty years ago.”

Another person might have said, “I’m too young!  Everyone would laugh at me if I packed up what little I have to go to a place I can’t name just because you asked me to.  Give me a few years, then ask me again.”

Yet another person might have said, “That sounds too hard!  I’m not sure how to start.  I’ve never traveled before.  I don’t know what to take and I wouldn’t know how to act in new places with new people.  It would be scary.”

After exploring all the reasons for not doing what God asked, either point out that Abraham simply went or explore possible reasons for Abraham (and for us) to go, e.g.

God called ME to start a great nation!  God knows that I am alive and chose ME for a big job.  Wow!

God NEEDS ME to do something important!  I could keep on doing what I’ve been doing all my life which is OK.  Or, I could do something that is important to God.  God said the whole world would be blessed by what I do.  I could really count for something. 

This sounds like a really, big scary deal.  But if it is important to God, I am guessing will GOD WILL BE WITH ME, helping me when I need help.  So I won’t be on my own.  It might just work.

+ “The God of Abraham Praise” is an obvious hymn choice for this week.  Unfortunately, children are quickly lost in its unfamiliar, big words used to state reasons for praise in rather complex ways. 

+ The Blessing Cup, by Patricia Polacco, tells of a magic tea set that is passed down through the generations of a Jewish family.  It’s magic is explained in a note:  ”anyone who drinks from it has a blessing for God.  They will never know a day of hunger.  Their lives will always have flavor.  They will know love and joy… and they will never be poor.”  Like Abraham and Sarah the family lives through plenty of hard times but always knows themselves to be blessed as they drink out of the cups.  It takes 16 minutes to read the whole book aloud – probably too long to read in worship.  But, there are pieces of the story that could be omitted to shorten it.  Or, you could tell it in your own words showing one or two pictures from the book as you go.  Or, it could become the sermon exploring what it means to be blessed by God on a lifelong journey and to be a blessing to others.

Psalm 121

+ This is one of the psalms pilgrims sang as they trudged up the steep, dangerous road to festivals at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Verse 1, “I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come?” is the question pilgrims asked themselves.  The rest of the psalm is a collection of answers with which they gathered their courage as they walked.

+ To get people into the picture, set the scene.  Ask them to imagine themselves on the road.  Point to the mountains that surround you, the rocks behind which bandits are known to hide, and the steep hot road to be climbed.  Get a member who has been there to describe the scene.  Or, project pictures of the road.  Then ask the congregation to stand to read the psalm in unison, perhaps even walking in place as they read.

Abraham and Sarah lived long before this psalm was composed, but I bet they had plenty of times as they traveled when they could have prayed the psalm.  Pray it imagining yourselves in Abraham and Sarah’s sandals. 

And/or make a list of situations in which the psalm is needed today e.g. the first day at a new school, going away to camp alone, walking down a scary street on your own, doing something new and rather scary…

+ Tell a story about a time when your congregation did something brave for God and might have needed to sing this psalm.  One church I served started an integrated elementary school in its building during the civil rights era.  Another church that traces its roots back to colonial times, found itself one Sunday during worship surrounded by Indians in war paint.

+ If you use the NRSV, print the words to the psalm for worshipers.  Ask them to underline the word “keep” every time they see it.  (five “keeps” plus one “keeper”)  In the middle ages many castles had a keep, a fortified residence in the middle of the castle compound.  Some were towers.  All were the strongest building and so the safest place.  Go to Wikipedia for lots of pictures of keeps.  Point out that in this psalm God is like the strongest possible keep.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

+ Paul here is concerned about how Abraham was justified or saved.  For children the simple fact is that God does not love Abraham because Abraham did what God asked.  God loved Abraham long before God called him to move.  Even if Abraham had decided not to move, God would still have loved him.  To illustrate this point pass out heart stickers for people to wear on the back of a hand.  If you do this during a children’s time, you can personally stick a heart on each child’s hand saying “God loves you” as you do.  However, it is more effective if the hearts are passed out to everyone in the congregation and worshipers are asked to put a sticker on a neighbor’s hand saying the words “God loves you.”

+ Abraham did not obey God in order to get God to love him.  He obeyed God because he loved and trusted God and was willing to try out what God wanted.  So, talk about how we do hard things for people we love just because we love them.  For children examples include
  • playing a dumb game with a younger brother or sister just because he/she loves that game
  • putting a friend who is not very good at it on your team to play a game
  • letting your grandparent tell you old stories that you have heard before, but he/she like to tell

John 3:1-17

+ Children sympathize with Nicodemus.  Nicodemus came to Jesus with literal, left brained questions and Jesus answered him with poetic metaphors.  They understand Jesus’ answers about a second birth and the wind no more than Nicodemus did.  For them the part of this reading that makes sense is verses 16-17.  Here Jesus says to Nicodemus and to them that God loves you and everyone.  Indeed God is more interested in loving us than in judging us.  You can trust God to be like this.

+ This long convoluted reading, is a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Help children follow it by having it read by two readers (Jesus and Nicodemus) and editing out a few of the later verses.  A liturgist introduces the reading from the lectern.  Jesus and Nicodemus sit together near the center of the chancel.

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

John 3: 1-12, 16-17

Liturgist:  Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him,

Nicodemus:   Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.

Jesus:  Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

Nicodemus:  How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

Jesus:  Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

Nicodemus: How can these things be?

Jesus:  Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
      For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?


JESUS MAFA. Nicodemus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 15, 2014].

+ Display the Jesus Mafa picture of Jesus talking with Nicodemus.  Ask how many people were there and what time of day it was.  Then note that Nicodemus wanted to know about Jesus, but he wasn’t sure he wanted other people to know it.  He wasn’t very brave.  Jesus wanted Nicodemus to be braver.  We know that later Nicodemus stood up for Jesus at his trial and that he bravely helped claim Jesus’ dead body and put it in a cave tomb.  Conclude by challenging the children to be brave standing up for Jesus wherever they are – at school, on the soccer field, at home, etc. 

+  Children feel judged by many adults in their lives – coaches, parents, teachers, even worship leaders.  Especially this late in the school year, students who do not do well, feel trapped and judged by many of their teachers.  It is a very “stuck,” hopeless place to be. So paraphrase Jesus with "God did not come to grades us."   Jesus' insistence that God did not come to judge or grade us is very good news indeed to these students.  (Yet another reason to put heart stickers on worshipers as a reminder that God is more interested in loving them than in judging them.) 

+  Children’s literature explores unlimited love in several classic books in which children repeatedly ask a parent whether the parent would still love them if they did a variety of bad deeds.  The parents, like God, all insist that they would love the children no matter what.  That is grace.

The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown, is a conversation between a young bunny and his mother in which the child threatens to run away in all sorts of ways.  To each plan the mother describes how she would come after him.  In the end the child decides that he might as well stay home.  (Reading time: 3 minutes).  I once heard a fine preacher give a very erudite sermon about God’s grace which he concluded by reading this story and saying “That is grace.  Amen.”

In Mama, Do You Love Me? , by Barbara Joosse, an Inuit girl describes all sorts of terrible things she might do and her mother insists that she would love her.  The same story is told in the Maasai culture between a father and son in Papa, Do You Love Me?.  (For some reason, I prefer the Inuit version – maybe because I read it first or love the art.)

+  Children understand about hiding under the covers or in a dark closet to do something they should not do.  In North America on the first Sunday after the change to Daylight Savings time they are also aware of being able to be outside in the evening light longer they could during the winter.  All this gives them good connections to the light and dark in verses 19 - 21. 

+ Sing “There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy” to celebrate God’s love in verses 16-17 after pointing out that “mercy” is another word for “love” and urging singers to pay attention to all the things we are singing about God’s love.

Matthew 17:1-9
 + For ideas about this text go to Transfiguration Sunday (Year A).
This painting can be downloaded free for church use with the following attribution.  Angelico, fra, ca. 1400-1455. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 15, 2014]. Original source:


  1. I ended up going with the "God does not grade us" idea and I actually made "God Report Cards" for all our kids (we have 6-15 each week, we had 8 this week). I asked the kids how they felt about getting report cards (SCARED!) and told them I had gotten report cards from God for each of them. They got all A's, of course, which made them all so happy, in subjects such as Love, Peace, Joy, Forgiveness, Kindness, Courage, ...etc. They just HAD to real quick show their moms. We read again the verse-- God didn't send Jesus to Judge or Grade us, but to love and save us. We don't have to be SCARED about God's grade for us! I was able to tie this into the sermon as well. (Of course I told the kids God didn't really make the report cards I gave them, and I invited them to fill in the rest of the card as they thought was right. My own son added some plusses to the A he got on kindness!)


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