Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Year A - Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 11, 2014)

Did you know that Psalm 23 and a gospel about the Good Shepherd are read on the fourth Sunday in Easter every year of the lectionary cycle?  I read one commentator who referred to it as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  There’s always something to learn!  Now that I know that, I’m rearranging the order of today’s texts.  We’ll explore the Good Shepherd texts first, then go to the Epistle (which actually has a very small good shepherd connection) and Acts which is about community.  Check Year B - Fourth Sunday of Easter and  Year C - Fourth Sunday of Easter for additional shepherd ideas with slightly different twists.

+ Before digging into the details, it is important to recognize that the Good Shepherd is a metaphor and children have a hard time with metaphors.  Studies show that most children do not develop the brain skill of transference that is necessary to understand metaphors until they are into adolescence.  But, the Bible and our worship is filled with metaphors.  I suspect that we help the children claim them when we carefully explore the details of a few key ones, expecting them to become familiar with the concrete part of the metaphor and some of the spiritual realities it embodies, but not fully making the connection until later.  The Good Shepherd is definitely one of those key metaphors.  Maria Montessori reports that while working in a children’s hospital she found that when she told sick children stories about the Good Shepherd using small wooden figures, they almost all grabbed the figure and held onto it “for keeps.”  So the Good Shepherd made sense to them in some way.

+ This week we have Psalm 23 which is packed with shepherd images and Jesus’ claim in the gospel to be the gate of the sheepfold.

Catacomb of Callixtus - The Good Shepherd,
Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. 
[retrieved March 25, 2014]. Original source:
+ Show this picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and identify it as the first painting we have of Jesus.  Explain that it was painted in the ceiling of the catacombs where the first Christians hid to worship God.  Briefly describe the Roman practice of feeding Christians to hungry lions.  Ponder why the artist chose to paint Jesus as a strong young shepherd.  List some situations today in which we need a strong shepherd. 

To take it another step provide children with paper and crayons with which to draw pictures of a good shepherd.  Invite them to show you their drawing as they leave or to post it on a prepared door or bulletin board.

Dupre, Julien, 1851-1910. The Good Shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54256 [retrieved March 25, 2014]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/2202377733/.
+ To connect the Good Shepherd to Mother’s Day and stretch everyone’s thinking about God a bit display a great art painting of a shepherd who is female or play Bobby McFerrin’s version of Psalm 23 which uses all female pronouns for the shepherd.  (BTW he dedicated to his mother.)

Psalm 23

+ Read through the psalm one sentence at a time, thinking like a sheep.  At the risk of stating the obvious below is a copy of the psalm with sheep references as children understand them.  Many church school attending children know a lot about sheep and in a conversational setting can help you with this.  Other children may be clueless about sheep and their care.  After working through the psalm, point out that we look to God to care of us in the same way a good shepherd takes care of sheep.  Note that many people learn this psalm for memory so that they can pray it whenever they need it – in hospital rooms, in scary times, when they are worried.  Consider offering a small prize to anyone who can recite the whole psalm to you in the coming weeks.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures;
Sheep eat grass
he leads me beside still waters;
Sheep drown in running water so depend on the shepherd to lead them to calm or still water.
3     he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Sheep wander and get into places they can’t get out of
4     Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
Name animals that eat sheep and
imagine their eyes shining in the dark.
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
Describe using a rod to beat off animals and
staff to pull sheep back from dangerous places
5     You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
Remind of the animals watching as sheep graze
you anoint my head with oil;
Oil was first aid for cuts and thorns.
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


+ Or, instead of reading the psalm sing it.  The challenge is to choose your version carefully.  Vocabulary is critical.  Many hymns based on the psalm offer very abstract words that interpret rather than allow worshipers to sing the psalm itself.  Children do better with the psalm than with the interpretations.  Even there choices must be made.  Older adults prefer the King James vocabulary which children simply do not understand.  If you sing a King James version, translate some of the key phrases for children before singing it.  In general wisdom suggests choosing the version that the congregation knows and loves best.  Even if it is not easy for children, they will hear the passion with which it is sung and knowing that this is an important song will work hard to sing or hum along. 

+ Psalm Twenty-Three, by Tim Ladwig, simply illustrates phrases of the psalm with scenes from the lives of African American children living in a big city.  Project the pages as you read it or use one or two of the pages to explore specific verses of the psalm without having to refer to the care of sheep.

NOTE: My understanding is that if you buy a copy of this book to scan for projection and discipline yourself not to lend your scanned pictures to any one (no matter how they beg) for use in other churches, you are not in violation of copyright laws.

John 10:1-10

Jesus is making a fairly sophisticated point about true and false shepherds.  Verses 2-5 lay the foundation for children.  That foundation consists of information about sheepfolds and shepherd’s calling sheep who know their shepherd’s voice.  It introduces the idea of non-literal voices that call to us.

These sheep are from New Zealand.  Go to http://www.orientaltrading.com/mini-flock-of-lambs-a2-2_1178.fltr?Ntt=sheep to order similar sheep on line.
+ Present information about shepherding using a small cardboard sheepfold, a shepherd figure (maybe from a crèche), and some toy sheep.  Demonstrate how the shepherd would gather the sheep into the fold, counting as they came in and checking each one for injuries, then sleep across the gate so no animal or human thief could get to the sheep at night.  Show next how in the morning the shepherd would call the sheep to the gate and lead them out into pasture.  After showing this, reread verses 2-5 and comment that just as the good shepherd takes care of the sheep, Jesus takes care of us.

+ The shepherd calls the sheep by name.  Mary recognizes the risen Christ when he calls her by name.  Members of the community in Acts knew each other by name.  And, all of us of any age want to be known and called by name.  Demonstrate how people call or whistle for their pets and parents call for their children.  Note that we can tell from such calls not only who is being called, but what is expected, even how the caller is feeling at the moment.  Compare these calls with the shepherd calling the sheep to the sheepfold and with God calling us and knowing us each by name.

What about replacing the Epistle today with a second gospel reading - Jesus calling Mary’s name by the empty tomb?  You could plan worship that celebrates and explores the significance of God calling us by name every day in many ways.

+ Stretch the understanding of older children by telling them that lots of voices that are not actually “I can hear you” voices call out to us every day.  To illustrate, describe a beautiful sweater.  When you see it, it is almost as if it says to you, “Look at me.  I am so soft, such a great color.  You would look so cool in me.  You have to have me.  You will be nothing without me.”  Name other things without the ability to speak that call out to you, e.g. sports equipment, a plate of cookies, a hot cheesy pizza, a sports team that you want to play on, a part that you want in a play, and put what they say to us into words.  Point out that we have to decide which of these voices to listen to.  We have to be like sheep who follow only the voice of their shepherd.  Then reread verses 2-5 again.  Preschoolers and early elementary schoolers can’t make this stretch, but some older children can respond to the challenge.

1 Peter 2:19-25

+ Children need to hear this message in other words.  The message is, don’t fight back and don’t try to get even when people treat you wrong.  Jesus is the example here.  Imagine what he could have said and done to the soldiers on Good Friday, or to Judas, or to all the disciples who ran and hid when Jesus was arrested and killed.  Then remind listeners that he forgave the soldiers and the disciples.  Be honest about how hard it is to be like Jesus on this AND challenge even children to try to do so. 

+ With older children define the word revenge as hurting someone who hurt you.  Define the word repair as fixing things between you and a person who has hurt you so that neither of you will hurt each other again.  You may want to print the words on two posters.  Use a fist fight as an example to explain the differences in the two.  When you go for revenge against the bully who pushed you down accidently on purpose, you knock him over with his lunch tray.  Then he gets revenge by wiping his spilled food on your face and…. soon you are both wrestling on the floor and then sitting in the Principal’s office.  Nothing has been repaired for anybody.  After pointing out how hard it is to find alternatives to seeking revenge, recount the story “The Karate Kid” which tells of a boy who chose to learn Karate and challenge his bully in a Karate tournament.  He won the tournament and the respect of the bully.  That took a lot of work.  This letter dares us to figure out ways to repair rather than take revenge.

+ The shepherd reference in verse 25 assumes full understanding of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb as well as Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  And, it blends the two so that Jesus is seen as both lamb and shepherd.  Other years provide interpretive epistle readings that make quicker sense to children.

Acts 2:42-47

Exploring the value of community is a logical thing to do during Easter season.  It is also a hard sell during May in North America where everyone is hanging on for dear life looking forward to summer and a let up or at least a change in community responsibilities and activities.  Still, maybe especially in that situation, it is good to ponder the importance of community in our lives as Christians.  This text provides a list of activities in the early church that match those of most congregations today.  The list is also a list of good activities for Easter people.  To explore the importance of community and the list of activities, try some of the following:

+ As you read the text, ask worshipers to raise hands every time they hear an activity.  Stop to identify the activity in the text and to identify ways you congregation does that.  (Be sure to include activities in which children as well as adults participate.)

+ Tell worshipers that it is test day.  Each of them is to recite the 23rd Psalm (or Lord’s Prayer) on their own.  Ask how many think they can do it.  Then, ask the congregation to recite it together.  (See if they can do it if you start it with them, then leave them on their own.)  Note that while no one may have been able to recite the whole thing perfectly on their own, with the whole group working together, they got it.  Use this to explore one benefit of living all of life in a community.  Whenever we don’t know what to do or say next, there are people around to help us out. 

+ Martin’s Big Words, by Doreen Rappaport, tells the story Martin Luther King’s life with emphasis on his words.  Every page includes both some story and a quote.  The message is to fight injustice with words rather than fists and that love is more powerful than hate.  That definitely fits with the message of 1 Peter.  To read the book straight through takes at least 7 minutes.  Rather than shorten it, consider making it the centerpiece of worship today with two readers one reading the story and the other the quotes.  It could be the beginning of the sermon with comments following. 

+ “There’s a Spirit in the Air” especially the first and last verse.  Words are easy for early readers and they will catch a phrase here and there.  Read verse 1 stopping to translate specific phrases before singing it to help worshipers of all ages pay attention to what they are singing.

+ Display a large bag of wrapped candies (maybe Easter candies?)  Suggest that you might put the bag in your desk and eat one candy a day.  Guess how many days your bag would last.  Imagine eating it each day.  Then, say “OR, I could keep one to enjoy right now and give one to each of you.  That would be fun.  The whole church eating candy together!”  Decide on the latter and pour the candies into a couple of baskets for children to pass to the congregation.  While eating together, reread the phrase “they ate their food with glad and generous hearts” and note that you think you had more fun sharing that candy with everyone than you would have eating one piece a day by yourself and applying that lesson to everyday living.

A twist on this would be to give each worshiper two candies and the instructions to find someone in the next day or two with whom to eat the candies with “glad and generous hearts.”

+ Connect community to the congregation’s prayers of intercession.  Before the prayers walk the congregation through your congregation’s practice.  Explain how concerns are gathered.  If there is a time when worshipers can identify prayer concerns, invite worshipers of all ages to offer requests and explain what is appropriate.  Also speak about why you pray for others.  Describe both asking God’s care for them and committing ourselves to care for them (e.g. sending a card to a person who is sick or taking a meal to them). 

It would be possible to do this with children seated around you at the front.  Involve them in identifying people for whom they want to pray and shaping those prayers.  Then hear prayer requests of the congregation and keeping the children around you lead the prayers of intercession.  There would also be wisdom in sending the children back to their seats before gathering congregation’s prayer requests.  The latter avoids having to respond to requests that you don’t particularly want to address with the children or for worshipers with such requests to not state them out of consideration for the children.  

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