Thursday, February 12, 2015

Year B - Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 15, 2015)

In highly liturgical churches the fourth Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday (or Rejoice Sunday) because of its focus on God’s grace.  To highlight this and look forward to Easter in just three weeks,
1.    take a peek at the buried “Alleluia!” and note that it is still there. 
2.    practice an alleluia song (Praise Ye the Lord Alleluia?) in whispers.
3.    with a washable marker write “alleluia” in the palms of the hands of children.  They can peek at the word but not display it to other people as they remember that Easter WILL come.  If children are expected on Good Friday, you may want to save this for then.  Scrolll to the end of Year B - Good Friday (2015).
I was going to write Alleluia in each hand.  These second graders
demanded theirs across both hand "in curseive please."

When I first suggested following “Jesus” around the sanctuary during Lent, I said this Sunday was all about healing and suggested surrounding Jesus with bandages, stethoscopes, and other healing props.  After digging into the texts more recently I think there are several other possibilities. 

If healing is your theme for the day, it would be possible to use the medical supplies, look at pictures of Jesus healing, and finally a picture of Jesus on the cross – Jesus’ biggest and best healing when he healed everyone who had helped kill him by forgiving them.  (I do worry that children will have trouble making the jump from physical healing to forgiveness/spiritual healing.)

Place “Jesus” in a far corner of the sanctuary, maybe even out of sight of many in the sanctuary.  Before reading the gospel go stand near “Jesus” and note that you know some people can’t see you and that is the point.  Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he did not want anyone to see him.  He was afraid of what people might think or say about him if they saw him talking to Jesus.  Jesus was OK with that and sat down to talk to him.  This is what he told him….. Then read the gospel from there.

Brazen Serpent Monument by Italian sculptor Giovanni Fantoni.
Mount Nebo, Jordan. From Dawn Chesser's personal collection.
If you are really brave…  Place “Jesus” beside a snake in a very stout cage (or maybe a big artificial snake for the less brave).  Before the Call to Worship, point it out or invite children to come forward to see it better.  Explain that the snake is there because there are lots of snakes in today’s stories.  Briefly note that in the Bible snakes stand for evil and doing what is wrong.  Display a picture of the bronze snake on the pole and Jesus on the cross.  Urge worshipers to listen for snakes and for the promise that God loves us even when we mess up or get snakey.  Jesus can handle the snakiness in all of us and still love us.

If you are following the Old Testament covenants through Lent, this story does not introduce another Old Testament covenant but points to the New Testament covenant of the cross.  The snake suggestion just above works just as well here.  The bottom line of both the snakes in the wilderness and Jesus forgiving from the cross is that God loves and takes care of us even when we mess up, i.e. Grace.

Make grace the word of the day.  Put it on a poster or banner to present at the beginning of worship and display throughout worship.  Before the Call to Worship point it out.  Clear out what grace is not here – a girl’s name, the prayer we say before a meal, or ability to move beautifully.  Then, define grace as loving someone even when they don’t deserve it and God’s grace as the fact that God continues to love us, care for us, and forgive us even when we really do not deserve it.  Challenge worshipers to listen for the word in songs and prayers and to listen for one big example of grace that involved lots of snakes. 

The Texts

Numbers 21:4-9

This may be read as a very simple healing story OR when combined with the other readings for the day it may be used as an invitation to identify all the snakey things in our lives.  Display a stop sign and a danger sign noting the meaning of each. Next, display a picture of a snake and explain that for many people just seeing a snake is a warning, a danger, a call to stop!  Recall the snake in the Fall in Eden and note that from then on snakes have been symbols of bad things or evil.  The snakes in this story are sent by God because the people were not trusting God and were complaining to Moses that God wasn’t doing enough for them.  God sent snakes, symbols of evil, to remind them of their snakey complaining.  Identify some of the snakey things we do to ourselves and each other today.  Then recall the end of the story.  God saved the people.  He healed them from both the snake bites and their complaining.   That will set the stage for John’s comments about Jesus being like the snake on the pole.  Jesus saves us from all the snakiness.

Do remember that some children, especially some boys, really like snakes.  Assure them that snakes are not bad, but that they are often used as a symbol of evil.

If you are exploring the Israelite whining, note that they needed to learn what his mother told Alexander at the end of a day when everything went wrong, “Some days are just like that.”  (See Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst.)  You could read the whole book and revel in all the whining.  Or, since the book is familiar to many children and parents, simply refer to it citing one or two examples of things that can go wrong in a child’s day.  (The adults will quickly add a companion list for their days!)

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This is a psalm pilgrims sang as they climbed the long steep hill to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple.  It was like some of the songs we sing on long car trips today.  Point out the introduction and the format of each verse.  Identify the people in each stanza: travelers lost in the desert, prisoners, the sick, and sailors on the sea.  Then invite worshipers to read with you the parts the whole group of pilgrims traveling together would have sung with one reader reading the verse about the sick.  To really get into the road trip aspect of the psalm have the congregation stand and walk in place as they read.
All:      verses 1-3
One:   verses 17-20
All:      verse 21-22

Read these verses after reading the Numbers story.  Suggest that some of the pilgrims might have thought about the snake-bit people looking at the bronze snake on the pole and being healed.  It is also a psalm those folks might have prayed after being cured.  Suggest this is a good prayer for us when we recover from illness, too.

Ephesians 2:1-10

Needless to say children will not follow this as it is read.  It is filled with abstract words that are connected in long, complicated thoughts.  But there are ideas in it older children appreciate when unpacked for them by worship leaders.

Even children know what it feels like to be “stuck,” to feel like or wish you were dead, to be hopeless.  They get stuck in ongoing arguments with siblings, caught in the crossfire of changing friendships, listen fearfully as parents fight, worry about finances if the main money maker is unemployed, survive an endless difficult school year, and sense that everyone else is somehow “more” than me.  Without being suicidal, they can say “I wish I was dead.”  With help older children can even recognize that their deadness is as much their own fault as the fault of those around them.  And, they can admit that they can’t make the changes needed. 

Try a confession in which ways we are stuck in evil and feel dead are described one by one, e.g. the lies we tell, the mean things we say without even meaning to, etc.  After each one, the congregation responds, “It makes us feel dead.”  The assurance is “God, loves us and brings us new life, new possibilities, ways out.  Thanks be to God.”

GRACE is the key word.  For children it comes together in Ephs. 2:8.  Check out the poster directions for grace at the top of this page.

Three child-accessible hymns that capture this text and the general theme of the day are:

“There’s A Wideness In God’s Mercy” – This short hymn includes difficult words for children.  Point out the very similar words mercy and love asking worshipers to find them in the song.  Then put the verses into your own words and invite everyone to sing.  With this introduction, children are able to follow and begin knowing this hymn.

“Help Us Accept Each Other” expresses Jesus’ and Paul’s ideas in terms of acceptance rather than salvation.  Every child knows about the desire to be accepted by God and other people.  Point out “acceptance” everywhere it appears in the hymn.  Or, direct people to verse 3 which summarizes the rest of the song.  Read it together and/or walk through it putting it into your words.  With this help children will try to sing at least verse 3.

“Let Your acceptance change us.
So that we may be moved
     in living situations to do the truth in love;
to practice Your acceptance until we know by heart
      the table of forgiveness and laughter’s healing 

It is also a good day to sing “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” which summarizes the Ephesians message in words children know well.  Children love finding that it is in the hymnbook.

John 3:14-21

+  John 3:16 may be the most famous verse in the Bible, but unless your congregation encourages children to memorize verses, don’t count on them recognizing it.  

Today’s crosses are most helpful in unpacking these verses for children. 

Zurbarán, Francisco, 1598-1664.
 Crucifixion, from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
[retrieved February 12, 2015].
Original source:
A crucifix (cross with Christ hanging on it) reminds us that God loved us enough to live among as Jesus and to forgive us when we killed Jesus.  Every time we look at it we remember how very much God loved and loves us and all people.  In many protestant congregations this is an opportunity to introduce a cross that is important to Catholic and many other Christians.  If you don’t have one, borrow one (crucifix jewelry is an option) or display a picture of one (I found this one Googling “crucifix images”).  If the crosses in your church are empty, compare them with their message that God raised Jesus from death to the crucifixes noting the valuable message in each one.

Feel free to use my photo in worship.
Artists in Central America paint crosses with pictures of lots of people on them.  Display one of these crosses and ponder John’s insistence that when Jesus was raised up (on the cross) he drew all the people of the world to him.

Give each worshiper a paper featuring a large empty cross shape.  (Maybe it is the back page of the printed order of worship.)  During the sermon invite them to draw pictures of or write the names of people Jesus died for on the cross.  Identify and challenge worshipers to identify a variety of people including themselves and some people they don’t particularly like.  Near the end of the service, provide silence in which worshipers can pray about the people on their crosses.

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 in school feel trapped and judged by many of their teachers.  It is a very “stuck,” hopeless place to be.  John assures children that God is not interested in judging them.  That is very good news.  One reader took this idea to another level with the following:

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!)
Becky Ardell Downs’ comment from Lent 2 (2014)

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.  

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