Friday, August 7, 2015

Year B - Proper 16, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 13th Sunday after Pentecost (August 23, 2015)

This week’s dominant themes of deciding whom to serve and being prepared to serve well are great back to school themes.  We often assume (unwisely) that when we speak about making decisions in everyday life using examples drawn from adult life children will understand and apply them to their lives.  This is a good Sunday to use school applications assuming that adults will be able to appreciate them and apply them to their work and community lives (a wiser move since every adult in the room has experience with going back to school).  If it is actually the Sunday before school begins in your community, check out Including Back to School in the Congregation's Worship for more general ideas.  If school is still ahead, you can be sure children and their parents are already thinking about and preparing for it.  If school started days or weeks ago, children and their parents are more aware of the challenges of this new year and may be even more open to these messages.

The Texts

I Kings 8: (1, 6, 10-11) 22-30, 41-43

The NOT back to school text for the day!

Church of the Sacred Heart, from Art in the Christian Tradition
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. 
[retrieved August 1, 2012
Display or project a picture of Solomon’s Temple and several of a variety of churches today.  Go for variety - maybe St. Basil’s domes in Moscow, a huge gothic cathedral, a modern suburban church, a storefront church, even your own building.   Compare all the ways they differ (colors, size, shapes) and are alike (planned for worship, usually built using best available materials).  Then go to Solomon’s admission in verse 27 that no building is big enough to hold God.  List what can be done in church buildings and their limits – God and God’s plans are bigger than any building can hold. 

Instead of thinking about many church buildings, focus on two:  Solomon’s temple and your own building.  After briefly telling about Solomon building a temple, recall the building of your own church building.  Show pictures of the dedication if available.  If your church has lived in more than one building, bring pictures of all of them.  After telling some stories about important things that happened in your congregation’s building/s, go to verse 27 and ponder the reality that God is bigger than that building or any of those buildings.

Use this story to do a little worship education about your sanctuary.  Start with the big word sanctuary (maybe printed on a poster).  Then review the names of pulpit, Table/altar, font, and anything else that is important to your congregation.  Point out why the building is shaped as it is, why the windows are as they are, etc.  If there is art that has special meaning, point it out and briefly explain its meaning.  This meditation on your sanctuary could be a large part of the real sermon.  One conclusion is to compare the words sanctuary and church.  A sanctuary is a place where people gather to worship.  But, a sanctuary is not a church.  A church is the people wherever they gather to worship God and do God’s work. 

Invite children to draw pictures of the interior of your sanctuary.  Challenge them to be thoughtful about it.  From whose point of view will they draw it?  Who will be the people in it?  What will the people be doing?  What pieces will they be sure to include – Table?  Font?  Organ? What else?  Before worship cover and title a bulletin board near the sanctuary and invite children to add their drawings to the display after worship. 

Psalm 84

This was likely a song that pilgrims sang or chanted as they walked toward Solomon’s Temple for annual celebrations such as Passover.  Few families today make any such trek.  Some youth feel close to this way about going to a summer conference grounds for annual denominational youth conferences.  So, describe the experience of a family walking together on a long trip toward the Temple and singing with all the other families walking the road too.  Open the big Bible on your lap to this psalm, invite the children to imagine they are on such a trip, and ask them to echo each phrase of verses 1, 10 and 12 as you read them.

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Invite the whole congregation to take the part of “the people” in this story.  The usual liturgist serves as the Narrator.  A second reader is Joshua.  The congregation will need a copy of the entire script.  This could be done as an Old Testament Reading or it could be done as an affirmation of faith after a sermon exploring this story and the call to serve God alone.

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Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Narrator: Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem.  They stood before Joshua and before God.  Joshua retold the whole story of their people.  He started with Abraham, reminded them of the hardships of slavery in Egypt, and recounted the way God led them out of slavery.  He reminded them that God had been with them while they wandered in the wilderness and had given them their new homes in the Promised Land.  Then Joshua said to all the people,

Joshua:  Now therefore honor the Lord, and serve God sincerely and faithfully.  Put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

Narrator:  Then the people answered,

People: Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight.  The Lord protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.  And, the Lord drove out before us all the peoples who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.

Narrator:  This in the Word of the Lord.

People:  Thanks be to God.

Based on the NRSV

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Point to one of the “big choices” people make to serve God in your tradition – maybe believer’s baptism or confirmation.  This is a chance to present a familiar ritual the children look forward to as a choice they must make rather than just a celebration in which they will star.  Outline the choice and the work that goes into making that choice.  Then, insist that we practice for those big choices by “little choices” we make every day.  Choosing to include outsiders or say kind words (even when angry words want to come out) or be a peacemaker among friends are “little choices” we make to serve God every day.  They are the way we get ready for or live out the “big choices” we make in believers baptism or confirmation.

Psalm 34:15-22

This psalm offers an overly simplistic view that God takes care of the good and punishes the evil.  Rather than try to explain your way beyond that on a day with so much else to offer, I’d go elsewhere with the children.

Ephesians 6:10-20

Some use Paul’s Armor of God image as an opportunity to insist that there is danger out there and Christians should prepare to meet it.  Others maintain that this is not a call for spiritual warfare, but a call to trust God as we live each day.  Depending on which way you go, different of the following may be useful.

If you point out the dangers in the world, recall the dementors in the Harry Potter books.  They are huge dark creatures that fly through the air, capture you, wrap you in cold darkness and suck all the happiness out of you.  They can suck your soul out of you, leaving you like a vegetable.  We don’t encounter dementors at school or around town, but we do encounter greed, fights between friends, hateful words etc. that are just as effective at sucking all the happiness out of life and can leave us feeling like dried up vegetables.  We need to be as ready to deal with these horrible situations as Harry and his friends had to be to deal with the dementors.

Paul used the image of a soldier’s weapons to urge Christians to be ready to meet the challenges of living every day.  At the beginning of the school year use the equipment of students to urge the same preparedness.

Dress and equip yourself for school with such things as
-        A backpack of truth  - discuss all the good and bad things we can carry around with us in addition to our school books and homework and urge students to keep in their backpack only things they would be glad for God to see
-        A locker of righteousness – warn about all the trouble especially girls cause each other decorating their own lockers and leaving notes for each other in their lockers
-        Pencils, pens, markers to communicate God’s word – make every word you write with them a word you would say to God
-        Shoes that proclaim peace – connect to biblical verses about the beautiful feet of those who come bringing peace with them to whatever shoes we wear back to school being beautiful not if they are cool but if we bring peace wearing them. 

Warning:  This is for the older children.  The younger ones see books as books and pencils as pencils.  You can give them a pencil with a Christian message on it to remind them of who they are at school, but don’t expect them to see their pencil as a tool of God or Sword of the Spirit.

Dress your insides for school.  After noting some of the new clothes being bought for school, encourage the children to gather two invisible things to carry to school inside themselves.
1.    Fill their brains with good questions so that they learn everything they possibly can – What? Where? Who? How? Why?
2.    Fill their hearts with gentle words, kind deeds, forgiveness, and peacemaking because Jesus is depending on them.  They may be the only way Jesus can love some of the kids and teachers they meet in class, in the locker room at the gym, at the table in the cafeteria, and for sure on the bus.

Either of these preparedness messages will stay with children longer if you give them something to add to their school gear – a pencil printed with “God loves you,” a Christian symbol sticker to put inside the flap of their backpack or in their locker, a trinket to hang on their pack (if they are allowed).  The possibilities are endless.  Visit a local school supply store or Bible bookstore.

Prayer is one of the best preparations/armor for Christians.  Urge families to add a prayer discipline to their day. 

Some families have a one line blessing or prayer that they say to each other as they part each morning.  Some are delivered with a hug, others with a high five - maybe “God be with you all day.” 

If parents do not already include prayer in bedtime routines this is a good time to add it.  Suggest that together parent and child think back over the day to identify things for which they want to praise and thank God, things about which they need to tell God they are sorry, and things for which they need God’s help.  The parent then voices these prayers with and for the younger child.  Older children take over the praying first in the parent’s presence, then on their own as they get older.  Some parents conclude by signing the child’s forehead with a cross or a kiss and saying something like “Remember always, God loves you and I love – no matter what.”

John 6:56-69

If you haven’t done it already in this long series on the bread of life, unpack the image for children today.  Start with food that is needed to keep us physically alive.  Then point to someone who says some activity is food for them, e.g. church musicians often say their life would not be worth living without music.  Music is their bread.  With the children identify other things people claim as essential to worthwhile life – sports, being out of doors, etc.  Finally, say that John is telling us that knowing Jesus is the bread of life.  Name activities of your congregation such as worship, church school, kids clubs, ministries in which children can participate, etc. and describe each one of them as a source of bread that will make life worth living.  Point out that they don’t always feel like life savers, but insist that over time they are.  Encourage children and all worshipers to eat regularly of the bread of life by participating in these activities.

On the last Sunday of this loooong series on Jesus as bread, Storypath suggests using My Dog Smells Like Dirty Socks, by Hanoch Piven, to explore how Jesus is like bread.  Noell suggests reading the book and looking at the drawings of the author’s family, then challenging children to draw similar pictures of Jesus.  I wonder if it would be easier for children to dig into this if, after reading the book, you lay a big sketch of Jesus on the floor, adding and moving around a couple of pieces of different kinds of bread while identifying ways how we eat and enjoy each one reminds us of Jesus, e.g. the smile when we eat a croissant (lips), a doughnut that fills us up with yumminess (torso), a breakfast biscuit that gives us the power to learn and work at school, etc.

To keep it simpler, feature breads we eat at different times of day and note that Jesus is with us when we eat them – biscuits at breakfast (maybe in rise and shine eyes), sandwiches or pizza or taco shells at lunch or supper (maybe the trunk/torso), pretzels at snack time (maybe hair),etc.

BTW I just ordered a copy of this book and have reserved other books by the same author at the library (I am especially looking forward to What Are Presidents Made Of.) because I think this approach could be useful with other similes we encounter in scripture, e.g. using a pictures of Jesus as a good shepherd to identify ways he cares for God’s people.

Or, check out the “food” trays idea at Proper 15 - You are what you eat (near the end of the post).

To explore the connection between bread and word, display a loaf of bread on or near the central Bible.  Raise the loaf and speak briefly about the way both bread and the words in the Bible feed us.  Then, read the gospel lesson.  Expand the conclusion to “The Word of the Lord, the bread of life.”  

If you do this, also sing Break Thou the Bread of Life after identifying the stories about Jesus as the bread.  Walk through both verses noting the biblical references and putting some phrases into your own words.

Even if you do not celebrate Communion today, it is a good day to sing one of the Communion hymns which feature bread:

Become to Us the Living Bread may be the best song for today.  Read the first verse highlighting the term “living bread” and connecting it to your conversations in worship about bread.  Then, challenge worshipers to think about the second verse (about the wine) to understand the connection between Jesus’ blood and the communion wine. 

Before singing Loaves Were Broken, Words Were Spoken display four pictures: 1. Jesus teaching, 2. Last Supper, 3. Your Communion Table, 4. picture of your congregation leaving the door after worship.  As you read each verse stop to match it to one of the pictures and discuss the connection.  Then invite all to sing together.

Or, point out the phrase “loaves were broken, words were spoken” at the beginning of each verse of the hymn.  Then invite worshipers to listen as they sing for all the ways God feeds us – body and soul.

Before singing Let Us Break Bread Together read the first line, “Let us break bread together on our knees.”  Point out all the ways you will do that in worship today, e.g. breaking bread in the sacrament, listening to the Bible read and talked about, enjoying singing and praying with our church community, etc.  Then invite all to sing the hymn concluding with the “let us praise God together” in which we thank God for all these many kinds of bread.

Before singing For the Bread Which You Have Broken point out the three things (bread, wine, words) for which we say we are thankful in the first verse.  Then sing the song together.  On the Sunday before school starts sing only the first and last verses to name the bread and words and take their presence with us into the coming year.

Focus not on the bread but on the difficulty of following Jesus.  Lots of folks gave up on Jesus.  Especially if this is the beginning of your church school year and more intense activities for children, talk straight with families about the difficulty of sticking with church.  Lots of people have already given up on it.  Some will start with good intentions to stick with it this year, but will fizzle out.  Encourage families to work together to make sure they stick with Jesus by sticking with church.  (There are obvious ties to Joshua’s “choose you this day…”)

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