Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Year C - Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 6, 2016)

The texts for today are filled with and will lead worship leaders to use lots of words about forgiving – grace, reconciliation, forgives, mercy, and more.  Many of these words are unfamiliar or generally used in other ways by children.  So watch your vocabulary. 

“Forgive” is the basic word for children.  It means “You hurt me but I love you anyway.”  The father in the parable makes it clear that he loves his son no matter what the son does.  Paul reminds the people the people at Corinth that God forgives them and challenges them to forgive each other.

“Grace” is a forgiveness word that children hear often in church, but which means different things at church than it does elsewhere.  In most places grace is the ability to move beautifully, a girl’s name or the prayer said at mealtime.  At church grace is God’s never ending love.  It includes more than forgiveness, but today keep the focus on never-ending love that forgives us, or keeps loving us, even when we mess up.

“Reconciliation” or some form of the word appears repeatedly in the epistle.  Before reading it, introduce the word to children saying all the forms of it they will hear.  Define reconciliation as “putting something broken back together.”  Compare dropping a jigsaw puzzle on the floor and putting the pieces together again, dropping a toy breaking off a piece of it that can be glued back on so the toy can still be used, and a group of children who are all mad each other forgiving each other to play happily together.

Use “mercy” only if you use it in a regular Kyrie.  Translate the Kyrie from Latin or English, “God, please love us anyway even when we mess up.”  Practice saying or singing your version of the Kyrie together and explain how it fits into the liturgy of confession. 

Take it to another level by listening to Kyries from around the world and imagining all God’s people praying this prayer together and then forgiving each other as God forgives us.

If you are using hearts during Lent, write the forgiveness words on a big red heart poster to introduce at the beginning of worship and display throughout worship.  You might even give children small heart stickers to add to their bulletins every time they hear, sing or pray one of the words on the heart.

If this theme leads to singing “Amazing Grace” be aware that it is filled with words and images children do not understand.  They do, however, hear the passion with which it is sung by the congregation and early recognize it as a very important song.  Many sing it without understanding its words for years.  Rather than try to translate the entire song, pick one phrase to explore before singing it.  If you have already defined grace as God’s never ending love even when we mess up, point to the word wretch.  (It is fun to say, but few children know what it means.)  Practice saying it, then define a wretch as a person who does awful things all the time.  Emphasize the difference in little sins that do not matter and those that do.  Talk about the difference between calling a friend a bad name and being punished by an adult who overhears you, but forgiven easily by the friend and calling a friend a bad name, seeing the hurt in her eyes and maybe even seeing her crying alone in a corner later.  When you know you have hurt your friend deeply, you feel very bad about it.  You feel like a wretch.  Then read the first line in the song again. Point out that when we sing it we are telling God that we know we do awful things and are thanking God for loving us anyway.  Now children are ready to sing the first line of the hymn with understanding.

This week the Communion Table is the feast table of the Prodigal Son parable.  As an introduction to the sacrament, point to the table and make this connection.  Note that today we come to the Table like the brothers in the parable, knowing ourselves to be sinners.  When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are admitting that we are sinners and need God/Jesus’ loving forgiveness.  Insist that when we eat the bread and drink the cup we also accept God’s forgiveness and even forgive ourselves and others. 

Before singing “I Come with Joy,” ask worshipers to follow along in their hymnals as you walk through the first verse.  Note that if I come "forgiven" I must admit that I am a sinner and need to be forgiven.  Then, point to the words “loved” (who loves us?  God/Jesus does) and “free” (I can stop being mad at myself about the terrible things I have done).  Finally, recall the story Jesus told about the prodigal son and even Jesus forgiving the people who killed him on the cross to expand on “his life laid down for me.”  Younger singers will do well to get this one verse.  Older worshipers will pay more attention to the words they sing in the later verses.

Texts for Today

Joshua 5:9-12

To follow this story, listeners need to know about manna, Passover and the trip to the Promised Land.  Since most children do not, there is more background work than can be done in most worship services, especially on the fourth Sunday in Lent.  Actually, this would be an interesting story to use with children at a time when there are big changes coming, e.g. the end or beginning of the school year.  Just as the Hebrew people faced big changes when they finally moved into the Promised Land, children will have to do things differently in the coming change.  As God was with the Hebrew people as they made their change (God kept the mana coming until they could eat the food found in the Promised Land.), God will be with them as they make theirs. 

Psalm 32

Particularly if you read from the NRSV this psalm is filled with sin vocabulary that is unfamiliar to children – transgressions, iniquity, etc.  So, I’d use TEV when exploring it with children.

Present this psalm as a prayer the Prodigal Son might have prayed when he got back home.

Single out verses 3 and 5 to explore the important truth that as long as we insist that we did nothing wrong, it wasn’t our fault, and so forth we are trapped.  Nothing gets resolved and we feel terrible.  Only when we admit what we did, apologize and work on fixing things does life get better.  This is as hard a lesson for children to learn and act on today as it was for the prodigal son to learn and act on.

When I did not confess my sins,
I was worn out from crying all day long.
Then I confessed my sins to you;
I did not conceal my wrongdoings.
I decided to confess them to you,
and you forgave all my sins.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Go to Mustard Seeds for a script for three readers that clarifies this text.

Harron, Maurice. Hands Across the Divide, from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 10, 2016].
Original source:,_Derry.jpg. 
Saint Patrick’s Day is March 17 (this month!).  On that day all things Irish get special attention.  So show the picture of the statue “Hands Across the Divide” that stands on a bridge between Protestant and Catholic areas of one Irish town.  Without going into a lot of detail note that Protestant and Catholic Christians in Ireland have been fighting for hundreds of years.  Both sides know that it does no good to keep the fight going, but it is hard to stop it.  Lots of people have to do lots of little things every day to reach out in peace.  Protestant and Catholic children sometimes go to camp or on trips together during the summer so that they get to know each other and make friends with their “enemies.”  It is a brave thing to do because lots of people really do hate the people on the other side and anyone who tries to make friends with them.  With this as background, reread verses 17-20 from the TEV challenging children to imagine what Irish Protestant and Catholic Christians think when they hear this AND what it says about how we treat people we think of as our enemies.  

UK readers, remember this is written by an American and so probably grossly over simplifies and plain gets things wrong.  I trust you to fix the story and use the statue as it was meant.  All readers, go to Grannymar for the details about the story behind this statue.

The Quarreling Book, by Charlotte Zolotow, describes in the briefest of detail how unhappiness spreads as one hurt results in another and then is resolved when first one then another person repays their hurt with kindness until the day ends happily.   The book is available in most public libraries and reads in 2-3 minutes.

Especially if you sing it several times, “Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let it Begin with Me” is a great song for children to sing with the congregation on this day.

This text connects directly to “forgive us our trespasses/debts/sins as we forgive” those who wrong us in the Lord’s Prayer.  To explore the phrase today in the light of the gospel story as well as these verses, try some of the following:

Unless you use “sins” in the prayer, introduce the word you do use (trespasses or debts) defining it as sin or as all the things we do to hurt God and each other.

Create a responsive prayer of confession in which a leader describes a variety of ways we sin with the congregation responding to each one with the line from the Lord’s Prayer.  For example,

One:  God, we are quick to hurt others with our tongues.  We call names.  We tell lies about other people.  We say mean and cruel words.

All:  Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

As you talk about this phrase, use simple hand motions.  Turn one arm out to one side with hand turned up while discussing “forgive us our….”  Turn the other arm out with that hand up while discussing “as we forgive our.…”  Then bring the two hands together in prayer to note that when we pray this prayer we are telling God we are going to work on getting along.

Find or make a string of intertwined hearts.  Display it enjoying its beauty.  Then, link arms with each other to make a human chain remarking on its beauty.  Then, wonder aloud what happens if someone in the chain calls the person next to her a name.  Tell how hurt that person feels.  Unlink the arms of two people in the chain.  Point out that the whole chain rather than just the two people is messed up.  Express sadness over the lost unity of the chain, then suggest that the chain can be put back together.  Together think of ways to undo the damage of name calling, e.g. apologizing, doing something especially kind to the hurt person to show you meant the apology, doing something together so you will trust each other again, etc.  With older children use this demonstration to introduce the word RECONCILIATION.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

This is a long and fairly complex story.  It is familiar to most adults, but is new to many children.  To help them follow the story, prepare an older children’s class to pantomime it as it is read in worship.  The three main characters can be supplemented by household servants and friends in the far country.  If required the three main characters could be a mother or father and daughters.  The children watching will be helped by the pantomime to follow the story.  The children in the pantomime will learn the details of the story thoroughly during rehearsal and will take pride in their worship leadership.

David Lose suggests a sermon comprised of a series of people telling the story from the point of view of each character in it.  See Working Preacher for his details.  Children may not get all the points the characters make, but would catch the general drift and would pay more attention to a sermon that was more like a play than a speech.

Children are as surprised as adults are by the story of the Prodigal Son.  “It is not fair!” is heard from children every day.  They want life to be fair and are offended when it is not.  This story says that it is better to be “loving” than to be ”fair.”  With children come up with a list of “fair” ways the father could have treated the brother when he came home.  Then point out that the father did not treat the son fairly but with love when the son came home.  Decide whether the son would rather be treated fairly or lovingly.  Then ask whether the older brother wanted the younger brother to be treated fairly or lovingly.  Note that it is easy to want love for ourselves and fairness for other people.  Jesus tells us this story to insist that God treats all of us with love rather than fairness.  (This is something that children will have to think over in the coming days.  It really stretches them.)

Remember that younger children especially have trouble seeing themselves “in the shoes of” a character.  So, instead of asking them to think like one or another of the characters in the story.  Simply ask them what that character did or said or what they might say or do if ….   This is a subtle but important difference.

Retell the story using three hearts from a chain of intertwined hearts.  Start with the three together.  When the younger brother leaves, cut the central “father” heart and move the son heart off to the side or give it to a child to hold for you.  Briefly describe how the father and older brother stuck together.  Then describe how the younger son finally realized how wrong he had been cutting his heart to show his heart broken sorrow.  Next, send the father heart running away from the older brother (cut the older brother's heart) to link up with the younger son heart and bring him home.  Tape each of those hearts re-linked.  Finally, point to the fact that the chain is now missing the older brother.  Together discuss what is needed to get the whole chain back together.  Insist that the older brother would need to open his heart open to his brother and father.  It is tempting to reconnect the chain, but be faithful to the biblical story leaving the older brother unconnected and only guessing whether he was able to forgive his father and brother.

The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown, follows a conversation between a young bunny and its mother.  The little bunny describes a series of ways he will run away from his mother.  In reply the mother tells how she will come after him in each case.  Finally, the little bunny decides he might just as well stay home with her.  I once heard this classic read at the end of an erudite sermon about grace.  The preacher concluded, “THAT is grace.”

Compare the journey of the younger son to Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz. When the tornado blows her away, Dorothy is mad at almost everyone.  By the time she returns she has new understanding and greets people around her with love.  (I found this connection in “The Text This Week” and pass it on though I am not quite sure how to use it.   If you have an idea, please share it with the rest of us.) 

Sing the verse below of “Jesus Loves Me” for the younger brother and for us.

Jesus loves me when I’m good,
when I do the things I should.
Jesus loves me when I’m bad,
even though it makes him sad.


  1. I always find useful ideas in your blog--thanks for your work! One comment on the verses of "Jesus Loves Me" above: I hesitate to use the word "bad" when describing children. Their behavior might be wrong or misguided, but I don't ever want them to hear that they are "bad" at church (some of them hear enough of that at home!) I revised the lyric to be: Jesus loves me when I'm wrong, No matter what to him I belong. I know the rhythm is off a bit, but I think the message is better.

    1. I'd go with good message over good rhythm any day.

    2. I agree about the "bad" thing and would also prefer "wrong". How about:

      Jesus loves me when I’m good,
      when I do the things I should.
      Jesus loves me when I’m wrong,
      his love for me is always strong

    3. What a wonderful resource. Beautifully done. Thankyou so much! :-)


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