Thursday, April 7, 2016

Year C - Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 8, 2016)

The Revised Common Lectionary suggests that worship planners might want to use the texts for the Ascension of the Lord instead of those for the Seventh Sunday of Easter on this day occasionally.  Since the Ascension of the Lord always falls on a Thursday and so is missed by most worshipers that is a good idea.  It is an especially good option for children for two reasons:

1.     The Ascension story answers the child’s question, “where is Jesus now?”  His life walking around on the earth is over, but he lives with God and continues to love the whole world from there.  As he left, he clearly passed the baton to his disciples – and to us. 

2.     As you complete the cycle of liturgical seasons about Jesus’ life and passion (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter), Ascension Day is a chance for worship review (How did we follow and celebrate Jesus in each season?) and a peek ahead to the rest of the liturgical year. 

Go to Year C Ascension of the Lord for ideas on this.

Though it does not connect to any of the day’s texts, consider reading the first 3 pages of The Day That God Made Church: A Child’s First Book About Pentecost, by Rebekah McLeod Hutto, just before the benediction.  It describes the disciples waiting between Easter and Pentecost.  Read it recalling how long it has been since Easter Sunday and inviting worshipers to come next week for the story and party that follows the waiting. 

The Texts for the Day

Acts 16:16-34

This is a very long complicated story – actually there are three stories within the longer story.  Very few children will stick with it if it is read straight through.  To help them, break the reading up a little.  Two suggestions:

Have it read by three readers.  Actually readers one and three could be the same person (Paul).

Vss 16-18     Reader One 
                     (maybe reading from the lectern
   since Paul was preaching at the time)
Vss 19-24     Reader Two 
                     (standing in the middle of the chancel,
   maybe carrying a long stick or some 
   other sign of authority)
Vss 25-34     Reader Three 
                     (read vss 25-27 seated maybe with
   feet straight out as if in stocks, 
   then stand on vs 28 to call the jailer)

Read through it stopping between the sub-stories to comment as you go.  Or turn it into a two preacher sermon with one reading from the text and the other interrupting to comment and perhaps even discuss a point with the reader.

One theme that runs through the story is God’s power.  So stop to comment on how God does and does not use power in the story as it is read.  God does not miraculously swoop in to save the slave girl.  Instead God sends Paul to do it.  God doesn’t swoop in to save Paul and Silas from being beaten, but God is with them in jail.  When an earthquake that the Bible does not attribute to God’s doing allows his prisoners to escape, the jailor is ready to kill himself.  But, Paul and Silas refuse to escape and thus save the jailer’s life, then baptize him and everyone in his household.  God uses power in a very different way from the super heroes and heroines most children know.

Paul and Silas responded to being beaten and chained in place in prison not with moaning or whining but with singing.  That surprises children and offers an opportunity to explore the power of knowing some good songs to sing when things get tough.  Describe the difference in complaining about all the ways you hurt and singing about what God is doing in the world – even if being part of it is painful at times.  Compare Paul and Silas singing with all the civil rights protesters singing together when they were thrown in jail.  This could be done in sermon or you could turn it into a whole service of songs people have sung in hard times and the stories about people who sang them.  Before singing each song walk through what it says about God and the people who sing the song. 

Yes, all this could go right over the heads of the children.  Or, it could be an introduction to a spiritual discipline that will be useful throughout their lives.  They could hear that learning songs about God by heart might be useful and hear stories of about people doing just that.

Psalm 97

This is the sort of prayer Paul and Silas might have prayed in prison.  To get into the spirit of their uncomfortable situation that night, recall their beating at the hands of the mob that day, then instruct worshipers to hold their hands out in front of them as if in handcuffs and raise their feet off the floor.  In that pose challenge them to say each line of the psalm back to you after you say it aloud.  Set the tone, saying phrases loudly and with conviction - as if you really mean them.

Or, let two readers be Paul and Silas sitting as above to read the psalm.  They say the first and last verses together and take turns reading the verses in between with conviction as if celebrating God’s power even while chained in jail after being beaten by a crowd.

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

This text can be presented as a summary of John’s message in Revelation and as a code test.  After reading the whole text, reread it stopping at each code that you have discussed over recent weeks, recalling what it means.  Worshipers should recognize the alpha and omega, the people wearing washed robes, and the city with the tree of life.  The summary of the decoded message is simply “Jesus wins!”  There are times when it looks like the bad guys are winning, but in the end Jesus wins totally and completely.

If you introduce the Bride, simply present it as John’s code for the church.  Avoid explaining why Bride is a good code for church.  Instead focus on what the Bride does in this text – the Bride and the Spirit invite guests to Jesus’ big final party.

Some of the coded symbols here bring Advent and Easter together.  Point them out noting that they are both what is hoped for during Advent and what is here now at Easter.  To celebrate the connection …

Sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  Have the choir sing the sad sounding Advent verses and the congregation sing the Easter happy choruses.  Even change the tense of the verb in the chorus to emphasize the Easter joy, “Rejoice! Rejoice!  Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!”  For extra effect give the children or whole congregation purple/blue, white and gold shakers or streamers to shake while singing the chorus.

Bring out the Advent and Easter stoles.  Compare the colors and the symbols on them – especially if the symbols appear in today’s Revelation reading.  Either drape them in full view or wear both of them today in response to this reading.

Dig out the Chrismon ornaments that appear in today’s reading – alpha - omega, star of David, and cross over the world.  Display the symbols pinned to a piece of green fabric or hung on a flowering branch or shrub.  Talk briefly about each one, then read the Revelation verses again challenging listeners to raise a hand when they hear each one mentioned.  (The cross over the world is not mentioned in so many words, but is implied in the message.)

Celebrate the end of the Easter season and the reading of the last verse of the Bible by inviting the children forward to help you with the benediction.  Show them the verse at the very end of the Bible.  Then invite them to repeat that verse in phrases as you say them as the benediction.  Define “grace” as Jesus’ forgiving, powerful, with us always, no matter where love” and “saints” simply as us and all Christians everywhere.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ // be with all the saints. // Amen  

John 17:20-26

(For those in the US) This may be the one possible Mothers’ Day/Festival of the Christian Family connection in these texts.  We are born into a family.  In baptism we become part of God’s big family.  Much as we would like to, we cannot be Christian on our own.  We both know God’s love and follow Jesus in our everyday relationships with those closest to us.  Knowing that living in community is not easy, Jesus prays for his disciples and for us.  That prayer is for household families, the church family, and God’s world-wide family.

Children (and many other listeners!) quickly get lost in John’s repeated phrases and pronouns.  To help everyone keep up, begin by setting the scene – Jesus is praying for his disciples who are sitting around him at a dinner table on the night before he will be killed.  The disciples (and we) are the “them” and “those” in this prayer.  For children, verse 21 is really all they need.  If you walk them through that verse putting phrases into your own words as you go, they’ll have the basic prayer.

I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me. (TEV)

To explore UNITY write the letters of the word on separate poster sheets.  Give one letter to each child.  Stand those children in letter order where all can see them and their letters.  Briefly define unity.  Then move one child and letter off to the side.  Ask whether we still have unity.  Discuss the fact that no matter how much trouble the letter (or the person holding it) causes or how we wish it/he/she wasn’t there, we still need it/him/her.  We can’t have unity without it.  End by pulling the child/letter back into the line with a hug and celebrating UNITY that includes them and every one of us.  (This could also be done using the words PEACE or CHURCH.  Be sure that the letter you remove does not leave you with a word that will sidetrack your listeners.) 

John Stevens at Dollar Store Children’s Sermons uses a deck of cards to talk about unity.  He uses a magic trick deck of cards, but I suspect that the magic will totally distract the children, i.e. if you ask a child on Wednesday about the deck, she will immediately talk about the magic and be unable to recall the unity message.  Still a card deck is an interesting image of unity.  Use a standard deck to make John’s points.  See his video at Dollar Store Children's Sermons.

Illustrate the connectedness of the church by  using Danyelle Ditmer’s directions for cutting a chain of people (maybe Easter people?) at Little People Big Word.  To take her idea further, connect it to the phrase “I believe in…the communion of saints” in the Apostles’ Creed.  Point out that the word communion is less about the shared bread and cup than it is about being linked together with all Christians in the local congregation and the whole world.

“They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” with its repeated phrases is easy for children to join in on, especially if the first phrase of each verse is pointed out in the hymn books before the congregation sings the song.  As you invite children to join in the singing, note that this is a song many of the current children’s parents sang often when they were teenagers.  Urge parents to tell their children about those times on the way home from worship today.

Several “children’s” books focus on this theme in a variety of slightly different ways.

God’s Dream, by Desmond Tutu, insists that God dreams of unity for all God’s people and works through times when we fuss and fight to achieve it.  You could read the whole book in about 5 minutes.  Or, skip the introduction starting with “Do you know what God dreams about?  If you close your eyes…” and reading through “And when we love one another, the pieces of God’s heart are made whole.”  (Read aloud in 2 minutes – unless you stop along the way to talk.)  The remainder of the book deals with people of all races and cultures being friends and might be saved for another day.

NOTE: If you read the last part of the book on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, recall its hope that all people of the world will get along before reading today’s section about how hard that can be.

In 2013 an anonymous commenter pointed us to Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox.  It is another good choice for this message.  Thank you whoever you are.

Old Turtle, by Douglas Wood, is one of those classic children’s picture book stories that are meant for all ages.  Most of it is devoted to arguments about what God is like.  The resolution of the argument comes when all beings realize that God is bigger than any one idea and that they can see God in each other even with their differences and disagreements.  If you are delving into all the polarization in the world today and John’s call for unity, this would be a good summary story even though it takes over five minutes to read aloud.  If you do read it, practice giving voices to the different speakers to help children follow the conversation.  

Same, Same But Different, by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw, is a collection of pictures and messages swapped by two pen pals who live in India and a western city.  Each pair of pictures compares way they are different, but still the same.  Select just a few of them to look at and discuss.  Then add the possibility that if the 2 boys were both Christians they might worship in different church buildings but would be even more the “same”.

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