Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Year C - Proper 16, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 14th Sunday after Pentecost (August 21, 2016)

Of all the Year C August sets of lectionary texts, this is the one most filled with Back to School connections.  If this is not Back to School Sunday in your area, you might want to consider using these texts on the Sunday that is.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

>  This is the first of NINE! weeks of readings from Jeremiah.  That is a long series!  The thread that runs through it is the story of the changing self-understanding of the Jewish people as they lived through Exile.  That leads to fairly adult discussions about judgment and what it means to be God’s people – not easy for for children to grasp.  Furthermore, the readings include few stories or easy to display objects.  So, there is little to suggest an ongoing banner or display linking the Sundays of the series.  I’d let each reading stand on its own and explore their fairly unique messages.  There is more in those individual messages than in the series of them.

>  This reading is best read by a teenage boy.  It is a good challenge for a guy with a dramatic flair.  Rehearse with him so he will read it well.  He might even thoughtfully touch his lips as he reads verse 9.  Read from the CEV to avoid the blush-inducing word “womb” and for the clear description of what lies ahead for God’s people.

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Jeremiah 1:4-10

The Lord said:
     “Jeremiah, I am your Creator,
and before you were born,
I chose you to speak for me
to the nations.”
I replied, “I’m not a good speaker, Lord, and I’m too young.”
“Don’t say you’re too young,” the Lord answered. “If I tell you to go and speak to someone, then go! And when I tell you what to say, don’t leave out a word!   I promise to be with you and keep you safe, so don’t be afraid.”
The Lord reached out his hand, then he touched my mouth and said, “I am giving you the words to say, 10 and I am sending you with authority to speak to the nations for me. You will tell them of doom and destruction, and of rising and rebuilding again.”

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>  At the beginning of the school year, God’s words to Jeremiah speak to children clearly.  Children are not to say “I am only a kid.  I’ll be a disciple when I grow up.  I am in school, not yet ready to do God’s work in the world.”  Instead, we can tell them that God needs them exactly where they will be – in classrooms, on the bus, at the lunch table, on the playground, etc.  They are to be God’s people in those places.  God is depending on them.  They are the only people God has to work there.

>  God tells Jeremiah “Do not be afraid of them” (verse 8 in TEV and NRSV).  Identify who the THEM might be at the beginning of the school year, e.g. demanding teachers, kids who are smarter than you are, kids who are better athletes, bullies, etc.  Then read the whole verse including God’s promise to be with Jeremiah and help him.  Insist that the verse is a great Back to School verse and use it as a congregational response to petitions in a back to school prayer.

Add either “Do not say you are too young” or “Do not be afraid of them” to your prophet quotes display.

>  This text could turn into a Back to School sermon addressed directly to the children knowing that adults will listen, resonate with it, and apply pieces of it to their lives at work and in their communities.  To build Christ-based self-esteem in children (and older worshipers) explore the fact that Jeremiah did not feel ready to do what God wanted.  “I’m just a kid!  No one will listen to me!  And I don’t know what to say.”  Insist that God sometimes calls us to do things we feel we are not ready to do or that we are not brave enough to try.  That happens in classes and just hanging out at school.  When it does, our challenge is to remember what God told Jeremiah – that God had given him everything he needed and God would be with him helping him know what to do and say.

Yes, we usually preach to the adults hoping the children will catch ideas here and there.  But, it is possible to do the reverse – and back to school time is a great opportunity.  Every adult in the room recalls back to school experiences and can adapt your message to the students to their adult situations.  Most adults enjoy an occasional such sermon.  And, families with children feel they are a very real part of the church when they hear them.

>  Especially if you have been blessing the backpacks and need a fresh twist on it, this year bless the child rather than the backpack.  A hand on the head with words such as “NAME, God made you and knew you before you were even born.  God is with you every day at school.  God loves you and calls you to love people you meet each day.” 

>  Sing “God of Grace, God of Glory” to pray for the wisdom and courage to use our gifts to do God’s work.  Point out to the non-readers the repeated chorus “grant us wisdom, grant us courage” before singing.  Encourage all worshipers to sing it with Jeremiah and Jesus

>  Before singing “Here I Am, Lord” teach the chorus to the children.  Then have the adults sing the verses and the children sing the chorus as a prayer for the new school year.

>  Turn Jeremiah’s call into charge and benediction

Ask all who will be students (and those who will work at schools?) to stand.  Say to them: Hear the word of the Lord.  I knew you before I gave you life.  I chose you before you were born.  I send you now to school.  Be my people there.  Share my love with everyone you meet there.  Stand up for my ways in classrooms, in locker rooms, on playgrounds, in lunchrooms, and on the bus.

Ask all who will not be at school this year to stand.  Say to them: Hear the word of the Lord.  I knew you before I gave you life.  I chose you before you were born.  Do not say “I am only a housewife” or “I am the least important person where I work.”  Be my people.  Stand up for my ways.  Share my love with the people you meet every day.

Then addressing all worshipers say:  All of you, students, teachers, businessmen and business women, homemakers, retirees, remember God’s promise to Jeremiah and to you.  God says, “Do not be afraid.  I will be with you to protect you.  I will put my words in your mouth.”  So go in peace.  Amen

Psalm 71:1-6

>  These verses are filled with not-quite-everyday words about trusting God in dangerous situations.  To help children recognize the words and therefore follow the prayer of the psalmist, instruct the congregation to turn to the psalm in pew Bibles or provide printed copies of the psalm with the key words bolded.  Point out those key words noting the change from the “help me” words and phrases at the beginning to “I trust you” words at the end.  Then, invite the whole congregation to read the psalm aloud together.

NRSV words: be my refuge, deliver me, rescue me, incline your ear (i.e. listen) to me, be my rock and fortress, rescue me (again), I hope, I trust, upon you I have leaned, and I praise

>  Introduce this as a prayer for all the students who are worried about going back to school.  Recall Harry Potter’s friends Hermoine who was an excellent student and totally excited about going back to school every year and Ron who was not a great student and rather dreaded the return to classes.  Note that most students are somewhere between Ron and Hermoine.  Read through the psalm connecting it to scary times at school and savoring the trust at the end of the prayer.  Then invite the whole congregation to read the psalm aloud together.

Isaiah 58:9b-14

This is one of those passages that requires so much explaining that by the time you get to the message behind all the words, the children have wandered off to more interesting thoughts.  So, I’d work with the other texts with them today.

Psalm 103:1-8

>  Hmmm.  I grew up saying “bless the Lord O my soul” and kind of understanding it.  But, I really like the CEV’s translation’s “With all my heart I praise the Lord and with all that I am I praise his holy name.”  So much easier for children!  Still the rest of that translation is filled with male pronouns for God.  The NRSV is so much better on that count!  It tempts me to read verses 1-2 from the CEV and 3-8 from NRSV.  Or, maybe it is better to simply read the CEV translation of verses 1 and 2 to clarify what the psalmist and we are doing here. 

>  Challenge young worshipers to follow the psalmist’s lead in order to create a psalm praising God for all the blessings of their summer.  Provide paper and markers.  Children begin by drawing a scribble pattern.  They then fill in each space with words and pictures about one blessing of their summer.  Brainstorm possibilities together – swim team, the vacation, a visit from friends or families from out of town, etc.  Then send children to their seats to create their prayers of summer blessings.  You could invite them to tape their prayers to the rail at the front (leave roll of tape handy) during the offering or simply talk with children individually about their psalms as they leave the sanctuary.

Go to Praying in Color, by Sybil MacBeth, for fuller directions for this method of praying with markers.

>  Or go more verbal and provide a worksheet on which children can complete the phrase, “God I praise you for…” several times to create their own summer psalm.

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        A Summer Psalm

With all my heart I praise the Lord!

God, I praise you for

God, I praise you for

God, I praise you for

God, I praise you for

With all my heart I praise the Lord!

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Hebrews 12:18-29

>  According to this text, what we do not see in the sanctuary is more important than what we do see.  So, identify all the things you do see in your sanctuary.  Then begin identifying what you do not see.  Consider everything from God, the love you each have for God and for each other, the stories you carry in your hearts, etc.  In the end imagine all the saints of all generations gathered with you, singing with you.  Insist that it is these things we cannot see that make worship so special and important.  When we worship we become part of something much bigger than just what we can see in the room.

Especially if you celebrate communion today and your liturgy includes the phrase “with all the angels, archangels and…,” highlight it.  Point it out in the liturgy and in your own words explain that communion is about more than just us eating a little piece of bread and sipping from a cup.  It is about being part of God’s big story that started before the world was created and will last beyond when the universe is over.  What we don’t see is more important than what we do see.

Luke 13:10-17

>  Invite children to stand bent over.  Ask what they can see from there.  Imagine how hard it would be to go to the grocery store or fix dinner this way.  Ask one of the bent over children to talk to you while you are standing up straight to see how it feels.  Then have everyone stand up, wiggle, stretch, and hop a bit.  Finally, announce that today’s gospel is the story of a woman who had been bent over for 18 years. 

>  Storypath directs us to another way to explore what it is like to be “broken” and celebrates the way the broken can be fixed.  In Goose’s Story Cari Best tells us about a little girl and an injured goose who she watches through one summer, waits for through the winter, and enjoys as the goose returns with a mate and has 7 babies the following spring.  It takes almost 10 minutes to read aloud – a little long for most worship services.  So, use the art to tell the story in your own words.  Stop to read the pages where she finds the goose and her parents teach her how to keep her distance.  Summarize their summer activities.  Read about the fall departure.  Point out the months of the year in the winter page spread.  Then read the final two pages.  After reading, it note that Jesus met a woman who was also disabled and that he loved her as much in his way as the little girl loved the goose in her way.  Then read the gospel lesson.

>  Usually at the beginning of the school year there is a good bit of name calling as groups of children establish the pecking order for the year.  Sometimes the names are not mean to hurt, but simply to label another person.  Still, most name calling makes people look “less” in the eyes of people around them.  Jesus reverses that process here giving the woman a name that makes her “more.”  Before she was “old woman” and did not even rate a personal name.  After Jesus spoke she was “a daughter of Abraham” and so worthy of Jesus’ time and healing.  Explore this with children identifying some of the names like wimp, bully, jock, baby, sissy, cry-baby, bird brain, smarty pants, etc. that are hurled at others and how differently people look when we say instead “child of God.”

>  This text explores some fairly adult issues about the function of rules.  Children will not understand them.  Though children are not too interested in the rule in question in this story, they are keenly interest in following rules.  Rules are important to children as they learn how the world works and what is and is not allowed.  They struggle to grow through several stages of living with rules.  Preschoolers accept whatever rules the biggest person in the room (usually an adult, but sometimes the oldest child) decrees.  Those rules are not debatable.  Younger elementary school children begin to understand that a group can make its own rules.  Many of their classes and clubs take time shaping rules they will follow together.  Children at this stage frequently spend more time arguing about the rules of a game than they do playing the game.  They relish the details of the rules.  Once the rules are set, they demand that they be obeyed to the letter in all situations.  That way “it is fair!”  It is not easy to accept letting a younger child get more turns or stand closer to the goal.  It is even harder to get from accepting that “just this once” to realizing that in general everyone having fun playing together is more important than following the rules exactly.  Another source of conflict in families is different rules for children of different ages or rules for a younger child that are different than they were for an older child when she was that age.  Jesus challenges all these children to keep working though how they use rules.  Jesus knew the rule, “don’t do work on the Sabbath.”  But he saw a woman who was crippled and he had the power to heal her.  He decided that it was better to take care of the woman than to follow the rule.  Telling the story in this context challenges the children to grow in their use of rules.

It is frequently suggested that Deuteronomy 5:12-15 be read instead of the other Old Testament readings suggested for this passage.  That is an especially good idea for children because it clearly identifies Sabbath keeping as a VERY IMPORTANT RULE, i.e. one of the Ten Commandments.  That makes Jesus’ breaking it even more surprising and questionable to rule loving children.

>  An anonymous commenter in 2013 pointed us to The Library Lion, by Michelle Knudsen.  A lion who loves the public library carefully follows all the rules - after a few slips - until he breaks silence to roar in order to get help for the librarian who has fallen and broken her arm.  Because he has broken a rule he knows he must leave the library.  A staff member later invites him to return.  The story is a great parallel to Jesus’ story today.  The rules are there and meant to be kept, except ….

Back to School !

There are lots of Back to School ideas related to today’s texts described in this post.  For more general ideas for recognizing the return to school in the congregation’s worship, go HERE

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