Monday, January 14, 2019

Year C - Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (February 24, 2019)

“Dear God, let my love be stronger than my anger” 

*Three of today’s four texts deal with forgiving, even forgiving enemies.  Desmond Tutu’s prayer at the end of his story of Joseph forgiving his brothers offers a good discussion starter with children.  Begin by asking children to name some things that make them really angry.  If it feels right, ask them to show with their faces how they feel when they get angry.  Note that we all get angry sometimes.  We just do.  Insist that as angry as they can get, you know they are also very kind, loving people.  Ask a series of questions such as “who has ever helped your mom or dad do something,” “who has taken care of a brother or sister so your mom or dad could do something they needed to do,” “who has ever sat down to talk with the new kid in the class or on the team,” etc.  Then introduce Tutu’s prayer.  Briefly tell why it is a good prayer for people who can be both angry and loving.  Help the children repeat it after you, then invite the whole congregation to join you in praying it together.

* Highlight “Forgive us our debts/transgressions/sins, as we forgive…” in the Lord’s Prayer.  Before the congregation prays it, point to the phrase.  Talk about all the things people do to each other that need forgiving.  Include everything from saying mean things, hitting, taking what isn’t ours, and playing mean tricks on people to really hurting someone, even going to war with them.  Insist that the only difference between friends and enemies is that the friends forgive each other.  Challenge worshipers to think of friends they need to forgive so they don’t become enemies.  Then, pray the whole prayer together.

The Texts for the Day

Genesis 45:3-11,15

*Younger children will need to be told that this is not the Joseph who married Mary and was in the stable when Jesus was born.  This Joseph lived hundreds of years earlier.

*This is one small scene in the much larger story of Joseph.  Many children with a small reminder will recall the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Once you have remembered that together, simply tell them Joseph worked for long tiring years as a slave, then he landed in prison where he spent two long boring years.  Then read “Joseph Feeds and Forgives” from Children of God Storybook Bible, a very concise version of the story by Desmond Tutu.

*After reading and perhaps preaching on Joseph, connect him to Psalm 37:39-40.  Present it as a prayer poem Joseph might have recited while he was a slave and a prisoner.

Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40

*This is one of the alphabet psalms with paragraphs beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Each paragraph says something about how to cope with the fact that sometimes bad people seem to be doing better than good ones.  Savor that by asking a different reader to read one paragraph each.  Readers could be a random selection of good readers of all ages or could be from an older children’s class. 


Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40

Aleph                   Do not get heated about the wicked
or envy those who do wrong.
Quick as the grass they wither,
fading like the green of the fields.
Bet                        3 Put your trust in Yahweh and do right,
make your home in the land and live secure.
4 Make Yahweh your joy
and he will give you your heart’s desires.
Gimel                   5 Commit your destiny to Yahweh,
be confident in him, and he will act,
6 making your uprightness clear as daylight,
and the justice of your cause as the noon.
Dalet                    7 Stay quiet before Yahweh, wait longingly for him,
do not get heated over someone who is making a fortune,
succeeding by devious means.
He                         8 Refrain from anger, leave rage aside,
do not get heated—it can do no good;
9 for evil-doers will be annihilated,
while those who hope in Yahweh shall have the land for their own.
Waw                    10 A little while and the wicked will be no more,
however well you search for the place, the wicked will not be there;
11 but the poor will have the land for their own,
to enjoy untroubled peace.
Taw                      39 The upright have Yahweh for their Saviour,
their refuge in times of trouble;
40 Yahweh helps them and rescues them,
he will rescue them from the wicked,
and save them because they take refuge in him.

                                       The New Jerusalem Bible


*Rather than read this entire selection, read only verses 7-8.  After reading them, note that there are lots of verbs in those two verses.  Read out all the verb phrases, e.g. “be patient” or “don’t’ let it bother you”.  Note that there are some days when each of us needs to hear each of those phrases, then reread the verses.

Be patient and trust the Lord.
Don’t let it bother you
when all goes well for those
who do sinful things.
8 Don’t be angry or furious.
Anger can lead to sin

1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50

*This is the outlier among today’s texts, but it asks a question that children ask, mostly in a detached, curious way unless they have experienced the death of someone close to them.  Paul’s answer with its reference to the first and last Adam makes no sense to children.  But, they can hear Paul’s message that we really do not know what we will be like after we die.  God has kept that as a secret surprise for us.  But we do know that we will be with God and that things will be good.  It is best to share this with children in your own words or perhaps using one of these books.  None of them are specifically Christian, but they are based on Paul's ideas.  (They are also good to have on hand to pass to families that are dealing with death.)

The idea behind Waterbugs and Dragonflies, by Doris Stickney, is that we don’t know what happens when we die because people can’t come back.  They have changed into something wonderful and new, just as we will when we die.

Lifetimes: the beautiful way to explain death to children, by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, is meant to be read and pondered with a few children and the luxury of time.  In worship it would be possible to shorten it by omitting the descriptions of some of the kinds of living things simply noting as you flipped past them “NAME OF LIVING THING has a lifetime.”  The point is that every living thing lives and dies.  That is the plan.

The Next Place, by Warren Hanson, seems most nearly Christian of these books.  It is a poem filled with images and spread across artful pages.  It takes a full 5 minutes to read aloud and cannot be shortened.  One good way to read it would be at the conclusion of a sermon unpacking Paul’s message for the adults.  Worshipers of all ages appreciate it.

Luke 6:27-38

*This is a long text.  Children will quickly get lost in all the details.  Help them catch Jesus’ message by inviting them forward to help you present the gospel for the day.  Note as they gather that this is a long text and that you have made some posters of Jesus’ main points for everyone to listen for.  Read each point and give the poster to a child or group of children.  Briefly comment on each one as you work through them, perhaps noting how hard they are to do.  Tell them to raise their poster when they hear their point.  Then read the text pointing to the poster bearers as their phrase comes up.  Points could be some or all of the following

Love your enemies
Do good to those who hate you
Pray for those who are mean to you
Do to others as you would have them do to you
Love and do good to all without expecting anything in return

Thank the children and send them back to their seats.

*If you read this sermon after reading the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers, begin by saying that you think Jesus knew the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers and was thinking about him when he said this. 

*Jesus goes into a lot of detail here, but has two points both that make sense to children.  The first is “do unto others as you would have them do to you”(6:31).  The second is closely related but often passed by, “the way you treat others is the way you will be treated”(6:38c).  You have to read verse 37 to get the full impact of the second one.     Jesus said: Don’t judge others, and God won’t judge you. Don’t be hard on others, and God won’t be hard on you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you…..The way you treat others is the way you will be treated(by God). (6:37-38c)

Humorous Warning:  When I first connected these verses I thought it would be easy to ask children how they want others to treat them, then ponder what that says about how we treat others.  Next I was thinking of asking the children how they wanted God to treat them….   After a moment or two I realized that some child would probably say “ I want God to give me a…” at which point all the children would go into God as Santa Claus mode and you would never get back to Jesus” point.  So, don’t go there. 😉

*  Enemy Pie, by Derek Munson, tells the story of a boy who saw his new neighbor as an enemy.  His dad volunteers to help get rid of the enemy by baking enemy pie.  One ingredient was that the boys had to spend one afternoon together before the pie could be served.  You can guess what happened.  The enemy became a friend.  Our challenge is to turn enemies into friends.  (It is important to note that it is often harder to do than it is in this book, but that the book gives us a good goal.) 

Sing child friendly hymns about loving people, even those who are hard to love.

*Before singing “The Servant Song” ask worshipers to silently think about the people it is hardest for them to love and forgive.  Then invite them to sing the song for those people.
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*Sing “Jesu, Jesu Fill Us with Your Love” especially if it is a song the children know from church school, camp etc.

*Invite worshipers to sing “Gather Us In” using the word sheet below.  Alert them to all the different people in colored print and the grand last chorus.

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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Year C - Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 17, 2019)

Having worked through the lectionary cycle three times, this is the first time there has been a sixth Sunday in Epiphany.  After working with the texts for today I am beginning to suspect that the lectionary committee dumped hard texts here knowing they would not show up too often.  Jeremiah, the psalmist and Luke clearly separate and describe the good guys and the bad guys.  That appeals to children, but most adults recognize more nuance.  Paul draws on his logic training to urge people to believe Jesus’ resurrection.  Children and others not big on logic do not get it.  So, it is one of those Sundays on which the worship leaders must identify a theme that fits their congregation and then find ways to explore that theme that make sense to all worshipers.  For example,….

* It would be possible to pick up on the overly simple division of the good guys and bad guys, by reading the texts with two different readers, even dressing readers in black and white clothes/robes or halos and horn hats.  There are directions for such readings with each text.  It would also be possible to introduce the division and have all three texts read one right after the other. 

*Another theme in these comparisons of the good and the bad is the fact that Christians do face choices and that those choices matter.  Most children hear a lot about making good and bad choices, so this is familiar territory.  List some of the excuses we tell ourselves to say the choices do not matter: everyone else is doing it, I’ll only do it this once, I have to do it because the boss/the teacher/the popular kids will be mad at me if I don’t, and lots of etc.  Then go back to what these writers say to those excuses.

*To make the challenge in Jeremiah 17 and Psalm 1 to be like a lush plant visual, 

put a green crepe paper streamer about each child’s neck (like the stole you wear) to remind them to keep growing as God’s person. 

or, ask everyone to wear green to worship that day.  The congregation should look like a garden with many shades of green.)

Jeremiah 17:5-10

*Present this text with several readers to help children follow Jeremiah’s comparison.  Display one lush arrangement of greens and one dried, sad arrangement of weeds.  The Liturgist stands at the pulpit.  Reader Two stands by the weedy arrangement and points to it while reading their verses.  Reader Three stand by the lush arrangement and points to it while reading their verses.

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Liturgist:  Thus says the LORD:

Reader Two:  Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.  They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

Reader Three:   Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.  They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

Liturgist:  The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse-- who can understand it?   I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

*If you feel brave and can aim your message more to older elementary children than to preschoolers, talk to the children about the grown-ups.  Make it an opportunity to interpret all the anger they are seeing and hearing in the news and to reassure them about it.  Tell them (in a children’s time or in the sermon) you want to talk to them about the grown-ups and that it might be wise for the grown-ups to listen too.  Raise your Bible and note that Jeremiah was writing to people living in a hard time.  They were prisoners of war in a foreign land.  And, they were understandably feeling QUITE GRUMPY about it.  Today, the grown-ups are not prisoners of war, but they ARE grumpy.  When you watch the news on TV, even when you cannot understand what people are saying you can tell by their faces and by some of their angry, mean words that they are REALLY GRUMPY with each other.  (if you are in a conversational situation children might comment on things they have seen and heard.  Be careful that they not report their parents’ embarrassing political tirades.)  Then raise up your Bible and explain that Jeremiah would tell grown-ups today exactly what he told his grumpy friends.  He would say something like, “Remember that all of you are God’s children.  Remember that God loves everyone – even those you disagree with and think are your enemies.  Remember that God’s love will win out in the end.  Then, talk and act as if you know that.”  Note that if the grown-ups AND THE CHILDREN remember those things all the time, even in the hard times, we will be OK.   If you are on the steps with the children, conclude with prayer for grownups when they are really grumpy with each other.

* Three hymns celebrate God’s presence with us even the grumpy times.

Before singing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God with the song sheet point out the gold words about God and dark words about all the bad stuff in the world.
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Before singing God of Grace and God of Glory point out the grumpy verses in the gray clouds, the happy “God is with us” verses in bright blue, and the repeated gold chorus that even non-readers can join in on.
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Point out the most important phrase (printed in gold) that is sung repeatedly before singing Great is Thy Faithfulness to remember that God is with us even when things are not going well. 
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Psalm 1

*The over simplification of the difference between good people and bad people in this psalm appeals to children who do not yet realize that almost no one wears a totally white or black hat.  So direct the psalm to children.  The adults, who struggle with the nuanced differences between the good and evil, will listen and get the psalmist’s point too.

*To make the comparison visual, have the psalm read by two readers.  Reader 1 (the “good” reader) wear light or white clothing and Reader 2 (the “evil” reader) wears dark clothing.  They begin standing back to back in the center of the front of the sanctuary.  Each one turns to read or recite their verses facing the congregation then returns to the starting position.  This is most effective if the readers recite their verses from memory, but good readings from a script are OK too.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Psalm 1

Reader 1:  Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Reader 2:  The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand 
     in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

Reader 1:  for the Lord watches over 
                          the way of the righteous,

Reader 2:  but the way of the wicked will perish.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~  
NOTE: I used the NRSV in the script because this psalm is well known in this version.  For a translation with an easier vocabulary for children look at Today’s English Version.

*Scornful, scoffers, and chaff are unfamiliar words to most children, so choose your translation carefully and point out the strange words before reading if needed.  (There is no translation that includes none of these words.  So, choose the one that fits your congregation and introduce its “hard words.”)

 *Alice in Wonderland is not all that familiar to children today.  But, Alice’s problems with choosing the bad advice of signs that said “EAT ME” and “DRINK ME” could be explored as examples of what happens when we follow the advice of the wicked.

*Visualize the major images in the psalm with a display that juxtaposes a lush leafy plant and a vase of dry brittle weeds/straw (BTW, talk in advance with the flower arranger so the weeds aren’t an elegant display!)  Point to the displays before reading the psalm or talk about them during the sermon to explore the psalmist’s message.

*Reread “They are like a tree planted by the river of waters.”  Laughingly note that we are not plants.  Plants don’t have any say in where they are planted.  But, people do.  We can plant ourselves in front of a video game screen or on a soccer field or in lots of other places.  We can also plant ourselves at church.  Note that spending some time planted in front of video screen or planted on a soccer field is fun and fine.  But, this psalm insists that we also need to plant ourselves at church.  We need to spend time reading and talking about what God has said in the Bible.  We need to spend time with people who think God’s ways are important.  We need to sing and pray and laugh with God’s people.  When we do we slurp up God’s love just as a tree slurps up water and we grow big and strong, and bear lots of really good fruit.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Here Paul is drawing on all his training in Greek philosophy and logic.  Unfortunately, as anyone who has tried to reason a child into or out of something knows, children don’t follow logic.  At first they cannot even follow all of Paul’s “if – then” phrases.  When they do begin to follow what Paul is saying they are not much impressed by his arguments.  Children respond much more strongly to stories than to reasoned arguments.

*One way to jump off from Paul’s arguments with children is to use them to look ahead to Lent.  Point out all the shiny, white Epiphany paraments and light symbols in the room.  Note that starting back at Christmas we’ve been reading happy stories about wonderful things Jesus said and did.  Warn children that soon all these white paraments will be replaced with dark purple ones and that we will start paying more attention to the crosses in the room.  We will read sad, scary stories about people who were so angry with Jesus that they killed him.  Insist that we will  need to remember then that the sad stories are not the end.  After only 6 weeks of the sad stories and dark paraments, the white paraments will come right back out and we will tell the stories of Jesus not staying dead.  ( Since there is no real sequence to the Epiphany texts, consider swapping this with the texts for the Sunday before Lent or Transfiguration Sunday.)

*Maybe the easiest way to draw children into Paul’s talk of the resurrection is to sing a child-friendly Easter hymn filled with Alleluias.

Use the word sheet to sing Come Christians Join To Sing to savor all the Alleluias because Lent when we do not sing or say Alleluia is coming.
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Sing Jesus Christ Is Risen Today responsively.  Either have the choir sing the first phrase of each line with the congregation singing all the Alleluias or have one half the congregation sing the first phrase of each line and the other half of the congregation sing the Alleluias.

Luke 6:17-26

*To help children follow this list of BLESSINGS and WOES, begin by briefly defining BLESSED as “Hurray for” and WOE as “Too bad for”.  Then the narrator steps into the pulpit to read.  The BLESSED READER stands to one side of the narrator.  The WOE READER stands to the other side.  It would be possible to have separate readers for each blessing and woe.  That would further call attention to each statement, but may actually call even more attention to them than you wish.


Luke 6:17-26

Narrator: He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.  They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.  Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

Blessed Reader:
BLESSED are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

BLESSED are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
BLESSED are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

BLESSED are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

REJOICE in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

Woes Reader
 But WOE to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

WOE to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
WOE to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

WOE to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."

*Invite the children to come sit with you to read the gospel lesson.  Talk with them something like this…
How many had breakfast this morning?  How many will have lunch?  Was your house warm or cool enough?  You all are dressed pretty well – each a little different, but I think you had several kinds of clothes to wear this morning.  Well, I hope you feel strong, because this morning Jesus has some hard things for us to hear and think about.  He was talking to his disciples, people who had decided to follow him.  Most of us are disciples too.  So, listen to what he says…  Read the text.  Sigh deeply after the reading.  Because we have these things that make our lives easier, Jesus says we have responsibilities and that we have to be careful to use them well to help others.  I am telling you now, that is not easy!  Most of us work hard to do that all our lives.  You will too.  Still join me in saying, “This is the word of the Lord.”  Congregation then replies “Thanks be to God.”

*Point out all the colored words in Take My Life and Let It Be that remind us of parts of ourselves we can give to God before singing it.
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*The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes, tells the story of the established girls in a class teasing the new girl incessantly about the one dress she wears everyday and the 100 dresses she claims to have at home.  It is told from the perspective of Maddie who worries about her own poor clothes but is part of the teasing group and is very uncomfortable about what is going on, but does nothing about it.  Finally the girl leaves school leaving behind 100 drawings of beautiful dresses and a letter from her father about looking for a place where she will not be teased so cruelly.  The book is way too long to be read in worship, but because the situation is so quickly recognized by children, you can tell parts of it in your own words and ponder it with the children.  People in Jesus’ day often thought rich people were smart and good and poor people were dumb and bad – why else would they end up poor.  That is often still the case today.  Part of Jesus’ point in this text is that poor people (or poorly dressed people) are as much God’s children as are wealthier people.  God loves and cares for them all.   Avoid the temptation to add “and so should we.”  Instead, stick with the stunning fact that God loves everyone.