From a Child's Point of View
First Reading: Acts 4:5-12. Children do not understand this story unless it is read in the context of the healing of the lame man (vss. 1-11). They also need to be told that the Temple leaders were not happy about the healing because they felt that God should work only through them. They were, after all, the Temple officers! With this background, children are quite impressed by the bravery of Peter and John.
Before they can understand the Old Testament reference, children need a description of the function and importance of a cornerstone. (If your building has a cornerstone that really is a cornerstone, rather than a decorative inset, it makes a good example.) Even then, children will count on the preacher to explain Peter's point.
Psalm: 23. The Good News Bible's translation of this familiar psalm is most child-accessible and also offers adults even those who prefer more aesthetic versions some fresh insights. The poet's trust in the shepherd's care (vss.1-4) can be understood by all worshipers, even those with minimal knowledge of shepherding. But the banquet images of verses 5-6 speak uniquely to children. Children, often sent to eat in the kitchen or at a special table for youngsters, appreciate being welcomed to the banquet table as honored guests. Those whose cups are often half-filled (to avoid spills) long for the day when they will be given cups filled "to the brim." (Translations are critical in verse 6. While The Good News Bible promises something a child desires a cup full "to the brim" the New Revised Standard Version promises something that gets most children into trouble a cup that "overflows.")
Epistle: 1 John 3:16-24. Children quickly become lost in this string of abstract pronouncements. They depend on the preacher to select one or two for illustration with everyday examples. Probably the most influential with children is the teaching that we are to put our love into action. Love is not just what we say, but what we do. To say we love a person, pet, or possession, but then fail to treat it lovingly, proves that we do not really mean what we have said.
Gospel: John 10:11-18. John's point, that we can trust Jesus because Jesus is a shepherd/owner rather than a hired shepherd, makes great sense to adults but is puzzling to children, who are interested in the various jobs people do and are learning to do all their assigned jobs well. They assume that any good worker will do the very best on any job. So children are more impressed by Jesus' statement that he loves us enough to risk his life to save us (like a shepherd, protecting the sheep from a wolf).
Children who attend church school usually collect shepherd vocabulary fairly early. But do not count on all children understanding it. Rod is most often a boy's name. The staff is the group of adult leaders at the church or daycare center. And the only shepherd most urban kids have met is a large, sometimes fierce, dog. Remember too that a sheepfold is a pen or yard for sheep.
To lay down my life for you means to be killed while protecting you.
Let the Children Sing
Sing the version of Psalms 23 that is most familiar to your congregation. Choose other shepherd hymns carefully. Children have trouble with the complex theological language of "He Leadeth Me" and "The King of Love My Shepherd Is." The more concrete language of "Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us" makes it a better choice.
"Go Forth for God" is a good hymn with which to send worshipers out to imitate the brave witness of Peter and John. The simple language and the repeated opening and closing lines in each verse are easy for middle-elementary readers.
The Liturgical Child
1. Before reading the Gospel, call a small group of people to sit or stand with you. If there are steps leading to the chancel, ask them to sit around you. Carry a Bible from the lectern to open in your lap. Point out that these people, by their presence, remind everyone that though Jesus was speaking about sheep, he was really talking about how he cares for each of us. While reading the appropriate phrases in verses 14-15, reach out to pat an adult or older child on the back, or give a younger child a hug. If possible, include people of all ages.
2. Before reading Acts 4:5-16, read or tell about the healing of the lame man and briefly point out that the Temple leaders were not pleased. Then read today's text dramatically. Assuming an authoritarian posture, read about the gathering of the important leaders. State the question in verse 7 with appropriate condescension. Then turn slightly to take the role of Peter. Read his words with persuasive enthusiasm. Use your hands to emphasize both the leaders' contempt for Peter and Peter's strong feelings about what he was saying.
3. Create an Easter Affirmation of Faith based on the rejected stone. The worship leader cites a series of the ways Jesus, though he was rejected, turned out to be right. Some statements can focus on what Jesus said, while others focus on what happened. To each statement the congregation responds, "The stone the builders rejected turned out to be the most important of all." For example:
Jesus said, "Love one another." But everyone replied, "No, it is smarter to love your friends and hate your enemies." (RESPONSE)
The Temple leaders turned Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified. But on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is Lord! (RESPONSE)
1. Our care of pets is today's parallel to the shepherd's care of the sheep. Pet owners provide food, water, and shelter for their animals. In cities they take them for walks in all kinds of weather, and many carry scoops to clean up after them. When they are injured or sick, people pay to take pets to veterinarians and may even take time off from work or school to care for them. Newspaper pictures of firemen rescuing kittens from tall trees illustrate the lengths we go to for our pets. (If you have pets, speak specifically of your loving "shepherding" of those animals.)
2. And Now Miguel . . . , by Joseph Krumgold, offers interesting information about the care of sheep (esp. chaps. 4 and 5). Miguel and his family are shepherds in New Mexico. One task at lambing time is to paint matching numbers on the lambs and ewes so that they do not become separated in the crowded sheep pens.
3. Set the banquet images of Psalms 23 in a school lunchroom. Often the problems and joys of children's interpersonal relationships are emphasized there. Who one eats with is critical. All children know the humiliation of being crowded out of the group with which they wanted to sit and the joy of having a seat saved for them by a desirable friend. They truly do eat "in the presence of their enemies" every day. The poet says that God is like a friend who welcomes you and treats you as the guest of honor every day, no matter who is watching or what they think.