Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Preaching Materials for December 23, 2007

R U M O R S # 480
Ralph Milton’s E-zine for people of faith with a sense of humor

December 16, 2007


"A merry heart doeth good, like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones." (Proverbs 17:22 KJV)

May you have a blessed and joyous Christmas!


Next Week’s Readings – a healed femur
Rumors – into the darkness, a baby is born
Soft Edges – restoring the original
Good Stuff – prayers answered
Bloopers – rusting in Jesus
We Get Letters – lead on oh kinky turtle
Mirabile Dictu! – God is like hair spray
Bottom of the Barrel – a ministerial clone
Stuff – (read this only if you would like to subscribe, unsubscribe or are wondering about permissions. That sort of boring stuff.)


Rib Tickler –
T’was the night before Christmas
When all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
‘Cause nobody had no spoons.
Annony mouse

Next Week’s Readings – These are the readings you will probably hear in church this coming Sunday, December 23rd, if you are using the Revised Common Lectionary. It is also the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The night before, the 22nd, is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.

Isaiah 7:10-16 – The early Christian church had a great habit of looking back at the Hebrew Scriptures and seeing themselves there. Which is fine with me. We do it all the time. I only have my 2007 bifocals through which to read anything in the Bible.
This Isaiah passage is where the writer of Matthew found the quote given in 1:23, about the virgin who would conceive a son called Emmanuel. And please, let’s not get into gynecological discussions, or textual arguments about Mathew misquoting. The point of that story in our Christian tradition is to indicate that the child Jesus was “God with us,” and the virginity legend is the way the early Christians made that point. The Hebrew way of doing theology was to tell stories.
I found myself intrigued by the phrase “by the time he knows how to refuse evil and choose the good.” That takes me back to the second creation legend, Genesis 2:17, where Adam is told not to eat of the three “of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Eating the fruit of that tree, and learning “the knowledge of good and evil” is what made them human. If they had not eaten of that tree, our ancestors would have remained in the garden of perpetual childlike innocence, like all the other animals God created. The human had to leave that innocence and learn morality and ethics in order to be made in the image of God.
I read somewhere that a paleontologist had been asked how we could tell from the ancient bones when a primate had evolved into a human. The answer was, “when we find a healed femur.” Meaning, I think, that others had provided food and protection for this individual until the femur healed.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 – paraphrased by Jim Taylor
If plants had feelings, how might they feel when that first frost hits? Perhaps we too have seasons we need to survive.
1 Listen to me, God.
You are warm, while you leave us to freeze!
2 Stir yourself to save us.
Shine some light into our darkness;
Send some warmth our way!
3 Bring back the sun;
Give us a chance to live again!
4 Are you angry with us?
We cannot survive winter on our own.
5 Bitter blasts come down out of the north.
Frost burns our faces.
6 We hang our heads in shame;
We wilt away.
7 Bring us back to life again, God.
17 Let the sun warm the earth again,
so that our stems can grow tall and straight,
and our blossoms lift their faces to the sky.
18 Take away this winter of our discontent, Lord,
and we will not let you down.
Give us life, and we will give you glory.
19 Send spring quickly, O creator.
Let your garden grow again!
From: Everyday Psalms
Wood Lake Books.
For details, go to

Romans 1:1-7 – Those first six verses in the NRSV are all one sentence. Be sure to take a breath if you are reading it from the lectern. It’s impolite for lectors of pass out in church.
It’s also a capsule statement of Paul’s theology. If you worked through that, phrase by phrase, it could take months. Maybe years.
Which is also the problem with the passage. It is so compacted – so dense – that reading it out loud to the folks on Sunday morning is probably counter-productive. Especially on December 23rd when many in the church are the Christmas-Easter crowd. It would simply reinforce the idea that most of what we talk about in church is gobbledygook.
Doing stuff in church that goes sailing over the heads of the people in the pews is, at best, useless. I think it throws up barriers to the faith and keeps people from encountering the Spirit.

Matthew 1:18-25 – Paul tells us not to put stumbling blocks in the way (Romans 14:13) of those who are searching for a faith to make their life whole. This whole passage is about the virgin birth. I have no problem with the passage, because I see it as the early church’s way of signaling the uniqueness of Jesus.
So we have a problem with the crowd that gathers for church on this shortest day of the year. Some will be upset if we challenge the literalness of the virgin birth. Others are offended at the very concept. They find the idea of the “immaculate conception” implies that normal conception is dirty. Sinful. Would a loving God make a dirty, sinful act necessary for the propagation of our species?
This is one of those Sundays when I get to do a bit of preachifying. I think I’ll invite folks to see the inside of the story. What is the story about? What is it saying to us right now?
But I don’t think it’s good enough to just ask a bunch of rhetorical questions. I’ll need to come clean and tell people what the story means to me.

There’s a bundle of great resources on the Wood Lake Books website, including “Seasons of the Spirit” curriculum – which has material for all ages in the church. A few moments poking around on that site could be very fruitful. Go to the website at:


Rumors – Years ago, a Filipino colleague told me about his visit to Canada. “Canadians are obsessed about the weather. When they greet you, they talk about the weather. If you turn on the radio, you hear a weather forecast.” In the Philippines, the weather is mostly quite predictable and boring. But in Canada, it can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Not only that, the nights are so long and the days are so short. You wake up in the dark, and it’s dark again in the late afternoon. Cold and dark.
I remember the prairie snow storms. There would be several every winter, where the thermometer would dive to -20C in a 30 mile an hour wind. And I remember the fear when loved ones didn’t return home on time.
It was not courtesy – it was survival – that mandated a light in the window whenever a storm was blowing outside. Technology and the move to the cities, and possibly global warming, means that the effects of winter are less severe. But winter comes and bites us just often enough to keep us remembering. And Bev and I live in the southern part of Canada. The further north you go, the worse it gets.
Bev suffers from SAD. Seasonal Affective Disorder. They used to call it “cabin fever.” It’s from the lack of sunlight. But it affects all of us. Bev and I are fortunate because we can run off to Tucson, Arizona to spend a month with our son.
I mention all this because much of our custom and theology around Christmas was developed in the northern regions of Europe where Christmas Day fell during the darkest part of the year.
Christmas comes when things have gotten about as bad as they can be. Darkness rules. The specter of starvation lurks in every corner. Death is everywhere. Disease eats at your bones.
It is into this desolation and darkness that a baby is born. A child. A helpless infant who can not survive an hour without warmth – without a mother’s breast. God breaks through the darkness and death and pushes into the flickering light of a tiny cabin. Or manger. Often the same place because the warmth of the cattle was needed inside the cabin. Of course the child sleeps in a manger. It’s the only soft and warm place in the house.
The child is born just as the days begin to get longer. There is hope again. Spring will come. The sun will again warm the earth even though there is not a shred of evidence to support that promise.
If our hope can hold through to Easter, when the buds will again sprout through the frozen earth, we will live. Spiritually and physically. The sun will be warm again. The birds will return.
And the voice of the dove will be heard in the land.


Soft Edges – by Jim Taylor
Restoring the Original
The art world is starting to go through the same discussion that has torn the religious world for several centuries.
Consider Rembrandt’s famed painting, called the Night Watch. Rembrandt did not originally paint a night scene at all. The dark moody colours result from well-intentioned attempts to protect the painting by varnishing it.
Similar things have happened to other great paintings. French inventor Pascal Cotte used his cameras to define the paint layers under the surface of the “Mona Lisa.” He found that in his first version of the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s model had eyebrows and lashes; her face was wider and her smile more expressive.
Cotte then turned his cameras on da Vinci’s 1490 “Lady with Ermine.”
He discovered that over-zealous “improvers” had repainted da Vinci’s original blue-grey background with solid black. The black “grossly disfigures the painting,” said Jacques Franck, art historian at UCLA.
Cotte’s infrared and ultraviolet camera scans also revealed more vivid colors in the Lady’s lavish red-and-blue dress, and warmer contours to her flesh.
So now the question becomes -- should these paintings be restored to their original vision? Or should they be left as we have come to know them?
Some art experts fear that Cotte’s discoveries could inspire ruinous attempts to remove later accretions from old masterpieces.
One side will argue, “Art should be seen as the artist originally envisioned it!”
The other side will reply, “This is the form we have come to love. It inspires us as it is. It has become part of our culture. We must not change it.”
Exactly the same arguments have afflicted religious scholarship.
As scriptures were copied, by hand, over the centuries, variations crept in. As they were translated from language to language, interpretations crept in. Just like retouching on paintings.
Islam solved the translation problem by decreeing that the Qur’an is authoritative only in Arabic. But that doesn’t eliminate the risk of narrow interpretations.
For the English-speaking world, the best known Bible is the King James Version, translated by a committee in 1611.
Over the last century, scholars have re-translated the Bible from texts that were not available to the King James committee. They’ve tried to bring the historic picture out from behind the accumulated varnish of centuries. By translating original Greek and Hebrew texts into the brighter colors of contemporary language, they have tried to restore the vigour and vitality of the original.
The scholars of the Jesus Seminar have gone so far as to define which brush strokes came from Jesus himself, and which were added by later assistants.
But many traditionalists insist it doesn’t matter what the originals said -- the text as it has come down to us has inspired billions of Christians. To correct it, to enhance it, even with the best of intentions, could destroy people’s faith.
The theological world remains split on this issue. I don’t expect the art world to achieve consensus any quicker.

If you have comments or questions about Jim’s column, write to him directly at Jim also does another weekly column called “Sharp Edges” which is published in our daily newspaper. It has a stronger political-social justice content. If you’d like to receive Sharp Edges, send Jim a note at the address above. Or go to Jim’s web page at: . Click on Sharp Edges or Soft Edges or whatever else you might like to read.


Good Stuff – This from Don Sandin – which he received from a friend.
My husband and I had been happily married (most of the time) for five years but hadn't been blessed with a baby.
I decided to do some serious praying and promised God that if I could have a child, I would be a perfect mother, love it with all my heart and raise it with God’s love in my heart.
God answered my prayers and blessed us with a son. The next year God blessed us with another son. The following year, God blessed us with yet another son. The year after that we were blessed with a daughter.
My husband thought we'd been blessed right into poverty. We now had four children, and the oldest was only four years old.
I learned never to ask God for anything unless I meant it. As a minister once told me, 'If you pray for rain, make sure you carry an umbrella.'
I began reading a few verses of the Bible to the children each day as they lay in their cribs. I was off to a good start. God had entrusted me with four children and I was going to do it right.
I tried to be patient the day the children smashed two dozen eggs on the kitchen floor searching for baby chicks. I tried to be understanding when they started a hotel for homeless frogs in the spare bedroom, although it took me nearly two hours to catch all twenty-three frogs. When my daughter poured ketchup all over herself and rolled up in a blanket to seehow it felt to be a hot dog, I tried to see the humor rather than the mess.
In spite of changing over twenty-five thousand diapers, never eating a hot meal and never sleeping for more than thirty minutes at a time, I still thank God daily for my children.
While I couldn't keep my promise to be a perfect mother – I didn't even come close – I did keep my promise to raise them in the Word of God.
I knew I was missing the mark just a little when I told my daughter we were going to church to ‘worship’ God, and she wanted to bring a bar of soap along to 'wash up' Jesus, too.
Something was lost in the translation when I explained that God gave us everlasting life, and my son thought it was generous of God to give us his 'last wife.'
My proudest moment came during the children's Christmas pageant. My daughter was playing Mary, two of my sons were shepherds and my youngest son was a wise man. This was their moment to shine.
My five-year-old shepherd had practiced his line, “We found the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.” But he was nervous and said, “The baby was wrapped in wrinkled clothes.” My four-year-old 'Mary' said, “That's not 'wrinkled clothes,' silly. That's dirty, rotten clothes.”
A wrestling match broke out between Mary and the shepherd and was stopped by an angel, who bent her halo and lost her left wing.
I slouched a little lower in my seat when Mary dropped the doll representing baby Jesus, and it bounced down the aisle crying, 'Mama-mama.'
Mary grabbed the doll, wrapped it back up and held it tightly as the wise men arrived. My other son stepped forward wearing a bathrobe and a paper crown, knelt at the manger and announced, “We are the three wise men, and we are bringing gifts of gold, common sense and fur.” The congregation dissolved into laughter, and the pageant got a standing ovation.
“I've never enjoyed a Christmas Program as much as this one,” laughed the pastor, wiping tears from her eyes. “For the rest of my life, I'll never hear the Christmas story without thinking of gold, common sense and fur.”
“My children are my pride and my joy and my greatest blessing,” I said as I dug through my purse for an aspirin. “And maybe their gift to all of us is the gift of laughter.”


Bloopers, Boggles, Typos and Stuff – Theo Reiner of Calgary spotted this in Pagosa Springs, Colorado: “Hymns to be sung during distribution of Communion "Savior of the Nations, Come if needed” Theo thinks that might be good?

Rod and Doris Gist saw a note in a church bulletin at Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “I believe in shepherds, that they often hear songs of grace and glory not heard by those who lead busier, nosier lives.”

Lois Bly tells this one on herself. “Typing the bulletin for a children's Christmas service I wrote: ‘Jesus, our brother, strong and good, was numbly born in a stable rude’.”
Well, said Lois, “some of us are numb!” Christina Berry of Silver Lake, Minnesota, typed this into a bulletin. “A Welcoming and inviting ministry...integrating our past and future...rusting in Jesus...”
Unfortunately, she caught it before it went to press.

If you’ve spotted any good bloopers in your church bulletin or newsletter, or anywhere else for that matter, please send them to me.


Wish I’d Said That! – "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."
by John Wesley via Don Sandin

You can't control the wind, but you can adjust your sails. Yiddish proverb via Jim Taylor
Wrinkles are receipts for living. source unknown, via Evelyn McLachlan

We Get Letters – Sharyl Peterson writes: “My Uncle Harold was a really wonderful, loving man, who never had children of his own, but faithfully taught Sunday School to the littlest kids for many years.
“One year, his kindergarteners were to take part in the All-Sunday-School Christmas Pageant. As he prepared them for their part, they all sang out lustily, ‘Hark! Harold's angels sing’!”

Wilma Houston White of Santa Ana, California writes: “Our family's favorite is: “Lead on, Oh Kinky Turtle” (Lead on, O King Eternal). Kinky Turtle became a catch phrase for any incomprehensible thing that we were forging ahead to do without really understanding why.

Marie Zettler writes: When I read "forgive us our Christmases..." it reminded me of my granddaughter, Sabrina. When she was three, her favourite Christmas carol was "God Rest Ye, Merry, gentlemen." She would sing lustily "..... to save us all from Santa's power when we were gone astray."
Marie! Your granddaughter gets an “A” in theology. Also sociology.


Mirabile Dictu! – (Latin for “God is like hair spray!”) “Deck the halls with advertising,” wrote Stan Freeburg some years ago. “Now’s the time for merchandizing. Profit never needs a reason. Get the money, it’s the season. Fa la la, etc.
In that spirit here’s a bit of theology that’s a bit on the flaky side, but it might offer a chuckle, and who knows, it might start someone thinking.
. . . is like BAYER ASPIRIN ... God works miracles.. . . is like a FORD ... God’s got a better idea.. . . is like COKE ... God’s the real thing.. . . is like HALLMARK CARDS ... God cares enough to send the very best.. . . is like TIDE ... God gets stains out that others leave behind.. . . is like GENERAL ELECTRIC ... God brings good things to life.. . . is like SEARS ... God has everything.. . . is like SCOTCH TAPE ... Invisible, but you know God is keeping things together.. . . is like DELTA ... God’s ready when you are.. . . is like ALLSTATE ... You’re in good hands with God.. . . is like VO-5 HAIR SPRAY ... God holds through all kinds of weather.. . . is like DIAL SOAP ... Aren’t you glad you have God. Don’t you wisheverybody did?


Bottom of the Barrel – Evelyn McLachlan can be relied on to provide a Christmas groaner.
“The pastor who was badly overworked. Her husband worried about her and decided on a really fine Christmas gift.
Snipping a lock of her hair in the middle of the night, he took it to a medical clinic and had a clone made. It was like the pastor in every respect – except that the clone used extraordinarily foul language.
The cloned pastor was exceptionally gifted in many ways. She could preach a fine sermon and do fine pastoral visiting, but whenever she got irritated, she would let fly with a string of expletives worthy of Richard Nixon. Finally, the original pastor decided to get rid of her clone.
But how? Wouldn’t it look like murder? The best thing, she decided, was to make the clone's death look like an accident. So the pastor lured the clone onto a bridge in the middle of the night and pushed her off.
Unfortunately there was a police officer who happened by at that very moment. She was arrested and charged with making an obscene clone fall.

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