Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Preaching Materials for August 31, 2008

R U M O R S # 516
Ralph Milton’s E-zine for people of faith with a sense of humor

August 24, 2008


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

The new shape of the Story Lectionary is visible below. Jim and I hope it will prove more useful to those who preach and more interesting to those who simply read.


The Story – strength from fire
Rumors – the birth of a prophet
Soft Edges – ultimate deterrents
Good Stuff – a joke or a story of grace
Bloopers – well developed parts
We Get Letters – commuters hymn
Mirabile Dictu! – a nude piano
Bottom of the Barrel – a phone call to God
Stuff – (read this only if you would like to subscribe, unsubscribe or are wondering about permissions. That sort of boring stuff.)


Rib Tickler – This from Jim Beinke of Los Alamos, New Mexico.
A Sunday school teacher said to her children, "We have been earning how powerful kings and queens were in Bible times. But, there is a higher power. Can anybody tell me what it is?”
A small hand shot up. “Aces!” said the child.

The Story (from the Revised Common Lectionary) – These are the readings you may hear in church this coming Sunday, August 31st, which is the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.

Exodus 3:1-15 – It’s hard to choose, when the RCL offers two compelling stories on the same Sunday. We have a choice between Jesus anticipating his death and resurrection, and Moses experiencing his birth, which was also a kind of resurrection.
Because I prefer life to death, I’d go with the burning bush.
But how does one make real, concrete, palpable, a fire that doesn’t consume and destroy? It’s as difficult as walking on water. You can’t even light a fire in most churches without setting off smoke alarms and sprinkler systems!
So I think I’d go for a different metaphor entirely – the recent Olympic games. Visually, I could use news photos enlarged, track spikes, T-shirts...
The Olympic athletes had a fire burning inside them. It drove them into ceaseless training, personal sacrifice, and total commitment. Yet it does not destroy them (unless the lust for gold leads them to cheat through drugs, etc.) but empowers them. Win or lose, they come out of their fire stronger than they went in.
The same attributes would apply to the refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2), the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:27), the fire in Jeremiah’s bones (20:6), and the flames of Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
Moses encountered the burning bush a stammering coward, running away from the consequences of his actions. He came out capable of leading his people to freedom.
Jim Taylor

This is one of the key stories in the Hebrew Bible. It is the legend of Moses encountering God, the central story in the Jewish tradition. And since the Gospel writers often linked Jesus with Moses, central to the Christian tradition as well.
We often assume that it is only folks in the Bible and a few modern saints who encounter God. The truth is that many folks have experienced moments of holiness, but they either don’t notice, or are too embarrassed to talk about it. “People will think I’ve lost it,” a friend told me not long ago after relating an experience of the holy.
I’ve had many experiences of God – some of them quite momentary and small, such as last week when I was walking along the beach photographing shells and rocks. The iridescent glow in an open shell held me in a tiny moment of holiness.
About 14 years ago, an experience of the real, palpable presence of God shuddered through my whole body. It came as I wept at the bedside of my elder brother Randy, holding his hand as he moved toward his death, while in my other hand I held a snapshot of Jake, my brand new grandson.
There is little I can say in words to describe that event, because the sense of God’s full presence went far beyond anything words can describe.
So it seems to me the power of the story of Moses and his encounter with God comes to us as a catalyst to help us remember those moments when we were aware, fully aware, of a power and a presence that is always with us.
Ralph Milton

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c – paraphrased by Jim Taylor
God's Saving Power
Our team won gold at the Olympics; our candidate wins the election; our author wins the Pulitzer Prize – and we act as if we had something to do with it.

1 Here they come!
We rise to our feet –
we give them a standing ovation.
In the coffee shop, in the shopping mall, in the churches,
we discuss their wonderful deeds.
2 We organize a parade down Main Street in their honor;
we proclaim their greatness in every newspaper and broadcast.
3 They make us proud of ourselves.
4 We press close around them;
we collect their autographs.
5 For they have performed miracles;
they have done more than we dreamed they could.
6 We share in their fame–
we bask in their glory
for we come from the same roots.
16 We have waited a long time for this recognition;
we deserve every delicious moment of it.

Roberta Bondar spent years in obscurity, training to be an astronaut. After her mission, she became an instant celebrity.

17 We have had our hopes raised before.
We invested our faith in saviors.
We put them on pedestals, but they let us down;
they had clay feet.
We turned on them;
18 like jackals, we tore their reputations apart.
19 But one of them became famous, after all.
20 We praised her to the heavens;
at luncheons and dinners, we sat her in the place of honor.
21 We elected her to high office;
she endorsed luxury cars on television.
22 She was invited to talk to students in school assemblies;
in our eyes, she could do nothing wrong.
45 She brought us great honor.
From: Everyday Psalms
Wood Lake Books.
For details, go to

Romans 12:9-21 – This is Paul’s list of things to do and not do, or perhaps more correctly, a way to be. These injunctions come right out of the Hebrew Torah, and are not as radical as Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus tells us not to even think about some of these things.
This list might be useful, if we use it as a check-list to take a close look at our own values. But it would require some pretty powerful honesty that many of us would find hard to muster.

Matthew 16:21-28 – Poor Peter. In verse 17 he was being praised for having recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ. Now he’s getting roasted for a limited understanding of what that Messiah is.
Peter’s story is also our story in many cases. Through years of faithful church involvement, through a new sense of what the Gospel is all about, or through an experience of the living God, we recognize the presence of God in our lives.
That’s not the end of the journey. It’s beginning. For Moses, it was the beginning of a saga that would go on for more than 40 years. For Peter, it was the beginning of a ministry that would take him all over the known world.
For each of us, that moment of recognition – of realization – that theophany – is the beginning of a journey through which we will learn to know God – but always with the painful beauty of knowing the unknowable.

For a children’s version of Moses’ theophany, see “The Lectionary Story Bible, Year A,” page 194. A story based on the Matthew passage is on page 196.
There are children’s stories for every Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, in “The Lectionary Story Bible,” by yours truly. The marvellous illustrations are by Margaret Kyle. There’s at least one story for each Sunday, usually two, and occasionally three. Click the main Wood Lake Publications website at, or click on the following address which takes you directly to the “Lectionary Story Bible.”


Rumors –
The story of...
" are standing on holy ground."
from “Is This Your Idea of a Good Time, God?”

Moses kicked the dry and rocky rubble. He hated the desert. He hated Midian where he lived in exile. He hated the sheep he cared for, sheep that amazed and amused him with their stupidity.
"Ha!" snorted Moses. "I'm amazed and amused by my own stupidity."
A moment of recklessness had brought him to this wilderness. An Israelite slave abused by an Egyptian overseer. In a flash of anger Moses killed the overseer. Then ran into the desert like a hunted coyote.
Moses hated this dry and lifeless place. He wanted so desperately to be back in Egypt, in the palace, eating well-cooked food, sipping well-aged wine, exchanging well-phrased witticisms with well-dressed courtiers.
But here he was in this God forsaken desert. No one to talk to but the half-witted sheep. Nothing to eat except half-cooked mutton. Nothing to drink except lukewarm water.
Moses felt trapped in this wilderness. He felt trapped by Zipporah his wife. He felt trapped by the son he had fathered and named Gershom, which means, "I have become an alien in a foreign land." For a moment, he hated his wife, his son. Moses hated everything.
There in the searing desert, Moses wept for all that was lost to him, the tears drying instantly in the heat.
His earliest years had been spent with his mother, Jacobed, who told Moses the ancient stories of a chosen people and planted the seeds of faith in a God who cared.
Then he had been taken to live with his adoptive mother in the Pharaoh's palace. There the noxious weeds of ambition, pride, envy and greed had all but choked the tiny seedlings of faith planted by his mother.
Now in the heat of the desert sun, Moses struggled to keep those seedlings alive. At night he would fanaticize a triumphant return to the lush Nile valley – to all his friends in Pharaoh's court. But now, in the glaring brightness of noonday he could only think of his family, his people, struggling to make bricks for the ambitious, cruel Pharaoh.
At first Moses tried not to think of his family. He tried not to think of the Israelites. "They're slaves," he muttered. "But so what? They do all right if they're not lazy. They get enough to eat. Anyway, it’s none of my business. If I'd realized that sooner, I'd still be in Pharaoh's court."
But the thought wouldn't go away. The seeds of his Israelite past were well planted. The seeds of his mother's stories, of a sister who had risked her life. And the seeds grew well in the heat of his anger.
"Why?" Moses yelled out to no one in particular. Or maybe to God. "Why does it have to be like this? Why do you let my people be slaves? Why don't you do something?"
The sheep scampered away at his outburst. There was no other response.
In the tent, at night, Moses felt some comfort. Here in the tent, he loved Zipporah and his son.
Moses snuggled closer to Zipporah and tugged the blanket over them against the cold. He remembered Zipporah pregnant with Gershom, how he felt the child grow and move in her womb as he lay close to her in the night.
As he drifted off to sleep, Moses half-imagined that he too was pregnant with... with something... something God had seeded. He dozed and the fantasy, or dream became a memory of twins in a womb, of Esau and Jacob struggling, each trying to dominate the other. Now Moses was both of them, and one twin was Moses the ambitious courtier and the other was Moses the angry slave. And both were struggling toward birth. And one would die in the struggle and the other would be born. Moses started awake, his hand on his own belly.
The dream was in his mind the next morning. And the next. He almost felt an ache in his belly. Or was it pleasure?
It was noon. The familiar sun was punishing the earth. Moses pulled his cloak around his head against the heat. A crackle broke the stillness. Moses turned. A small bush on fire. Not unusual in this heat, but then he noticed that the bush was not consumed. It burned and burned, and Moses went to have a look.
"Moses!" The voice was gentle, quiet, strong.
He stopped. Afraid.
"Don't come any closer, Moses," said the voice. "And take off your shoes. The place where you are standing is holy ground."
Quickly, Moses fumbled off his sandals. The hot rubble burned his feet. He gasped at the pain of it as a woman gasps for breath in labor.
"Moses! I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying at the hands of the slave masters. Moses, I will bring my people out of Egypt. You will go down to Pharaoh and bring them out of slavery and into a land that I will show you."
"But who am I?" said Moses. "I don't know anything about this. I'm just a shepherd. Why me?"
"Moses!" said the voice. "I am with you now. I will be with you then. You will bring my people out of Egypt."
Moses struggled to find his breath. This, he knew, was the moment he had dreaded and longed for. Now was the choice, the holy, terrifying moment.
The universe of human soul struggled in the pangs of birth, struggled forward, held back, groaned itself to birth and death. All that was, held Moses back. All that might be, pushed him on.
One last breath shuddered, rattled through his body.
Death. And peace.
The barely whispered words. "I will go." Moses turned and faced the land where he was born.
There in the desert, the life-destroying desert, a midwife God had loved a prophet into birth.
"Go down, Moses,
way down in Egypt land.
Tell old Pharaoh,
to let my people go."


Soft Edges – by Jim Taylor
Ultimate Deterrents
Tim McLean’s death on a Greyhound bus in Manitoba, at the end of July, haunts me. A complete stranger stabbed him repeatedly in the neck with a pair of scissors and hacked off his head with a hunting knife.
An Internet video showed millions a man, – allegedly Vince Weiguang Li – parading up and down inside the bus, holding a severed head and even eating body parts.
A few people immediately described the murder as evidence of the continuing breakdown of moral standards in our civilization.
Fred Phelp’s Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas – a church whose social views make “rabid” sound like a term of endearment – went further. It declared that the murder was God’s judgement on Canada’s liberal views on abortion, homosexuality, and adultery.
Provincial court Judge Michel Chartier ordered a psychiatric examination to determine if Li is capable of standing trial.
I won’t offer any excuses for the murderer’s behavior. I know nothing about his childhood, his upbringing, his health...
But I do find a trace of truth in Fred Phelps’ accusation. The increasing frequency of irrational violence in our society may have some roots in our history of moral teachings.
But not in the simplistic way he thinks it does.
Bear with me on this.
For centuries, the Christian church taught a range of moral precepts and commands. People obeyed – at least partly because over them all hung the ultimate “big stick,” eternal punishment in hell.
Desperately hungry people would risk execution to steal a loaf of bread. At best, they might get away with it; at worst, hanging or beheading was a quicker way to die than starvation.
But hell – hell was forever. And while one might weasel out of human justice, there was no evading God’s judgement. As recently as 1925, the United Church of Canada’s official constitution stated that the “finally impenitent shall go away into eternal punishment” from which not even a merciful God could rescue them.
The threat of hell kept people in line.
But Li told his first court hearing, “Please kill me.” Clearly, he saw neither death nor whatever might lie beyond death as a deterrent.
I wonder if the church depended for too long on a single deterrent. It worked when people believed in a heaven up there in the sky, and a hell somewhere underground.
But space travel has found no streets of solid gold floating on fluffy clouds. And deep drilling below the earth’s surface has found oil and minerals, but no subterranean world where miscreants writhe in endless agony.
Skepticism has replaced unquestioning belief.
At various times, theologians have propounded doctrines that emphasized the effects of sin on this present life. But those arguments seemed more academic, less effective with unlearned people, than fear of a fiery hell. So they were largely ignored.
The finest arrows are useless, if a bow has only a single string, and that string breaks.


Good Stuff – Chuck Rinkel of Johnston, Iowa sent a joke that struck me as perhaps not a joke about a greedy child but a story of trust and grace. You decide what it is.
A little girl and her father were in the grocery store shopping. When they went to check out the owner told the little girl that she had been so good that she should reach in the candy jar and help herself.
"No, thank you," she said.
Again, the store owner told her to help herself again and she replied, "No, thank you," so softly that he could hardly hear her. He urged her a third time and she said no very quietly a third time.
"She is very shy," said her father. At this point the grocer reached in the candy jar and took a handful of candy and put it in the girl’s little apron pocket.
When they got outside, the father told his daughter that she could have reached into the jar for the candy.
"Yes,” said the child, “but his hand is bigger."


Bloopers, Boggles, Typos and Stuff – Gerry McBride of Calgary, Alberta saw this in a recent bulletin.
Urgent request for Habitat for Humanity. Every 2nd Wednesday of the month is Untied Church worker day for Habitat for Humanity and we appreciate all volunteers.
Says Gerry, “I guess you have to get them loose before they can work.”

Richard Glover of Waitakere, New Zealand writes: “For the story of Joseph, Jacob and Rueben and Joseph being sold into captivity, the women who were organizing the service engaged three of our men folk to tell the story from each character's point of view. [To which someone made the comment:] "The use of the three men in the women's service was appropriate as all three had well developed male parts"

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! – A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. Richard Bach via Stephani Keer

By serving others and putting others' needs before oneself, only then can we truly impact the world with change. Abraham Lincoln via Roger Smith

There are some questions that can’t be answered by Google.
Church billboard, via Andrea Stewart

Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond where you were.
Sherie Carter-Scott via Theo Reiner


We Get Letters – Phil Gilman of Dunnellon, Florida, found this “Commuters Hymn” somewhere. It’s meant to be sung to the tune St. Anne, most commonly used with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.

Cars in an ever-flowing streambear all our kin away;they rise before the sun comes upand leave at break of day.The roads are jammed with angry folkwhose hands in gesture play;they drive not knowing where they are,nor what they've seen today.They finally arrive at work,with coffee break delay;they think of nothing but their carsand yearn to drive away.


Mirabile Dictu! – (Latin for “nude piano!”)
Evelyn McLachlan says this came to her via a circuitous route, but originated with the Missouri School Music Newsletter, collected by Harold Dunn. I thought this would be a good time to share this, since it’s the time when choirs all over the northern half of this planet are gearing up for the next season.

* A harp is a nude piano
* Agnus Dei was a woman composer famous for her church music.
* Refrain means don't do it. A refrain in music is the part you had better not try to sing.
* A virtuoso is a musician with real high morals.
* Henry Purcell is a well-known composer few people have ever heard of.
* Music sung by two people at the same time is called a duel.
* I know what a sextet is but I had rather not say.
* Morris dancing is a country survival from times when people were happy.
* Most authorities agree that music of antiquity was written long ago.
* Probably the most marvelous fugue was the one between the Hatfields and McCoys.
* My very best liked piece of music is the Bronze Lullaby.
* When electric currents go through them, guitars start making sounds. So would anybody.
* Question: What are kettledrums called? Answer: Kettle drums.
* Questions: Is the saxophone a brass or a woodwind instrument. Answer: Yes.
* For some reason, they always put a treble clef in front of every line of flute music. You just watch.
* I can't reach the brakes on this piano!
* The main trouble with a French horn is that it's too tangled up.
* Anyone who can read all the instrument notes at the same time gets to be the conductor.
* The most dangerous part about playing cymbals is near the nose.
* Tubas are a bit too much.
* It is easy to teach anyone to play the maracas. Just grip the neck and shake him in rhythm.
* Just about any animal skin can be stretched over a frame to make a pleasant sound once the animal is removed.


Bottom of the Barrel – This via Jim Taylor. It’s been around before, but it’s kind of a classic and bears repeating. The names of the places (including the last one) can be changed to fit your own proclivities.

An American chap decided to write a book about famous churches around the world.
So he bought a plane ticket and took a trip to Orlando , thinking that he would start by working his way across the USA from South to North.
On his first day he was inside a church taking photographs when he noticed a golden telephone mounted on the wall with a sign that read '$10,000 per call'.
Being intrigued, he asked a clergy person who was strolling by what the telephone was used for.
The clergy replied that it was a direct line to heaven and that for $10,000 you could talk to God.
The writer thanked the clergy and went along his way.
Next stop was in Atlanta . There, at a very large cathedral, he saw the same golden telephone with the same sign under it.
He wondered if this was the same kind of telephone he saw in Orlando and he asked a nearby clergy person what its purpose was.
She told him that it was a direct line to heaven and that for $10,000 he could talk to God.
“O.K., thank you,” said the photographer.
He then traveled to Indianapolis , Washington DC , Philadelphia , Boston and New York.
In every church he saw the same golden telephone with the same '$10,000 per call' sign under it.
Our writer, upon leaving Vermont decided to travel up to Canada to see if Canadians had the same phone.
He arrived in Canada , and again, in the first church he entered, there was the same golden telephone, but this time the sign under it read '40 cents per call.'
The writer was surprised so he asked the clergy about the sign. 'Reverend, I've traveled all over the US and I've seen this same golden telephone in many churches. I'm told that it is a direct line to Heaven, but in the US the price was $10,000 per call. Why is it so cheap here?'
The clergy smiled and answered, “You're in Canada now, son. It's a local call!”

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