Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Preaching Materials for November 23, 2008

R U M O R S # 528
Ralph Milton’s E-zine for people of faith with a sense of humor

November 16, 2008


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

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The Story – the sheep and the goats
Rumors – remembering
Soft Edges – doctrine or not
Good Stuff – Christian pumpkins
Bloopers – glutton free diets
We Get Letters – why? because?
Mirabile Dictu! – punsalert
Bottom of the Barrel – three kinds of goats
Stuff – (read this only if you would like to subscribe, unsubscribe or are wondering about permissions. That sort of boring stuff.)


Rib Tickler – The church school teacher was talking about Matthew 25:31-46, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. “If all the bad people in the world were painted green and all the good people painted red, what color would you be?”
A small hand went up. “Striped,” came the response.

Next Week’s Readings – These are the readings you may hear in church this coming Sunday, November 23rd, which is Reign of Christ Sunday.

The Story (from the Revised Common Lectionary) is definitely in the gospel reading, Matthew 25:31-46 – the parable of the sheep and goats

Today’s children are brought up on Barney the Dinosaur and the Berenstein Bears, on Sesame Street and Dora the Explorah. In Jesus’ time, they may have had the precursors of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, but I suspect most children’s stories came from what we call the Old Testament. Because the gospel writer’s recollections of Jesus’ teaching frequently pick up allusions to Isaiah, Joel, and in this case, Ezekiel.
The catchphrase in Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats is, “As you did it to one of the least of these...”
Is “one of the least” limited to human beings? How far down the plant/animal chain are your people willing to take their concern: to polar bears? dolphins? groundhogs? mice? spiders? cockroaches? bacteria?
Some other religions take this much more seriously than Christianity (with the exception of St. Francis of Assisi). Jains carry a whisk broom to sweep aside bugs that they might otherwise step on.
By contrast, our churches tend not to trust even other humans. One time, I played a seedy-looking Fagin in a chancel drama. As I awaited my grand entry in the narthex, not just one but two ushers came out to check up on me. They didn’t trust someone who looked like “one of the least...”
Jim Taylor

In my minds eye, I can see a Cecil B. DeMille movie. (That dates me, I know. But so what?) There is a cast of thousands. Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” march, played by “76 trombones and a hundred and ten clarinets” and a thousand piece band booms through the great marble hallway.
High and lifted up on a solid gold throne sits the king – no, the Holy Universal Emperor, no less – surrounded by glittering ladies and lords and assorted sycophants.
A crimson curtain is pulled back to reveal the serried ranks of satisfied souls in pure white nightgowns and glittering tiaras who bow low before the Emperor.
In a voice, reverberating over a much-too-loud PA system, the Emperor speaks. “And what have you done for me, that I should allow you to bask in my presence?”
As with one voice, the satisfied souls responded. “We bowed. We scraped. We flattered. We built temples in your honor. We sang songs in your praise. Whenever something good happened, we gave you thanks. Whenever something bad happened, we said it was our fault. We are nothing. You are everything. You alone are worthy. We are but dirt and scum.”
“Nicely said! You have been well trained,” came the reverberating voice. “Come inside, and bask in my greatness and glory.”
Then suddenly a hush falls on the assembly. Something is not right. A person – it’s impossible to tell whether male or female – who looks like Saint Frances in the movie or Mother Theresa or someone we know but not quite. This person walks quietly, confidently, through the ranks of nobles who slink to one side.
The person walks in bare feet up the stairs to the throne, high and lifted up, and stands there looking at the Emperor. No words are spoken, but the face of the Emperor shows fear and joy, hope and horror, love and hate.
The person turns to gaze at the satisfied souls. No words, but on the face where the satisfied souls expect to see anger, they see only pity. And love. And deep, deep sadness.
Then turning, the person walks in the other direction. The walls of the palace dissolve revealing people of all walks of life – all races – all faiths – who seem to pay no attention at all to the holy person walking toward them. They are all busy. Some are planting gardens. Some are building small houses. Some are helping street people. Some are binding wounds. Some are in politics working for justice. Some are caring for children. Some are simply praying.
And now the stranger speaks. “Thank you, my friends. We will always be together in a life of hope and joy and peace.”
The castle dissolves into a pile of ashes, and the ashes float around and settle on the nobles and ladies and satisfied souls. They are not punished. They simply turn into a dull and uniform and joyless gray.
The voice on the loudspeakers is silenced. Drifting through the ruins of the palace comes the distant sound of children laughing and people singing.
Ralph Milton

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 – Jim Taylor is a fine editor. Whenever he’s edited one of my books, I get uptight because he has an uncanny way of honing in on the flabbiest bits. He accused me once, with considerable justification, I must admit, of “milking your metaphors to death.”
If Jim got to edit this passage from Ezekiel, I think his blue pencil would write something similar in the margins. The “sheep and goats” metaphor doesn’t do much for folks who may have never seen a sheep or a goat except in a zoo.
And why are the goats always the bad ones? They’ll eat everything including an old rubber boot, but they are simply being goats. That’s the way God made them. And in the tea plantations of China, the goats are let loose because they will eat everything except the tea plants. So they keep down the weeds and fertilize the soil.

Psalm 100 – paraphrased by Jim Taylor
Serving the Least
Few things are as joyful as in impromptu street party, with the whole neighborhood joining in.
1 Two guitars and a washtub bass,
a country fiddle, an old-time caller.
Come on, everyone, join the dance.
2 Do-si-do and allemande left,
swing your partner, bow to your corner.
Clap those hands and stamp those feet.
3 Yes, God, this is good!
God calls the square dance of our lives;
God weaves our varied colors into a swirling kaleidoscope;
we dance our complex patterns to God's grand design.
4 So step onto God's dance floor with a song in your heart and a smile on your face.
5 For God loves a good time too.
God is in the sweat and the swinging,
in the sawdust and the singing.
God IS the dance of life.
Whether you join the dance or sit on the sidelines,
the beat goes on,
and fills the night with music!
From: Everyday Psalms
Wood Lake Books.
For details, go to

A note about Psalm 100.
Linnea Good has written a marvelous, lively song based on this psalm. “Make a Joyful Noise, All the Earth,” is the name. It has good bounce and just a touch of “country.” If it’s not in your hymn book, it should be. But you can find it on Linnea’s web site at:

Ephesians 1:15-23
This passage is proclaiming that the promise of Ezekiel has been fulfilled. God has raised Christ up from death and made him a new king in the Davidic line.
Using the metaphor of King for Christ doesn’t work too well. It doesn’t consider the nature of the Christ. Nor is “rule” a useful verb. The risen Christ in constantly seeking our love – our participation in the joy of Christ’s presence – but to have any meaning, that must be voluntary.
There is no such thing as a forced love.

For children see “The Lectionary Story Bible, Year A,” page 242 for a story called “Being Kind to God,” based on the Matthew lection.
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 – Bev, daughter Kari and I went to a Remembrance Day service in Vernon last Tuesday. (Armistice Day in the UK, Veterans Day in the US, Anniversary Day in NZ) We drove out there because grandson Jake was playing clarinet in the community band.
It was an impressive pageant. Preceded by the pipe band in kilts and sporran, the police and the firemen and the armed services, and service clubs and various semi-religious orders such as Masons and Knights of Columbus and Eastern Star, the Sikh community each laid a wreath.
Kari and I got to talking about the various outfits people in the parade were wearing. We agreed that playing “dress-up” didn’t end with childhood.
We didn’t mean that unkindly. All of us do it to some degree. We dress within a circle of normality for our group and time. It marks who we are. A teacher friend tells me that to work with young people of high school age, you have to get “beyond the uniform,” the signs of identity that say, ‘I am me and this is the group I belong to.”
The people at the Remembrance Day service were saying, “I am me and your not. And this is my identity.” Humans have a deep need to belong – to have an identity.
It was a good service. Somebody read the poem “In Flanders Fields” and we sang a hymn. The “padre” preached a short sermon.
I am sure it wasn’t intentional, but there was a slight sense of “over-against-ness” to the pageant. There were memories of sacrifice in two world wars and the Korean war and an awareness of the war in Afghanistan. As we sang our national anthem, I wondered if we were saying, “We won! We were the good guys. We were right and God was on our side, and we remember those on our side who made this victory possible.”
History is written by the victors who blame the losers for the brutality and chaos of war, but we are also hearing from more thoughtful and balanced historians who point to the futility and cost. These historians point out that goodness and justice and fairness and nobility were by no means all on one side. There was brutality and cruelty enough to infect all of us, including those like myself who had family members we were honoring.
The question is relevant in the light of the lectionary readings for next Sunday. Sheep and goats. Those who are welcomed into the holy presence – those who are banished into darkness and death.
Real life just isn’t like that. Our adversarial legal and political systems pushes the world into categories of guilty or not guilty, elected or not elected. But that’s an oversimplification of life. Any group – any individual – that tries to be clear-eyed and honest knows this.
Bev and I walked among the ruins of Coventry Cathedral a few years ago. We learned that as soon as the war ended, the people of Coventry began a movement toward reconciliation, focused on the city of Dresden in Germany. Coventry had been flattened with saturation bombing. The Allies did the same to Dresden. Thousands of civilians died on both sides.
I remember a Remembrance Day service about 55 years ago – standing in the snow beside a German friend who had fought in Hitler’s Luftwaffe. He wept. So did I. We went for lunch together and begged each other’s forgiveness.


Soft Edges – by Jim Taylor
Doctrine or Not?
“I need doctrine,” a friend told me a while ago. “Other people may be comfortable having some kind of vague relationship with God. I need certainty. I need definition.”
Another friend argues that doctrine is the problem, not the solution. “Religious people (and other ideologues) have no right to expect other people to act as if they shared their beliefs, and then claim they're being disrespected if anyone demurs.
“In a society where people have a variety of faiths, including none, secularism is the common denominator. It puts forward a basic package of shared values and rules that all can accept so that we can get along despite our differences.”
Contradictory views. One friend wants to be told what to believe. The other doesn’t.
So, let’s start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews sang in “The Sound of Music.”
Occasionally, people have direct encounters with God. Personally, I suspect that a lot more people have had encounters with God than they realize, but that’s another point.
Those encounters change people’s lives. Again, I doubt if reading a doctrinal statement, by itself, ever changed anyone’s life, but let’s leave that aside too.
People who have had a personal encounter with God have no need of doctrines. They now have a one-to-one relationship. It’s the difference between falling in love and signing a contract.
Relationships can change, of course. Contractual partners can fall in love, rendering the detailed terms of their original contract immaterial. Lovers can fall out of love, too. When love ends, real and/or implied contracts suddenly become crucially important. Ask anyone who’s ever struggled through divorce negotiations.
Church doctrines are like those contracts. The great Christian mystics – Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Mechtild of Magdeburg – transcended doctrinal statements. They didn’t reject doctrines, or repudiate them – they just considered doctrine irrelevant when they had experienced the real thing.
But for others, doctrines help to keep their faith from wandering off the straight and narrow path.
The encounter comes first; the doctrine evolves later. Paul encountered God on the road to Damascus; later he developed a theology to explain what had happened to him.
In that light, it seems to me that religious doctrines have two purposes.
First, doctrines affirm and validate, for those who have not had a personal encounter with the divine, the experience of those who have had such an encounter.
Second, doctrines attempt to limit what’s acceptable as a legitimate encounter with God. The revelation, whatever it is, must fall within certain parameters. Encounters with god as a writhing ball of snakes or as a five-eyed extraterrestrial would probably not qualify as Christian – although the visions of John of Patmos, in the biblical book of Revelation, may push those limits a little!
Religious doctrines will never substitute for a personal experience of God. Rather, they attempt to offer a test of whether such an experience really comes from God, or from something else.


Good Stuff – This from Jim Spinks.
A woman was asked by a friend, “What is it like to be a Christian?” “It is like being a pumpkin,” said the friend. “God picks you from the patch, brings you in, and washes all the dirt off of you. “Then God cuts off the top and scoops out all the yucky stuff, removing the seeds of doubt, hate, and greed.
“Then God carves you a new smiling face and puts a divine light inside of you to shine for all to see.”

Bloopers, Boggles, Typos and Stuff – Lynne Allin of Aylmer, Ontario has a genuine sense of humor because she tells this on herself. Lynne typed a bulletin announcement about a Halloween event sponsored by the district Lions Club. Except it came out as “District Loins.”
Lynne, aren’t “loins” something you “gird?” Or “gerd?” Or “gurd?” Do we ever use those words in any other context?”

Linda Masters of Red Deer, Alberta spotted this in an announcement about a luncheon. “The meal will include vegetarian and glutton free diets.”

Vern Ratzlaff of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan sends along a couple of spoonerisms.
In the Fraser Valley of BC, he heard a minister announce an event at the “Peace Arch Park.” Except it came out, Peach Arss Park.
“A reader at our Easter service intended, 'and the keepers did shake and became as dead men', except it came out as, 'and the Quakers did keep and became as dead men'.”

Ruth Shaver of Schellsburg, Pennsylvania remembers an announcement that left the all important word “cancer” out of an announcement. It read: "October is Breast Awareness Month.” The church secretary silenced the chortling males in the congregation by announcing, "And next month is Prostate Awareness Month!"

Jim Taylor says this was an actual sentence in a manuscript. "We believe that, in the event of an event, or simultaneous events, we will respond with the perfect, or, near perfect response."
Says Jim: “It's so reassuring to know that if an event eventuates, they'll respond with a response.”

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! – Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.
Bob Newhart via Velia Watts

Holding onto grievances is a decision to suffer.
Gerald Jampolsky via Evelyn McLachlan

On Daylight Savings Time: "Only a white man would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket and sew it to the bottom of a blanket and have a longer blanket."
a First Nations person via Patricia Ling Magdamo

We Get Letters – I find it a bit disappointing to find out from Eric Corbin that the church signs we mentioned in last week’s Rumors were not real. Eric says “the signs were created at a website which allows people to make church signs with whatever text they like. The site can be used for some good humor (as well as for not so nice purposes).”

This from Stephani Keer.
A philosophy professor told our class about an exam, scheduled for three hours, that contained a single question: "Why?"
The only person who got even a decent grade was the one who left the exam after writing: "Because."
Stephani, there’s a profound philosophical truth in there. Somewhere.

Doris Gist writes about “My Republican friend who quotes Ecclesiastes 10:2” in the light of recent political movements. “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of a fool to the left.” (NRSV)
Doris, that reminds me of a quote remembered from years ago. “A proof text out of context becomes a pretext.”

Lana Fong of Curtis, Nebraska sends along a “new version of the Serenity Prayer.
God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it's me.


Mirabile Dictu! – (Latin for “punsalert!”)
Nancy McClure-Long of Ghent, New York sends along a precious packet of positively painful puns. This list has been growing and has been modified, and its circulation on the internet is an example of the kind of folk literature that the internet generates.

Puns Alert!
* The roundest knight at King Arthur's round table was Sir Cumference. He acquired his size from too much pi.
* She was only a whisky maker, but he loved her still.
* A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class because it was a weapon of math disruption.
* No matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.
* A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.
* A grenade thrown into a kitchen in France would result in Linoleum Blownapart.
* Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
* Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
* A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.
* Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway. One hat said to the other, 'You stay here, I'll go on a-head.'
* A sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center said: 'Keep off the Grass.'
* A small boy swallowed some coins and was taken to a hospital. When his grandmother telephoned to ask how he was, a nurse said, 'No change yet.'
* A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.
* The short fortune-teller who escaped from prison was a small medium, at large.
* The man who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.
* A backward poet writes in-verse.
* In democracy it's your vote that counts. In feudalism it's your count that votes.
* When cannibals ate a missionary, they got a taste of religion.
* Don't join dangerous cults. Practice safe sects!


Bottom of the Barrel – It was lunchtime on Sunday, and the family was talking about church that morning. “We were learning about goats,” said seven-year-old Willie.”
“That’s interesting,” said mom, trying not to look surprised. “Tell me more about that.”
“There are three kinds of goats,” said Willie. “There’s a Billy goat, like in the story. There’s the minister, because daddy sometimes calls him an ‘old goat.’ And then there’s the kind we sing about – ‘Praise Father, Son and Holy Goats.’”

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