Friday, January 16, 2009

Preaching Materials for January 25, 2009

R U M O R S # 537
Ralph Milton’s E-zine for people of faith with a sense of humor

January 18, 2009



"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 – them and us
Rumors – my poor, purple probosicis
Soft Edges – a parable of potholes
Good Stuff – a band-aid for the soul
Bloopers – angels we have heard get high
We Get Letters – it’s not just the organists
Mirabile Dictu! – your brains fall out
Bottom of the Barrel – baptizing the squirrels
Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre – the funny story of Jonah
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 Evelyn McLachlan who found it on the Midrash discussion group and it was written by Carol Wagner of Berridale, Australia.
There was a priest who approached a young father prior to his baby's baptism and reminded him solemnly, "Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?"
"I think so," the man replied. "My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests."
"I don't mean that," the priest responded. "I mean, are you prepared spiritually?"
"Oh, sure," came the reply. "I've got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey."

Next Week’s Readings – These are the readings you may hear in church this coming Sunday, January 25th, which is the third Sunday after the Epiphany.

The Story (from the Revised Common Lectionary) Jonah 3:1-5, 10, except we’re recommending that, one way or another, you tell the whole story of Jonah. The Reader’s Theatre arrangement (below) is a condensed version of the whole story.

Ralph says,
In the San Diego airport awhile ago, I found myself in conversation with one of the security people, a young man about 20 or so. And he took to ranting about the Iraqi’s in particular and Muslims in general. He dug up the very worst hearsay he could find about “them” and compared it to the “facts” about the best of “us.”
The Jonah story invites us to look carefully who “them” is in our own perspective, and who “us” is (are?) and wonder if the story invites us to love and care about “them” because God does.
A question that comes out of the Jonah story might be, “Who’s the last person I would ever talk to about my faith? For the security person in San Diego it would be any Muslim. But who would it be for me? Probably a highly skilled scientist, and I say that sitting in the same room with such a one – a scientist I love very deeply – my son Mark, who works at the highest level of optical science in large telescope development.
Attempts at discussion in the past have resulted in a draw. We agree to disagree. And so like Jonah, God calls me to places I really am not prepared to go.

Jim says –
For several weeks in this series of readings, the underlying theme seems to deal with hearing God’s call. Last week it was young Samuel. Next week it’s Peter and Andrew, James and John. This week it’s Philip and Nathaniel – and Jonah.
Good old Jonah. I could easily take an entire sermon as a time of Bible study – expounding the historical and cultural background of this story, the allegorical parallels, the exaggeration that makes it so humorous...
At the end of that sermon, the people might have a much better understanding of Jonah – both the book and the person. But would they have a better understanding of themselves? Because the essential element of this story, it seems to me, is that when we hear God’s call, we’re quite likely to react the way Jonah did. We run away. We hide.
Like Moses in the desert, we reply, “Here I am, Lord! Send Aaron!”
I would like to find someone who could be articulate and honest about the pain of being asked to go somewhere he/she didn’t want to go. Into divorce, perhaps. Or cancer. In my case, it would be the death of my son.
This can’t be an intellectual exercise – it has to come from the heart, the gut... How does my story, our story, parallel Jonah’s? How did we try to run away in denial? What was it like in the belly of despair? What made us angry? How did we rail at God? What did acceptance mean – assuming we ever reached that stage...?
It would be a gut-wrenching exercise for whoever undertakes this narrative. Which is only fair, because it wasn’t easy for Jonah either.
Psalm 62:5-12 – paraphrased by Jim Taylor
Sometimes you just want to tell everyone to go away and leave you alone.

5 I don't want to see anyone.
I want to stay in bed and pull the blankets up over my head.
6 People are unfaithful two-faced phonies.
I don't want them.
I just want God with me.
7 I can't trust anyone else, any more.
No one has any honor, any loyalty.
8 The only one I can trust is God.
9 People today have no standards, no enduring values.
They flit from fad to fad like butterflies.
The upper crust are all sham and show;
the highly educated are windbags, inflating their egos.
A breeze could blow them all away.
10 Don't try to beat them at their own game.
Don't stoop to their methods. It's not worth it.
You'll only drag yourself down to their level.
11 Do things God's way, instead.
12 God doesn't compete, and God doesn't seek revenge.
God simply loves.
That's all that God expects of you and me, too.
Now I can get up and start the day.
From: Everyday Psalms
Wood Lake Books.
For details, go to
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 – “When the appointed time has grown short,” Paul writes. I know he was talking about the second coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it. That’s not an issue I can really relate to.
But as we get older, we become more and more aware that our time is getting shorter. Many of us have wondered what we would do if we knew we had only a few months or years.
I’m in pretty good health for my age, but with more and more friends and colleagues dying, I’ve become much more aware of how precious the time is – whatever time I have left.
But unlike Paul, I don’t want to divest myself of things – especially those I love. I want to live as intensely and in the deepest relationships I can manage. Since my “appointed time has grown short” I want to throw myself into that “abundant life” that Jesus promised.
Mark 1:14-20 – Mark must have had a tough editor like Jim Taylor working on his book, because he cuts out all irrelevant details and moves directly to the punch line. “Come with me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Which is more accurate and inclusive, but doesn’t have quite the sonority of the KJV’s “fishers of men.”)
There’s probably wisdom in that. If we wait until we are ready – till we’ve made all the appropriate arrangements and said all the necessary farewells – we’d probably never go. As someone said, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.”
The call will come when we are not ready. The call will come when it’s inconvenient. Like Jonah, the call will come to do something we know perfectly well is ill-considered and futile.

I am writing this issue in Tucson, Arizona where we are visiting our son Mark. I don’t have copies of “The Lectionary Story Bible,” with me so I can’t tell you what page this week’s readings are. But the Jonah story is there! So is the one about calling the disciples.
There are children’s stories for every Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle, 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 – In spite of what we read and hear in the media, Genesis is right when it tells us that God created the world and pronounced it, including us humans, “very good.” Most people are good.
A few days before writing this, I had an argument with a cement sidewalk. The score was: Sidewalk 1. Ralph 0.
I was out on a beautiful afternoon in Tucson, Arizona. The sun was shining in a warm and lovely day. There were birds singing and flowers blooming.
There was also a break in the sidewalk.
I can remember the whole thing in slow motion. I was thinking, as my feet disappeared from under me, that I should break my fall with my hands. Which I totally failed to do.
I’ve always maintained that a good, large nose is a sign of intelligence and character, among other noble virtues, and this time, my good long nose took the blow that otherwise might have mashed my forehead and resulted in concussion. At least that was the discussion I had with the emergency room doc who had a delightful sense of humor.
But my poor, purple proboscis. It’s quite thoroughly mashed and scraped. I make Rudolph look like a dim-bulb. I have two black eyes that extend all the way down my face. It’s a wonderful conversation starter.
Now the point of all this is not to get your sympathy. Well, okay, not primarily to get your sympathy.
It’s to tell you that Good Samaritans are alive and well and living in Tucson. And everywhere else. When I went down, a young couple walking ahead of me immediately turned around and came to my aid. They helped me up and offered a wad of tissue to stop the blood. The young man said his car was two blocks down the road. He would run and get it and drive me to the hospital. But at that point a middle aged man came out of a nearby house and said his car was right there beside us, and he would take me. I asked to go to son Mark’s house, two blocks away, hoping that he and Bev wouldn’t pass out when they saw me. They didn’t.
I turned around to say thanks to the man but he was already on his way to the car and only waved when I called.
And I was treated gently, kindly and competently by the staff in the emergency ward at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Even the inevitable paper work, Bev told me, was handled quickly and easily.
As I admired my face in the mirror before bed that night, I found myself deeply grateful for the Samaritans, none of whose names I know and many I didn’t even thank – for a family of love and support and friends who don’t really care how bunged up my face is.
And how wondrous it is that in the pain, God sends the joy and the hope.


Soft Edges – by Jim Taylor
A Parable of Potholes
As the long deep frosts of December work their way out of the ground, an epidemic of potholes erupts.
Last spring, I observed some potholes quite closely, while doing some remedial roadwork on our lane.
It seems to me that potholes illuminate some human foibles. Here in Canada, political scandals have included the Liberal sponsorship fiasco in Quebec and Brian Mulroney’s alleged Airbus payoffs. In the U.S., Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the Bush administration’s refusal to admit that it was wrong about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction...
Here’s how a pothole starts.
Water seeks out a low point in the roadway. It collects there and softens the surface. Just the way that the temptation to cut moral corners, to try something shady, will find the low point in one’s ethical principles.
Enter an external pressure. For the pothole, it’s a tire. It squishes down into the puddle, and squirts disturbed water outwards.
Now, you might expect that because the pothole started as a low point, it would fill up with sediment, the way lakes do. But lakes don’t get pounded repeatedly by external forces.
When a tire drives water out, the water carries with it some sediment from the bottom.
The water will drain back into the depression. But the mud, silt, and gravel won’t. Like a wave rushing up a beach, during the moment when the water stops before it turns around, some of the debris settles out.
So every time a tire splashes muddy water out of the pothole, it digs the hole deeper.
The conclusion is obvious – the longer you leave a pothole unfixed, the worse it will get.
Which is pretty much what happened in those political scandals, isn’t it? The longer that influential people denied any wrongdoing, the longer they tried to paper over the cracks, the deeper the hole they dug themselves into.
Paradoxically, potholes become more severe when they happen in a paved road. Once that uniform hard crust is cracked, water gets through and softens the foundations underneath. Under the relentless pounding of daily traffic, the illusion of a smooth surface breaks up.
And exposes the soft underbelly of a pothole. It’s softer, spongier, weaker than the hard surface. Like Niagara Falls or any other major waterfall, the harder layer at the top protects softer layers immediately underneath it from erosion.
That geological logic means the cavity can only grow deeper. And deeper. It can’t simply spread out and blend indistinguishably into other potholes.
There’s only one solution for a pothole – fix it. And fix it now. Make amends; make repairs; make changes. Maple Leaf Foods did, when listeriosis was traced to one of their plants. Political parties, history suggests, rarely do, until the pothole has turned into a sinkhole.
Get the point? When apologies are required, make them. When boils fester, lance them. When malignancies threaten the whole body, excise them.
Putting off dealing with a problem never does deal with it.


Good Stuff – Carl Chamberlain of Lockport, New York read my little piece about the three-wheeled philosopher, and it sparked these thoughts.
Most every Sunday my small congregation has a coffee hour after morning worship that has evolved over time into a light meal. I have watched as the experience of breaking bread together has become more an experience of Communion than what most have during the official sacrament.
I am touched by the ministry to others and themselves that emerges. There is an elderly wheel-chair bound man whose caretaker brings him to the table and others seem to naturally take turns visiting with our good neighbor Bob.
A young family has begun attending with their adopted son, now playing with the same age grand-daughter of one of our matriarchs. Two teen girls, best friends, attend different schools but get together in church every week whether their parents come or not.
There is a couple who each lost their spouse after a golden anniversary but sit together in church so they are no longer alone. There are two new widows who have not yet talked to each other but have more seasoned widows checking on them every time they worship, just to see how they are coming along.
These and more are the things I see from my pulpit on Sunday morning and from my side of my coffee cup afterward. A band-aid for the soul. The thing does little itself but offers a bit of protection from environmental threats. In doing so it provides space where healing can happen.

Bloopers, Boggles, Typos and Stuff – From the file:
* Our next song is "Angels We Have Heard Get High."
* The Rev. Merriwether spoke briefly, much to the delight of the audience.* Next Sunday George Vinson will be soloist for the morning service. The pastor will then speak on “It's a Terrible Experience.”

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! – -Don't use a gallon of words to express a spoonful of thought.
source unknown via Evelyn McLachlan

* The way to do a great deal for Christ is to keep on doing a little.

* Highbrows are people educated beyond their intelligence.


We Get Letters – We ran this blooper in last week’s Rumors: “Next week’s sermon: What is hell like? Come and hear our organist.”
It prompted a note from Mike Kiebel of Portage, Minnesota who writes: “Just for the record, as an organist, I can tell you this comment does not apply exclusively to organists. I've heard the comment equally applied to pastors, preachers, nursery attendants, after-church coffee-makers, ushers, choirmasters...the list goes on!”
And of course you are right, Mike. As one who can almost claim the title of “professional church goer,” I would say that organists and pianists are, generally speaking, the least of our problems.


Mirabile Dictu! – (Latin for “You brains fall out!”) Joan Burrows of Vancouver, BC, sends these items from church signs:
* Lying in bed and shouting “Oh God!” does not constitute going to church.
* Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads.
* Free coffee and everlasting life. Membership has its privileges.
* Don’t be so open minded your brains fall out.
* God so loved the world enough that God did not send a committee.
* Read the Bible. It will scare the hell out of you.
* Walmart is not the only saving place.
* Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.
* There are some questions that can’t be answered by Google.


Bottom of the Barrel – This from Margaret Wood of Sarnia Ontario. It’s a new version of an old joke, and deserves a re-run.
Three churches in town were overrun with squirrels. After much prayer, the elders of the first church determined that the animals were predestined to be there. Who were they to interfere with God's will? They did nothing, And the squirrels multiplied.
The elders of the second church, deciding that they could not harm any of God's creatures, Humanely trapped the squirrels and then set them free outside of town. Three days later the squirrels were back.
It was only the third church that succeeded in keeping the squirrels away. The elders of this church simply baptized the squirrels and registered them as members of the church.
Now, they only see the squirrels at Christmas and Easter.

Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre –The tiny portion of Jonah which the lectionary prescribes makes no sense out of the context of the whole story. The book of Jonah is a short, comedic parable and the whole story needs to be told to get the point. It’s a very short book but still a bit long for a church service. I’ve condensed it down to about 7 minutes. This wonderful little comedy needs three people to tell the story: Jonah, a narrator, and a third person who plays God and sundry other people. Jonah should be played as someone who is a little silly and self-righteous.
My understanding of the book of Jonah as a comic parable comes from Conrad Hyers assorted books, particularly “And God Created Laughter.” Which I heartily recommend.

Reader I: Do we really have to tell the story of Jonah and the whale?
Reader III: Yeah! I mean who believes all that stuff about a whale swallowing a man and then barfing him out onto the beach.
Reader II: Just hang on a minute. The story isn’t about a guy being swallowed by a fish. This is a comedy. It’s a send up. It’s a really funny story – a work of fiction – a parable that one of the Hebrew scribes wrote. Just like Jesus made up parables to make a point. The person here is trying to make a point, and uses comedy to do it.
III: OK, So what is the point?
II: The Hebrew people often thought that God was just their God. “We are God’s chosen people,” they would say. But the writer of this little comedy was trying to tell them that God even loves the people of Ninevah.
I: Why Ninevah?
II: Because the armies of Ninevah kept coming and beating up on the Hebrews. And the writer of this book is trying to tell the Hebrews that God even loves the terrible, horrible people of Ninevah. And so the writer puts together a funny little story to make a big serious point.
I: So I guess we have to read it.
II: Why not? It’s good fun, and maybe we need to hear what this story is saying to us today. You (Reader I) be Jonah. You (Reader III) be God. Well, actually God only has one line at the very beginning of the story, and then doesn’t come into the story until later, so in the meantime you get to be the captain of the boat and the sailors.
III: What are you going to do?
II: I’ll be the narrator. And you (indicating congregation) are encouraged to laugh. Remember, this is a comedy.
(slight pause)
II: Now the word of the God came to Jonah son of Amittai.
III: Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.
II: But Jonah ran away from God and headed for Tarshish – which was the most far-away place he could think of. He found a boat going in that direction. But God hurled a great wind onto the sea. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. And Jonah? Jonah was sound asleep in his room below. The captain of the boat came and yelled at him.
III: What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Maybe your god will help us so that we do not perish.
II: The sailors cast lots to see who was to blame for the storm. The lot fell on Jonah.
III: Tell us why this calamity has come upon us? What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?
I: I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.
III: So what is it that you did? Why is your god mad at us?
I: Because I am running away from God, that’s why.
III: So what should we do to you, so that your God stops being mad at us? The storm is getting worse by the minute.
I: Pick me up. Throw me into the sea. Then the sea will quiet down for you. It’s because of me that this great storm has come upon you.
II: Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land. But the sea grew more and more stormy against them.
III: Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man's life. We are innocent of whatever this guy has done.
II: So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea. Immediately the sea was calm. But God provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. And there, in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed to God.
I: I called to you God, out of my distress. You answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
II: The God spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land. Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.
III: Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.
II: So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh.
I: Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!
II: And the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. When God saw what the people and the king did, how they turned from their evil ways, God had a change of mind.
III: I have changed m mind about the calamity that I said I would bring upon the people of Nineveh. I will not do it.
II: This was very displeasing to Jonah. He became angry.
I: O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. So kill me. It is better for me to die than to live."
III: Do you really have a good reason for being angry?
II: Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the Nineveh, to see what would become of the city. God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint.
I: It is better for me to die than to live.
III: Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?
I: Yes, angry enough to die!
III: You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. So should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons whom I created. And a lot of animals?

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