Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Preaching Materials for March 22nd, 2009

R U M O R S # 544
Ralph Milton’s E-zine for people of faith with a sense of humor

March 15, 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 Stories – 10,000 gerbils
Rumors – thank you
Soft Edges – a flawed premise
Bloopers – outgrown children
We Get Letters – double crosser
Mirabile Dictu! – keep off the grass
Bottom of the Barrel – keep the cow
Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre – two for the price of one
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 Eva Stanley of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan.
After the service a young couple asked the minister about joining the church. The minister hadn't met the husband before. “What church are you transferring from?” she asked.
A bemused, slightly pained look came over the young man’s face. “I am transferring from the Municipal Golf Course," he said.

Next Week’s Readings – These are the readings you may hear in church this coming Sunday, March 22nd, which is the fourth Sunday of Lent, sometimes called “Laetare (rejoice) Sunday because it focuses upon God’s grace.

The Stories – Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21 – Jim says –
I think I can do more with the Exodus story than the John story – despite John 3:16 being so widely quoted. The serpent-on-a-pole story sounds a bit like “a hair of the dog that bit you” – curing a hangover by having another drink. In this case, to cure the ills caused by poisonous snakes, hold another poisonous snake aloft.
I suppose I’d have to explain that this is the origin of the Caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession – two snakes coiled like DNA around a pole. Moses' use predates the usual attribution to the Greek god Hermes’ staff.
But for me, the main point of this story is not the supernatural healing but the reaction of the Hebrew people. When the going gets tough, the tough don't get going – they turn against their leaders. Moses had saved them from the Egyptian pursuers; he had found them water; he had provided manna; he had even dared argue with God on their behalf. But still they blamed him for their misery.
So I would bring in a newspaper. I would read parts of it aloud, as if I were at the breakfast table – political leaders getting knifed by the voters who elected them, CEOs under fire from disgruntled shareholders, superstars scapegoated for their team’s losses... I doubt if I’ll have a shortage of items.
And I would ask how much we’ve changed, in 3500 years. Who are we scapegoating – in this country, this city, this congregation...?

Ralph says:
The story I’m working with is the Gospel passage, John 3:14-21. That’s the second half of the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. It’s what Jesus says to Nic following the “you must be born again” or “born from above” statement. The passage is incomplete when it’s disconnected from the story in 3:1-13, but that happens on Trinity Sunday and doesn’t include verses 14-21. It’s a story that bears repeating, so I’d suggest we use the whole passage, 3:1-21.
John 3:16 is probably the most widely known single verse in the Bible. I can’t think of it without remembering the poor man who spent his life going to sporting events so he could hold up his John 3:16 sign for the TV cameras. My friend Ian Macdonald, who has a quirky sense of humor, once suggested a variation on this theme. Go to a big sports event and when the folks are all in the bleachers, release 10,000 gerbils with John 3:16 spray-painted on their backs.
When I worked with the National Council of Churches out of New York in the 60s, I had a fellow come into my office looking for funding for his pet project. He wanted to go to Formosa, and release thousands of helium balloons with the gospel of John attached to them. The on-shore winds would take them over Communist China and when the balloons burst, the poor, unsuspecting Chinese would be beaned by a Bible.
The powerful insight in this passage are in the phrases, “God so loved,” and “God gave.” They may well be the core phrases in John’s Gospel, just as “God created” is the key phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 – paraphrased by Jim Taylor
Facing fears
2, 3 All around the world, millions of people will attest –
1 God is good. God will not let you down.
17 Sometimes that is hard to believe.
Hatred robs black South Africans of hope.
The bias of international mass media
makes Palestinians feel despised and rejected;
they hide their faces from us.
Weapons of war maim women and children in Sarajevo.
Poverty pursues refugees from Sri Lanka,
and starvation those from Mozambique.
18 Fear and despair crushes them.
19 But God gives them the strength to continue.
20 God seals the raw wounds in their souls;
God holds them gently in the terrors of their night.
21 They do not doubt God's saving grace.
22 Listen to them! Hear their story.
Hear, and believe, and rejoice.
From: Everyday Psalms
Wood Lake Books.
For details, go to

Ephesians 2:1-10 – Verses 8 and 9 always get to me. In the world of commerce, the more rare a commodity is – gold, grain, oil, real estate – the more the price goes up. But as always, the Christian Gospel turns that on its head. Nothing is more available, and nothing is more precious, than the gift of God’s amazing grace.

You can find the story, “The Visit of Nicodemus” written for children (but useful also for adults) in “The Lectionary Story Bible, Year B,” page 129. And there’s another take on that story, this time using verses 14-21 as the core, on page 87. The story about the snakes in the wilderness didn’t make the cut. Too bad.
I get a lot of comments from worship leaders saying they read the passage from the Story Bible in the worship service – for the children, yes, but more for the adults – who then understand the NRSV much better when the passage is read to them later in the service.
If you don’t yet have “The Lectionary Story Bible” click the main Wood Lake Publications website at, or click on the following address which takes you directly to the “Lectionary Story Bible.”


Rumors – I thought it was a bit of heartburn. I headed for the bathroom medicine cabinet and popped a few antacid tablets. Then I began to feel a bit dizzy with a strange warmth around my neck.
The next thing I knew I was lying on the floor, my head on the bathroom scale (No, I didn’t check to see how much it weighed!) and I was looking up at Bev who was talking to the 911 dispatcher.
Two days later, as I walked toward the elevator from the hospital cardiac unit, the duty nurse walked with me. She gave me a big hug and wished me well. And I thanked her for her tender care, as I had thanked all the other generous care-givers in the hospital.
You don’t want to hear all the details of what happened in that interval. The angiogram is not a painful process, but also not my first choice of recreational activities. I want to share the sense of profound gratitude for the grace and care that I experienced.
Throughout it all, there was Bev, still caring for and loving the geezer she’s been married to for half a century. And family. And friends.
And people in the hospital. The hospital is understaffed, underfunded, and short of space. I spent the first night in the corridor. But the people themselves – the nurses, doctors, and other staff – are kind, caring and gentle.
I am also profoundly grateful to a Baptist minister named Tommy Douglas who entered politics so he could bring about a universal medical care system in Canada. At no point did Bev and I need to worry about whether we could afford an air-ambulance ride to Vancouver for a by-pass operation. Or whether our medical plan would cover the angiogram. Or the multiple blood tests. Or two nights in hospital.
Our national health plan suffers from the neglect of governments who are more interested in roads than in public health – more concerned about the 2010 Olympics than about the education of our children.
But the system itself works. It does not need replacing. It is so very much superior to the profit-based system which I encountered in the US when I fell on my face in January. For that I am profoundly grateful, (for the medical system, not for mashing my nose) and for which I thanked God many times during those two days of lying in bed waiting for another test or procedure.
So yes, I had a small heart-attack a week ago last Thursday. Emphasis on small. The arteries are all clear, with a tiny bit of gunk in a couple of places. And I have a bruise on my groin the size of a dinner place because they had a hard time getting the bleeding to stop after the angiogram. But the cardiologist said, “You have a healthy heart. Now we just need to make sure you don’t have a more serious event.”
That healthy heart is full of joy and gratitude. For family, friends and medical care givers. For a faith in God who stands by our side and holds our hands through all of life, but especially in times like this.
I’m also thankful for you.
Yes you.
Individually and collectively.
Because some 7,735 of you receive Rumors and do me the honor of reading my words. So I have the graceful gift of a vocation.
“By amazing grace I have been saved through faith, and this is not my own doing. It is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)


Soft Edges – by Jim Taylor
A Flawed Premise
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the rise of evangelical atheism.
If I understand them correctly, these atheists claim that we don’t need God to be moral. We humans are intelligent enough to recognize the difference between good and bad, kindness and cruelty, altruism and selfishness...
I argued that we do not naturally know that one is better than the other. Small children don’t, for example. They’re as likely to resolve disagreements by swatting a playmate with a two-by-four as by cooperating.
And if we really all believed instinctively that peace is preferable to war, would we still have so many wars?
I contend that we only consider one set of behaviours better than another because we have been taught to value mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. By our religious tradition. Which believes that those values were inspired by a merciful, compassionate, and forgiving God.
While world religions differ in many respects, they all (more or less) espouse those values.
I got a pile of mail in response. Without exception, those who disagreed visualized God as a harsh judge, an austere tyrant who punished wrongdoers. In their view, God is a big stick, a means of terrifying people into being good to avoid eternal punishment. Which hardly makes goodness a voluntary choice.
So let me respond – I do not believe in that kind of God. I do not believe that God punishes us, any more than gravity selectively punishes people foolish enough to step off a cliff. People make mistakes; mistakes have consequences. You don’t need a God to impose those consequences as punishment for their actions.
If organized religion – be it Christianity, Islam, or Judaism – has portrayed a God who forces us to do good by threatening us with punishment, as the atheists attest, then religion has indeed done us a massive disservice.
But I won’t condemn religion. Perhaps, during what historians call the Dark Ages, during other periods of ignorance and bigotry, the threat of eternal damnation may have been the only way to impose morality. Or it may simply have reflected a culture that functioned that way.
But that’s not the only portrayal of God.
Christianity claims that God was fully revealed in an individual, Jesus of Nazareth. When I read the gospels, I find not one instance of Jesus imposing punishment. He got angry. He voiced harsh criticisms. But when his disciples urged him to rain fire on an inhospitable village, he refused.
He even forgave those who put him to death.
Such a Jesus seems to me to be incompatible with the atheists’ image of a God who zaps sinners with thunderbolts or consigns them to endless torment.
In the churches that I know, the common theme is that God is love. God’s love is like the foundation of a house, the solid underpinning that supports all the rest of the structure, regardless of its unique shape.
I don’t object to people arguing that God is unnecessary. That’s their option. I do object to people arguing that God is unnecessary because they know only a distorted idea of God.


Bloopers, Boggles, Typos and Stuff – Clyde Griffith of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, writes: “So, the sign in front of the church said: ‘Outgrown Children's Exchange Saturday.’
“And I got to thinking . . . .”
From the file:
* The bishop will preach here next Sunday and his wife will open our annual garden fête on the following Sunday. On both occasions I hope to be away on holiday.

* The vicar wishes it to be known that since the flock is quite scattered in many parts of the city, it will be some time before he can visit them all. This will no doubt be appreciated by them.

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! – 'If you don't read the newspaper you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.'
Mark Twain via John Severson

A good sermon leaves you wondering how the preacher knew all about you.
a church sign board, via Ken Powell

How come the waiter gets 15% and God only gets 10% (if that)?
a cartoon, via Jim Spinks


We Get Letters – Neil McRae sends along a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown is lying in bed. He tells Snoopy, who is on the bed with him, “Sometimes I wonder, if I had my life to live over again, what would I do. Then a voice comes to me and says, ‘Boy, now there’s an original thought.’”

Tammy Rider of Rochester, Minnesota writes: “My Mom phoned, saying that she was wearing two of her favorite crosses to church this morning. “Does this make me a double-crosser?” she asked.
“Probably,” I said. “Have you taken a bath?”
“Good,” I said. “Because otherwise you’d be a dirty double-crosser!”


Mirabile Dictu! – (Latin for “Keep off the grass!”)
This cruel and unusual punishment courtesy Theo Reiner in Calgary.
* The roundest knight at King Arthur's round table was Sir Cumference.
* He acquired his size from too much pi.
* A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class because it was a weapon of math disruption.
* The butcher backed into the meat grinder and got a little behind in his work.
* No matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.
* Two silk worms had a race. They ended up in a tie.
* Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
* Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
* 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: 'Keep off the Grass.'
* A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.
* The man who survived mustard gas and pepper spray is now a seasoned veteran.
* When cannibals ate a missionary, they got a taste of religion.
* Don't join dangerous cults. Practice safe sects!


Bottom of the Barrel – This came from Jane Ho and Stephani Keer. A ninety-eight year-old Mother Superior from Ireland was dying, so the nuns gathered around her bed, trying to make her last journey comfortable.
They gave her some warm milk to drink, but she refused. Finally, one of the nuns took the glass back to the kitchen. Remembering a bottle of Irish whiskey received as a gift the previous Christmas, she opened the bottle, and poured a generous amount into the warm milk.
Back at Mother Superior's bed, she held the glass to her lips. Mother drank a little, then a little more, and before they knew it, she had drunk the whole glass down to the last drop.
"Mother Superior," the nuns asked with great earnestness. "Please give us some wisdom before you die."
She raised herself up in bed and with a pious look on her face, said, "Don't sell that cow!"


Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre – Note: You are welcome to tweak, change, alter, fix or do anything else to these Reader’s Theatre offerings – whatever you need to do to suit your congregation and/or your theology. And there’s no need to explain or give credit or do anything else that interrupts the flow of the service.

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Reader I: I got a giggle out of the scripture passages today.
Reader II: Which one?
I: The one from the Hebrew Scriptures, where the people start yelling at Moses. “We have nothing to eat! And we hate the food!”
II: Yeah! And in the same passage, people are bitten by snakes, and then they are cured of snake bite by looking at an image of a snake.
I: We get to read two passages today, right? I mean, we should, because there are pretty good stories in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures.
II: The first story is from the book of Numbers.
I: Why is it called “Numbers?”
II: (SLIGHTLY ANNOYED) I have no idea, and it doesn’t matter.
I: Sorry.
II: Do you remember the story of the Hebrew people being saved from Egypt? All that business about the plagues and crossing the Red Sea. Well, now they are out in the wilderness and the troubles start. So they send a committee to go and yell at Moses.
II: You start.
I: OK. (SLIGHT PAUSE) From Mount Hor they set out by way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. They spoke against God and against Moses.
II: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water. And we detest this miserable food."
I: Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. Then the people came to Moses again.
II: "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us."
I: So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord spoke to Moses.
II: "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live."
I: So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
II: The passage from the Christian Scriptures refers back to the story of Moses and the snakes. I guess that means the early Christians read the Old Testament.
I: That was their Bible. They didn’t have any of their own scriptures at first.
II: This passage from John also has the most famous words of the whole Bible. John 3:16. “God so loved the world. Loved enough to give an only child. And whoever believed in that child of God would have eternal life.”
I: Hey, remember that guy who used to go to all the sports events, and flash a big sign for the TV cameras that said “John 3:16” on it? I guess he thought God wanted him to do that.
II: This passage from John is the second half of a larger story. It’s about a big-time lawyer who goes to visit Jesus. Nicodemus. He sneaks in there late and night because being seen with Jesus – a wild preacher from the boonies – well, it wouldn’t have been good for his reputation.
I: And Jesus tells him, “Nic, you’ve got to change your whole way of thinking. You can’t just tweak the software a little. You’ve got to install a whole new operating system, and then reboot.”
II: “Born again,” is the phrase Jesus used. Or “born from above.”
I: And then Jesus goes on to explain to Nicodemus just exactly what he is talking about. So here’s the passage from the Gospel of John. The whole thing is Jesus talking to the lawyer.
II: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (READER II MIGHT HOLD UP A FINGER OR POINT OR DO SOMETHING TO CALL ATTENTION TO THIS NEXT VERSE.)
I: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
II: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
I: Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
II: And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
I: But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

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