Friday, May 22, 2009

Preaching Materials for May 31, 2009

R U M O R S # 554
Ralph Milton’s E-zine for people of faith with a sense of humor

May 24th, 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 – the stuff of high metaphor
Rumors – a dry old stick
Soft Edges – freezing the process of change
Bloopers – on seahorses
We Get Letters – acceptable language
Mirabile Dictu! – the best in prayer
Bottom of the Barrel – a really awful “shaggy dog”
Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre – Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2:1-21
Stuff – (read this only if you would like to subscribe, unsubscribe or are wondering about permissions. That sort of boring stuff.)


Rib Tickler – The well-known evangelist was trying to find his way in a strange city. Finally he asked a young girl for directions. “How do you get to the Town Hall?” he asked.
The girl gave him directions, then asked, “Why do you want to go to the Town Hall?”
“Because I’m to give a speech there.”
“What will the speech be about?” the girl asked.
“How to get to heaven.”
“How to get to heaven? And you can’t even find your way to the Town Hall?!”

Next Week’s Readings – These are the readings you may hear in church this coming Sunday, May 31th, which is Pentecost Sunday. The readings suggested in the Revised Common Lectionary are as follows:
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14Psalm 104:24-34, 35bRomans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
[If the passage from Ezekiel is chosen for the First Reading, the passage from Acts is used as the Second Reading.]

The Story (from the Revised Common Lectionary) Acts 2:1-21 and Ezekiel 37:1-14

Jim says –
In my congregation, I would start with a quiz – what images do they think of when an insight suddenly strikes them? I’m guessing (in advance, of course) that several people will think of a light bulb coming on. Or an electric shock. Perhaps a billboard, a text message, a whack on the head...
But no one will mention tongues of fire, or gusts of wind.
The Pentecost story is clearly metaphorical. The biblical text itself says, _like_ a mighty wind; tongues _as of_ fire...
Metaphor is like the sacraments – defined by Augustine of Hippo as "a visible sign of an invisible reality." Tragically, our society has lost its sense of the metaphoric. We distrust metaphors and analogies. We expect facts.
Yet we still speak of getting fired up. Burning with passion. Suffering burnout. We refer to spirited horses, team spirit, blowing out the cobwebs, feeling a fresh wind, a storm of change...
Those are all metaphors – a way of expressing something that would otherwise be inexpressible. Because the Holy Spirit was not a thing, to be measured and dissected. It was a feeling, an attitude.
In our obsession with the concrete, we’ve even made the Holy Spirit a noun. We capitalize it, like a proper name. But in truth, it was more like a verb – just as “faith” in Hebrew, mn, was a verb, best translated as “to trust.”

Ralph says…
Jim would have us tell the Pentecost story, and I agree. But I love that Ezekiel story, and so I want to include it too. And the two stories fit together nicely. Both are about the power of God’s Spirit coming with power and passion. And as Jim points out, the stories are the stuff of high metaphor. Both literalism and logic will lead us astray.
Some years ago at a worship conference, I saw how the Spirit can transcend language. We were talking about music in worship. A young woman, a dancer, said she had a tune deep down inside her but couldn’t sing it. She could only dance it.
One of the resource people, a trumpet player, suggested that perhaps if she danced, he might be able to interpret her dance on his instrument. The two worked together for well over an hour. She danced. He played. And together they created something new.
Later that day, they played and danced a melody of haunting grace and power – a melody through which the Spirit spoke “with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
Our western European Protestant Tradition has gorged itself on words. My writing this newsletter and you reading it are symptoms of this addiction. Any analysis of our normal worship would conclude that if we can’t put it into words, it isn’t real. But at the same time we all know that the deepest realities of our social and spiritual lives can never be contained in words.
Each week I struggle to get just a little beyond my verbal addiction as I add photos to the words of hymns and liturgy that are projected onto screens during our worship. Most often I succeed only in adding a bit of visual beauty to the worship experience, but sometimes I can extend, illustrate or sharpen the message. Occasionally, I can raise a hymn or a response onto a new and exciting level of meaning.

Psalm 104:24-34 – paraphrased by Jim Taylor
24 Abundant and plentiful are your creations, O Lord;
you imagined them, and they came into being.
The world is full of your vision.
25, 26 You fill the abyss with the ocean, the seamless womb of life.
Upon its surface, you support tankers and freighters and cruise ships;
in its depths dwell creatures beyond counting--
sleek and gaudy, strange and deadly,
anchored like rocks and faster than fear.
From invisible plankton to playful whales,
the Lord God made them all.
27 All these owe their existence to you;
you set each in an environment where it can survive.
29 But if you turned your thoughts away from them, they would vanish,
a fleeting figment of your imagination.
Your spirit gives them life, as your spirit put breath in our clay;
without it, we return to the dust from which we came,
the dead elements of bygone stars.
30 Blow your breath through our being, Lord.
Create us afresh;
renew the life of your creation.
31 Then the glory of God will go on forever;
all living things will rejoice in God's gift of life.
The vision of the Lord will be evident
in all creatures great and small;
32 from coral cells to the continents themselves.
God strokes the earth and it trembles in ecstasy;
The Lord excites the mountains and they erupt in lava.
33 Is it any wonder I sing the praises of God?
As long as I live, my life itself attests God's glory.
34 So may even my imagination be devoted to God,
and let the Lord fill all my thoughts.
From: Everyday Psalms
Wood Lake Publications.
For details, go to

Romans 8:22-27 – Paul is reaching beyond the confines of his own analysis – to express the inexpressible reality of a Spirit that works and weaves and groans through our lives, always leading us forward into the light.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 – “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” (16:12) Jesus tells the disciples. And that seems to be the constantly surprising refrain that echoes through our lives. We experience the Spirit in our lives one moment, then almost immediately know that the revelation is not complete, but there’s more life to come before we are ready to receive it.

Both the Ezekiel legend and the Pentecost story are told for children in “The Lectionary Story Bible, Year B,” pages 122 & 124.
Some of you will be coming to the General Council meeting of the United Church of Canada which happens in Kelowna where I live, in mid-August. We’ll be launching the three-volume set of the Lectionary Story Bible. Margaret and I hope to be there much of the time to autograph copies for you personally or for your church library.
There are children’s stories for every Sunday of 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 – Let's face it. I'm a pretty dry old stick.
I like my worship services straight. A little "speaking in tongues" goes a long way for me.
A dozen or more years ago while studying in Israel, I went with two new friends to worship at the Anglican church in Jerusalem's old city. They were two retired nurses working at a convent near Jerusalem, both of them recently from Vancouver near where I live – one of them originally from Jamaica.
The Jamaican woman entered the church first, and the usher immediately showed her to the middle of a large unoccupied section. We followed.
Soon we were surrounded by a huge Nigerian delegation. My Jamaican friend thought it must have been her black skin that had the usher thinking she was part of that group. It was a mistake we enjoyed, because the Nigerians were gregarious and happy. Hands were shaken and conversations started before the worship began.
It was comfortably low-church Anglican. But during a long extemporaneous pastoral prayer, the tongues began. Not from our Nigerian friends. They were as surprised as we were.
The speaking in tongues turned into singing, and the strange harmonies and cadences drifted around and through the traditional architecture of the old church building. The tongues seemed to have both freedom and dignity and flowed easily around the gothic arches of that old church.
I had experienced tongues on many occasions. I've been fascinated, amused, sometimes repelled, but never inspired. This time, the tongues had a dignity – a place. They had not become an end in itself. They became another way for the Spirit to communicate. And I was spiritually warmed.
Not long afterward, the priest invited the Nigerians to sing. They stood up all around us – we three Canadians found ourselves right in the middle of a Nigerian choir.
We couldn't understand their words any more than we could the strange words of the singing in tongues. But we could see their faces glow, and their bodies move as they sang their faith with wonderful joy. The Spirit used them to communicate. And I was spiritually warmed.
At the end of the service – the Eucharist. Nothing unusual about it. Words I had come to know and expect. Liturgy I had come to know and expect. But again, the Spirit used that familiar Eucharist to communicate. And I was spiritually warmed.
We had coffee afterwards, my two Canadian friends and I, and two Nigerian's who had been sitting near us. The Spirit, it seems, had reached them too – through the traditional liturgy, the charismatic speaking and singing, the Nigerians song and the Eucharist. There was joy in that discovery, but for me, judgment too.
"You're a dry old stick, Ralph," the Spirit seemed to be saying to me, "but don't box the Spirit into your dry old dislikes and prejudices."
Maybe even a dry old stick can sprout a few new leaves.


Soft Edges – by Jim Taylor
Freezing the Process of Change
I am not the same person today that I was yesterday. I’ve added some experiences; I’ve lost some memories; I’ve replaced a certain proportion of my skin and organ cells.
Technically, that’s not evolution. It’s merely the inevitable process of aging.
In true evolution, change happens to whole species, not to individuals, and over a much longer period.
But both processes reflect the same basic truth – we are constantly changing. As individuals, as a species, as a society, as a world.
My former dentist, who studied these things, assured me that a tiny but measurable percentage of humans no longer grow wisdom teeth. In a world where we no longer have to crack bones with our jaws to extract marrow, wisdom teeth are becoming a liability, not an asset.
Similarly, I’m told, the percentage of short-sighted people is slowly increasing, as humans adapt to a world where billboards, books, and computer screens matter more than seeing a prowling lion on the horizon.
We have social evolution, too. The present system of universal suffrage (for anyone over 18) is not the status quo my great-grandfather would have known. In his day, only men could vote. Before that, only male property owners. Before that, only the nobles. And before that...
So why, I wonder, do we assume that our current context is the ultimate?
It’s as if we want to freeze time. As if this steady process of change achieved perfection at some specific point, and should henceforth and forevermore remained locked immovably into place.
I, for one, do not believe that the human race reached its pinnacle in North American civilization. Industries that spew toxic chemicals indiscriminately, vehicles that guzzle million-year-old life forms, wars that slaughter uncounted civilians, fisheries that strip-mine the oceans, suburbs that spread into farmland like a virus – is this really the best we can be?
Unfortunately, organized religions may be the worst offenders in immobilizing change. Christianity believes that nothing can update Jesus; Islam believes the same about Mohammed and the Koran. Baha’i locks onto Baha’u’llah, Christian Science onto Mary Baker Eddy, Scientology onto L. Ron Hubbard...
Some Christian denominations reject evolution outright. Others accept evolution in principle, as long as it applies to everyone but themselves.
A friend once cynically commented that you can tell when any faith group freeze-framed its theology by the garb its priests and functionaries wear. Some still wear the robes of the fifth century or the frock coats of the 1900s; others cling to the business suits of the 1960s or the jeans and long hair of the 1980s...
No, I do not want to return to some imagined paradise of the past. That is equally an attempt to freeze time.
I want us to recognize that the process of evolving cannot stop, and will not stop. That applies to everything from democratic procedures to social institutions to religious doctrines.
When an individual stops changing, we call it death. When a collective body stops evolving, it too is in danger of dying.


Bloopers, Boggles, Typos and Stuff – April Dailey of Ford City, Pennsylvania writes: “Today, I preached on ‘change’. Then we sang the Hymn of the Day – ‘O Christ the Same.’ Hmmmmm....”

Claire Phillips of Deming, New Mexico writes: “Fortunately this was caught by my proof reader before it went to press. ‘The mission also operates a food panty...’ Obviously, it should have read pantry.”

This from Jim Taylor. “Marie-Lynn Hammond found ‘a story about the tourism allure of the Yucatan peninsula which referred to its ‘its spectacular snorkeling among the corrals...’
“Marie-Lynn added, ‘And that would presumably be done on seahorses?’"

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! – Apathy is the glove into which evil slips its hand
Bodie Thoene via Jim Taylor

Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.
Frederic Bastiat via John Severson

The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom but the end.
Clarence Darrow via Stephani Keer


We Get Letters – Karl Wilderoder of Chatham, Kent writes: “On a visit to Florida many years ago I saw a sign outside a Baptist Church saying ‘This is a hospital for sinners.’
What a wonderful description of our job!”

Kim Gratton of Orleans, Ontario writes: “Just wanted to let you know that my spam filter did not like your title this week. I guess "Down & Dirty" is not acceptable language!”
Gee whizzakers, Batman, in view of what they let through, it makes me scratch my poor bald spot.

Vern Ratzlaff tells me I started something with the two-line limerick. Seems it generated assorted letters from his friends, including one from Alicia of Gallow (sounds like a medieval Spanish mystic) who completed the limerick and sent along an additional poem by Ogden Nash.
There was a young girl from Peru
Whose limericks end at line two
So I sent her to Chili
To stop being silly
For two lines will never do.

The firefly's flame
Is something for which science has no name
I can think of nothing eerier
Than flying around with an unidentified glow on one's posterior

Evelyn McLachlan reports that “the FDA has banned the drug that makes people become monks. They said it's habit forming.”


Mirabile Dictu! – (Latin for “best in prayer!”)
This from Margaret Wood. Someone out there is deadly at Scrabble, or whatever that game is where you rearrange letters. When you do that, you get new words and the occasional insight.
* Dormitory: = dirty room
* Presbyterian == best in prayer
* The eyes = they see
* George Bush = He bugs Gore
* Slot machines = cash lost in me
* Animosity = is no amity
* Election results = Lies – let’s recount
* A decimal point = I’m a dot in place
* The earthquakes = that queer shake
* Eleven plus two = eleven plus one


Bottom of the Barrel – There was a 19th century English fellow who led a most colorful life. At one point he was nominally a trade representative for England in Paris, but was in fact doing espionage for the British government.
While there, he fell passionately in love with the notorious cross-dressing novelist George Sand, but she scornfully spurned his attentions.
Returning to England, he became a noted horse breeder, whose glossy brown steeds were prized throughout the land. He was also a patron of the arts, helping a noted Norwegian relocate to England where he had a successful career.
His biographer began his book, “He was the spy Sand rejected, a man of sorrels and acquainted with Grieg.”


Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre – Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2:1-21.

Reader I: Two readings from the Bible for this Sunday? Why two?
Reader II: Because it’s going to take more than one story before you and I really understand what it’s about.
I: So tell me. Give me the condensed version. In 25 words or less.
II: No.
I: No? Why no? All I want is the plain, bare facts.
II: Because that’s the whole point. These passages are about something more than facts. These passages should not be explained. They deal in metaphor.
I: OK, I’ll bite. What’s a metaphor?
II: Metaphor is like the sacraments. A visible sign of an invisible reality. It’s like that cross over there (POINT TO CROSS IN CHANCEL OR WHEREVER). It’s just two lines of wood. It could mean nothing at all. But it could also be a symbol of God’s gift of life and hope and love.
I: I think I’ve got it. I have a friend who goes to see her husband every day. He’s in a nursing home, with a sad case of Alzheimers. She feeds him his lunch every day, and she talks to him and shows him pictures of their grandchildren. I’ve never had to ask if she loved her husband. The story of what she does tells everything.
II: Exactly. And we are going to hear two stories – one from the Hebrew Scriptures and one from the Christian Scriptures. Neither of them can be explained.
I: Couldn’t we at least try?
II: No. If you explain it, you miss the point.
I: So what are the stories that we’re going to hear.
II: The first one is a story about the prophet Ezekiel, and he tells the story of his vision – his dream. It’s a dream he had about the people of Israel. Why don’t you start. It’s the 37th chapter of the book of Ezekiel.
I: The hand of the Lord came upon me, and brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley. It was full of bones. The spirit led me all around them. There were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. Then the spirit spoke to me.
II: "Mortal, can these bones live?"
I: "O Lord God, you know."
II: "Then prophesy to these bones. Speak to them.
I: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."
II: So Ezekiel prophesied as he had been commanded. And suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
I: I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
II: "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."
I: I prophesied as the spirit commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
II: "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. Therefore prophesy to these bones.
I: Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.
II: Thus says the Lord!
I: Yeah. Wow! I can just imagine old Ezekiel talking to the Hebrews and saying, “That bunch of bones in the valley – that’s you folks! And God’s got plans for you, so get up and start dancin’.”
II: We’ve got a few of those bones lying around in our church.
I: You got that right. Do you suppose God has plans for us as we listen to our dry bones rattlin’ away.
II: I have no doubt at all. And that takes us to our second story, which is also both weird and wonderful. This is from the Christian Scriptures, but it’s about that same spirit that was rattling Ezekiel’s dry bones. Only this time, when those first Christians couldn’t explain what had happened to them, they used the metaphors of fire and wind.
I: So. Let’s read this story from the second chapter of the book of Acts. It’s a story about the first Christians after they had experienced the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then they were standing around, not knowing what to do with themselves. They were lost and bewildered and scared.
II: From the book of Acts. Chapter two.
I: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
II: Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
I: All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
II: Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
I: This is amazing! All these people speaking here are Galileans. So how come it sounds as if they are speaking in our own native language? We hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."
I:"What does this mean?"
II: "They are filled with new wine. They must be drunk!
I: Then Peter, stood up and spoke to them.
II:"People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. My friends and I are not drunk. It’s only nine o'clock in the morning. Listen to these words that were spoken through the prophet Joel:
I: In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.
II: Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'

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