Friday, April 10, 2009

Preaching Materials for April 19th, 2009

R U M O R S # 548
Ralph Milton’s E-zine for people of faith with a sense of humor

April 12, 2009


Motto for Holy Humor Sunday, April 19th.
Humor is not the opposite of seriousness. Humor is the opposite of despair.
Conrad Hyers

Holy Humor Sunday – This is not a recent invention of flaky dabblers. The origins of this celebration go back hundreds of years as a way of celebrating God’s resurrection victory over Satan. The idea was to laugh at Satan who had been outwitted by God.
The medieval church believed that Satan could absolutely not stand laughter. At least not genuine laughter. If you laugh at the evil one, he has no power over you.
While our theology may be more sophisticated, Holy Humor Sunday recognizes that laughter is a gift of God and a means of grace. That is not to say that we “laugh our troubles away.” It is to say that good humor, laughter, a twinkle in the eye, are one of God’s many gifts that help us cope with the struggles of life. Especially the smaller, annoying little problems.

NOTE: Here’s a way to celebrate Holy Humor Sunday, even if there’s nothing in your church to mark the occasion.
There are untold numbers of dunderheads, dolts, functionaries, bureaucrats, and other such-like personages who could do with a dose of laughter and faith. There are also untold numbers of delightful, fully-alive, faith-filled people.
Both kinds might appreciate a phone call from you to wish them a “Happy Holy Humor Day.” So give ‘em a dingle. Say, “Happy Holy Humor day, Hanna.”
Then, without unduly perjuring yourself, try to think of something nice to say about Rumors. Say you are going to send them an absolutely free complimentary copy. Tell them there are instructions at the end on how to sign up. And how to take their name off the list when they get sick of having it pop up in their e-mail every Sunday.
If they are like me, and think of computers as “the enemy,” tell them you’ll send me their e-mail address and I’ll do the dastardly deed. I don’t know how to do much on these cack-handed contraptions, but I can to that.


The Story – struggles of the early church
Rumors – let’s all move to a commune
Soft Edges – Easter morning
Good Stuff – and God created laughter
Bloopers – bad lunches
We Get Letters – good luck
Mirabile Dictu! – holy humor
Bottom of the Barrel – God’s goofy humor
Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre – John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35
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 had spent several sessions teaching the story of Jonah and the whale. They’d read, talked about, and role-played how Jonah tried to run away from God, was swallowed by a big fish, barfed up on the beach and finally went to preach to Nineveh after all.
“What can we learn from this story?” the teacher asked.
From the back row a small voice. “That you can’t keep a good man down.”

Next Week’s Readings – These are the readings you may hear in church this coming Sunday, which is the Third Sunday of the Easter Season. It is also celebrated in some congregations as Holy Humor Sunday.

The Story (from the Revised Common Lectionary) – John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35

Ralph says,
The story out of this week’s readings works for me if I change the order the Lectionary folks suggest and read the Gospel and Acts passages chronologically. Because those stories tell us a couple of things we tend to forget when we think about the early Christian Church. The two stories together, I think, tell us how much we are like those early Christians.
It would be a good thing to laugh about. I don’t know if those early church folk were able to laugh at their own humanity, but it would be good for us if we could do that.
The Gospel reading shows us that the disciples were not all cut from the same cloth. Like the folks in our churches, they come in all stripes and flavors, and they come to their faith in different ways. Some see the thing whole in one glorious revelation, like Mary of Magdala, and some say, “Show me the evidence,” like Thomas. Others grow into it slowly, bit by bit, over a lifetime. Others (like me) are never really sure what they believe.
The same kind of thing in the church – especially when it comes to things like stewardship of time and money. Some give themselves and their resources almost completely. Others toss in a bit when it’s convenient. Some are committed to the life and ministry of the church. Others show up occasionally when there’s nothing else going on.
Most of us are somewhere in between.

Jim says –
I’m actually not using any of the lectionary readings this Sunday, because my congregation treats the first Sunday after Easter as “Holy Humor” Sunday. So the service resembles something of a cross between an issue of Rumors and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in (if you can remember that far back).
But if I were using the RCL passages, I would go with the John 20 story of Jesus meeting the disciples in the Upper Room – especially since I once claimed Doubting Thomas as my patron saint.
I would look for modern parallels to the terrified disciples hiding behind locked doors: Buddhist monks in Chinese-occupied Tibet, women in Afghanistan, Muslims in the U.S. after 9/11... Every knock on the door was someone coming to get them.
And I would contrast their cowardice now with their brazen bravery in Acts 2 to 4, when they not only went into the streets, but into the Temple itself. It would be equivalent to Al-Qaeda evangelizing the Pentagon!
What happened to change them? John tells one version. It may be factual; it may be mythic. But the gospels and Acts combine to tell us that “something” happened. Exactly what that “something” was doesn’t matter as much as that it did happen.
Psalm 133 – paraphrased by Jim Taylor
We don't pour oil over people's head's anymore. But the image of a gathered people, of good things overflowing, still has meaning.
1 How good it feels to have the human family
gathered together for this sumptuous feast.
2 Here we rejoice in the rich repast
of fruit and tree and vine.
Apples and oranges, grapes and cherries,
yield their joyous juices to our lusting mouths.
Drops of surplus pleasure trickle down our chins.
We dab them unself-consciously with rumpled napkins.
3 This gathering refreshes like a sweet morning in the mountains,
like a prairie sky polished bright by gentle breezes.
Surely this is what the Lord intended
when God created life.
From: Everyday Psalms
Wood Lake Books.
For details, go to

1 John 1:1-2:2
There are children’s versions of the two key readings in next Sunday’s lectionary. “Thomas Asks Questions,” on page 102 and “Sharing” on page 104, in “The Lectionary Story Bible, Year B.”
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 – It almost feels as if it was in another lifetime. I was producing TV programs and writing magazine articles. That involved a lot of trotting around interviewing people and digging around in libraries. This was the B.G. era. Before Google. Or B.C. Before computers (at least computers on everyone’s desk).
That was in the 60’s when bright-eyed idealists were doing all kinds of creative stuff including communes. Some close friends of ours hurled their date-books out of the window, bundled up their families and headed out to start a commune in the Gulf Islands of the west coast of Canada.
My research at that time was to assemble enough material to convince Bev that we should toss our date-books and join them.
I loved the research. I hated the conclusions I came to.
It became very evident that the only intentional communes that lasted were the ones where there was some very strong, top-down leadership. Charismatic leadership in many cases. Authoritarian in others.
In democratic communities where everyone got involved in the decisions – where there was no big boss and no central charismatic leadership – things didn’t usually last. When the leader fell from the pedestal or the authoritarian leader faced a rebellion, the thing would begin to crumble. Very few lasted into the second generation of leadership. Community and democracy, it seemed to me, were incompatible.
That put the kibosh on my efforts to get Bev to pack up our four tadpoles and head out to the islands. Which was just as well, because our friends dissolved their community in less than a year – bitter and disillusioned and poor.
Perhaps community isn’t compatible with the individualism of our society – and the individualism that seems to be nurtured in mainline, liberal churches. Our personal needs and rights are paramount. And that’s a thing to be celebrated. Until the last few generations of western democracy, there was no such thing as individual needs and rights, except for the wealthy and powerful.
We use the rhetoric of liberation theology, which requires that the needs of the community take priority over the needs of the individual. Individual convictions must be expressed, but then must give way to the will of the community. But in the way we live out our faith – in the way that things actually happen – each of us believes that our personal needs and convictions trump all.
I was with a group of friends recently, most of them retired church professionals, where we found ourselves sitting around talking about worship services in our various churches, and how they should be changed. The underlying assumption in our conversation was that the service failed unless it met our specific, personal needs.
The pendulum swings back and forth. The rights and needs of the individual. The rights and needs of the community.
The early Christian community described in Acts was dysfunctional from the outset. And I find myself wondering if real community – if anyone really knew what that meant and how the balance could be achieved – may be the next great human adventure.
If not, it may be the next great human failure.
People will learn to live together. Or die together.


Soft Edges – by Jim Taylor
Easter Morning
I ran across this quotation the other day. The source claims it comes from the Buddha, the Hindu prince Gautama Siddharta:
* Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it.
* Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held.
* Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books.
* Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin.
* Believe nothing just because someone else believes it.
* Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.
Of course, I don’t know if the Buddha actually said that, or if some later writer/editor distilled it from the collected teachings of the Buddha’s followers.
Understandably, I have some skepticism about the authenticity of the vast volumes of wisdom attributed to the Buddha. Or, for that matter, attributed to Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Mohammed, Guru Nanak Dev, Baha’u’llah, Joseph Smith, or Mary Baker Eddy.
Almost all major religions base their universal truths, their sacred writings, on the insights of one person. Hinduism is an exception; it has no single source for its earliest scriptures.
It seems unlikely that any one person – living within a particular time and culture – would have such profound insights as to subordinate all subsequent thinkers to mere interpreters of the original wisdom.
But I realize that I fail to apply that standard to my own religious tradition. I don’t apply the same skepticism to stories of Jesus that I might to, say, the Book of Mormon.
Not that I take everything literally. When I read about walking on water, feeding 5,000 picnickers, and raising the dead, I treat them as metaphoric descriptions of the effect Jesus had on his friends. Similarly, I treat the narratives of Mary being inseminated by God as an awed group’s effort to explain how Jesus could reveal so much more of God than his contemporaries did.
But I still cling to the core truths of those stories. Especially at Easter.
The Resurrection itself – with a capital R – remains a conundrum. But the human stories around the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday ring true – the cowardice of his followers, the grief of those who loved him, the reality that the powerful always sacrifice the innocent to save their own skins...
I empathize particularly with Mary Magdalene. Heartbroken, distraught, fearing that grave robbers had stolen Jesus’ body, she turns to a stranger and pleads through her tears, “Tell me where you have taken him.”
And she hears what all of us who have ever lost a loved one long most to hear – a familiar voice, saying our name...
I’ve been there. I know too well that yearning – to hear this voice just once more, to hold this body just once more...
Perhaps I’m just a captive of my culture. Perhaps I set aside my normal suspension of credulity about these stories because I grew up believing in them.
Or perhaps I am finally heeding the Buddha’s advice: “Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.”


Good Stuff – Oh, what agony we in the church could have spared ourselves if we had, all along, seen the book of Jonah as a humorous parable – an invented story designed to help the people of Israel know that God is the God of all people, even those hated Ninevites who kept beating up on them all the time.
The writer of Jonah’s main device is hyperbole. Exaggeration. The writer is pulling your leg.
The parable starts out with the highly improbable idea that Jonah could run away from God. He runs to Tarshish, somewhere in Spain – a place that was a symbol of the back of beyond, much like Timbuktu is for us today.
The action on board the ship is also highly improbable, as is the idea of a fish swallowing the man. But suddenly, in the belly of the fish, Jonah gets religion. And we hear a long, self-serving prayer. Then Jonah gets barfed up onto the beach.
Again, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh which is now described as a city “three days journey across.” A day’s journey was about 20 miles, which would have made Nineveh 60 miles wide. There was no city anywhere near that size in those days.
So Jonah goes and preaches the shortest and most effective sermon in history. One sentence! And everyone, from the king on down, repents.
So God doesn’t destroy Nineveh and Jonah goes into a royal snit. God enacts a little parable with Jonah in the whole business of the shade-giving plant. Out of that comes God’s message about also caring for the people of Nineveh – an idea so outrageous that it could only have been heard by the Israelites through the use of broad, belly-laugh humor.

The above is based on Conrad Hyer’s book on Jonah, “And God Created Laughter,” published some years ago by Westminster/John Knox press. The book is now out of print but still available on some web sites.


Bloopers, Boggles, Typos and Stuff – Dorothy Jago of Reston, Manitoba saw this in the church bulletin. “Cleaning bee. April 18 starting at 9 am. Bring a bad lunch.”
And what would that be, Dorothy? Broccoli sandwiches on rye? Hold the mayo?

Russ Plumley of St. Catharines, Ontario says: “The item in Bloopers about "Garage Sale Treasurers" brought back this memory. I've been Treasurer of Niagara Presbytery since 1996 and once received a letter addressed to "The Treasure of Niagara Presbytery". I had no hesitation in believing that I was the intended addressee!
Larry Bethune of Austin, Texas, decided to lead a Bible Study on Ephesians 4, titled, “The Church as a Dynamic Organism.” But it came out in the bulletin as, “The Church as a Dynamic Orgasm.”
Larry says they drew “an enthusiastic crowd.”

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 I could wish for my life to be perfect, it would be tempting but I would have to decline, for life would no longer teach me anything.
Allyson Jones via Lil Sheard

We might not be pioneers crossing the prairie, but neither are we settlers laying foundations that will last forever. We are pilgrims, waking up each morning on ground that we might be leaving soon , moving toward promises, leaving vistas that once seemed appealing, weary of constant change and yet unable to stop change.
Tom Enrich via Mary in Oman

Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
James Bovard via John Severson


We Get Letters – Jim Spinks sent along a list of messages on church sign boards. One of them was new to me. “Happy Easter to our Christian friends. Happy Passover to our Jewish friends. To our atheist friends – good luck.”

Jan Duecker of Paris, Texas, heard her grandson Jacob preach a fine sermon. They were playing school, with Jacob as teacher and Jan as student.
Standing up as the teacher, Jacob pronounced. "Today's lesson is........God died." And after a moment. "And then He lived!"
Jan’s comment – “Doesn't that say it all?”

Bernice Whaley writes: “At five minutes and six seconds after 4 in the morning on the 8th of July this year, the time and date will be 04:05:06 07/08/09.
“This will never happen again.”


Mirabile Dictu! – (Latin for “Holy Humor!”)
If you would like to pretend you really know your anchovies, and that you’d like to speak knowledgeably about humor, here’s your crib sheet. Also works as scholarly input into a sermon.
Some body language is required. Raise your nose so it’s pointing at someone’s forehead, or about 20 feet above the folks in the congregation, and intone, with a light English accent, material from what follows. Be sure to tell people when you have actually said something funny, so they know when to laugh. If you are sufficiently snooty, people may not know.

It took a year of really hard-nosed research. The BAAS (British Association for Advancement of Science) did a world-wide survey to find out what jokes seemed funniest in which countries. They sorted through more than 40,000 jokes from 70 countries, which would be enough to drive anyone sane.

Here’s the world-wide winner.
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other man pulls out his phone and calls emergency services.
“My friend is dead!” he yells. “What can I do?”
The operator, in a calm, soothing voice replies: “Take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”
‘OK,” says the caller. There is a silence, then a shot is heard.
Back on the phone, the hunter says, “Ok, now what?”

People from the UK, the Republic of Ireland, Australia and New Zealand preferred gags involving word play, such as:
Patient: “Doctor, I’ve got a strawberry stuck up my bum.”
Doctor: “I’ve got some cream for that.”

Americans and Canadians favored jokes where people were made to look stupid.
Texan: “Where are you from?”
Harvard grad: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”
Texan: “OK – where are you from, jackass?”

Meanwhile, many Europeans liked gags that were surreal or made light of serious subjects such as illness, death and marriage:
“Doctor, last night I made a Freudian slip. I was having dinner with my mother-in-law and wanted to say: ‘Could you please pass the butter?’ But instead I said: ‘You silly cow, you have completely ruined my life.’”

Marriage-mocking also featured in the top American joke:
A man and a friend are playing golf one day. One of the guys is about to chip onto the green when he sees a long funeral procession on the road next to the course.
He stops in mid-swing, takes off his golf cap, closes his eyes, and bows down in prayer. His friend says: “Wow! That is the most thoughtful and touching thing I have ever seen. You are truly a kind man.”
“Yeah, well,” the golfer replies. “We were married 35 years.”

Death earned big laughs in Scotland:
“I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.”

And animals figured prominently. Take the number one joke in England:
Two weasels are sitting on a bar stool. One starts to insult the other one. He screams, “I slept with your mother!”
The bar gets quiet as everyone listens to see what the other weasel will do.
The first again yells, “I slept with your mother!!”
The other weasel says: “Go home dad, you’re drunk.”

The most frequently submitted joke, at 300 times, was: “What’s brown and sticky? A stick.”
Researchers said no one ever found it funny.


Bottom of the Barrel – This from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, 10/16/93:
Calvin is standing in front of his bedroom mirror in his BVDs, flexing his muscles. He’s proudly saying, “Made in God’s own image, yes sir!”
Hobbes is flopped on the floor beside him, disgusted at his pal’s self-absorbed preening. “God,” he says, “must have a goofy sense of humor.”


Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre – John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35

Reader I: And so it was, that the early Christian church sprang into life through the glory of Easter.
Reader II: What are you talking about?
I: I’m talking about the Bible stories that tell us that after Jesus rose from the dead, the first Christians gathered together as the perfect Church. Isn’t that how it happened?
II: No.
I: Well?
II: Let’s read today’s scripture passages and they will tell you what happened.
I: Passages? We’re reading more than one?
II: Yes. Two.
I: Why?
II: Because they each give us a different kind of a glimpse of what happened to the early Christian Church after the resurrection of Jesus. The first one is from the Gospel of John, and it’s a story about the days right after the death of Jesus. It’s from John, chapter 20.
I: When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.
II: "Peace be with you."
I: After Jesus said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
II: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."
I: When Jesus had said this, he breathed on them.
II: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
I: But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But Thomas still wouldn’t believe.
II: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
I: A week later Jesus’ disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them.
II: "Peace be with you."
I: Then Jesus spoke directly to Thomas.
II: "Put your finger here and see my hands, Thomas. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."
I: "My Lord and my God!"
II: "Have you believed, Thomas, because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
I: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
II: You see, not everyone believed the story right away. For some of them, it took a lot of convincing. Just like today.
I: Yeah. Tell me about it!
II: But they did manage to come together into a tiny little church.
I: Is this the story of how they shared everything. Everyone put everything they had into the pot, and then everyone got what they needed?
II: It is. And it’s in the fourth chapter of the book of Acts.
I: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.
II: With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
I: There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.
II: They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
I: Great story! And they all lived happily ever after!
II: Ah, no. Not quite.
I: But they were all Christians.
II: True, but Christians are people. And they come in all types and kinds and flavors. Just like us folks here in this church.
I: So what happened? How come we stopped the story in mid-stream?
II: Because it gets a little bit – ah – unpleasant.
I: Do we get to hear the end of the story next week?
II: The end of the story is that some of those early Christians told a few lies, and not every body shared everything, and it wasn’t long before that whole social experiment fell apart. But you can read all the gory details in your Bible.
I: Where?
II: Right after the end of the story we just read. Chapter 5.
I: I can hardly wait. I love gory details!

(NOTE: The dialogue bounces back and forth between the two readers, and so it is particularly important that the actors keep up the pacing. This is not done by speaking faster. It is done by eliminating any pause, even a very slight pause, between one speaker and the next.)

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