R U M O R S # 554
Ralph Milton’s E-zine for people of faith with a sense of humor
May 31, 2009
THE NICODEMUS STORY
"A merry heart doeth good, like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones." (Proverbs 17:22 KJV)
The Story – abuse of the Word
Rumors – let go of the rail
Soft Edges – the way we wish we were
Good Stuff – I think that I shall never see
Bloopers – light sin
We Get Letters – enough to chop down a dozen trees
Mirabile Dictu! – pewtrify
Bottom of the Barrel – a new acronym
Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre – John 3:1-17
Stuff – (read this only if you would like to subscribe, unsubscribe or are wondering about permissions. That sort of boring stuff.)
Rib Tickler – The pastor was counseling the young lad who was a serious procrastinator. “Finish the things you’ve started,” she said sternly but kindly. “Don’t leave things undone.”
The next day the lad met his Pastor on the street. “You told me to finish things I had started, Pastor. Today I finished two bags of potato chips, a pumpkin pie, and a large box of chocolate candy. I feel better already.”
Next Week’s Readings – These are the readings you may hear in church this coming Sunday, June 7th, which is Trinity Sunday.
Isaiah 6:1-8 – This is poetry. As such, it should only be read in public by someone who knows how to do poetry. We would never ask someone who can’t sing to embarrass themselves and us by doing a solo in church. Why do we keep doing that with poetry?
Read as history or theology or anything else, Isaiah’s poetic outburst will shrivel and die somewhere between the lectern and the congregation.
Let’s not do that to Isaiah. Let’s not do that to ourselves.
The Story (from the Revised Common Lectionary) – John 3:1-17
I’ve been reading in the alternate news media about residential schools. No, not the residential school system in Canada, which has justly received harsh criticism and condemnation over treatment of native children. The Presbyterian, Anglican, and United Churches all issued apologies for their complicity in this abuse; the federal government got on the bandwagon with its own apology a year ago.
Nope, this is in Ireland. The Catholic Church ran schools, mostly for boys. As in Canada, much of the anger has focused on a group called the Christian Brothers.
Lord Acton’s famous quote applies: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In residential schools, some people – teachers, administrators, even janitors – had power. It ennobled some, it corrupted others. When power is abused in the name of the Absolute, it corrupts absolutely.
I would draw a parallel with abuse of the word of God, as reported in the Bible. According to the Gospels, Jesus made one reference – just one – to being “born again.” But some parts of the Church have made it absolute, the only criterion for becoming Christian. John 3:16 becomes such an icon that citing the numbers alone is supposed to change lives. The “born again” mantra is wielded like a club – conform, or expect eternal punishment.
I call that abuse of the word, and of the Word.
Ralph says –
The story is in the John passage, except that it’s not a very well-written story. If you handed this lection to Jim Taylor, the editor, he would insert a huge red asterisk at the end of verse 10 and a note that says you left Nicodemus dangling in mid air. You don’t finish the story. The story turns into a sermon, and a pretty confusing one at that.
But there is a story in there. If we read on through John’s gospel, suddenly up pops old Nic again, this time putting his career on the line by speaking, a little half-heartedly perhaps, in defense of this upstart Galilean prophet.
And then, at the very end – what’s this? Nicodemus is doing what no self-respecting, three-piece suited Pharisee would ever do – he’s actually touching a corpse. He’s helping with the burial of Jesus. What’s going on here?
At the end of the story, Nicodemus is a caring, crying, loving human being. He is a new person. What was that phrase Jesus used? “Born from above?” “Born again?” “Born from God?” However you name it, the new Nicodemus has emerged.
It would be just a pleasant story if many of us hadn’t already lived it. Throughout our lives, there are niggles and ferments and bubbles. Sometimes we pay attention. When we do, we relive the story of Nicodemus.
I was once asked by a fiery-eyed young man, “Have you been born again?”
“Yes,” I said to him. “And again and again and again.”
In the Readers’ Theatre (below), I try to capture the larger story of Nicodemus, not just the snippet in this week’s reading. You are welcome to fix, adapt, modify, change – do whatever to make it fit you and your circumstances.
Psalm 29 – paraphrased by Jim Taylor
In biblical times, a sojourn in the wilderness helped people clear their heads and come face-to-face with God. In our times, it's more likely to be a crisis that shatters the stability of our ordered lives.
1 Trust God – don't pin your faith to human capabilities.
2 Science and technology, wealth and popularity –
These will all pass away.
Only God is worthy of lasting worship.
3 Fame and fortune will not save you when the tempest strikes.
The winds whirl in; waves crash upon your shore.
4 Houses collapse like cards; corporations crumble; assets become worthless.
5 Branches break off; mighty empires are uprooted.
6 In a storm, you are as naked and helpless as the day you were born.
Your possessions, your wealth, your status are useless to you.
7 There is just you and the power of God.
8 Before God's anger, you tremble like a twig in a tempest.
9 All that you depended upon is stripped away, like the last leaves from autumn trees.
10 Before God's majesty, you face your own frailty.
Nothing can save you – except God.
11 Only God is greater than every human crisis.
Only God can sustain you through the storm,
and carry you to the calm on the other side.
From: Everyday Psalms
Wood Lake Publications.
For details, go to www.woodlakebooks.com
Romans 8:12-17 – We experience God’s presence in our lives through stories we hear and through the lives we live. But it is good to try to put that experience into words, even though it will always be inadequate.
Paul is as good as anyone at the exercise, but even he has to break into metaphor, that of child and parent. It’s a dangerous metaphor, because none of us received and none of us ever gave perfect parenting.
But most of us (but not all!) can imagine what such parenting might be like, and if we can do that, we have a glimmer of what God is like.
For children see “The Lectionary Story Bible, Year B,” page 126 where you’ll find “Isaiah Becomes a Prophet,” and page 129 where we’ll find a story based on John’s Nicodemus account.
A suggestion. Have someone read the Nicodemus story from the Lectionary Story Bible while the children are in church. Then, just before the sermon, do the Reader’s Theatre version. Begin the sermon with your own story. Who knows? Some of the folks might make the connection to their own lives.
If you don’t already own “The Lectionary Story Bible,” click the main Wood Lake Publications website at www.woodlakebooks.com, or click on the following address which takes you directly to the “Lectionary Story Bible.”
There are many journeys in a life.
A vivid memory is moving from the tiny hamlet of Horndean, in southern Manitoba to Ottawa at the height of the Second World War. I was nine years old. The move was not my decision, and I was protected and loved through it all by my parents and older sisters.
The first real journey of risk that I chose for myself was marriage. I lay awake the entire night before the wedding arguing back and forth with myself. I now know I did the right thing, though for all the wrong reasons. And, like Abraham, I had no idea where that journey would take me. My idea of marriage came right out of Hollywood and had no connection with reality. I also know, in retrospect, that God was with me on that journey into relationship (which I’m still on, by the way), not pushing, but offering strength.
Much like a parent helping a child on the first day of school.
My second big journey was going overseas to the Philippines as a missionary. Bev and I went, cocky and naive, full of fear and bravado and found ourselves plunged into the wilderness of culture shock. In that island paradise we did 20 years worth of growing in the space of 5. God was there with us, encouraging and nudging and smiling us through, holding hands, holding hearts and offering love, most often through the care and kindness of Filipino Christian friends and colleagues.
Now I’m poised on the edge of another journey. Like that first trip as a child, this one is not of my own choosing. I am well down that bumpy road into old age. And beyond that death.
I’ve had two recent brushes with death. I think of those moments with a sense of amazement. In the moments when I thought I was drawing my last breath, I felt no fear. I felt a mixture of gratitude and annoyance. Gratitude for a rich and full life that I’ve been given. Annoyance that I was leaving a life I enjoyed so much.
In a recent note, Mary of Oman commented, gently and kindly, that I often write about being old. She’s right of course. And I live in dread of becoming a terminal bore with a fixation on my assorted aches and pains. But when you get right down to it, we have nothing to share except the journey we are on.
Old age is a fearful, blessed time. It’s both painful and joyful.
Again I feel that gentle arm around my shoulder. Like Nicodemus giving up his corner office and stock options. Like Abraham’s journey to God-knows where. Like Sarah birthing a child called “Laughter.” Like Mary of Magdala putting her troubled life into the hands of a wandering preacher. Like Martin Luther hammering a revolution onto a church door.
I can hear an inner voice saying, “It’s okay Ralph. Just let go of the rail. Hang on to me. I am with you always. Even when – especially when – it hurts the most.
“Oh, and Ralph, there’s a beautiful surprise at the end of it all. There really is.”
Soft Edges – by Jim Taylor
The Way We Wish We Were
Just over a year ago, I injured my knee. I still don’t know how. I had spent the day before with friends, on a retreat, doing nothing particularly physical; I woke the next morning unable to walk without a cane.
Knees take a long time to heal.
I learned how to walk without an obvious limp on level ground. Going up and down hills, or stairs, was a different matter. And unfortunately, where I live, we have nothing but hills.
After I’d favoured my right leg for about six months, my left heel decided to retaliate. Now I didn’t know which leg to hobble on!
Both my right knee and my left heel are feeling a lot better, thank you. I rarely take a step that causes me to wince suddenly in pain.
But I realized the other day that I have not run for a year. And that bothers me.
I used to run constantly. I’d rather run than walk. I loved the freedom of running, the breeze in my hair, the sense of movement... Once when I missed a bus, I ran the three miles instead and beat the next bus to my destination.
Like Eric Liddell, hero of the film “Chariots of Fire,” I ran because that was the way that God had made me.
But then came a career, a marriage and a mortgage, children, community responsibilities... I ran only when I was late for appointments. Or for my morning cardio-vascular exercise.
Don’t misunderstand me -- I don’t regret any of those life changes. Without them, I would not be who I am today. And I like who I am.
But I wonder sometimes what happened to that young man who ran like the wind for the sheer joy of running.
Is he still running, in some parallel universe? Did he die and disappear forever? Is he still hiding inside this aging assembly of skin and bones and aching joints?
When I chat with other men my age, they admit similar wonderings. They miss what they recall as their golden age, a halcyon time when they felt they lived life fully.
And I wonder if that’s where some of our notions of heaven come from. I’ve never heard any description of heaven with crippled or infirm people in it, or with people still blind or deaf. For that matter, I’ve never heard of a heaven that still has slaves, or poverty – even the streets are supposed to be paved with gold!
I get the sense that in heaven -- whatever that is -- people expect to be restored to a time when their lives didn’t let them down. Uniformly, we seem to imagine that we will be young, healthy, free, rich...
We certainly don’t expect to spend eternity -- whatever that is -- inhabiting bodies crippled by accident or illness, or with minds debilitated by dementia.
Is it possible that heaven, like fashion magazines, is a form of denial of what we are, and of what we have become?
Good Stuff – This from Robert Bates of Florence, Massachusetts.
(Note: With apologies, I hope, to Joyce Kilmer. When I checked the spelling of Kilmer’s name, I was surprised to learn that she is not a she. The full name is Alfred Joyce Kilmer.)
I think that I shall never see A church that's all it ought to be;A church whose members never stray Beyond the straight and narrow way.A church that has no empty pews, Whose pastor never has the blues.A church whose deacons always "deak", And none are proud, and all are meek.Where gossips never peddle lies Or make complaints or criticize.Where all are always sweet and kind, And all to others' faults are blind.Such churches perfect there may be. But none of them are known to me.But still I'll work and pray and plan To make my own the best I can.
Bloopers, Boggles, Typos and Stuff – Gary England of South Pittsburg, Tennessee writes: “On the electrical panel in our church there is this wonderful Dymo label, which intends to note that a certain breaker controls the lighting in the nave. Early Dymo label makers were notoriously quirky to use. This label reads "LIGHT SIN CHURCH". Maybe we clergy are doing our job better than it seems sometimes.”
Barb Lindgren of Le Sueur, Minnesota (The valley of the Jolly Green Giant) was invited to preach at a baccalaureate service but the minutes noting that fact said she would be speaking at the bachelorette service.
Interesting, Barb. But it stands to reasons that bachelor’s come in assorted sizes.
Dennis Fonkert of Glenham, South Dakota, tells about a work party that came to mow the grass in the church yard and cemetery. Apparently they did even better. The bulletin read, "Thank you to all who came to move the church yard and cemetery on Friday.”
Becky from Norfolk, Virginia says Jim’s “review and analysis of email spam (and as a woman, I actually get the same quotas) brought to mind a blooper about an upcoming meeting of the Lions Club. Every single reference was (mis)spelled "Loins Club".
Becky, maybe the typist was being biblical and calling us to “gird up our loins.” Or had she been reading too many of those spam ads telling us males to do exactly that? I looked up the word “gird” in my dictionary, and the first meaning is to “to prepare yourself for conflict or vigorous activity.” Which I think is pretty much what they have in mind.
If you’ve spotted any good bloopers in your church bulletin or newsletter, or anywhere else for that matter, please send them to me. firstname.lastname@example.org
Wish I’d Said That! – Joy is more divine than sorrow, for joy is bread and sorrow is medicine.
H. W. Beecher via Evelyn McLachlan
Trifles make perfection. Perfection is no trifle.
Michelangelo via Stephani Keer
The one who laughs last thinks slowest.
We Get Letters – Whoooweee! If folks were still writing letters on paper, last week’s “Rumors” would have chopped down a dozen trees.
David Evans sent the first e-mail. “I woke up early this morning (4 am in Moncton New Brunswick) and couldn’t get back to sleep so went looking for my Sunday morning ‘fix’ of Rumors. Curses! No email from Ralph. Check the blog. Hallelujah!! It's there. Still amazed I spotted the typo at that hour.”
First of all, my condolences to poor David who reads Rumors at four in the morning. Secondly, it was that Scrabble or anagram thing in “Mirabile Dictu” that got to him. And a whole batch of people around the world. I’m sitting here trying to figure out why. Perhaps they are all Michelangelos (see above).
“Eleven plus two = eleven plus one,” is what I wrote in Rumors. It didn’t make sense to me either, but that’s not unusual.
David wants to know, “Is that the new math? And how can I convince my bank manager to adopt this system for my benefit?
Eleven plus two = twelve plus one and it works fine.
Mark Davis was on about that same topic, but went on to note that “a single ‘Presbyterian = best in prayer’ (as you pointed out), but where two or more are gathered, ‘Presbyterians = Britney Spears’. That may be a pretty strong argument for individualistic piety.”
Mindy Ehrke of Mount Vernon and Letcher, South Dakota adds a helpful comment. “Surely it's no coincidence that the word ‘listen’ is an anagram of the word ‘silent’.”
Mirabile Dictu! – (Latin for “Pewtrify!”)
John Severson has some new words for our vocabulary.
* Hymnastics: The entertaining body language of your song leader.
* Narthexegesis: Post-sermon commentary by the laity in the lobby after church.
* Pewtrify: To occupy a precise spot in the sanctuary seating for more than 15 years without once showing signs of sentient life.
* Hymnprovisation: The abrupt and unannounced transition from one song to another. It also describes what happens when the words projected on the screens are not singable to the melody the pianist is playing.
* Proliferation: A growing number of anti-abortion activists.
Bottom of the Barrel – We have it on good authority (an anonymous e-mail) that there’s a delivery truck scooting around the city with three large letters painted on both sides and on the cab of the truck. I won’t tell you what the letters are, because they trigger some spam filters when printed in all caps. (How’s that for taking the name in vain?)
If you can get close enough, you’ll discover that the three letters are an acronym for “Guaranteed Overnight Delivery.”
Scripture Story as Reader’s Theatre – John 3:1-17
Reader I: Today, we hear the story of Nicodemus.
Reader II: Nicodemus? Isn’t that some kind of patch you use to help you quit smoking?
I: Don’t be ridiculous!
II: Okay. So who is this Nicodemus?
I: He was a really interesting guy. A guy with a lot of courage.
II: You mean he really had guts.
I: If that’s the way you want to put it, yes. Nicodemus is only mentioned in John’s gospel. He was part of the establishment. Like a member of cabinet in the government. So start reading the story. It’s from the third chapter of the book of John.
II: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night.
I: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."
II: "Very truly, I tell you, Nicodemus. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Or born again. Or born anew. However you want to put it.”
I: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
II: “No. No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. So don’t be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
I: "How can these things be?"
II: "Are you a leader of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, Nicodemus. We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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. This is how much God loved the world. God loved the world enough to send an only child, so that all who believe in God’s child would not die, but have eternal life. God didn’t send that only child to condemn the world, but to save the world.”
I: So that’s part one of the story. Would you like to hear part two?
II: Yeah. Because we heard Jesus preach a little sermon to Nicodemus, but the story doesn’t tell us what happened to him. Did he run? Did he become one of Jesus’ disciples? I mean, if he had to sneak around in the middle of the night to have a conversation with Jesus, it must mean he was worried about being caught out or something.
I: Exactly. His reputation would have been ruined. So Nicodemus may have believed Jesus’ words, but he kept quiet about it. He didn’t want to lose his job.
II: But you said there was a part two. What happened?
I: Jesus went around preaching the gospel of love. It’s what he told Nicodemus in the middle of the night. And God hopes for our love in return.
II: What’s so terrible about that?
I: The Romans ran the country. They wanted everyone to obey the rules that the Romans laid down. Without question. And the religious authorities wanted everyone to obey the Jewish law. Jesus was telling people to follow God’s law of love. So they arrested him. And that’s where we pick up the story of Nicodemus. Jesus is on trial for his life. Nobody speaks up for him. Except Nicodemus. So read from the seventh chapter of the book of John.
II: The temple police had been sent out to arrest Jesus. But they came back without him.
I: “Why did you not arrest him?”
II: Have you heard the way he talks? We’ve never heard anyone talk like that!
I: “You mean he’s got you fooled, too? Do you know of anyone who knows anything that has believed him? Has any one of the authorities or Pharisees believed in this Jesus?
II: But the crowd . . .
I: The crowd knows nothing. They are stupid.
II: Then Nicodemus stepped up and spoke to them.
I: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”
II: C’mon. Nicodemus! Are you from Galilee too? Check out any of the authorities. Read all the books on the subject. Nobody, but nobody says a prophet can come out of Galilee.”
I: So you see, Nicodemus does step up to the plate after all. And they probably get him for it.
II: How do you know? The story just sort of ends in the middle of things.
I: Oh, but it doesn’t end. Jesus is crucified. He is dead. Then Nicodemus does something that tells us he is no longer one of the big wigs. He does what no respected leader would ever do. He touches a corpse.
II: What’s so terrible about that?
I: In our culture, that is not terrible. In the Jewish law of the time when Jesus lived, to touch a corpse made you ritually unclean. And no respectable leader would ever do that. Let’s read the last part of the Nicodemus story from the 19th chapter of John’s Gospel.
II: After the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission. So he came and removed his body.
I: Nicodemus – yes, the same man who came to Jesus in the middle of the night – also came to help Joseph of Arimathea. Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes. The two men took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths. This was the Jewish custom.
I: Now there was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had been laid. And there, they laid the body of Jesus.
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