Saturday, August 23, 2014

Sermon for August 24, 2014; Numbers 22:21-38

Rev. George Miller
Numbers 22:21-38
August 24, 2014

How many people have pets? How many of you talk to your pets?

How many of ya’ll say things to your pets like “Look at how pretty you are?” or “Who’s my handsome boy?” or “Where’s my best buddy?”

Of course we do. Know why? ‘Cuase it feels good to say all that stuff.

Truth be told when we talk to our pets aren’t we really talking about ourselves and saying what we want to hear someone say to us?

Watch, better yet, listen to how people speak about and to their pet and you’ll get extra insight into who they are.

Why? Because words have power; power beyond just their dictionary meaning.

Words have ways to bring people together and to keep others apart. Words have a way to heal and to hurt, to bless and to curse.

Last year I spoke about my experience playing Uncle Beau in “Auntie Mame” and what it was like to speak in a slow, southern drawl using positive and affirming words.

It’s hard to be a jerk when you spend months saying words like “Ma’am” and “fine”, “Mama” and “fortunate.”

But for the last few weeks I’ve been noticing something: how the Internet has brought a new kind of energy into our existence.

Social Media has made it acceptable and easy to publicly state hurtful comments. People are quick to express what’s on their mind, to criticize and to condemn.

When not handled properly texts and e-mails can become spiteful epistles in which keystrokes of exclamations points and capital letters seem to yell off the screen and create cyberspace confrontation.

Without the input of body language and vocal inflection that come with a face to face conversation, one can never be sure that what they’ve written has been understood the correct way or if they are correctly understanding the writer’s intention.

Currently, with FaceBook and tweeting, texting and e-mail we’ve become so surrounded with words that we are forgetting just how powerful words can actually be…how powerful words actually are.

As children we were taught “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

That is one of the biggest lies we’ve been told, because words do hurt; they hurt very much, and all of us can recall a time when somebody said something that bruised our psyche in the worst possible way.

Words are powerful; if they weren’t…well you wouldn’t be here listening to me today.

Words can curse, and words can bless. Words can destroy and words can create.

So let us use our words to recap where we are in today’s tale.

About 463 years ago God gave a blessing to the Israelites: they would be vast, they’d bless the world, and they would have land.

And oh! the journeys, the heartbreaks and the adventures they’ve been on. From bareness to children, slavery to freedom, mountains to wilderness.

Through this all, the only things they’ve really had to hold onto is the presence of God and the Lord’s promised blessing.

40 years ago they were on the verge of entering Canaan, but due to fears and unfaithful leadership they were made to wander.

The first generation has passed away and the new generation is ready to cross the Jordan and to see, taste, feel, hear and smell how good a land flowing with milk and honey can be.

But unbeknownst to them, there is a threat: King Balak of Midian has heard about these mighty Israelites and he’s afraid of them; he is worried that they will destroy his nation.

So he comes up with a plan: he will call the great and mighty Wizard of…well, he’s not really a wizard; he’s a gentile seer named Balaam; a pagan who has the gift of words.

Balaam is able to use his words to bless those he wants to bless and to curse those he wants to curse. It’s an unusual talent; one he makes his living off of and is hired to do.

So King Balak calls upon Balaam to take away the one and only thing the Israelites have: their blessing from God.

Here’s where today’s story picks up. It’s a story rich with irony and wit.

While the Israelites are going about their daily business, unaware of the danger at hand, big bad Balaam rises early in the morning and gets on his…donkey, a she-ass.

Although Balaam is a professional seer, it is the donkey who sees the threat up ahead- an angel of the Lord with a sword pointed at her master.

Three times the she-ass saves Balaam from danger; three times she is struck by him.

The Lord opens her mouth and the donkey says “Yo, Balaam- what’s up with the abuse? Why are you hitting me, man?”

To which Balaam says “Because you’ve made a fool of me.”

Now let’s pause here for just a moment- earlier I asked how many of you talk to your pets. Now, how many of you have ever had them talk right back?

Sure, they may bark, meow or chirp in response, but none of us here, as far as I know, ever had our dog or cat say “Right back atcha- you’re a pretty handsome boy too!”

Yet we’re told that out of nowhere this donkey began to speak, and this is Balaam’s response?

Not “What the heck?” Not “Holy Mother of Moses?” He doesn’t do a double take or clean out his ears? What kind of world does Balaam live in that donkeys can talk?

And did you note the play on words here?

Balaam says to the donkey “Because you made a fool of me?” Hmmm…I wonder if there is another word we could have used here that also means “fool”?

Wait a minute: are you trying to tell me this story is funny? Are you trying to tell me that it’s possible for the Bible to have bits of humor?

Are we saying that not everything in scripture is so dire and serious but it can have moments of levity and comedy too?

Thank God, because for the last 3 weeks of worship things have been so serious, with story after story about people being cast into the wilderness, innocent children being killed and the after-affect of bad leadership.

We’ve been in a wilderness of narrative turmoil and inner-conflict so long that it’s good to encounter an oasis of fable-like fun in which a donkey gets to make an ass-ertive declaration against her bull-headed owner, and all for the glory of God.

Why this now? Why this break in the story to make us smile, to add whimsy?

Because sometime we just need to get away from the harsh realities of life, and if we can’t do that with God, who can we do that with?

Doesn’t God deserve to laugh too? Doesn’t God deserve to hear a good story?

Doesn’t God enjoy a fun turn of events in which the wise are made foolish and the foolish are made wise?

And isn’t this story just a bit too familiar? Anyone know someone who is uppity and high on their donkey that they can’t see the truth of what’s in front of them?

Is it safe to say we have all encountered a talking donkey from time to time? Aren’t some of you thinking “Sure- I’m looking at one right now?”

Of course you are; of course we all have.

This story teaches us some valuable lessons about the people of God- that between the sun in morning and the moon at night, what we have is the promised blessing of God.

A blessing that is designed for us to have a life that is as whole and as healthy as possible with people we care about and a place to call our own.

Another lesson this story teaches us is that we can never know for sure where that blessing can come from, and that anyone and anything can be an avenue of that blessing if God so chooses.

A foreign pagan who is paid by a local leader? Sure, why not?

A humble donkey traveling along the road with a nincompoop on her back? Sure, anything with God is possible.

A homeless Jew who likes to drink wine and talk with wary women at a well? Been known to happen.

Two pieces of wood forged into the shape of a cross and a tomb made to hold a dead body? Now that is deep…

Words that are spoken into the air, invisible and weightless? Words written on paper, typed across a screen, sent via text?

Why not?

Wasn’t it words that were used to speak the world into existence? Wasn’t it the Word that was in the beginning, through which life and light came into being???

…Today I am not going to ask you which biblical character you are. Instead I am going to invite you to be one of the characters we have learned about either today or all this month.

And I am going to ask that we are mindful of the words we say this week; the words we use.

Into a bruised and bleeding world where so many swords are already being pointed at others’ necks, do we use words that further curse and kill, condemn and contain?

Or can we find words that offer blessings; words that speak of justice and peace, love and kindness, of welcome and paths ready for the journey?

Are we called by God to use words to curse another, or are we called by God to use words to help usher others into the Promised Land and into the Kingdom of God?

Ask me no more questions; tell me no more lies: teach me, O Lord, your holy Way. Speak to us so that we may speak.

Amen and amen.

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