In 1892, a mob of white men dragged three Black men from the Shelby County Jail in Tennessee. They took the men to a railroad yard outside of Memphis. They tortured the men. They killed the men. They lynched the men.
A few days later, a crowd of a thousand people met at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago to talk about that lynching, to talk about other lynchings, to hear speeches and sing songs and remember and grieve.
And after a short sermon, the pastor of Bethel AME asked the people to join together in song. The United States didn’t have an official national anthem, yet. People just used My County ’Tis of Thee as one. You know the words:
My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from ev’ry mountainside let freedom ring!
And the pastor asked the people to rise and sing. And the people said, “No.” And one member of the crowd said, “I don’t want to sing that song until this country is what it claims to be… a sweet land of liberty.”
Today, we’re continuing a short summer sermon series titled That’s In the Bible?! We’re hearing some stories that we don’t usually hear. We’re hearing some stories that are weird. We’re hearing some stories that might make us uncomfortable.
And today, we’re hearing a story about Balaam and his donkey.
In our reading today, the Israelites are in the in-between. God has led them out of slavery in Egypt. And God will lead them into the land that God promised to their ancestor Abraham. But while they’ve left the land where they were, they haven’t yet gotten where they’re going. And they’ve settled in the land of Moab. And the king of the Moabites doesn’t like that.
So the king of the Moabites has come to Balaam, and said, “A bunch of people have come out of Egypt and settled in my land, and I don’t like that. And I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and who ever you curse is cursed. So here is some money, go and curse them.”
So Balaam gets on his donkey, and goes.
Balaam is riding his donkey along the road, and the donkey stops and turns and wanders into a field. So Balaam does what you do with donkeys who stop and turn and wander into fields. He hits the donkey and gets him back on the road.
And then Balaam is riding his donkey through an alley, and the donkey moves to the side and scrapes Balaam’s foot on the wall. So Balaam does what you do with donkeys who move to the side and scrape your foot against a wall. He hits the donkey and gets him back in the middle of the path.
And then Balaam is riding his donkey up to a gate, and the donkey stops and lays down. So Balaam does what you do with donkeys who just stop and lay down. He hits him.
In 2016, a football player decided not to stand for the national anthem, anymore. At first, he just sat on the bench. Then he met with a former NFL player and Green Beret, who told him that kneeling would be more respectful and that he could still make his point.
After all, people kneel when they are knighted. People kneel to propose. People kneel to pray. Soldiers kneel at gravesides to pay respects to the fallen. And that veteran said that kneeling for the anthem was part of what he fought for.
So the football player started kneeling. And he said that he would keep kneeling, until that anthem meant what it claimed to mean… until that flag meant what it claimed to mean.
Balaam is riding his donkey up to a gate, and the donkey stops and lays down. So Balaam does what you do with donkeys who just stop and lay down. He hits him.
And the donkey says, “Dude! Seriously? I am your donkey. I have been carrying you around for a long time. And I have been good at it. I am not doing this to be funny. I need you to trust me right now.”
And Balaam doesn’t freak out. Instead, he looks around. And his eyes are opened. And in front of him—in the gate that his donkey refused to pass through—he sees an angel… with a sword in his hand.
And the angel says, “That donkey has saved your life three times. God sent me to stand against you and to keep you from going to curse the Israelites. I was in the road, so the donkey went into the field. I was in the alley, so the donkey went around me. I was in the gate, so the donkey stopped. If it hadn’t done that, you would be dead.”
And Balaam repents, and offers to turn around and go home. But the angel says, “No. Go forward. But say what I tell you to say.”
And he does. Balaam listens to God and blesses Israel again and again. And what Balaam blesses is blessed.
Balaam’s donkey loved him. The Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible doesn’t tell us anything at all about how the donkey felt about this whole thing. But I can’t think of another word for what the donkey is doing.
When the donkey sees danger standing in the road ready to attack Balaam, the donkey goes into the field and goes around. And when Balaam hits him, the donkey has to think, “He just doesn’t see what’s going on.”
And when the donkey sees danger standing in the alley ready to attack Balaam, the donkey scrunches up along the side of the alley and goes around. And when Balaam hits him, the donkey has to think, “He just doesn’t see what’s going on.”
And when the donkey sees danger standing in the gate ready to attack Balaam, the donkey lies down to keep Balaam from it. And it is only then, when Balaam hits him again, that the donkey says, “Dude! Seriously?”
He doesn’t run into danger. He doesn’t sacrifice Balaam. He doesn’t buck him or bite him or kick him. He just says, “Open your eyes! I have been carrying you around for a long time. And I have been good at it. I am not doing this to be funny. I need you to trust me right now.”
And I can’t think of another word for that than love. Balaam’s donkey loved him.
For generations, people have asked this country to be who it promises to be. For generations, people have pleaded with this country to be who it promises to be. For generations, people have begged this country to be who it promises to be: a place where all people are created equal and have certain inalienable rights, a sweet land of liberty, a land of the free.
They have asked and pled and begged through colonization and slavery, through the trail of tears and Jim Crow, through internment camps and lynchings and a thousand other trials and tribulations. And, too often, the powers that be have responded by hitting them and telling them to get back on the road.
Too often, the powers that be have disbelieved, even as the people cried, “Open your eyes! We’re not doing this to be funny. We need you to trust us right now.”
And I’m saying all of this because as I wrote this sermon on Monday, a Black man was fighting for his life in a hospital in Milwaukee after being shot… in the back… seven times… by police. Jacob Blake. His name gets added to the list. It gets chiseled onto the wall. Because this happened again.
Because I have this story—that I chose weeks ago—about a donkey who is trying to keep the man on top from riding into death… and the man just kept hitting him.
Because we cannot be the nation that we claim to be—a sweet land of liberty, a land of the truly free—until we start listening to the voices of those who are crying in pain.
And because we cannot be the church who we are called to be—the consulate of the kingdom of God, the body of Christ, a community that people can look at and say, “We know they are Christians! See how they love!”—until we start listening to the Christ who is being crucified again and again.
But there is good news.
Again and again and again, God calls us to open our eyes. And when we cannot do it, God opens our eyes for us. God makes us see the world around us in all of its wonder and in all of its trouble.
Again and again and again, God calls us to open our ears. And when we cannot do it, God opens our ears for us. God makes us hear the cries around us as they shout hallelujah and as they cry for help.
Again and again and again, God calls us to open our mouths. And when we cannot do it, God opens our mouths for us. God gives us words to speak and blessings to pronounce and a thousand ways to say, “Here I am. Send me. I will help.”
And I know that because when Balaam heard his donkey’s words, God opened his eyes and he saw what his donkey already knew. And when he saw what was before him, he recognized his sin and repented. And once he repented, God sent him to bless Israel. And if God can make Balaam a blessing to Israel, God can make us a blessing to this world.
Again and again and again, God raises up the church. And I see it right here… ready to go out… ready to repair a broken world… ready to make us into the people who we are called to be.