Text: Numbers 22 – Balaam story
(This is my "mini-homily for our shared service with First Christian and Ames UCC - each pastor shared a short message on "What I Have Learned During the Pandemic).
I want to begin by going on record as saying that this scripture text, the story of Balaam’s Ass, was not my idea. And in all fairness to Eileen, it was not her idea either. I’m not pointing a finger at anyone, but it wasn’t me and it wasn’t Eileen.
But in retrospect, this is actually a perfect scripture for this morning. The real point of this crazy story is about listening and paying attention and having eyes to see what is right in front of you.
The pandemic has given us a chance to slow down, to listen. And if like Balaam’s donkey we are paying attention, we can learn from it.
I have learned a lot of things. I have learned that that I like curbside pickup.
I have learned that most of the meetings we have can work pretty well via Zoom.
I have learned how to make a face mask from a bandana.
And not insignificantly for me, I have learned that I don’t miss sports as much as I thought I would. That surprised me, and it actually pains me to say that, but it’s true. When people are losing their livelihoods, when health care workers are placed in danger, when people are dying, you gain a perspective on what really matters.
One of the things that has struck me is how contemporary our scriptures are in such times. Week after week, ancient words seem to speak to the moment we are in. We recently read from Acts about the establishment of the office of deacon. You may recall that Greek widows were not being cared for as the Hebrew widows were, and deacons were appointed essentially as a response to structural racism. Pretty contemporary. And I think it was the second Sunday of online worship that we read from Mark 13 of a coming apocalypse. That has never been a favorite text for me, but reading about an apocalypse while we were living in an apocalypse, it had new meaning.
We are living in an apocalyptic time. The word apocalypse means revealing, and things are being revealed to us - if, like Balaam’s donkey, we will pay attention.
This time has revealed the inequalities of our society. Many workers deemed “essential” are paid minimum wage and have no health insurance, while those with the most, like Iowa’s wealthiest person, have received millions in stimulus payments. I talked with pastors at two of our immigrant churches. They have had many members test positive for the virus, including one of these pastors. A healthy 34 year old man in his church has died. It’s no coincidence that our immigrant churches have suffered the most.
This time has revealed glaring racial disparities. Following the death of George Floyd, I have learned a lot about our racial history that I was embarrassed not to have known. And now I am embarrassed for our country because I do know it.
This pandemic has revealed the depth of division in our nation as basic science and public health practices are viewed with suspicion.
At the same time, the pandemic has revealed much that is positive. In the early days of near-lockdown, I noticed birds singing more than I had before. I appreciated the quiet in the neighborhood. I have since noticed bumblebees visiting our hostas. There is a lot to be said for a slower pace.
The pandemic has revealed how important communities of faith are to so many people. Over the last 4 ½ months, worshiping with Zoom, we have had, improbably, our best attendance in years. Part of that is that there’s not much else to do, but the bigger thing is that this time has revealed a hunger for community, a hunger for connection that we may have taken for granted in the past.
I have been struck by the way people are reaching out to care for one another. I have appreciated the way people have reached out to care for me.
We talk about wanting to get back to normal, but one of the things I have learned is that normal is way overrated. There is a lot of normal I’d rather not go back to, and there are parts of pandemic life I hope we can hold on to.
Arundhati Roy, writing back in early April, said,Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas and … smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.One of the things I have learned is that things can be different, and by God’s grace I pray they will be. Amen.