Don't Be a Donkey

Following is a sermon I delivered on August 18, 2013 at Pocatello First United Methodist Church.

Psalm 32

All year long, I've been participating in a Bible verse memorization project. It involves memorizing two verses of the Bible a month … theoretically. I say theoretically because I am terrible at memorizing things. I can barely remember my phone number, and then half the time, I transpose two of the numbers.

So instead, for my Bible verse, I write it on an index card and place it on my desk at home. I meditate on it for a couple of weeks. And believe me, the concepts sink in, even if I can’t recite it back. However, back in July, I came across a verse that I don’t ever think I’ll forget, and I hope to have it firmly planted in your mind before you leave here today. A version of it appears as a part of our Scripture passage for today.

Psalm 32: 8-9 reads, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like an unruly horse or mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle.”

That is from the New Revised Standard translation. Of course, all of this was originally recorded in Hebrew, and if most of us are going to read it today, we need an English translation, of which there are many! I personally own six or seven, and online, I can access at least 20. I love the way the New Century Bible sums up this Scripture passage, “Don’t be a donkey!”

But Wait, There's More ...



And that’s your verse for today. Let’s say it all together, “Don’t be a donkey.” One more time, “Don’t be a donkey!” Very good!

But before we go on, there’s a troubling part of our Scripture passage I want to address. Verses three, four, and five say, “When I did not declare my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength dried up as by the heat of summer. I  acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; then you forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Some people have interpreted this to mean that the Psalmist felt that he or she was being punished by God through illness, but I would like to suggest something else, being sick with guilt. There’s a consequence to sin or doing wrong … no doubt. Sometimes other people are affected by the consequences of our sin, something we do affecting our family or friends.

Sometimes our suffering is a result of someone else’s mistake. That is the nature of our fallen world. We are all caught up in the collateral damage. Sometimes that causes illness or injury, but what happens when you feel responsible?

There’s the knot in your stomach, the lump in your throat, the light headedness when all of the blood drains out of your face. You can’t eat. You can’t sleep. You keep going over it again and again in your mind. This is the kind of illness that I think the Psalmist is talking about here, and, we are given the remedy. We can take it to God, who will forgive us and begin the process of restoration. We may still have to forgive ourselves, which can sometimes take a lot longer … or is that just me?

The Psalmist goes on to tell us how we can at least minimize the trouble of our own making in the future. Pray or talk to God. Spend time with God (like coming to worship or Bible study or devotionals). Walk along side by side, not having to be pulled along grudgingly. In other words … “Don’t be a donkey!” You see, you are getting it. *smile*

It’s kind of funny to me that we would be admonished not to be a donkey when donkeys are so important in the Biblical text, being referenced 121 times. In Genesis they’re always talking about their donkeys. My favorite comes from Genesis 43:18. At this point, Joseph has long since shown up in his coat of many colors to check on his many brothers. Due to their jealousy of his being their father’s favorite, and his taunting of them, they sold him into Egyptian slavery. (Talk about suffering the consequences of your sins.)

Despite this and the troubles that follow, Joseph learned from his mistakes and eventually found himself appearing before Pharaoh to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph tells him about the famine to come. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of Egypt’s preparations, and he becomes the most powerful leader in Egypt after Pharaoh.

The famine comes, and people from all over the region come to buy food, including Joseph’s brothers (though they don’t recognize him). Even when Joseph eventually says he will give them what they want and invites them to dinner, they don’t trust him. Then, they say, “We have been brought in, so that he may have an opportunity to fall on us, to make slaves of us, and take our donkeys.”

Really?? Get physically attacked, made into slaves, and … take our donkeys???!!!

It just goes to show how important they were … They are. Despite their cute looks, they are surprisingly tough, protecting flocks of animals from predators. They’re pack animals, of course, and then there’s their sense of “self protection,” in other words, their stubbornness.

Do any of you watch the PBS travel show Globe Trekker? I love it, and recently they had several episodes that traveled the ancient “silk road” between China and Turkey. In Turkey, donkeys often lead the caravans because they have the good sense to know when to stop when others, including humans, would go on until they drop. So yes, in the ancient world and in many places in today’s world, donkeys are worth their weight in gold.

So, you would think that being like them would be good, but here we’re told … What? What are we told? “Don’t be a donkey.” In this case, it’s this sense of “self preservation,” this fear that makes us want to go our own way, instead of trusting God, that is the culprit.

Our Methodist tradition tells us that God extends a hand to us, and invites us to be in relationship. We have a choice whether to follow. God wants us to go willingly rather than one who has to be pulled, fighting it every step of the way.

I’m reminded of the prophet Jeremiah. He was called by God to speak to the people of Judah. In the Book of Jeremiah 1:9, he describes the Lord giving him the words to say, putting them in his mouth. In 15:16, he says that he ate the words for they were his “joy and delight.” Jeremiah had some hard words to say on God’s behalf. He was warning the people of Judah of consequences to come because of the sins of the past. Those words of Jeremiah caused him a lot of pain and suffering because the leaders of Judah didn't want to hear it, and yet, the words God gave him were still his “joy and delight.”

Have you ever seen a movie or tv show where someone ill is given medication to help them, but they hold it in their mouth and wait for a chance to spit it out? Or, have you tried to feed a small child, and no matter how hard you try, they’re not going for it? You want to say, “Will you just work with me for a minute?!” God is trying to feed us good food that will build us up, and God is saying, “Work with me people!”

Often, just when we think we have it all figured out, we find that we don’t. Maybe, we think that we’re too sophisticated or too advanced. We don’t need to be guided. We’re proud. We’re so sure we know the “right” way, and we’re bent on doing it no matter what. God is trying to guide us, and we’re fighting like a stubborn mule. We like our own way better.

Anyone here like old movies? One of my favorites is Holiday Inn. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire are taking about Lila, the girl they both were engaged to, the woman who wound up running off instead to marry a man she thought was a millionaire. One problem, he didn’t own millions. He owed them. And Fred says, “Poor Lila. Always running to greener pastures and finding spinach.”

Doesn't that describe so much of what our relationship with the world is like? We think we know a better way. We see this opportunity or that in the world. Riches, relationships, activities, where we think we can be in control, be casual, sophisticated. We’re strong. We’re smart. We’re good people. We can handle it. People look like they’re having fun, that they have something we don’t. “But Mom, everybody’s doing it!”

It’s that feeling of hubris of pride that we don’t need God anymore … that’s when we’re in trouble. Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

If we want to buck God, he will let us, and there will be consequences. God wants our willing participation, but the good news is that it is actually a better way to live. The world has us continually chasing after spinach. Now, spinach is great, and I love to have a nice salad of it. Heat it a little, and it becomes one of the most nutritious foods in the world. But, those are not the green pastures that I want to lay in with the Lord as referenced in the 23rd Psalm.

But why? What does God care whether we follow or not? Because he loves us with an everlasting love (Jer 31:3). God does not teach us how to live to be authoritarian, to build himself up. God has no need of this, but God, as our creator, knows how we’re designed to work. How we’re wired.

There this great children’s book by Max Lucado called You Are Special. It features this town of wooden people who give each other gold stars or grey dots depending on whether they think someone should be admired or ridiculed. This one, named Punchinello, was full of grey dots and he was really down on himself. Then, one day, he meets a girl who doesn’t have stars or dots.

They don’t stick. Naturally, he wants to know how she managed that, and she suggests that he go see the wood carver, Eli. When he gets brave enough …

He walked up the narrow path to the top of the hill and stepped into the big shop.
"I'm not staying here!" and he turned to leave. Then he heard his name.

"Punchinello?" The voice was deep and strong. Punchinello stopped.

"Punchinello! How good to see you . Come and let me have a look at you."

"You know my name?" the little [wooden person] asked.

"Of course I do. I made you."

Eli stooped down and picked him up and set him on the bench. "Hmm," the maker
spoke thoughtfully as he looked at the grey dots. "Looks like you've been given some bad marks."

"I didn't mean to, Eli. I really tried hard."

"Oh, you don't have to defend yourself to me, child. I don't care what the other[s] [...] think."

"You don't?"

"No, and you shouldn't either. Who are they to give stars or dots? They're [wooden] just like you. What they think doesn't matter, Punchinello. All that matters is what I think. And I think you are pretty special."

Punchinello laughed. "Me, special? Why? I can't walk fast. I can't jump. My paint is peeling. Why do I matter to you?"

Eli looked at Punchinello, put his hands on those small wooden shoulders, and spoke very slowly. "Because you're mine. That's why you matter to me." Punchinello had never had anyone look at him like this -- much less his maker. He didn't know what to say. "Every day I've been hoping you'd come," Eli explained.

"I came because I met someone who had no marks," said Punchinello.

"I know. She told me about you."

"Why don' t the stickers stay on her?"

"The stickers only stick if they matter to you. The more you trust my love, the less you care about their stickers."

"I'm not sure I understand."

Eli smiled. "You will, but it will take time. You've got a lot of marks. For now, just come to see me every day and let me remind you how much I care."

God is not looming over us shaking a finger at us just waiting to inflict punishment because we made a mistake or challenged God’s authority. Like God is somehow less because of what we've done. If only we had that kind of power. God is love. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

“Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.” The most common phrases in the Bible.

Fear that we can’t fulfill the standard, so why bother. Fear that we’re missing out on something, so rush headlong into it. Fear that we might be wrong about something, so bullying others to convince them we’re right. Fear that we can’t be good enough for God to really love us. God loves you! The real you. The you that you try to hide from the rest of the world. The you that you think only you know about.

God doesn't want to punish you. God came in the flesh in Jesus to save us. God wants to offer you a hope and a future (Jer 29:11), but you have to go along. How do you do that? Come and meet God in worship. Seek God in the Bible. You can start by letting Jesus show you those ways that seem so upside down to the world by reading the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. God holds out his hand to you to take you on a marvelous ride. Will you take it? “Don’t be a donkey.”

Amen.

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