Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death

Copyright Jamey Prickett

Matthew 11: 16 – 19; 25 – 30 

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry stood inside St Johns Church in Richmond, Virginia and declared before the Second Virginia Convention, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” In attendance that day was George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. 

Thomas Marshall told his son, John Marshall, who later became Chief Justice of the United States, that the speech was, “one of the boldest, vehement, and animated pieces of eloquence that had ever been delivered.” 

Patrick Henry’s speech is credited with convincing the delegation in Virginia to commit a militia to fight against the British Army. 

As Americans, we love our freedom. We love it more than life itself. And in the current days of a pandemic the words, “give me liberty, or give me death,” have taken on new meaning as we debate how to live and behave in such a time. 

At Christmas 1989, as Eastern Europe began to unravel from underneath communism, a BBC journalist toured Romania searching for someone who spoke English well enough to be interviewed. Finally he found a woman who, in twelve words, expressed the mood of the time but also a sentiment that applies to today. She said, “We have freedom, but we don’t know what to do with it.” 

The words agreed upon on July 4th 1776 say that we have all been endowed by our Creator with certain rights and among those are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those rights of all put us on equal ground according to the founding document of our nation. 

What we soon realized is that we really didn’t mean “all.” All didn’t mean African Americans. All didn’t mean women. All didn’t mean Native Americans. 

We have freedom, we are just not sure what to do with it. 

The story of America has shown us that we have had a hard time knowing what to do with our freedom. We haven’t figured out how to live in the land of the free equally with everyone regardless of race or social class. 

Copyright Jamey Prickett

As we are brought to our knees with the current racial tragedy, it is the temptation of White Americans to grieve, to say, “this sucks,” and then try to get back to ignoring racism. But as Christians, we need to see these moments as opportunities to hear God’s word in a fresh, new way. God didn’t bring this tragedy on us, our sin continues to do that, but God can be redemptive in this time. If we are brave enough to name our sin, repent, and strive toward justice, God can turn evil to good, turn enslavement into true freedom. 

I am too much of a gospel preacher to believe that American wisdom and intelligence can solve all our problems. On this Independence Day weekend it is the responsibility of the preacher in America to remind his or her listeners of their dependence on God. 

The burden is heavy. The burden is back-breaking. The burden is never-ending. The burden will crush us. But Jesus has another way. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” Jesus says (Matthew 11: 28 – 30). 

If you do a quick search in Matthew’s gospel to find all the places that Jesus uses the word burden, you come across Matthew 23 where Jesus is speaking about the religious leaders. He says, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23: 2 – 4). 

Moses walked down from Mt Sinai with Ten Commandments, but as the religious leaders searched the scriptures they came up with a total of 613 commandments; 248 positive ones and 365 negative ones. A “thou shall not” for every day of the year. 

Jesus is saying this is a heavy burden to carry. Jesus is not offering us a way out of following the law. The law wasn’t the problem. Jesus says in Matthew 5: 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” 

Jesus wants us to see the law for its greater purpose. In his criticism of the Pharisees he tells us what that greater purpose is all about, “You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). 

Our shoulders do not remain empty for long. Through our baptism we allow the Christian story to make a claim on our life and another type of burden is placed upon us.

A yoke is a piece of equipment that is placed around the neck of a farm animal to help in carrying loads or attaching a plow. There are basically two types of yokes: single yoke or a shared yoke. A single yoke will get you only so far.

A shared yoke takes two animals. If they are well matched, they can carry equipment or work farm land all day. In a shared yoke, one can rest while the other pulls. They can share the load. 

We move from a solitary burden to a communal burden. We move from selfishness to a love of neighbor.  We move from viewing freedom for only what is good for me and my kind to understanding it is not truly freedom until all is free. 

Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” 

The Message translation has this verse: “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Jesus invites us to take off the yoke of the law and replace it with the yoke of love. It doesn’t mean that the law is not important. It gives us a different lens through which to view the purpose of the law. Jesus doesn’t come to relieve us of all burdens – this is not what freedom means to the Christian – rather, Jesus comes offering us a burden worth bearing. 

Fear is a burden that is tearing at the fabric of our nation. Pride is a burden that is sinful. Patriotism reduced to angry sectarian politics is a burden that will keep us from the goal of a nation where all experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Hearing Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” on this Independence Day weekend reminds me of the inscribed words on Lady Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” 

Jesus is inviting us to stop seeing freedom as an end in itself and begin to see it as a responsibility of those burdened with love. 

Elizabeth Lesser, one of the founders of the Omega Institute in New York State, says, “In times of challenge we are given a choice: will we be broken down and defeated, or broken open and transformed?” 

I believe if we continue to carry the burden of hate, fear, and pride we will be broken down and defeated as a nation. But if we will take upon ourselves the burden of love and let the love of Christ work through us, I believe we can have better days ahead. 

A Sunday school teacher shared this mornings text with her class. She asked, “Do you know what a yoke is?” A girl raised her hand and said, “A yoke is something they put on the neck of animals to make them do what they want.” Then the teacher said, “What is the yoke God puts on us?” A quiet little boy in the back of the room raised his hand. “It is God putting God’s arms around our necks.” 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Amen. 

Out on Highway 61

Copyright Jamey Prickett

Genesis 22: 1 – 14

“Oh,” God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son” Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on” God said, “No” Abe say, “What?” God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but The next time you see me comin’, you better run” Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?” God said, “Out on Highway 61.” 

Bob Dylan wrote those lyrics in 1965 in a song entitled “Highway 61 Revisited.” 

There is a Hebrew folk tale that goes something like this: Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.” 

Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann asks rhetorically, “Can the same God who promises life also command death?” 

When we last saw Abraham, he was standing at the door of his residence watching Hagar and her son, Ishmael, wander off to the desert and potentially to their death. 

  And now, the scripture begins, “After these things” (Genesis 22: 1). After Abraham is called to go to a land he has never seen; after a promise to be the father of a great nation; after the long years of Sarah’s barrenness; after the birth of Ishmael; and after the birth of the son of laughter, Isaac; after all these God tests Abraham. 

What are the limits of the demands of God? 

Abraham carried the knife. Isaac carried the wood. They travelled for three hellish days. What did they talk about? What did Abraham say to Sarah before he left? What was he planning to say to her when he returned alone? 

Isaac is bound. The knife is raised. At what point did Isaac realize what was about to happen? Did he put up a fight? Or did he trust his father? 

Trust. Trust brings us to the heart of the story. Some will say it is obedience. But if we learn anything in our current environment it is that blind obedience is stupid. It is cowardly. It can be criminal. If you want to tell me that Abraham is to be commended for his blind obedience, then I am not interested. 

What if it isn’t about obedience. What if it is really about trust. Ellen Davis, professor at Duke University asks the question, “What if Abraham follows God’s command not out of obedience but out of faith? What if Abraham trusts God, even now, when what God asks of him seems to run counter to everything God has promised?” 

What do you do when the command seems to outweigh the promise? Do you trust the promise? 

In 1970 Jewish Theologian Eliezer Berkovits wrote a book entitled “With God in Hell.” In it he asks the questions, “Why did so many Jews keep their faith in the ghettos and the Nazi death camps? Why did they gather to say prayers and keep sabbath, or circumcise their children as a sign of the covenant, even as the SS literally beat down the door? Why did they keep blessing God as the Holy One of Israel instead of cursing God who seemed to have abandoned the Jews?” 

In an attempt to answer the questions, he turns to the story of Abraham binding Isaac. This is what he imagines Abraham saying to God: “I do not understand you. Your behavior violates our covenant; still, I trust you because it is you, because it is you and me, because it is us.” 

This story only makes sense when seen through the lens of trust and trust only is possible in relationship. We know it is a test. Abraham doesn’t know it is a test. Abraham demonstrates trust.

If you read close, you can catch the clues that point to trust. “Hey, dad!” Isaac says, “We got the fire and the wood. Where is the lamb?” Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8). Is Abraham trying to distract Isaac? Or does he trust that God will truly provide? 

Abraham standing at the foot of the mountain says to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you” (Genesis 22: 5).  Did he misspeak? Did he really mean “we?” “We will come back.” 

Abraham is showing God that he trust God. Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard calls Abraham the “knight of faith.” He sees Abraham as a hero because Abraham expects the unexpected. The unexpected being belief in the resurrection. The author of Hebrews says, “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebrews 11:19).  

Trust. Abraham believes so strongly in the God who made him a promise that even if his son is killed, he will be raised from the dead. And now, it is God’s turn. Abraham trust God. But does God trust Abraham? If God is willing to test Abraham’s loyalty and Abraham proves to be loyal, now it is up to God to demonstrate the same loyalty to Abraham. 

God is vulnerable. We talk about God as all powerful. God could if God chooses, squish us like a bug on a windshield. And yet, the moment God chooses to enter into relationship with God’s creation, vulnerability becomes a character trait that must describe God. 

Isaac is God’s way of acting out God’s promise through Abraham. Isaac is God’s future as much as Abraham’s future. Abraham’s response will determine future moves by God. Abraham demonstrates trust. God provides. 

What about you? Do you trust God and God’s promises even when the situation you find yourself in seems impossible? Do you have confidence in God’s trustworthiness when the sacrifice seems too much? 

It is an answer that can only be found in relationship with God. God has made the first move for this relationship to be made possible. 

We move from Mount Moriah to Mount Calvary and discover a God who is faithful. This time a young man walks up a hillside carrying not sticks but a cross. The wood and the nails and sacrificed offered and this time no one was there to say, “Stop.” He cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” He breaths his last breath. He dies. This time God pasts the test and we discover a God who so desires to have a relationship with us at no matter the cost. 

I leave you with this good news: God does not ask any sacrifice of us that God has not first made for us. 

Whatever demands are being asked of you today know that God has gone before you. Whatever challenges seem impossible know that God is able to provide. God provides. In the promise we can trust. Amen. 

(Sermon preached Sunday, June 28, 2020 at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville GA)

We Remember – Memorial Day Reflection

Photo taken June 29, 2019 Arlington, VA

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start to summer. The grill will be pulled out of the garage, the boat will be gassed up, and the ice cream makers will start churning. 

Of course, there is a deeper meaning to this weekend. It is one that we would do well to remember. 

Memorial Day has its roots in the commemoration of Union Soldiers who gave their lives in the Civil War. It has since expanded to a day of tribute to the dead soldiers of all the nation’s wars. It is a holiday of remembrance.

The remembrance that is being asked of us is more than nostalgic reflection on former days. It is an active remembering of making present the memory of the past. 

Active remembering of the sacrifices made gives us hope for a better tomorrow. We remember the sacrifices in order that we may be hopeful for tomorrow.

It is a remembrance that has us praying toward a future where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore“ (Isaiah 2:4). 

A world where “swords are turned into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4). 

It is this type of remembering that evokes the imagination to consider a future with no more war. 

This weekend, we remember. We express gratitude. And we pray. 

Prayer: 

Almighty God and most merciful Father, as we remember with gratitude the courage and strength of the fallen soldiers. We hold before you those who mourn them. 

Help us to remember the sacrifices bravely made.

Help us to remember those that stand in the breach where conflict threatens freedom and liberty of all people. 

Help us to remember that we look for the day when every sword will be replaced by a plow and all live in your peace.

Forgive us every sin that makes for division and for war, and bring us all into your kingdom on earth as in heaven.

In the name of Jesus we pray Amen. 

Small Things

daisyHave you ever heard the phrase, “Don’t sweat the small stuff?”

What if it is the small stuff that is damaging our relationships? The weight of small things may be the symptom of a larger need.

A dirty sock constantly left on the floor can turn into “you don’t listen to me, you don’t respect me.”

By taking the time to sweat through the small things, we are better prepared to handle the larger challenges confronting our relationships.

In Luke 16:10 Jesus says, “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things.”

Working through the small things in a relationship builds trust and greater trust brings deeper intimacy.

We love through small acts.

What small things do you need to pay attention to today to make your relationship healthier tomorrow?

Prayer for the week:

Loving God, let your blessing fall upon those who serve neighbors without reward, who weep with friends, and who forgive seventy times seven. Be with us all this day and help us to be attentive to the small things before they turn into big things. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Holy Saturday

IMG_4650

I admit that I have never given much thought to the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. As Jesus lay in the tomb, I have gone about my day picking up groceries for Easter lunch and last minute gifts for my children. But this year is different.

I woke up today in what felt like a season of heavy waiting. Waiting for it to be over? Waiting for what’s next? Waiting for what I am not sure. I am just waiting.

For the first followers of Jesus, it was a day of Sabbath rest.  Jesus is dead and buried. Everyone has gone home.

Jesus was dead. The Gospel of Mark wants to make the point when he says, “Pilate couldn’t believe that Jesus was already dead, so he called for the Roman officer and asked if he had died yet. The officer confirmed that Jesus was dead” (Mark 15: 44-45). Jesus was dead.

On the back side of the resurrection, Holy Saturday is a day that sits between two polar opposites. Between death and life. Between sadness and joy. Between what has been and what will be.

It is a day that describes those who sit in grief. I believe a lot of the angst we are experiencing during Covid-19 is because as a culture we have forgotten how to grieve. We want to simply fix it and get over it. Like everything else we do in modern Western society, we view grief as a problem to be solved. Patch it up and let’s move on.

Megan Devine in her book “It’s OK That You Are Not Ok” writes, “The most effective and efficient way to be “safe” in this world is to stop denying that hard and impossible things happen.” She continues, “Real safety is in entering each other’s pain, recognizing ourselves in it.”

Holy Saturday reminds us that grief is not a problem to be solved. It is an experience to be carried. There is no need to rush redemption. Yes, Sunday is coming but acknowledging and naming the grief before us makes resurrection all the more meaningful.

What gives me hope on this Holy Saturday in the midst of Covid-19 is said best by the poet Wendell Berry when he says, “I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.”

Friends, Sunday is coming!

Be blessed!

Good Friday Meditation

IMG_4895

Good Friday exist between the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday and the “Hallelujahs” of Easter morning.

“No one has greater love than this,” he said on the last night of his life, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Having explained this to his friends, he leaves the room to go prove it. Less than twenty-four hours later, it was finished

The cross of Calvary is the place where God, having become flesh in Jesus, took upon himself the brokenness of our fallen world. God did not create a fallen world. We made this mess. Instead of abandoning us to our own transgressions, God chose to reach over an infinite chasm of justice and love and wrap us in mercy. The cross is God’s victory over darkness. From it, we see a love that can only come from God. On the cross we see dying love, and we recognize it as the undying love of God.

Seen from the light of Easter, the Crucifixion is the turning point in history. It is the moment when all the evil and pain of all the world is heaped into one place and there dealt with once and for all. “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

As we struggle with the isolation and despair that we are all experiencing, I am reminded of the beginning of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord!” The writer has found himself in a deep place. A place that he didn’t expect. A place that is fearful, dark, and that echoes with every scream. A place not of his choosing but a place he has found nonetheless. It is in this dark place that he cries out, “Lord, hear my voice.”

The cross teaches us that God is with us in those deep places. God has come among us in the dark places.

The Psalmist words are our words. They are the words of a parent who has lost a child, a couple who has lost a house to a fire, a daughter who is losing her father to sickness, an employee who has been laid off, a parent waiting for the prodigal son to come home, the wife who feels betrayed, the husband who calls for divorce, the child who has been abandoned, the homeless family, the hungry. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” God hears our voice in the depths because God is with us in the depths.

Let me say this……..God is not the kind of God that thinks you and me so awful and horrible that we should get what is coming to us, death and destruction. Instead, God thinks you and me are so beautiful, so precious that our redemption is worth dying for.

At the end his book, What Jesus Meant, Gary Wills comes to Good Friday. He writes, “Dark and mysterious as the whole matter of the Incarnation and the Passion, perhaps a single thing can help us think of them.” He then shares a personal account of a conversation that he had with his son. His young son woke up one night crying. He had a bad dream, a nightmare. When Wills asked what was troubling him, the little boy said that an adult had told a group of children that they would end up in hell if they sinned. “Am I going to hell?” the little boy asked his father. Wills writes, “There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature, but I instantly announced what any father, any parent would: ‘All I can say is that if you’re going there, I’m going with you.”

On this Good Friday, Jesus says, “There is no place – no hell, no suffering, no threat, no virus and not even death that if you are going, I am going with you.” Only God can love like that.

Letting Go of Expectations

03AD8532-3069-4B9E-8D8D-700474350A64

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!’” (John 12: 12 – 13). 

The waving of palm branches and shouts of “hosanna” are signs of expectations. The first king of Israel, David, rode a donkey as a humble animal reflecting his identity as a shepherd king, The prophet Zechariah, five hundred years before Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, promised, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Is taken directly from Psalm 118. It is a psalm written to welcome kings back to Jerusalem as they returned form a victorious from war. The crowd would place that image onto Jesus as he comes riding into town. The people are recognizing him as king and liberator. Expectations are high.

And yet their expectations go out the window, as the Jesus parade keeps moving. He rides past Pilate’s headquarters, no overthrow of power. His parade takes him to the temple where he makes a mess by turning over tables and passes judgment on the way their religion is being practiced. His ride takes him through the city of Jerusalem to outside the city gates to a hill called Calvary. The same crowd that shouted hosanna on Sunday will be the same ones who shout crucify him on Friday.

Expectations shattered.

He is a humble king whose way of ruling is the way of love.

It is a love that we will miss if we don’t let go of our expectations of what type of savior we think we need. Don’t let your expectations keep you from experiencing the love of God. Don’t let your assumptions of what you think God is supposed to be doing in this time to keep you from receiving what God has for you.

I know we all want normal. I want normal. I want to get back to living with clearly defined boundaries that keep everything nicely in place. I need a box for everything including God. But if Palm Sunday in a time of quarantine teaches us anything, it is that our expectations are sometimes wrong. Don’t let what you possess, possess you. Don’t let what you have come to define as normal, keep you from the new life that God wants to give you.

What expectation of normalcy do you need to lay down? What possession that has possessed you do you need to release? What sin do you need to lay down? What habit do you need to surrender? What assumptions do you need to just let go of?

One Word New Year

What if one word had the power to set the direction of your life?

What if instead of a list of New Year’s resolutions, you considered setting the course of your life based on one word?

What word would you chose for 2020?

For me, it is the word “intentional.” I want to live a life that focuses on being intentional on loving those in front of me, intentional in my work, and intentional with my time.

What about you? What word would give you the focus needed on becoming the person you want to become?

What is your word?

Going On a Bear Hunt

When my kids were younger the choice bedtime book was “We’re Going On a Bear Hunt”. The classic book describes a family going through the elements of nature in search of a bear.

On weekend hiking trips we would turn the story into a fun game of searching for an imaginary bear. We have been chased by bears. But mostly our occasions were spent hunting bears.

As a family hunting our imaginary bear, I tell myself this is crazy. Normal people don’t chase bears, they run away from them.

Sometimes we discover that the biggest risks bring the greatest opportunities. I have realized that taking no risks is the greatest risk of all.

As you set out to make resolutions this New Year, ask yourself, “What bears in your life need to be chased?” What opportunities need to be taken?

Let’s go into the New Year boldly declaring, “I’m going on a bear hunt, I’m going to catch a big one!”

What bears are you chasing this year?

The World Was Not Worthy

church (1 of 1)

Do you know what has gone to the wayside in our society? The photo album. When was the last time you sat down with the family and thumbed through an old collection of photos? I can’t remember.

The author of Hebrews is pulling out the photo album in chapter eleven. The author is flipping through the old family of faith photos and reminiscing on long-gone loved ones whose sojourn has made this world a better place.

He/she comes to the end and says, “They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11: 37-38).

Every year on November 1, Christians around the world observe All Saints Day, which honors all saints of the church that have attained heaven. In my tradition, United Methodist, the first Sunday in November is the day to recognize All Saints Day. It is a day of remembrance, to recall the loved ones lost over the past year, to collectively remember the faithfulness of God in life and death, and that there is a future with hope, with God’s reign enduring forever. We will call out the names of those who have passed away, light a candle, and ring a bell in their honor.

In some ways they are the ones that “the world was not worthy.” They suffered much, they loved deeply, and they kept the faith. They kept promises and remained steadfast. We can probably list a multitude of reasons why we were not worthy of their time, presence, and love. And yet, God gifted them to us.

inside church (1 of 1)

The late William Stringfellow described saints as “those men and women who relish the event of life as a gift and who realize that the only way to honor such a gift is to give it away.”

They are the ones who have taught us that despair is no way to live. Hope is what keeps the heart beating. A life of judgment doesn’t go near as far as a life of forgiveness. Tearing down others is destructive but building up one another makes a community. Loving will always take one further than hate.

We are not worthy of their gifts. And yet, without them our walk toward sainthood would not be complete.