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)

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

My niece wanted to be gymnast when she was younger. She tumbled, flipped, bounced, and jumped. One day she asked me to join her in standing on my head and walking across the room on my hands. I told her that after a certain age gravity and medical insurance did not allow it.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor suggest that Jesus should have asked the disciples to stand on their heads when he taught the Beatitudes. Because this was in fact what he was doing – asking them to look at the world upside-down.

Take a look:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5: 3 – 12).

It all sounds sort of upside down. Blessed are the poor, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers……doesn’t seem to fit. Blessed are the hard workers, the ones who dry up their tears, the fighters, the ones with talent and money, and those with good looks. But blessed, happy, in favor with God for those who are persecuted……I don’t think that made Fortune Magazine’s article on rules for the good life.

And yet, Jesus is saying this is what life looks like from inside the kingdom of God. God’s reign is demonstrated in the lives of those who embody the beatitudes. The beatitudes are descriptive. They are a reflection of what it means to walk the way of Jesus.

In Matthew 16 Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16: 24). The beatitudes is what it looks like to deny ourselves and take up our cross in the way of Jesus. In these opening words of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is describing what he sees when he looks at those who chose to follow him. Does he see you? Do you see yourself?

Again, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor says, “The world looks funny upside down, but maybe that’s just how it looks when you’ve got your feet planted in heaven.” Blessed are those who stand on their heads, for they shall see the world as God sees it.

This way of seeing the world gives followers of Jesus a new way of dealing with violence. When violence shows up on our streets how do we respond? When it reveals itself in the killing of those who have taken on the responsibility to protect us what do we do? When it reveals itself in the lives of abused women and children? Immigrants? Minorities?

Violence engages us. Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post said, “We don’t cover safe landings at Dulles Airport.” We are drawn to violence. We are voyeurs who peak through the blinds of our homes as those around us kill one another.

We have become a culture where violence is being encouraged when there are opinions or expressions we disagree with from people on all sides of the political divide. We can speak against ideas, without celebrating violence. Where violence is a problem, words really matter. The author of the letter of James says, “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3: 7 – 10).

How does love respond to violence? Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Violence breeds fear. Fear breads more violence and the cycle continues. But there is a perfect love that cast out fear. A love that extinguishes hate, that destroys violence. It is a love that strips violence of its power. We see it from Jesus on the cross. Jesus not only endured the cross but went to the deepest parts of hell and emptied evil of its power.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about being at her nephew’s first birthday party. Will was round and as bald as Buddha and like every one year-old he liked being the center of attention. Love was his only expression. He gave it and he received it. At his age he thought that was the only way that the world functioned.

After cake and presents, Will showed off how pleased he was by doing a little twirling dance in the middle of a circle of adults. Jason, Will’s seven-year-old brother, had had enough. He charged into the middle of the circle, put both hands on Will’s chest and shoved. Will feel hard. His rear end hit first, followed by the thump of his head on the ground. He looked utterly surprised. No one had ever hurt him before, and he did not know what to make of it. His mother hugged away the pain and the tears and helped him to his feet. The first thing Will did was totter over to Jason. He knew Jason was the one who caused the violence. But since he hadn’t experienced it before, he wasn’t sure what to do next. So he did what he has always done. He put his arms around Jason and lay his head against the boy’s body. Taylor says, “What Will did to Jason put an end to the meanness in that room. What I wanted to do to Jason would only have multiplied it.”

Violence doesn’t start on the streets or back alleys. Violence starts in the heart. The real enemy isn’t the one who pushes us down but whatever it is inside of us that wants to push back. The apostle Paul challenges us, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17). He goes on to say, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12: 21).

And this is how we respond to violence. Grief and anger are understandable, even unavoidable. Nevertheless, it is possible by standing in the grace of God to have our anger and grief turned into compassion for others. We saw it this past week as the Hall County community came together so beautifully. We see it in the work of Sacred Roots Farm and the ministry they do with women who have been rescued from sex-trafficking. We see it in the bridge-building ministry that we are involved with at Baker and Glover in a population that is predominately Hispanic/Latino. God is using Gainesville First UMC to be peace-makers.

There is still work to be done. There is still places in our world, our community, and in our homes where we are to practice peace-making. We are being called not to hide from violence, not to respond to violence with violence. We are to stare down violence and to love courageously. We are to work through the fear against evil and to strive against systems that oppress.

Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called children of God.

There is a moment in one of the Lord of the Rings books where after all the battles with evil had been fought and where the characters almost died. Sam turns to Frodo, “I thought you were dead and I thought I was dead!” Then, pausing to let the reality sink in that they almost died and yet they didn’t, Sam asks, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

This is the promise embedded in the beatitudes. It is the way of life for those who are living in the upside down reality of God’s kingdom. The world with all of its violence and pain and hate will not prevail. The beatitudes are a bold declaration that when you think death is more powerful than life and fear is greater than love, Jesus says, “Everything sad is going to come untrue.”

I leave you with words from Jesus and a prayer that has been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Let us pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.