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.