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)

Do Unto Others

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7: 1 – 14)

do unto othersI was invited to a United Methodist Church when I was fourteen years old. I made a commitment to put Jesus at the center of my life when I was fifteen years old. I heard the voice of God calling me into ordained ministry when I was seventeen years old. The United Methodist Church has been the lighthouse that has pointed me in the direction of God’s kingdom my entire adult life.

It would be foolish to think that things are not going to look differently in a few years. The truth is regardless of what happens to the people called Methodist, the entire Christian movement is going to take on a different look for our children and grandchildren.

When it comes to the way we do church the question that keeps me up at night is “Who will never be reached if we only do this?” If we only do church the way that it is currently being done, who will we be missing? I know people who will never step foot in the doors of this building. I know families who will never come to know Jesus by walking through the big, wooden, beautiful, and yet for some, intimidating doors.

What concerns me is that as we continue to debate issues of human sexuality, we are losing a whole generation of people. We are missing out on our opportunity to share the love of Jesus with many people because they are turned off by our squabbling and by our missional insistence that this is the only way church can be done.

I don’t want you to hear that I am saying this is not important. How we understand scriptural authority and  interpretation and life experience is vitally important. Since 1972, when the church set parameters in the Book of Discipline for ministry to, with, and by homosexual people, The United Methodist Church has struggled with this matter.

The 2016 General Conference – legislative body of The United Methodist Church – took a major step toward trying to resolve the struggle when it approved a Commission on a Way Forward to be appointed by and make recommendations to the Council of Bishops. The Commission was charged with finding a way forward for our church that maximizes the presence of a United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible, that allows for as much contextual differentiation as possible, and that balances an approach to different theological understandings of human sexuality with a desire for as much unity as possible. The hope is that decisions made in 2019 will allow the 2020 General Conference to focus on our mission and shared ministry. With the theme “God is Able,” the delegation will meet February 23rd through the 26th to discern God’s will and direction for the future of The United Methodist Church. If you want to learn more, go to http://www.ngumc.com/gc2019. [i]

The writer of Matthew’s gospel in the New Testament is concerned with the identity of his Christian community. The author represents a group of Jewish Christians who are no longer welcome in communion with the Jewish people. It is post-70 AD and deep division is developing between the Christian and Jewish community. This deep division is also playing out internally. There is a critical spirit and judging of one another that is threatening to divide the community. Only in this gospel is the word “church” used. And much like today, they are a community of believers trying to figure out exactly what is it that the word “church” means.

Fred Craddock tells the story of the first church he served near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was during his tenure that the community exploded with laborers brought in to work at the newly developed nuclear plants. The young pastor wanted to attract the workers to his church. But there was a problem. The church didn’t want them.

After service one Sunday, Rev. Craddock called a meeting of the church’s leadership and presented his plans. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here,” one church member said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon.” It was decided that they would take a vote on the following Sunday.

At the outset of the meeting one week later, one of the church members said, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county.” It was quickly seconded and passed.

Years later, Fred Craddock returned to the area to show his wife the church that he once served. The parking lot was full; cars, trucks, and motorcycles surrounded the old structure which now sported a sign that read “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” Unable to resist, the Craddocks walked inside and saw the old pews lining a wall, and the organ pushed into a corner. The space was filled with different sized tables which were filled with people filling themselves on pork and chicken.

Dr. Craddock leaned over to his wife and whispered, “It’s a good thing this isn’t still a church… otherwise, these people couldn’t be in here.”

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7: 1 – 3).

 Matthew warns before we start throwing stones make sure you are aware of your own failures and need of God’s forgiveness. He wants there to be some hesitancy when it comes to identifying and naming faults in other people. If Matthew was around today, he might tell us that if we keep at it there might a sign hanging on our front door that reads, “BBQ: All You Can Eat.”

The rule we know as the Golden Rule is given in this context. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s best. We are all in need of God’s forgiveness. We should not deny in others what is required of our self.

It reminds me of the story in the bible where a group of righteous men interrupt Jesus in his teaching to bring before him a woman they caught in the act of adultery. They asked Jesus if her punishment should be stoning because that is what is written in the law of Moses. Jesus ignores them at first and starts doodling on the ground as though he doesn’t hear them. But when they won’t let it rest, he says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Then he decided to doodle some more.

One by one they leave. Jesus is left alone with the woman. He says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

This brings us back to the Gospel of Matthew: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7: 12). The Golden Rule reminds us in a world where we will do whatever it takes to be right, don’t forget to also be compassionate.

A form of the Golden Rule is found in all major religions. There is a famous story told in Jewish circles about the rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus. A non-Jew came to him and offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest us commentary. Go and study it.”

What makes the rule golden is the context of Christian love. The Golden Rule only works when an investment in relationships is made. It requires of us to consider how someone else would want to be treated. It demands of us to look into our own hearts and see what inflicts pain and then refuse to inflict pain on anyone else.  In the gospel of Luke, the Golden Rule concludes the paragraph that begins, “Love your enemies.”

The Golden Rule is given in the context of love, mercy, forgiveness and how to live in the context of a Christian community. It requires the imagination of putting oneself in the place of another person and seeing his or her needs. It requires an act of courageous love.

A few years ago in Duke University Chapel, Bishop Will Willimon shared a story of a man named High Thompson. Thompson had recently been the recipient of an honorary degree at Duke. In 1968 Thompson was a young helicopter pilot flying patrol over the countryside of Vietnam. On March 16th of that year, Thompson and his crew were flying over the village of My Lai. Down below they observed a nightmare taking place. An American unit, in the midst of war’s madness, had lost control of discipline, reason, and humanity. They were slaughtering unarmed civilians in the village, most of them women, children, and elderly men. As would later be determined, more than 500 individuals had already been executed.

Seeing what was taking place, Thompson landed the helicopter between the troops and the remaining villagers. At a risk to himself, High Thompson got out of the helicopter and confronted the officer in charge. He then airlifted the few surviving villagers and radioed a report of the scene back to headquarters. As a result, likely sparing the lives of thousands of villagers.

On the day that Thompson received his honorary degree he was asked how did he find the courage and strength to do what he did. He said, “I would like to thank my mother and father for trying to instill in me the difference between right and wrong. We were country people raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia. One thing we had was the Golden Rule. My parents taught me early, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That is why I did what I did on that day.”

Jesus knows that as soon as we are born that our inclination is to look after only ourselves. We don’t always have the interest of our neighbors in mind. We don’t care for those who need to be cared for. We don’t treat others the way we would like to be treated or even the way we would treat Jesus if he was standing in front of us.

Jesus also knows that when a group of Christians get together to make decisions on the future of the church and the mission of the church that we don’t always act in ways that reflect the light of Christ. So, before we make any decisions, I believe Jesus would say, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” I don’t know about you but I am not quite ready to hang up a sign that reads, “BBQ: All You Can Eat.” What about you? Amen.

[i] Read more at www.ngumc.org/gc2019

(Preached on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at Gainesville First United Methodist Church, Gainesville, GA)