The Green Mile*

(sermon 4/9/17)

John_Coffey
Actor Michael Clark Duncan portraying John Coffey in The Green Mile

 

*This week’s sermon is actually a reprise, with just a few technical and theological updates, of one that I first delivered at the Frankfort (Ohio) Presbyterian Church for Palm Sunday in 2008. To my knowledge, this is the first time in  ten years that I’ve more or less repeated a sermon. After reading it, I hope you feel it was worth the revisiting. 

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” – Matthew 21:1-11

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I imagine most of us here have seen the movie “The Green Mile.” Maybe some of you have read the Steven King novel it was based on. If you’re familiar with the story, you know it really isn’t a typical Steven King story, filled with killer puppets, demon-possessed Plymouths, or Jack Nicholson running around scaring people with an axe. This is the story of a man named Paul Edgecomb, telling about some of his experiences while working as a prison guard on Death Row in the 1930s. All the cells on Death Row looked out on a central corridor that led to the death chamber, and the electric chair. It was actually just a short distance, but the prisoners considered it the longest walk that they’d ever take in their lives – they called it “the Green Mile;” green because of the color of the linoleum floor.

The population on Death Row was made up of the usual prison mix – guilty people, innocent people, people who had just been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Good people, evil people, and people somewhere in between. This same mix could be seen in the prison guards watching over the prisoners, too.

One day, a new prisoner arrived on Death Row. John Coffey was a huge, quiet, gentle black man who was the innocent victim of a racist judicial system that had convicted him of a crime he hadn’t committed. For the most part, John Coffey never bothered anyone. Most of the time, he sat in his cell crying, because he said he could feel all the brutality and evil in the world, and it was almost too much for him to bear. The amazing thing about John Coffey was that he had an amazing, miraculous ability to heal people – and if you know the story, not only people – with his touch. When Paul Edgecomb asked him how he did it, he said he just took the illness and evil back onto himself; he just drew  it all out of them and took it upon himself. It was a process that made him physically ill until he could expel it out of himself and back out into the world. Once, he’d even used his healing ability to save Edgecomb’s life, curing him of cancer. The plot of the book and movie goes in various other directions, but if you know the story you know that eventually, John Coffey’s execution date came, and he had to walk his Green Mile.

Back in the present time, Paul Edgecomb explains to a friend that John Coffey’s healing had not only healed him, it also caused him in some mysterious way to age very, very slowly – and based on the rate he was going, he was on course to live several normal human lifetimes before he would eventually die. His friend told him he’d been blessed, but Edgecomb said he wasn’t so sure – that to outlive everyone you’ve ever loved, and to outlive the world you’d been born into, often didn’t seem like much of a blessing at all. Thinking about it all, and of his own ultimate, if long-delayed death, Edgecomb says “We each owe a death; there are no exceptions, I know that – but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile seems so long.”

This movie always comes to my mind on Palm Sunday, when I read today’s gospel text – the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem the week of his crucifixion. Jesus rode into town from a little village on the Mount of Olives. It was actually a very short trip he was making – about a mile or so, definitely no more than a mile and a half; just about the distance from here to Ballard High School. Even though it was a short trip, the importance of its point of origin wasn’t lost on people, inside or outside of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives was where the prophets were going to reappear, and the Messiah would first appear, proceeding into Jerusalem and ushering in the age when God would rule on earth, not the Romans or anyone else, for that matter, and that everything was finally going to be set right. With all they’d seen and heard about Jesus, the people had great hopes that he really was the Messiah, and when he arrived in Jerusalem all this was going to unfold.

At about the same time that Jesus was riding into town from the Mount of Olives, over on the other side of town another procession was moving through the streets. During the time of the Passover, Jerusalem grew to a city of over a million people with all the religious pilgrims flowing into town for this major religious festival. It was a time of heightened religious passion, and it was also a time of heightened political unrest directed against the Romans who held the jews under their thumb. During this time each year, and in the midst of all that heightened unrest and potential for violence, the Romans staged a large, impressive procession, a parade through the city. Officially, it was billed as a sign of diplomatic respect for the Jewish people and their religion. In reality, though, with all its pomp and circumstance, with all the flags and banners and soldiers and trumpets and drums and horses and chariots, it was meant to send a not-very-subtle message just who was in charge. The message that they were delivering to the Jews was clear: your quaint little religious observations are all well and good, but if you get out of line and start any trouble, if you give us Romans any grief, we can, and will, squash you like a bug.

Knowing that, we can see Jesus’ own very different parade into the city in a deeper context. Its timing, its simplicity, even Jesus riding into town on a humble donkey instead of a big, impressive Roman war horse, carried an unmistakable, inescapable – and downright dangerous – political message. It was a rejection of the Romans’ claim to be in charge. It was a mockery, it was poking a stick in the eye of the Romans and their parade and all their ideas about power and empire unfolding on the other side of town. It was a protest at city hall, a prayer vigil at the Statehouse, a march on Washington. And behind it all, it was making the alternative, contrary point that there was only one ultimate power in the universe, and it wasn’t Rome; there was only one God, and it wasn’t Caesar.

As Jesus arrived in town, the people of Jerusalem understood this – that’s why Matthew tells us that “the whole city was in a turmoil.” They didn’t know what was going to come out of Jesus rocking the boat in this very public and unmistakable way, but they were pretty sure that nothing good was going to come of it.

Still, the crowd gathered around Jesus as he rode toward the city, ecstatic over what they thought would was the beginning of the end of all their problems. So they shouted and sang out ahead of him, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Save Us!” And as we know, they laid branches out in front of him, giving him their equivalent of the red carpet treatment. Except this carpet, with all the branches in the roadway, wasn’t red; it was . In a very real way, this was Jesus’ Green Mile.

Here was an innocent man. A man of miraculous ability, who had healing power, even the power of life over death, who knew he was soon going to his own death. As the donkey plodded along, Jesus looked at the people thronging around him. He knew they didn’t have a clue what was about to unfold. He also knew that even as enthusiastic as they were now, in just a few short days they’d desert him. Some would even hate him. And yet, he loved them. His heart ached for them. He could feel all the brutality and evil in the world that they had to endure, and it was almost too much for him to bear. He felt all their joys and knew all their sorrows. He’d come to show solidarity with them, to be one with them, to open the ways of the kingdom of God for them. Yes, he loved them, maybe in spite of himself, certainly in spite of themselves. Still, as he made his way closer to Jerusalem, just like Paul Edgecomb he must have been thinking, “Sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.”

Of course, in a real way, we’re all walking our own Green Mile. Along the way, we’ll all know joys and sorrows, victories and losses. As we get closer to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and as we continue to consider what it really means to be a follower of Jesus, one of the great joys that we know we can have, one of the great comforts that we know we can have, is that because of the faith and love of Jesus on that first Palm Sunday and beyond, wherever we find ourselves on our own Green Mile, and whatever its own particular twists and turns, we know that we’re never, ever, walking it alone.

Thanks be to God.

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Melancholy Messiah (sermon 3/20/16 – Palm Sunday)

palm sunday processsion

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” – Luke 19:28-40

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Palm Sunday is always one of the most enjoyable Sundays of the year. With the added fun of the children processing in with palms, and the joyful spirit of a lot of the music typically performed on Palm Sunday, it’s definitely one of my favorite worship services, and I suspect it’s probably one of yours, too.

The gospel text is also one of my favorite stories to try to insert myself into, to walk around within it and try to experience it through the eyes of the people involved in the story. And what a story it is. Just imagine it unfolding. First, there are the two disciples who are sent out to commandeer some transportation for Jesus, and when the donkey’s owner asked the two what they were doing walking off with his animal, they just told him “Oh, the Lord needs it.” I have to admit that if it were me, I’d have probably said something along the lines of, well if the Lord needs it, he could darned well buy it, or keep on walking. However that part of the story actually played out, move forward to the scene of Jesus now about to set out from Bethany on his way into Jerusalem – a fairly short trip, just about two miles in total. Imagine Jesus, sitting on the back of this ridiculously small animal, his legs practically dragging on the ground, looking more like an adult on a kiddie ride at the amusement park than the messiah come to save the people of Israel. And yet, even given that somewhat unimpressive image, the people are ecstatic, shouting in joy, laying cloaks and branches out in front of him the way they would for a king or a victorious general coming home from a battle, shouting out verses of scripture referring to the coming messiah – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna – save us, save us!”

And Jesus starts out from Bethany, and he follows the narrow road leading downward and curving along the edge of the Mount of Olives, and looking straight ahead on the next rise in the landscape, he sees the entire city of Jerusalem laid out in front of him – all of the hustle and bustle of the city, now more than doubled in size with all of the pilgrims there for the Passover, full of activity and Roman soldiers out in the streets to keep order, and straight ahead is the Temple and its walled outer courts, dwarfing everything else in the city.

What must Jesus have been thinking as he rode along, knowing what was about to unfold? Knowing that all these people who were in that moment singing his praises and loving him and thinking he was the greatest thing since sliced bread, in just a short while would all reject him. They’d toss him out like last week’s newspaper, some would curse him, some would even yell “Crucify! Crucify!” when Jesus didn’t act the way they’d expected once he hit town, and they’d all run off to look for the next would-be messiah. I can only imagine that there were mixed feelings. Feelings of despair over the fate that he knew was about to befall him. Feelings of sadness, and no doubt even anger and some sense of betrayal, over the fickle loyalties of those people surrounding him. But along with those feelings, and I think surpassing them, were feelings of compassion and love for them. He would go into the city, where for several chapters of the gospel now people had been warning him not to, that he’d be arrested and killed if he did; and he would do what he had to do, and not just what they wanted him to do, because he loved them all too much not to. If he didn’t love them, well, Jesus was a smart man. I imagine he’d have turned the donkey around, never gone into town, and headed over the horizon in the opposite direction. Maybe just find a nice quiet job somewhere working construction, or as a fisherman, and settle down into a simple but stable life, maybe even raise a family. Despite what must have been a very real temptation for him in that moment, he kept riding forward, in the midst of the cheers and the celebration, into the city.

Frederick Buechner wrote that despair and hope both rode together into Jerusalem that day – just as despair and hope travel together on every road that we take ourselves. Despair at what in our own craziness we bring down on our own heads in life, or what’s dropped on our heads due to the craziness of others; but also hope in the one who travels the road with us, and who’s the only one of us all who isn’t crazy. Our hope is in the one who gave us the greatest gift in spite of ourselves and our pre-set expectations of the way he should go about things, the gift of showing us that the power of self-giving love is more powerful than anything else the world can offer as a substitute. We carry the hope that by the grace of God the impossible will happen, and that this one who rode into the city on a donkey will ride into our hearts too, and that because of it, we’ll know true peace – peace in our hearts and peace in the world. That’s surely a hope worth singing and dancing, and waving branches, and shouting for joy over.

Thanks be to God.

Christ-Song (sermon March 29, 2015 – Palm Sunday)

palm_sunday_silhouette

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

  – Mark 11:1-11

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I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of poetry. It’s my own fault, I’m sure; I suppose I just haven’t been exposed to enough of it. A lot of what poetry I have seen seems to be either as sappy and simplistic as the rhyme in a budget-priced birthday card; or some long, rambling free-form thing that doesn’t sound very poetic and doesn’t really convey anything other than making you wonder if the writer had been smoking peyote when they wrote it. Let’s face it; even poetry lovers will admit there’s a lot of bad poetry out there.

One poem that’s always stuck with me, though, is one by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Hamatreya.” It talks about how generations of people have come and gone, and each one has parceled up the land, and bought and sold it, and put their names on it, and held it, and took pride in saying that the land was theirs and that they had control over it and that it yielded itself to them. Emerson writes about these people, calling them

Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough but cannot steer their feet
clear of the grave.

A little further on, there’s actually a kind of poem within a poem, called “Earth-Song,” where the Earth itself responds to the pridefulness of these people who claimed to be in control of things. The Earth says,

Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Earth endures;
Stars abide –
shine down on the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are the old men?
I who have seen much,
Such I have never seen….
… They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone.
How am I theirs,
I they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?

The Earth’s, or Emerson’s, ironic point about the Earth ultimately having the last word, the word of the grave, regarding the pride, power, and control of things is a sharp stick poked in the eye of the way people understood the world and their importance in it, in his time and in our own.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus is very much using that same sharp stick to poke the supposed powers that be, and for a similar reason. Of course, this is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, when we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the days leading up to his arrest. Sometimes we call it the “Triumphal Entry,” and in a broad, counterintuitive way I suppose it was that, but to have been there, to have experienced it as it happened, it would have seemed like anything but triumphal. The oddness of it would have seemed like a joke. Or, the more you thought about it, not a joke at all, but that sharp stick in the eye of those in positions of power.

The people in Jesus’ time were very familiar with the impressive way kings or generals or other powerful people arrived in a parade. Full of official pomp and circumstance, with banners, bands, military escort, wailing sirens, riding on big, strong, armored war horses; black SUVs full of Secret Service agents more heavily armed than some small island nations. And out ahead of them were the crowds – clapping, cheering, holding up signs and waving their hoodies in the air over their heads. That was how a VIP came to town.

Jesus certainly had the crowds. But he didn’t bring any of that other baggage with him as he entered Jerusalem, and a big portion of that was by design.

Many of the most memorable and transformative events we experience look spontaneous, when in reality they were very carefully thought out and orchestrated. Whether it’s something as simple and harmless as a flash mob orchestra showing up one person at a time on the plaza until they’re all there belting out a rousing version of Ode to Joy, or something more serious, like Occupy Wall Street, or an ACT UP protest, or a lunch counter sit-in or selecting Rosa Parks to be the person who refuses to give up her seat, all of these things were very carefully thought out to maximize their impact. And in this gospel story, Jesus does the exact same thing. He and his disciples have been wandering all over Judea and Samaria and Galilee and beyond for several years, and apparently doing pretty much all of it on foot. Now, all of a sudden, Jesus needs some four-footed transportation to get to Jerusalem – a distance that’s about as far away from Bethany as the high school is from us. It was a walk he’d normally have made without thinking about, or even breaking a sweat.

And the writer of this gospel spends a lot of time on Jesus’ instructions about how and where to get it, and what kind to get. In fact, there’s far more detail about that than Jesus’ actual arrival into Jerusalem, which he treats almost as an afterthought. There really does seem to be something important about this little colt.

It seems like Jesus is using it to make a carefully calculated statement. When he rides into town on this weak little animal, it isn’t like the other VIPs from the Roman Empire, who are oppressing the people. This is his way of poking a stick in their eye, tweaking their noses, making fun of them. He’s telling them that real power, and control, and authority, don’t need all those outward trappings. The real King doesn’t need the security detail and all those other things. In this bit of street theater, Jesus is saying there’s only one real King, and it isn’t Caesar.

It’s a very radical, revolutionary statement that Jesus is making here, mocking the Roman occupiers. It’s a very political statement. It’s most likely what got him killed. And the statement that he’s making is that those people who would claim to be in control, and to have power over them, are wrong. They aren’t the power that people should give their loyalty to, and any power that those people use to put them down or oppress them is illegitimate.

A large part of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry revolved around teaching that God’s love, and God’s kingdom, radically contradicts the message coming from all earthly powers and systems that would unjustly try to control or diminish us. The kingdom of God frees us from that, and calls us all to grasp onto that great truth of God’s love and acceptance. This is the good news that Christ came to share with us – that you don’t have to accept the judgment of those who would consider you less worthy, less human, because they don’t like the color of your skin, or your age, or your sex, or how good-looking you are or how smart you are or who your parents were or where you went to school or where you live, or anything else. Christ riding into Jerusalem on that little colt says that God considers us good, and precious, and worthy of justice and love – you, me, all of us; all those other would-be powers literally be damned. Emerson had his Earth-Song; I suppose you could call this the Christ-Song. The people cheering out in front of Jesus thought that he was going to change things and set this new reality into motion, and they were right about that as they sang the Christ-Song, even if they didn’t quite understand how. Today, from our perspective, we can all grasp onto that good news for ourselves, too. We can be singing that same song, and cheering, and waving palms in front of Jesus as he comes riding into Jerusalem – or is it Auburn?

Thanks be to God.