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
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.