“Dead Man Walking”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
12The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So 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!”
14Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
16His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. 17So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. 18It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him.
19The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (NRSV)
A man straddles a borrowed donkey. His dusty toes dangle inches from the cloaks and leafy branches the crowd has laid out before him on the manure-choked road. The ecstatic throng sings the man’s praises in chants laden with messianic hope.
They’re particularly excited because the man on the donkey has recently raised a man named Lazarus from death. Lazarus had been dead for several days when Jesus resuscitated him. Lazarus, they say, has barely spoken or smiled since that day. Some speculate that he feels like a hostage now, like a pawn used to make someone else’s point. No one asked him if he wanted to return to the world with all its messiness and pain. No one asked him if he wanted to face death all over again. He was made to; and so he does.
Dead man walking.
Now the heat is on Jesus. Ever since the Lazarus incident, the Sanhedrin has bristled. They’ve never embraced this radical rabbi who teaches the faith so differently from the ways that they’d been taught for generations. Jesus challenges the very core of ancient traditions and identities. He keeps company with people considered infectious in body, mind, and spirit – people with whom the Law forbids contact. Everyone is beginning to say that Jesus isthe one, and if he continues to lead the people down this path, all the time-honored arrangements will dissolve into chaos. To do nothing is to forfeit control. Refusing to surrender to the likes of Jesus, the Sanhedrin know the one sure way to stop him.
Dead man walking.
The irony of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is that so many folks in Jerusalem are, themselves, walking around half-alive at best. Even those who celebrate are unaware of the glorious new dawn breaking in their midst. Jesus, you see, has been offering something far more difficult to comprehend than military victory over Rome. He offers fullness of life, here and now.
God’s creation needs the kind of new life Jesus brings, because in one way or another, at one time or another, all of us have had the experience of walking around dead. And, by walking around dead, I’m nottalking about a bunch of undead zombies stumbling about, hangry for gray matter sushi.
Imagine this: A man walks alone through the forest in the early morning. Bright, buttery rays of early May sunshine angle down through the trees as if poured from a great pitcher of light. The woods are alive with birdsong, with the flutter of wings, and the chatter of squirrels. Above, boughs of hickory, sycamore, and oak sway in the breeze. They look like ripples and eddies on a bright green river.
But this man, as he walks, completely misses the magnificent celebration at work and at play around him. A well-nursed darkness, or maybe simple greed, blinds him and numbs him. Life holds no meaning or hope beyond what he aims to get for himself or avoid for himself, and that lively forest is simply the route he must travel between one obligation and the next. So, he keeps his head bent forward and his eyes glued to the trail.
It’s not entirely his fault, perhaps. Still, where the earth offers beauty and grace, the man sees nothing but resources to exploit or competitors to defeat – and all for his own gain.
Dead man walking.
Sometimes the death in which we live is most evident in our celebrations of the holiest days and seasons of the year. I’d bet the farm that everyone in this room has uttered at least one lament about how, in our greedy materialism, we’ve reduced Christmas from a season of joy and wonder to a high-stress, commercial frenzy. But when we groan the loudest, we’re often in some store going broke on things without which we can’t “have Christmas.”
Years ago, I went shopping for supplies for a mission trip. It happened to be Holy Week, and as I walked into a big-box store, I had to walk around a display of some 150-200 Easter baskets. Now, these Easter baskets stood three feet high. They were wrapped in brightly-colored cellophane, and they came pre-stuffed with everything from gum drops and marshmallow eggs, to tennis racquets and baseball bats.
“Praise the Lord! Christ is risen!” Play ball! Rot your teeth!
Materialism is an all-too-easy target. Maybe we’re doing the best we can. Maybe our traditions of exchanging gifts, of Christmas parties and Easter egg hunts are an understandable attempt to keep our spiritual celebrations vibrant. I mean, we’ve been proclaiming the same urgent message for two thousand years, haven’t we? After two millennia, how do we maintain excitement and expectation? How do we feel the terror and joy of the first Easter morning? How do we celebrate this good news in such a way that our celebrations remain interesting and compelling? How are we transformed from dead men and women trudging about into living and lively human beings who celebrate and serve?
Part of the message of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is that our ecstatic Palm Sunday expectations must die. For them to die, though, something within us must die, and it’s not a welcome death at first. To experience this death may feel like the triumph of evil, not good. But remember, Friday reveals the wrath of resentful Caesars and of fearful religions who do more to create enemies than to love them. Friday isn’t about the wrath of some vindictive god, it’s about the ultimate impotence of violence, and the eternity of God’s love.
Still, the path of Resurrection necessarily passes through the confusion of Thursday, the agony of Friday, and the speechless grief of Saturday. If we try to avoid dying to our happy, Palm Sunday expectations, our celebrations will be empty. We’ll have to put them on life-support. We will intubate them with eggnog and credit card debt, with plastic grass, chocolate bunnies, and squishy yellow peeps.
Our call is not to be dead humans walking, killing time until we “get to heaven” after our families and friends tuck us away in memories and graves. Our call is to be a dynamic, God-bearing humanity at work and at play right here and now, engaging, with determined love, the world and all its hunger, anger, despair, and selfish fear. That is how we first experience the rich and eternal grace of the kingdom of Heaven – as a gift of this creation – something that blesses us that we might live as blessings to others.
We all have our have our traditions for Easter Sunday, and I genuinely hope you enjoy yours. Over the next two weeks, may you die to all that would reduce those celebrations to nothing more than fancy grave clothes. And may we as a church die to whatever selfish fears keep us from living as a community in which and through which God shares the gift of Resurrection with all whom God loves.