3/1/2015 sermon “Dead man walking”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 8:31-38
2Lent, Year B

“Dead man walking”

There was a film some 20 years ago called “Dead Man Walking.” In this film a convicted rapist and murderer named Matthew awaited execution, the whole time insisting on his innocence. Just before his execution, though, Matthew’s spiritual advisor told him he couldn’t receive forgiveness unless he owned and confessed his sins. Whereupon he confessed and presumably received pardon for his grievous sins.

I like a happy ending, such as this one. Though I must confess I have neither seen the movie Dead Man Walking, nor read the book on which the movie had been based. Instead, I became familiar with the plot after I wondered where this expression, “dead man walking,” had come from, and what “dead man walking” meant.

The Urban Dictionary says that “dead man walking” means “an employee who is certain to be fired in the near future.” In other words, someone that we can all ignore. That’s so like our culture: to take the plain death and dying meaning out of the expression.

I’m here to tell you that death doesn’t mean “loss of job,” except in our American culture. Death means “loss of life,” as in “here on earth no more.” No euphemisms, please: not “passed,” or “gone” or “slipped away,” but DEAD. The actual meaning of the expression “dead man walking” is “someone who is about to die,” as in “someone in a doomed or untenable situation.”

I looked up all the meanings of “dead man walking” because one of the commentaries I read on today’s gospel lesson likened the Christian expression “take up your cross” to “dead man walking.”

So I ask you, was Jesus a dead man walking on his way to Jerusalem? This is not a trick question, but the question is a tricky one to answer. Yes, Jesus was walking purposefully to the hard, nasty death he predicted three times along the way. We heard the first prediction in today’s lesson, “The Son of Man MUST undergo great suffering, and be rejected by [virtually everyone], and be killed…” (Notice the “must” in that sentence: it was absolutely necessary that Christ Jesus be killed.) So, in a way, Jesus was like a dead man walking.

At first I rejected the notion that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was like a “perp walk” to a death chamber. The perp, the criminal, is GUILTY and thus deserved to die. But Jesus wasn’t guilty of anything, except being God-among-us, and Jesus didn’t deserve death. But then, didn’t Jesus take on the onus, the burden, of our sins, the sin of all humankind? Wasn’t that the “cross” that Mark insists was essential for Jesus to pick up and carry? All the way to Jerusalem and the cross and death and beyond? So Jesus WAS like a dead man walking, in a way.

What spoils the exact comparison between “take up your cross” and “dead man walking,” Jesus tells us, is that by picking up our own cross—whatever that cross is—and moving forward with our cross and following Jesus, we somehow cease to be dead. By picking up our cross and following Jesus to our physical death (whenever and however that might be) we somehow gain life. That’s the things about us Christians: We are to be the most ALIVE dead people walking that there is. We may face a physical death—and each of us does—but that death will not END our life, ever.

Do you know, I have encountered many dead people walking. And dead people walking walk right by their own crosses, again and again and again. They try to walk away from their crosses, but they seem like they are walking in place, stuck by their crosses of addictions, compulsions, fears, wrongs done to us, and other things that distract us from living life, even illnesses. Jesus teaches us that we need to pick up our cross, confront the reality that our cross bears in our life, and to move forward carrying our cross, following Jesus.

This is a hard teaching. Sometimes we think we are carrying our cross, only to discover we have done something like the man depicted on the front of our bulletin cover. But ultimately, if we actually pick up our cross and follow Jesus, Jesus gives us back our life.

One of my seminary classmates, a young, smart, empathetic pastor named Jennifer, died last week of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), a disease she was diagnosed with just before her ordination. What a cross! In the three years between her diagnosis, Jennifer continued to preach and teach and pastor until a few days before her death. First from a wheelchair. Then, when she could no longer speak, with someone reading her sermons for her. And then, when she could no longer move any part of her body, with someone else doing those actions for her. A whole community, walking with her as she continued to carry her cross, a dead woman “walking” as she showed everyone with ears to hear and eyes to see just how alive she had become. There was a very large overflow crowd of people at her funeral this week, giving homage to how alive she was with her cross.

That’s Jennifer’s testimony. What’s YOUR testimony? Are you a dead person walking? Or have you mustered your courage and confronted your cross? If you haven’t, I want to remind you that you are part of a community, a community that understands crosses, a community that can help you reach for and lift and carry your cross for Jesus towards eternal life. Whatever needs confessing, confess. Whatever needs forgiving, forgive. New life awaits you and your cross.

I was tempted to end there, but I simply cannot. What is OUR testimony, a Church of the Resurrection? What is our cross? And please don’t point to this holy icon on the wall behind me. That’s the external representation of our collective burdens, laid on the altar which have allowed us each to bear our own cross. What I want to know is this: What burden has God made “absolutely necessary” that we should lift? What cross is God compelling us to lift up? What burden have we been trying to step around instead of picking up? Whatever our Church of the Resurrection cross is, we are aptly named. By dying to our current life, picking up our cross, and following Jesus, we will find new life, eternal life.

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