Matthew 27:1-2, 11-31
The loud Palm Sunday “hosannas” only last for a fleeting moment. For when Jesus enters Jerusalem, it is not long before the festive cries of “hosanna” morph into the shrill cries of “crucify him.”
Since childhood, I have been taught that the passion story is about how Jesus died for our sins. Many years later, I no longer read the passion story in that way, but not because I have gone soft on sin and evil. On the contrary, I am more certain now than ever about the presence and persistence of sin and evil. Just look at the faces of the children and teachers gunned down in a Presbyterian school in Nashville this past week and I dare anyone to underestimate the reality of sin and evil.
So, as we enter Holy Week, I see the torture and public execution of Jesus less as a grand design by God to address our sins and more as tragic examples of an intractable brokenness in our world and in us that will not let us go. I read the passion story, then, as what God accomplishes despite Jesus dying not for, but because of human sin.
Recently, I read a powerful modern passion story called “Strawberry Moon.” It is the story of Cody Wallace, a young man facing his own Good Friday and Golgotha. He is a convict on death row and as the story opens, Cody has only three hours left to live.
In “Strawberry Moon,” sin is found everywhere you turn, the sin of a broken judicial and penal system, the sin of broken people, some who commit crimes and some who defend them. Like the passion story of Jesus, “Strawberry Moon” tells the story of an intractable brokenness in our world and in us that will not let us go.
In this story, Cody is 29 years old and has been in prison for 14 years, nearly half of his life. It was Cody’s brother who actually pulled the trigger in a home invasion that went bad. And yet, even though being a young teen, Cody was tried as an adult by a state wanting to “get tough on crime.” He was convicted as an accomplice to murder and sent to death row where he spends 23 hours of every day in solitary confinement. In just three hours, Cody will be the youngest man ever executed in this unnamed state.
Cody and his brother grew up living in the woods, stealing to survive, and watching the moon. He loved gazing at the constellations on a clear night sky. He would spend hours with his brother watching the stars and looking at the craters of the moon through a stolen telescope. In his final hours, Cody could care less about his last meal. What Cody wants is to see the moon one last time before the state has its horrible way with him.
It can be argued that the sin of murder is at the heart of the passion story of Jesus as the Roman state prepares to execute him, and that murder is at center stage in Cody’s story as the state is about to execute him on the night of a “Strawberry Moon,” a moon seen at the beginning of summer. While Cody was an accomplice to a murder and Jesus was without blame, in both cases, a senseless killing is about to happen, a killing that people often confuse with getting justice.
Like many death row inmates, Cody was largely illiterate when he entered prison at age 15. Before prison, he had little interest in reading because he and his brother had spent most waking hours trying to survive. Once in prison, Cody learns to read largely due to a pen pal who befriends him, a woman from North Platte, Nebraska named Ms. Iris.
She begins by sending Cody used paperbacks that she would buy at flea markets and garage sales. She never paid more than a dollar for one. Over the 12-year period, she sends him over 1,000 paperbacks. And he reads them all, three or four or five times. He devours them. The more he reads, the smarter he gets and the better his writing becomes.
She also sends him a few dollars regularly to buy pencils and paper because you have to pay for these extras in prison. And over the long years on death row, Cody becomes very well read and loves to write to Ms. Iris about what he has just read. His reading and their correspondence keep Cody sane enough to endure the cruel and unusual punishment of solitary confinement.
About an hour before the state kills Cody, Ms. Iris pays him a surprise visit. It's the only time they have ever met. She has come to say goodbye. They spend a brief thirty minutes together and she can't believe it when she sees all the books she has purchased for him lining his cell.
Read all four Gospels and you will find no one who pays Jesus a visit after he is arrested and tried, convicted and crucified. No one stands up to decry this miserable act of political duplicity. No one speaks up when Pilate delivers an obviously innocent Jesus over to the centurions to be tortured and killed. No one demands that this miscarriage of justice cease right now. No one stares down Peter and James and John when they are fleeing from the killing field of Golgotha to confront them with their cowardice. The only ones who surround Jesus on Good Friday are those who are looking for the best seats at his execution. And, just before he takes his last breath on the cross, Jesus sees no “Strawberry Moon,” because it is midday and the sky has gone black.
I hate to ruin the ending of Cody’s story for you, but even though Ms. Iris brings a much-needed last-minute dose of humanity with her, Cody enjoys no last-minute miracle with the state commuting or pardoning his sentence. And as you already know, Jesus’ story has no last-minute miracle either, that is, if you conclude that the story of Jesus ends on Good Friday and many people do reach that conclusion and for very good reasons.
Look around! It is hard not to conclude that you and I live in a Good Friday world, a world where Cody and his brother never had a chance and where no one, except Ms. Iris, ever stopped long enough to care for him and to offer him an alternative future. You and I do not need to read the Gospels to know all about a Good Friday world where your closest friends sell you out for a few bucks, deny you because they are too scared to speak the truth, desert you because it takes far too much courage to speak out and to stay.
No wonder Christians love to rush right by Maundy Thursday and Good Friday on a Spring sprint to Easter. No wonder Christians are ready to be done with the deep introspection of Lent and want to put the horrible passion story of Jesus in the past. But lest we join the throngs who succumb to the temptation to skip Holy Week, I invite you to do just the opposite in the days ahead.
For this Holy Week, I invite you to pay close attention to the Good Friday world in the Gospels and the Good Friday world all around us. Look at all that is broken around you and within you and take time to do so every day of the week ahead.
Then, only then, come here next Sunday to hear the final chapter of the passion story that does not end in a death chamber or a cross. It ends with the promise for Cody, for you, for me, the promise of a life lived not in a Good Friday world, but in an Easter world, not in a world obsessed with death but in a world that embraces life. It is a story with far greater promise than the fleeting hope of catching one final glimpse of a Strawberry Moon.
Come next Sunday and listen to the greatest story ever told.
*I am grateful to my friend, John Grisham, for his novella “Strawberry Moon” found in his book, “Sparring Partners” and for his permission to draw from his novella for this sermon. I am especially grateful for John’s work with the Innocence Project and his commitment to ending capital executions in the U.S. The quotations in the sermon are from the novella, “Strawberry Moon.”