“Down the lane I walk with my sweet Mary, hair of gold and lips like cherries.
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home.
Yes, they’ll all come to meet me, arms reaching, smiling sweetly.
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home.
Then I awake and look around me, at the four grey walls that surround me
and I realize, yes, I was only dreaming.
(But) arm in arm we’ll walk at daybreak.
(and) Again I’ll touch the green, green grass of home.
Yes, they’ll all come to see me in the shade of that old oak tree
as they lay me neath the green, green grass of home.”
It doesn’t seem that long ago that in my first year here I sat at the bedside of one our sisters in Christ in the hospital as she was about to see the Lord face to face and with the curtain around her bed drawn I read plasm 23. It was the last time I saw her but I’m sure I’ll see her again, but as I departed the lady in the next bed loudly said “thank you so much for reading that.”
Today we have heard the scriptures read in a different order, but the order in life of how things work out. The Gospel of Christ pronounced to those before Him. The epistle of how His words work out in our lives, and finally revelation of how it works out at the end of earthly life, and all we could say encompassed by that beautiful psalm, psalm 23.
It seems strange to me now, but there was a time where I could not see any comfort in that psalm as it did not seem to show I was closer to Jesus but further apart. Where were my green fields and still waters? Where’s my comfort and my overflowing cup?
Two of America’s most infamous African-American gangs are the Crips and the bloods from South Central LA. A piece of land between Rodeo Drive and Hollywood that in the 50’s was separated by highways that were not to be crossed by those marginalized inside or those of racial anger or fear encircling this suburb of internment.
A suburb that has grown from young men forming their own clubs in the fifties because of not being able to join the boy scouts because of the color of their skin, to now open warfare between the gangs where most families are broken. Young men who grew up without role models to a future where a quarter of them will be either in prison or dead.
A future where many, many of them have never been outside their turf never mind feeling the breeze at a beach and all must not be caught “slipping.” Which is not to be caught unfocussed at all times because to do so at the edges of the gang territories, be it at the petrol station or the deli caught well get you killed by those wearing other colours. Blue for the crips, red for the bloods.
In the Middle East, Arab against Arab except for the universal hatred of Israel. South Central L.A. Afro American against Afro-American except for the universal hatred of the Authorities of Law that they see as wardens.
A climate of anger, un yet fear not to be showed, and hopelessness that saw one young 19 year old voice that “he did not choose that destiny, it chose him, a life that he knows God did not want in society, yet trapped, his only way out is if someone will come down into the pit with him and show a way out.”
In the beginning God created the earth, the heavens above and all within and saw that it was good, only for us to fall to sin.
Sin that has seen nation rise against nation and those within, brother against brother and sister against sister and in the church, Christian against Christian and maybe the most fierce of all, the inner fight of self against self.
Mary Magdalene standing at the Tomb in the presence of Jesus was asked “Woman, why are you crying”
Her tears that could not be quelled for she saw not the risen Christ, but a tomb of lost hope.
On Jesus Cross, Pontius Pilate wrote an inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” and when those present sought for that truth to be distorted, Pilate answered “What I have written, I have written.”
I read this and for you, and for those still fighting the emptiness as I bring it before you as it was to me.
Woman, why are you crying? I’m crying because the one who gave me hope, the one who accepted me not for what I do but for me as a person, my friend, Jesus, is dead! I’m crying for all those who pinned their hope on him; for all those who saw God like they’d never seen him before; for those who felt unburdened by chains which bound them, chains of oppression, chains of hopelessness, chains of feeling you have to do the right thing but never being able to do it well enough, chains which said you weren’t allowed here, you couldn’t go there, you weren’t the right race, didn’t have the right background, weren’t rich enough, religious enough, healthy enough, weren’t the right gender to be a part of God’s plan for his people.
I’m crying for all those people who felt a sense of liberation in the message of Jesus who are now shattered because he is dead. I’m crying for all those through the ages who have lost a loved one, for those who have experienced what it is to be separated from someone they thought they would have for ever, for all those who know the pain of sickness and disease and tragedy and have sat by the bedside of a loved one as they slowly let go of the breath of life, or have been stunned, shocked, numbed by news of an inexplicable tragedy, those who in the death of Jesus see nothing more than that he went the same way we all go.
I’m crying for all those with emptiness inside, all those who search for meaning, and all those who are confused and lonely and wanting to give up. And I’m crying for a world which is without direction, spinning hopelessly out of control, a world marked by millions without a home, without enough food, without the security of knowing how safe they will be tomorrow, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, for all the displaced people, all the orphaned, for the unborn who are terminated before they see the light of day and the elderly and frail who wonder when it will be their time to be extinguished– I cry for all those who could have found hope in this Jesus who have now been left hopeless as Jesus lies cold, dead in the tomb!
And I’m crying for me and for those like me, for those who lived before me and believed that God would one day set things right, and all those who come after me. And I’m crying because a man like this, a man we thought was God’s man, the holy one, should be treated this way.
But then like a voice from the dead, Woman why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking? “Mary, Mary it is I who you seek.”
Un yet still she cries.
Woman, why are you crying? Lord my tears now are for this moment where my joy no one can take away from me. My hope was dashed but now it has been restored. I wept for others, but now I know that they, too, can have the experiences I’ve had of Jesus and everything he brings. I cried because my Jesus, the Rescuer, the Saviour was dead, but now I smile because I know that my Redeemer lives!
The average age of death for those gang members of South Central L.A. is 20 years and 5 months. One of those more fortunate was former gang member Robert Martinez who like many of his once colleagues sported religious tattoos to which he stated, that “we all believed in God but we never talked about it. Everybody was afraid they were going to die and we wanted to be ready. Now a practicing Christian he still carries the same tattoo of Christ on his left arm that he carried into those mean streets of his youth. Christ with that boy on the streets and Christ with Him now in Church.
I, like Robert Martinez have come to see Psalm 23 through our trials and tribulations caused by self and others not as a separation from Jesus, but rather see His underserved and unfaltering love and presence amongst it.
Martin Luther King Jnr, the day before he was shot and killed finished his speech with these famous words: “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Yes our redeemer lives. Jesus having been into death itself, came out of it as Victor; having trumped Satan’s last trump. Having verified, underlined, and confirmed everything he did, everything he said as real, genuine, believable, trustworthy, life-changing. Not a loser but a winner. Not defeated but victorious. Not just one with us in our pain and our dying. Not just one with us, but one who is in front of us, who has gone ahead of us, offering us healing and help and hope.
Like a thief on a cross we too have seen the Promised Land that is Jesus Christ next to us. Like to that gang member lost, angry and fearful, God stands with us with His presence tattooed into our soul when we saw Him not and like Martin Luther King we know the glory of the coming of the Lord and though some of us may reach the promised land early or later than others, in that number will we be:
“One of the great multitude from every nation, tribe and peoples of earth. Standing before the throne of the lamb, clothed in white robes washed clean by the blood of the lamb. The lamb Jesus Christ who has lead us beside still waters and restored our soul. Who has lead us in paths of righteousness for His names sake. Jesus in goodness and mercy who has followed all the days of our lives that there in the house of the Lord shall we dwell forever, sheltered with His presence to neither hunger nor thirst any longer. To never shed a tear in sorrow nor ever again tremble in fear.
Like a thief on the cross we have seen the Promised Land that is Jesus Christ and asked that He remember us. And in knowing His response I leave you now with the same departing words as those I have said in confidence to all our brothers and sisters in Christ about to enter the Promised Land. Whether tomorrow here on this earth or not-I will see you again. Amen.