Summary: There is a kind of death in family life today. Jesus offers unconditional compassion, used His authority to give life, and gives us as gifts to one another.
One sweltering afternoon, on the dirty streets of a dangerous section of New Orleans, a man approached a woman with some papers in his hand. He asked Helen if she would agree to write letters to a man on death row at Angola prison. Helen agreed, rather absent-mindedly. She was used to people asking her for favors. She had lived in the rough part of town for three years, serving in a mission center where her Catholic order had sent her. It was nothing out of the ordinary for a nun to be asked to help people in trouble.
So that night Helen wrote the letter and, without realizing it, began a relationship, which emerged into an emotional attachment. From there it became a concern and then a passion for the sons of Louisiana’s mothers awaiting execution. Sister Helen Prejean has become an advocate for life, humanity, and justice.
You may not agree with all of her views, but I think you will have to agree that the title of her book is very provocative. “Dead Man Walking” “Dead Man Walking” is Sister Helen’s way of seeing the more than fifty men whom she has served as spiritual advisor before they are sent to their deaths. “Dead Man Walking” is her provocative description of what she sees as she looks into their eyes, she tries to listen to their hearts, and she speaks to them of Christ. In their despair, they are alive in body, walking, but they are dead in spirit. They are fatally wounded in their hearts, all but destroyed as human beings. “Dead Man Walking.” It’s a haunting and terrible image. Someone can be physically alive and yet spiritually and emotionally dead.
But somehow we as a society have been creating that. We are making people into “dead men walking.” It’s not just criminals. You will know what I mean if you have ever seen a once vibrant child become a teenager and withdraw completely from real relationships; he just disappears into a locked room, listening to music, surfing the Internet, or just plain brooding. It feels like a dead man walking.
Or if you have ever confronted a young adult, sold out to controlled substances or to alcohol or to sexual behavior. No longer able to operate above a barely functional level, no longer able to live more than, one hit at a time. If you’ve seen that, you’ve seen a dead man walking.
Or if you have been dismayed at children as young as seven or eight who give up on learning (“it’s too hard), or give up on playing (“somebody might hurt me”), or just give up on being children. One psychologist I spoke with a few days ago about a particular child said, “If you look in her eyes, the lights have gone out.” In other words, “dead man walking.”
I come to you on this Mother’s Day to bring a message about family life. I want to think with you about the compassion that Jesus Christ offers to families in crisis. And I want to ask for your prayerful imagination as your church moves ahead to make a difference for hurting families. I come to you today, as always, to proclaim the good news, even where the world thinks there is none. But I also come, as always, to challenge us to be something more than we have ever been before. I come, in the name of the risen and living Christ, to challenge dead men walking into life abundant.
First, let me take you to a gloomy scene. The little village of Nain, just five miles from Nazareth, a village with scarcely two hundred souls, had turned out today. Funerals get attention in a place like that, where everybody knows everybody else. Funerals get attention, death is a big deal, and it is expected that you will pay your respects.
So the people of Nain have poured out of the town gate, following the pallbearers carrying the body of one of their young men. The mood? Always somber, for seldom would anyone make jokes around death; death has a way of evening that score! The mood was somber, but today more so than ever. Today there was a deafening silence, for the dead man had been the only son of one of Nain’s widows. All she had, really – her husband long dead, and now, this, her only son. Who knew what to say? Who could console the widow of Nain?
Jesus could, and Jesus did. At that very moment, as the funeral procession wended its way through the gate, heading to a burial site on the nearby hillside – at that very moment Jesus and his disciples came on the scene. Jesus’ eye searched the crowd, read the clues, and came to focus on this mother.