A frequent way I stall, late on Saturday nights after everyone is asleep and the sermon is put to bed, is to flip television for older movies. Luckily one of my favorites, "The Shawshank Redemption," can often be found on TBS or TNT many weekends. It is the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker played by Tim Robbins, who spends nearly two decades in Shawshank State Prison, this massive, old stone structure, for the murder of his wife and her lover despite his claims of innocence. During his time at the prison, he befriends a fellow inmate, "Red" played by Morgan Freeman. The movie is about the brutality of life behind bars, but also an examination of the power of the human spirit.
In one of my favorite scenes Andy rejoins his buddies at the lunch table after 2 weeks in solitary confinement. In months previous the warden has enlisted Andy’s help in doing some of his personal finances, so Andy has access to his office some afternoons. Andy smuggles in a vinyl record, puts it on the warden’s record player and, for a few brief moments, and broadcasts Mozart to the entire prison yard. This initiative earns Andy a beating and time in the hole. As he puts his cafeteria tray down, dirty and disheveled, they ask how he is. "Easiest time I ever did," he says, "I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company." Incredulously, they push back: "They let you tote that record player down there?" He smiles, "It was in here." [he points to his head, then his heart] "That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?" Freeman says that he played a mean harmonica when he was young, but lost interest, didn’t make much sense in jail. But Andy says, "Here is where you need it the most, so you don’t forget." "Forget?" "Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made of stone, that there’s something inside that they can’t get to, they can’t touch, it’s yours." "What are you talking about?" Freeman asks. "Hope," he says, as he levels his gaze.1 Hope.
Because too many places in the world are made of stone. I imagine that’s what they were worried about that first Easter morning. Three gifted women, Mary, Joanna, Mary, and some others, were up early, heading to the tomb. They had watched him die on Friday, then after, when Jesus’ body, broken and getting cold, was taken to be buried. They cleaned his wounds, preparing Him with such tenderness. They had seen where the big stone was back that day, in Joseph of Arimathea’s rock-hewn tomb where, Luke says, no one had ever been laid. I wonder how much they thought about the massive stone that they saw rolled back in front? How much did they worry about moving it themselves as they walked back, and how much did that not matter at all? They were grieving, drawn to Him, to where He lay.
They trudgeed, exhausted, legs as lead. Upon arrival they noticed the stone had been moved and they stepped in, gingerly, where it was cool, and the body was gone. They were perplexed, Luke says, which seems like a tremendous understatement. At a loss, panicked. Terrified. Two men in dazzling clothes, bible code for angel, appear, the women hurl themselves to the ground, and hear a question: "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" "He is not here," they say, "but has risen." Remember, think back, friends, REMEMBER, how he told you, how hard it would be, but how it must be this way.
And the images, even as their faces lie in the dirt of the tomb, begin to flash, of walking down dusty roads, of laughter, stories around the fire, of fish shared with thousands, of Jesus calling little children, of him preaching from the edge of a boat, folks gathered on the shoreline as far as the eye could see. And how he said to him, those disciples who had been with him from the beginning, men and women, about how there would be places made of stone in this life. You know those kinds of places, he would say. Places of brokenness and misunderstanding, places of anger and resentment, where you house your deepest fears. Where jobs are lost and marriages fall apart and cancer is diagnosed and people sleep under bridges because we choose not to take care of them, and teenagers are bullied and adults live with blinders on, reacting to the world around them, going through the motions because they are too tired or overwhelmed to do anything else. Just like you have those places, of stone, Jesus says, I will, too. I will suffer the depths of human pain, humiliated, nails in my wrists, misunderstood. I will enter into suffering for you so that, through my pain, yours might be redeemed. So that you will know that death is not the end. So that, through it all, you might live in hope.
This is great news, but comes with an important word of caution. But first, back to Shawshank, back to the prisoners in the big stone cafeteria in their grey uniforms and tags with 5-digit numbers on their chest, their slop on metal trays. After Andy speaks of music and its power, the musical score in the movie begins to rise, signaling that this is an important scene. As Andy’s face lightens with the word, ‘hope,’ Morgan Freeman looks him in the eye. "Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing," he says. "Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside, and you’d better get used to that idea." Luke tells us these women, these first thoroughly qualified witnesses,2 run back to the apostles, to the twelve guys who were still asleep. But these words, Luke says, seemed to them an idle tale, the word in Greek is leiros, which is more akin to, ‘a load of bull.’ A useless story, and they did not believe them.
Because it’s a heckuva lot easier not to. Not that this text happened exactly this way as a matter of historical record. I don’t know that. But I do believe, silly as it may seem, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. But, even more so, I believe that resurrection happens every day. It is easier for our world, for us, to remain detached, coolly sophisticated – we are an intelligent lot, aren’t we? No matter why you ended up here today – whether you have been a member here since folks began gathering at Hope Valley school 50 years ago, if you’re around some but prefer the sidelines, whether you are a first time visitor or a friend or relative who can’t stand church but are humoring someone you love this Easter like you do every Easter. I might want to encourage you, actually, to set all this stuff aside, enjoy the nice music, head home for lunch and move on with your life just as you have before.
Hope, as Morgan Freeman warns us, is a dangerous thing. If you take resurrection seriously, if you begin to find yourself affected by this deep stirring in your soul, it is going to cause you some problems. Because you might begin to believe that ALL people matter, and you might begin to listen to folks around you more carefully. You might look differently, too, seeking out suffering, daring to believe that we don’t have to be satisfied with the homeless on our streets or slums in Port-au-Prince. You might begin to believe that you could make a difference in the world, that even today you could walk right out of here and sign up for our workday in 3 weeks and go help those who are homeless and hungry and victims of domestic violence, or sign up to do something ridiculous like spend a weekend in Hyde County fixing up people’s homes. You might dare to believe that this world could be even better than it is, that we, together, could seek to live into God’s reign of justice and mercy and deep, deep peace. You might dare to believe that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ the powers of death have been conquered forever and that His light and His love and His hope shines in even the most desperate places, made of stone and fear. That the world has been forever transformed.
But, frankly, I’d encourage you not to believe that. Not only would it be easier, but you can go right on living the way you have been living. Don’t worry about any of that other stuff; the problems are too big, anyway. We’re busy. That stone hadn’t been removed, the women were making it up, it’s an idle tale anyway. But. If you dare, if you are willing to even glimpse that hope, then we have work to do. Maybe we could believe that Christ’s love shines, and that all of those most broken places, filled with the deepest pain, aren’t, in fact, made of stone. Not anymore.
Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed! All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The whole movie is fantastic, but at least start with this scene.
2. This is Fred Craddock’s great language, from Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 281.