John 20:1-18 – No Good Thing Ever Dies

Have you ever seen “The Shawshank Redemption”? Or read the Steven King short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption?” It is a story set in a Post-WWII prison in Maine. Leave it to Steven King to turn a story in that setting into an extended parable on hope.

Andy Dufresne is a young banker, wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife (played by Tim Robbins). Morgan Freeman plays Ellis “Red” Redding, the prison “fixer;” whatever you want, Red can get it for you. He’s a lifer, and older than Andy. Though they are vastly different men, the two form a friendship and begin a long debate on hope.

Red believes, after so many years in the maximum security environment, that “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

After receiving solitary confinement for locking himself in the Warden’s office and playing “The Marriage of Figaro” over the prison loudspeakers, Andy explains his view: “You need music so you don’t forget there’s something inside you that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch hope.”

Andy’s hope drives him to dream of a new life in a quiet, Mexican town on the Pacific Ocean, Zihuatenejo. Not only does he dream, he plans, inspired by this hope, an escape. Over many years, hidden behind a poster of Rita Hayworth (and later of Raquel Welch), he begins to tunnel through the prison wall. His route leads him through a 500-yard long tunnel of sewage, carrying a plastic bag of clothes. His escape becomes legendary to the prisoners, and inspiring to Red.

Long years later, Red is finally paroled. Unsuccessfully, he tries to fit in outside, getting a job as a bagger in a grocery store and living in a halfway house. He thinks about giving up and doing something that will get him sent back to prison – the environment that feels most familiar. But, his memories of Andy – and some of their conversations – leads him to a stone wall, in a field in rural Maine. Red didn’t know it, but Andy’s hope extended to Red, for he had left a letter hidden in that wall, behind a rock “that doesn’t belong there.”

In the letter, there is cash and a call to remember the name of the town – Zihuatenejo. In his letter, Andy says this:

“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

The movie ends with Red walking down the beach to find his friend, Andy, working on a dilapidated old boat. Over that scene, we hear Red’s voice:

“I find I am so excited,  I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it  across. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope. 

Picture Red, leaning back against that stone wall, reading Andy’s letter. Imagine the thoughts running through his head – Do I have the courage to believe? Can I actually do what he proposes? Do I even hope that there is a better life than bagging groceries? Can I even find Zihuatenejo?

Imagine all that, and you are imagining the same thoughts running through the head of Mary, in a garden outside an empty tomb, struggling to hope and grasp the truth that “hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies.”

John 20:1-18 

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 

Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying. 

Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 

As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” which means Teacher.

 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

We might remember the words of Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

 Christians know that hope and faith have always been related. “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.” (Hebrews 11:1, CEB) “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:13) Both were written by the Apostle Paul, who spent a lot of time in prison; maybe one has to reach the end of all human hope to find the hope of faith, the hope of new life?

Modern writer Peter Steinke, in A Door Set Open: a Theology of Hope, says:

  • Hope puts possibility into play
  • Hope is a way of imagining God’s future and persevering in faith that it will arrive.
  • Hope draws us toward the future, directs our focus, arouses our passion, and gives meaning to our actions.
  • Hope is a concrete invitation to act in adventurous ways.

Hope is Zihuatenejo.

Hope is Mary running back to the disciples with the news, “I have seen the Lord!”

Hope is in extremely short supply today.

Many Christians, many churches, are confused. Their focus is not yet directed by hope, their passions not aroused by hope, and their actions meaningless. Many churches have not yet allowed hope to draw them towards God’s future! Many of us might have received God’s invitation to adventure, but put it back in the envelope, and thrown it away.

Often we are “dispirited, bewildered, struggling, conflicted, paddling-as-fast-as-we-can” and we believe all our struggles are our fault. “We’re a bad church, a failing church, a dying church.” Not true.

We are still the same church, called and created by God to be the body of Christ. The world, on the other hand, has decided it no longer needs us.  Steinke says, “it is the end of an era in which the world is eager to be hospitable to Christian churches.”

Maybe the whole Church, capital-C Church, universal Church, all Christians everywhere, find ourselves in the garden, talking to the man we think is the gardener. Maybe we are all a little bit like Red.  Do we dare hope?

The whole point of Easter is that God has proven that all will be put right in the end. Easter means that Jesus took all that we sinful, brutal, blood-thirsty humans could dish out – and still loved us to the end; “Father,  forgive them for they know not what they do.” From the cross, as in life, Jesus looked upon us with compassion, “like sheep without a shepherd.”

That’s the life that God raised from the dead on Easter morning.

Who could see that kind of a miracle and not hope? Who could meet the risen Christ in the garden and not answer the call to adventure?

It’s easy to find the precise moment when Mary’s confusion transformed into hope. It’s when Jesus said her name. Mary. With those two syllables, a confused and frightened woman become a hope-filled disciple – the first evangelist, if you will.

The transformation goes deep. Within the time it took Jesus to instruct her to go tell her “brothers and sisters,” Mary had ceased to see him as just a teacher. In those few seconds, “Rabbouni” turned to “Lord.” By the time she reaches her confused and frightened friends, hope has taken root.

Let’s not leave this place this morning without hearing Jesus call our name. Let us not refuse to listen to the “thing with feathers” sing its unceasing song into our soul.

There is nothing wrong with God’s church. At least, nothing wrong that a little hope couldn’t fix.

Hope that acts. Hope that leaves a farm in Maine and travels to a coastal Mexican town, Zihuatenejo.  Hope that runs to tell the disciples,  to share the Good News.

Hope that hears the call to serve adventurously. Hope that sees the future as God sees the future; not full of broken, dispirited people, but a future where all brokenness has been mended.

 “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

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