Sermon preached at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Lent (4 March 2018) by Revd James Milne, Sacrist

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Lent (4 March 2018) by Revd James Milne, Sacrist

Continuing our Lenten sermon series 'Reel Spirituality', Revd James Milne considers the Biblical parallels that can be drawn from Frank Darabont's film The Shawshank Redemption. 

Job, whose words we have heard again this afternoon, was a blameless and upright man, whose faith God put to the test. His donkeys, oxen and camels were stolen by cattle rustlers; his servants were put to death; bolts of lightning destroyed his herd of sheep; a great wind flattened the house in which his sons and daughters were making merry, killing them all; and Job himself was covered from head to foot in “loathsome sores”. Yet, despite all this unimaginable misery, Job remained faithful to God and defiantly hopeful. Indeed, in the face of provocation from so called friends who impute some hidden sin for which he has been justly punished, he is bold to proclaim: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.”

This extraordinary hope, which his friends are quick to ridicule, is not misplaced, for the wealth of Job is restored to him with interest, he fathers another seven sons and three daughters, and dies contented and revered at the grand old age of one hundred and forty.

Hope in the face of suffering is likewise to be found in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, a portion of which we have also heard this afternoon. Responding to those who suggest that hope in an unseen God is futile, Paul asks “who hopes for what is seen?” before declaring boldly “we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience”.

Patient hope for a future we cannot touch or smell or see is central to Frank Darabont’s film The Shawshank Redemption on which I would like to reflect with you this afternoon. Based on a short novel by Stephen King, this cinematic epic tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a successful young banker, falsely convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Sentenced in 1947 to spend the rest of his life in the notorious Shawshank State Penitentiary, Dufresne endures years of abuse and deprivation at the hands of his captors and fellow inmates, and yet he is not destroyed. Like Job he never loses hope, but brightens prison life through repeated acts of constructive defiance.

Assigned to look after the dilapidated prison library, Dufresne writes weekly to the state authorities for new books and greater funds which, after several years of dogged persistence, he secures. These he uses to educate his fellow prisoners, and in so doing offers those who have known nothing but a life of crime, the prospect of a different future.

What Dufresne offers his fellow prisoners stands in stark contrast to that offered by his friend and ally Red, a convicted murderer, who survives the rigours of prison life by acquiring illicit goods. But the respite offered by Red’s smuggled wares is agonisingly fleeting and Red, like many Shawshank inmates, has long since ceased to hope. Indeed, he warns Dufresne that “hope is a dangerous thing” for “hope can drive a man insane”. But Dufresne rebukes him declaring that “there are places in the world that aren’t made of stone; there is something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch, it’s yours.”

As if to prove a point, Dufresne highjack’s the prison’s public address system to play throughout Shawshank a duet from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. It is a transforming moment for the despondent Red and his fellow inmates. “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about”, he later reflects, “truth is I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think that they were singing about something so beautiful that it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and further than anybody in a great place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our cramped little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

For much of the film, however, one senses that true freedom will always elude Dufresne. Though he is viewed as increasingly indispensible by the Prison Governor, who exploits Dufresne’s skills as a banker to launder stolen money, his usefulness and knowledge hampers his prospects for release. Indeed, when Tommy Williams, a young prisoner whom Dufresne has befriended, reveals information that would secure Dufresne’s exoneration, he is murdered on the orders of the Governor. As we are shown Tommy’s bullet ridden body lying on the ground, the all-consuming might of the prison authorities is brought home to us, and any remaining hope that Dufresne will one day be free flutters away.

Tommy’s death comes as a bitter blow, not least for Dufresne, and Red and his friends increasingly fear for his wellbeing. When he fails to emerge from his cell one morning they imagine that he has taken his own life. But it soon becomes clear, as it became clear to our Lord’s disciples on that first Easter Morning, that he is no longer there, for Dufresne, for nineteen years, had been digging, inch by inch through solid rock, his way to freedom.

Dufresne escapes Shawshank with the Governor’s laundered money to begin a new life in Mexico. On his way he supplies a local paper with information that will bring his brutal captors to justice and sets a trail by which Red might join him on his release. The film ends with the reunion of Dufresne and Red on a sunlit Mexican beach.

Though The Shawshank Redemption is by no means an allegory for the life of Jesus, Dufresne is a Christ like figure, and this film, like the Gospels themselves, serves to remind us that, in Jesus, we are shown what it is to be defiant in the face of terror and violence and the brighter future that awaits us all.

Though many in these uncertain times may mock us, as they mocked Job and Paul before us, for our faltering belief in the transforming power of God, may we never cease to brighten the lives of our compatriots with defiant acts of hope, as we confidently await the freedom that will be ours; for by so doing, our lives will likewise become stories of redemption every bit as gripping as this epic film. Amen.