One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. I’ve seen it countless times since it premiered two decades ago. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman star as convicts in Shawshank Prison who become friends. Both Andy (played by Robbins) and Red (Freeman) are serving life sentences.
Andy is a former banker falsely convicted of murdering his wife. He arrives at Shawshank dazed and disoriented by the demeaning realities of life in captivity. Red is wise in prison ways. Convicted as a young man, Red had already spent twenty years in the notoriously harsh prison before Andy arrived.
Red teaches Andy how to survive in lockup. How to get contraband. How to avoid beatings by the guards. And how to head off violence by fellow prisoners. All of this Andy learns gratefully.
But Andy never accepts Red’s fundamental survival principle.
For Red, there was nothing beyond the walls of Shawshank Prison. The only sensible path for an inmate was to learn how to work the system that Shawshank created. When the guards were looking, you followed the rules.
If you resigned yourself to the world according to Shawshank, you could make a better place for yourself in that world. Red had become the contraband dealer, arranging to have items like cigarettes and posters and rock hammers smuggled in to other inmates for a bartered price. Some jobs were less strenuous and less demeaning than others, and clever inmates knew how to angle for them.
Red colluded with Shawshank. He became the man that Shawshank allowed him to be.
By contrast, Andy refused to be defined by the stone walls, the iron bars, and the dehumanizing practices of prison. No less than Red, Andy endured daily headcount, bland food, drab clothing, and enforced confinement. And yet, Andy believed that his own worth, and the dignity of everyone around him, derived from a world beyond those prison walls. And that’s exactly how he acted.
One day Andy sat at the lunch table with Red and his other convict friends. He had just been released from solitary confinement. His offense had been to play a recording of an aria from The Marriage of Figaro over the public address system and piping it into the prison yard for the inmates to hear.
Andy talked to those at the table about the power of music. It reminded him—as it had reminded every convict in that prison yard on that day—of a transcendence, of something more and greater than the life they all endured within the walls of Shawshank. Music was the reminder that—all appearances to the contrary—there is an enduring dignity within human life, a dignity that no circumstances can erase.
Clearly agitated, Red asks Andy, “What are you talking about?” Andy says that he’s talking about hope.
Red says this in response: “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
Hope is a dangerous thing. Not because it drives us insane. On the contrary, it’s the only path to sanity in a crazy world. Men and women propelled by hope refuse to be confined and controlled by all that is toxic and destructive on this planet.
Greed and materialism, consumerism and war, domestic violence and poverty, racism and sexual exploitation, wage theft and addiction shatter and distort who God dreams that we will be. Hope taps into God’s dream. His dream—his mission—is to restore everything that has been shattered and debased. To reconcile us to him and all of us to each other.
God’s dream becomes reality only when it is a shared dream. When we hope we do more than harbor positive thoughts, we act. We dream God’s dream with our hands and our feet. Augustine put it something like this: “God without us will not, as we without God cannot.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us how to be dangerous. How to anticipate the Kingdom of Heaven even while the world is decidedly crazy.
Turn the other cheek, forgive those who injure you, and remember the human dignity of your fiercest enemies. God is dreaming of peace, and it has to start somewhere. Blessed are the peacemakers.
Give the shirt off your back to whoever asks. Our fear of scarcity is a slur against God. God already gives plenty. His delivery system includes our generosity.
Serve everyone, especially the ones who make you uncomfortable or tempt you to judge. Jesus said that whatever we do to the least we do to him. In other words, refuse to rank people as higher or lower. Trust in God’s dream of a world where everyone is equal, everyone is respected.
God dreams of a restored creation, and he holds us accountable for joining him in this dream.
That is the lesson of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids.
You know the story. Ten maids wait for a bridegroom at night. He is delayed. Five have brought enough oil to hold out until he finally arrives. The others run out of oil before he gets there. Only the five wise maids enter the wedding banquet.
The bridegroom said something like this to the ones who are left outside. You didn’t live your lives in anticipation of my coming. You just took things as they were and made yourself at home. You spent your life making a better place for yourself in the world and never lifted a finger to make the world a better place.
Living in hope is dangerous. Hope dreams God’s dream and changes the world.
At the close of The Shawshank Redemption, Red has finally been paroled. Andy had escaped years earlier and left a coded message for Red to join him in Mexico. Breaking parole, Red boards a bus, and we hear his thoughts as he leans out the bus window and feels the breeze on his face.
“I find I’m 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 the border. 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.”
This sermon was preached at Epiphany in Opelousas, Louisiana.