Wednesday, April 19, 2006

“In Remembrance of a Shroud”[1]

Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 16:1-8

We think of Easter as a time for joy. It’s a time for sunshine and freshly blooming flowers, pretty new dresses and colorful baskets full of goodies. But there is a troublesome reality behind it all. It is the reality of death. Death is the “shroud” that is “cast over all peoples,” as the prophet says. I don’t think he’s referring to the fact that we all at some point die, though that is hard enough. He’s talking about the way death is like a plague that infects everything about this life.

We can see it all around us, if we have eyes to see. A motel where addicts smoke crack. A park where homeless people try to sleep. A bar where women take their clothes off for the men who pay them. A chemical company that pours “acceptable” amounts of poison into our air and water all for the sake of more profits. And beyond our corner of the world, there are even more—war, starvation, disease. There are a lot of reminders of the shroud of death that is cast over us all.[2]

The Shroud Lifted. I think one of the best modern-day illustrations of that shroud is the story of Jean Valjean (“Johnny Johnson”) in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” In the movie version of the story, after stealing food as a starving young man, Jean Valjean does 19 years’ hard labor in prison. There, predictably, he becomes hardened and corrupted by the shroud of death cast over the whole place.

When Jean Valjean is paroled, he meets a kind bishop who invites him to a meal and a comfortable nights’ sleep. In the middle of the night, he decides to steal the bishop’s silver. The police catch him and bring him back to the bishop, who insists that the silver was not stolen after all, but in fact it was a gift! The police are no more surprised than Jean Valjean, but the bishop tells him, “Never forget! You no longer belong to evil. I have ransomed your soul from fear and hatred. I give you back to God.”

And in fact, the Bishop’s kindness transforms Jean Valjean into a good and compassionate man. He becomes the mayor of a small town and runs a factory that is a model of economic justice for its workers.

The Shroud Embraced. One day, a figure from his past comes to town: Jauvert. Jauvert had been a guard in the prison where Jean Valjean served time. Eventually, Jauvert recognizes him and threatens to denounce him. Jean Valjean flees to Paris, where he once again becomes a model of compassion and grace.

Jauvert is exactly the opposite of Jean Valjean—while he has found redemption from the shroud of death and violence that was cast about him, Jauvert has lived as one who wrapped himself in that very shroud! Jauvert at one point says that he had spent his entire life trying not to break a single law—that was what gave him meaning! From this rigid perspective, Jauvert proclaims that all people are either law-breakers or law-abiders, and that a law-breaker can never change.

The Shroud Removed. After 10 years, Jauvert finally catches up with Jean Valjean. In his customary fashion, Jean Valjean sacrifices himself for those he loves and surrenders to Jauvert. But over time, Jauvert has seen first-hand Jean Valjean’s compassion. In fact, at one point, Jean Valjean has the power to kill Jauvert and instead sets him free. This creates a quandary for Jauvert. In the final scene of the movie, Jauvert takes his own life and sets Jean Valjean free—not only free from custody, but also free from his own past and from the shroud that had plagued him all his life. He walks away with a look of joy and relief—for the first time in his life he is truly free!

The Shroud Destroyed. That is the point of the resurrection. Not that we can look at life through rose-colored glasses, as if we don’t notice or don’t care about the reminders of the shroud all around us! If we do, we haven’t paid sufficient attention to the one who hung on the cross. That’s why we have the discipline of Lent.

The message of Easter is that in Jesus the Christ, God has “destroyed the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.” In the resurrection, God has “swallowed up death forever.”

If that’s true, how can it be that we still see the reminders of death all around us? It is because the resurrection is a sign that points us to a reality that has potentially changed everything, but has not yet fully worked its way through all creation. It is a pointer to a new creation that is coming, and indeed in hidden and mysterious ways is already here among us.[3]

The resurrection is like a promise—a promise that just as God did not leave Jesus in the grave, so he will not leave creation in the shroud of death. It is a promise that, just as God has restored Jesus to life, so also God will restore all creation to life.[4] In a very real sense, we are all like Jean Valjean—because of the resurrection, we are all free from the shroud that still plagues so much of this world.

[1] A sermon preached on 4/16/06 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson. The title is a reference to a phrase from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act 5, sc. 1, l. 376-8.

[2] William Willimon, “A Waiting Church (Isa.25:9),” Christian Century (April 7, 1982), 397.

[3] Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99.

[4] Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 223.

No comments: