In the 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption,” Brooks, the prison librarian who has been an inmate in the prison for 50 years, is granted parole. Faced with the prospect of a life drastically different from the one he’s known, he panics. Even after he’s left the brutal prison environment, he’s so uncomfortable and afraid that he considers committing another crime so he will be sent back to the place he knows as home.
The other prison inmates don’t understand. Shouldn’t Brooks be celebrating his new-found freedom?
The inmate Red, played by Morgan Freeman, tries to explain.
“He’s just institutionalized,” Red says of Brooks. “The man’s been here 50 years. This is all he knows. Here, he’s an important man. Outside, he’s nothing, just a used-up ex-con with arthritis in both hands. … These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, and then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on ’em. That’s institutionalized.”
Now, as far as I know, none of us here this morning—in the sanctuary or online—has done serious time behind bars.
And yet it’s entirely possible that we, too, have become institutionalized, that we have grown all-too-comfortable with the much-less-than-ideal way that things are.
Some of us, for example, have grown accustomed to both the privileges and costs of our whiteness and hetero-normative sexuality. Others of us have been so worn down by injustice and racism that we no longer believe things can be any different. Many of us are so used to American individualism, top-down capitalism, and global militarization that we rarely even think about them; they are like the air that we breathe.
And if you think I’m exaggerating the human capacity for accommodation, consider for a moment how much time you spend in prayer and action for the people of Ukraine compared to what you were doing a month ago. The ceaseless brutality, heartbreaking suffering, and increasing inhumanity wear us down.
But this diminishment, this lowering of expectations, this resignation—institutionalization, if you will—is not what we were made for. This is so much less than what God wants for us.
Instead of basing our lives on the upside-down, last-shall-be-first, do-justice-and-love-kindness principles of the realm of God, we’ve pledged our allegiance to nationalism, militarism, and economic prosperity.
Instead of relying on the grace and providence of God and God’s people, we’ve made an idol of self-sufficiency.
Instead of thriving, too often we have settled for surviving.
Instead of building the beloved community, we have spent more of our time and energy with people we already know and love, people who, more often than not, are just like us.
The God who is love has made for so much more than what our eyes can see and our hands can touch. The God who delivers has made us for more freedom and healing than we can imagine. The God who became one of us has made us to become more like God.
The good news, beloveds, is that we were made for redemption.
That is to say that we are made to live beyond the confining walls of human systems. We are made to be freed from our fears. We are made to be transformed. We are made to be whole.
The good news is that there is great hope and healing in realizing that we are in need of a love and a power beyond ourselves. As our friends in the recovery community know, the first step on the road to redemption is admitting that we need help.
Now, I realize that redemption is a complicated word, and I understand that the whole concept of being “saved” sends many of us down deep rabbit holes of a harsh, angry theology that wounds and scars, excludes and condemns.
And so I want to be clear that I am not speaking about sin and judgment, heaven or hell.
I am speaking of the redeemer Jesus who said he came that all might have life, and have it in abundance. I am speaking of the triune God, who made us in the divine image, which is loving and connected community, and who is forever and always doing a new thing. I am speaking of the sustainer Spirit whose transforming power we too often forget to access.
And so it is that sometimes we have to be shaken out of our comfort and complacency. Sometimes the path toward redemption passes through rock bottom. And always, we have to stay awake.
And so it was that while Pontius Pilate and the military forces of the Roman Empire marched into Jerusalem from the west for their annual, just-before-Passover show of force and fear, Jesus staged a parody for the ages, an invitation to redemption. Entering the city from the east and riding a donkey, he showed desperate people what deliverance looks like: love, humility, freedom, service, community, and a radically intimate connection to the Holy One.
You see, Jesus never resigned himself to the way things were—because he knew how they were supposed to be, what God made them to be. And he believed, he trusted that they could be so, and so he was doing it part to make it so.
No doubt about it: Jesus was done with subtlety. Jesus had wandered the countryside long enough; now he would confront the unjust powers. In his work to redeem and restore the human spirit by building the realm of God, he would challenge human institutions and lift up all who had been de-humanized by them.
Jesus would carry out a guerrilla action in the temple, of all places, driving out the merchants, overturning the tables of the money changers, and condemning the religious leaders who, in their institutionalized justification of going along to get along, had corrupted God’s house and enabled Rome’s oppression.
It was risky, even dangerous work, redemption, and it made many people uncomfortable. Even as the temple authorities trembled at the thought that Jesus would incite the people and thus bring on still more Roman repression, the would-be Jewish revolutionaries were disappointed in Jesus’ unwillingness to join them in violent resistance.
But the people—the sick, the poor, the outcasts, the women—all those who had been not freed from the restraints of respectable institutions but rather kicked out of them—they knew their need for redemption. They were in touch with their longing for deliverance and liberation.
Echoing the psalm they had sung so many times, they cried, “Hosanna! Save Us!” Remembering the old words, they pleaded, “Holy One, deliver us! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Most High God!”
And so it was that in crying out to their deliverer they were delivered. So it was that in acknowledging their savior they were redeemed.
We tend to talk a lot in Holy Week about the discouraging pivot from trust to betrayal, about how quickly the cries of “Hosanna” morphed into shouts of “Crucify him!”
But let us be clear: We are, most likely, talking not about shifting behaviors but rather entirely different groups of people. The disciples, for example, did not so much abandon the savior Jesus and all he stood for as simply flee from the persecuted and executed Jesus in fear, terror, and grief.
It was the powerless people who called on Jesus to deliver them, and the powerful institutions that put him to death.
As God’s love became flesh in Jesus and as Jesus moved into our sketchy neighborhoods to walk through this life with us, this week is our time to walk with our brother Jesus as he continues to live out God’s extravagant love even as it costs him his earthly life.
If Holy Week were a made-for-TV movie, it would be a tragedy, or maybe a cautionary tale: Beware of getting your hopes up. Beware of opening your heart. Beware of going all in on a particular cause or path or belief system. Beware of thinking it will be different this time.
The moral of such a tale might be the most discouraging and deflating message of all: This is just the way things are. This is the way people are. There’s no changing it. There’s no changing you.
But those of us who know we are made for redemption know better. We were not made to wallow in regret or remorse. We were not made to resign ourselves to oppression and injustice, disappointment and fear. No matter what we have done or not done, we can be redeemed by the powerful love of God and Christ’s church. We cannot change the past but if, by God’s mercy, we allow ourselves to be healed and delivered, we can cooperate with God’s grace to change the future.
During this Holy Week and always, may it be so.