Dean Hall: “Spoiler Alert”
Spoiler Alert. The phrase for tonight is “Spoiler Alert.” There’s nothing worse than having the plot twists of a story you are following revealed by an overeager friend or broadcaster. Last Monday as Kathy and I were driving we heard an NPR announcer tell, in detail, the surprising developments in the seventh season opener of Mad Men that aired the night before. The problem is that we’re still back in season four. The reporter did not seem hip to the fact that, with the advent of web streaming and DVRs, people don’t watch TV in the same way they did in the era of Ed Sullivan and The Fugitive. I couldn’t reach the dial fast enough. Luckily I’m so far back in the story that I didn’t understand the shocking details. Still, though, they’re stuck in my head like the earworm of a bad Top 40 song.
So: spoiler alert. I’m going to say a bit now about a movie: All Is Lost. I saw it last week and it has stayed with me for days. It’s one of those films that you see and then find yourself thinking about when you thought you were doing something else. But I promise you I won’t say anything that might give the ending away.
All Is Lost is the J.C. Chandor movie starring Robert Redford that depicts a man’s struggle to survive alone in a boat at sea. It’s a powerful, if hard-to-watch, film treating a number of issues: our ambitions, the illusions brought on by modern affluence, our trust in our things, human arrogance in regard to nature. But tonight for us All Is Lost is most powerfully about the tenuous relationship of life and death. Near the beginning of the film, we hear the main character say this:
I’m sorry… I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. … All is lost here… except for soul and body… that is, what’s left of them… and a half-day’s ration. … I fought ’til the end, I’m not sure what this is worth, but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all… I will miss you. I’m sorry. (J. C. Chandor, All Is Lost)
Spoiler alert: I can’t tell you how All Is Lost ends because it ends ambiguously. The ending is a beautiful and fitting ending, but it is one that is open to multiple interpretations. According to audience surveys, one-half of those seeing it think it ends happily; the other half think the reverse. [Kind of like American politics.] For almost two hours we have watched a man struggle against the elements, against human indifference, and against himself. At the end we know that there is more to the story, but we don’t know exactly what that more might be. We thought it was over, but now it is not. Spoiler alert. Even when we think it’s finished, there is something new before us.
We think it is over, but now it is not. You could say as much about the two great feasts of freedom, Easter and Passover. In some sense, tonight’s liturgy, the Great Vigil of Easter, is the church’s way of observing Passover. Tonight we move, with Israel, from slavery into freedom. Tonight we move, with Jesus, from death into life. Easter is the Christian version of Passover. It is the day on which we proclaim that it isn’t over when we think it is. It is the time we realize that even when all is lost there is something more.
Let’s think first about Passover. The Jewish holiday observes the Jews’ journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land of Canaan. Our Exodus reading tonight begins with them being pursued by Pharaoh’s army on their way out of Egypt. The people complain: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exod. 14:11b). All, it appears, is lost. But there is more to the story. Moses stretches his hand over the sea, the waters part, and the Israelites pass through the Red Sea “on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (Exod. 14:29). All appeared to be lost. But then it wasn’t.
From that day to this, Passover has been the central holiday for Jews around the world. It is the primal celebration of divine and human freedom. It’s not only that people are set free; so is God. Just when you thought God couldn’t do a new thing, there it was. At Passover God demonstrates that something dramatically new and living can emerge from something we were sure was old and dead.
We Christians observe Passover at Easter because the earliest Christians were Jews. We tend to talk a lot about the Passover meal on Maundy Thursday, but the Easter Vigil asks that we remember the Passover event itself. In an astonishing expression of God’s creative power, the enslaved Jews were set free from Pharaoh and Egypt. When the earliest Jewish Christians tried to understand what the resurrection of Jesus meant to them, they turned first to Passover for an analogue. The resurrection is our Passover. In another astonishing expression of God’s creative power, the whole human family is set free. The Jews were enslaved by Egypt. You and I have been imprisoned by sin and death. But now, in Jesus, we’re not. We think it is over, but now there is more.
What that “more” might look like is, of course, open to interpretation. When we say that Jesus’ resurrection liberates us from sin and death, we mean at least two things. We mean that we’ve been set free from sin and its power. That doesn’t make us immediately perfect or pure, but it does mean that who we are is finally good. We are set free from the power of sin, and so we are able now to live lives of hope and compassion and grace. The kind of life that Jesus lived is now open and available to all. We are not tied to our old story. We can take on a new story. Dying to the old story and rising to the new one is what really happens in Baptism, which we also celebrate tonight. When we renew our Baptismal Covenant together we’re stepping in to a new and risen life in which our old habits and failures and betrayals no longer define us. We are stepping in to the liberation from the power of sin. We are being taken up into God’s astonishing creative power and letting it become the governing force of our lives.
And that’s how it is with the power of death, too. The resurrection of Jesus frees us from the power of death. It doesn’t free us from death itself—even Jesus, you know, had to die—but Jesus’ new life empowers us to live lives freed from the tyranny of the fear of death. To be honest, even after a lifetime of serving the church, I don’t know precisely what that means. But I do know that just as God and Jesus stand with me in my woundedness, just as they accompany me in my joyfulness, so they will accompany me as I pass from this life to what lies beyond. I don’t think that means I’ll be spending eternity watching Mad Men episodes with my wife and son and my boyhood pets eating Hostess Twinkies in my heavenly Barcalounger in the sky, but I do think it means that God’s astonishing creative power is not done with me—that we all will be caught up into God’s ongoing life as it works out the cosmic drama of love and redemption in the world. At Easter we are set free from sin. At Easter we are set free from death. First it was one way and now it’s another. That’s what dealing with Jesus and Jesus’ God is like. God’s most characteristic trait is the power to surprise.
This Lent I have been living with some words from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. This text has always meant much to me, in part because it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s favorite passage of scripture and one to which he returned regularly during his captivity in a Nazi prison. It’s a passage about God’s radiance, about us, about things being first one way and then suddenly another. Here it is:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:17–18)
Spoiler alert: all is lost. And then it isn’t. Before Easter, we saw God and ourselves one way. Our old story was caught up in sin and death. Now, after Easter, we will see it all another. Our new story is one of life and compassion and hope. Just when you thought it was over it turns out there is more. Tonight we make our Passover from slavery to freedom, from sin and death to love and life. You and I “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” It was one way and now it’s another. All was lost, and now there is more. Christ is risen. Happy Easter. Amen.