Being Set Free and Bearing Forgiveness

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter Day, April 5, 2015

“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified . . . he is not here . . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” Mark 16:6-7

On Good Friday, at the Jefferson County Jail in the state of Alabama, an official there with the sheriff’s office unlocked a cell door. And through that door walked a 58-year-old African-American man named Anthony Ray Hinton.

At the age of 29, Hinton was convicted of the 1985 murders of two Birmingham restaurant workers. Because Hinton was indigent, a lawyer was appointed to represent him. The lawyer mistakenly believed that he had only $1,000 to hire an expert witness for the proceedings.[1] The witness he hired wasn’t much of an expert. As for eye-witnesses to the two separate murders, there were none. As for fingerprints linking Hinton to the crime scenes, there were none. The only physical evidence was a questionable link between a set of bullets and a gun found in the home that Hinton shared with his mother.[2]

The jury deliberated for less than two hours before finding him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He was sentenced to death row and spent most of the next 30 years locked in a 5-by-8-foot cell in solitary confinement. As he would later state to the public as a free man, “All they had to do was test the gun.”[3] When that finally happened, the case unraveled completely, and Hinton was set free. According to the New York Times, he said this about his time alone with his thoughts:

I witnessed other inmates’ time run out, and I’d be lying if I said you don’t ask yourself, “Wow, is that going to happen to me?”[4]

I’m guessing Hinton probably thought about death every day in that 5-by-8 foot cell. Most of us, by contrast, go to great lengths not to think about death at all. A lot of us even try to pretend we might never come face to face with it. Well, I have some bad news to share with you today: That’s not true! Of course there will be times for each one of us when death comes into sharp focus, like it did over and over again for Anthony Ray Hinton as he lay on his bunk and stared at the ceiling.

That’s how three women — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome — come to the tomb of Jesus early on the first day of the week. With hearts broken by grief over the death he died, they come to complete his funeral by anointing his body. And what do they find? They find that the stone has already been rolled away from the entrance and that his body isn’t inside. Then they hear the words of a messenger from God:

You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified . . . he is not here
. . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.[5]

Yet the women are frightened and distraught by the emptiness of the tomb. Make no mistake about it, we would be frightened too. Like them, we would be filled with Easter terror instead of Easter joy. Most biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with verse eight of chapter sixteen:

They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.[6]

It leaves us in a state of suspense, wanting to know what happened to them, wanting to know the rest of the story. Some of the most ancient manuscripts end this way. Other copies of the text make the conclusion nice and tidy in the same way that we might try to do in our own minds. After all, in spite of the many different kinds of expectations we bring into the church on this day, who comes desiring to run out of these doors afterwards filled with terror instead of joy?

But Mark’s Gospel is pointing us in the right direction – the direction in which Easter joy awaits us. The fact that the tomb was empty doesn’t tell us a thing about its meaning. What happened to our Lord Jesus Christ between the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Day no one saw.

There were no eyewitnesses to his resurrection, when God spoke a thunderous, “Yes,” in the face of humanity’s cruel, “No,” to Jesus. There wasn’t a reporter on the scene from the New York Times to describe the very moment when death — the enemy of life — was defeated by the power of God. The empty tomb points to the resurrection but doesn’t prove it. That’s why the women who came face to face with that emptiness are unsettled and shaken and fearful.

So where is Easter joy to be found? The messenger from God tells the women at the empty tomb that Jesus has been raised and that he is going ahead of the disciples to Galilee. That is where the risen Christ will gather his sheep who were scattered in the darkness of the crucifixion. That is where Easter joy awaits them. That is where the empty tomb finds its meaning.

Easter joy awaits us too. It breaks into our ordinary routines, disrupting ordinary expectations through small, concrete acts of love that make us less and less fearful as we come to know, more and more, that God will always have the last word — a word of life that has destroyed sin and death.

When Anthony Ray Hinton stood outside the front doors of Alabama’s Jefferson County Jail on Good Friday, this is part of the statement that he made to the press:

Good morning. The sun [does] shine. . . . I want you to know there is a God. He [sits] high but he looks low. . . . And I just want to thank him.[7]

And Hinton also acknowledged that this miscarriage of justice had affected not only him but also the families of the two victims who had been murdered in 1985. So he wanted to say publicly to them,

I will continue to pray for you as I have for 30 years.[8]

I can’t imagine how Hinton is feeling on this day — the Day of Resurrection. I do know that he headed to a cemetery after he left the jail. He went there to put flowers on the grave of his mother, who died in 2002.[9] I also know that, quite astonishingly and in some tension with a few of the other things he said outside the jail, Hinton has been thinking, perhaps with more than a little difficulty, about mercy.

That’s not to say there won’t be some kind of reckoning, some kind of compensation, for what happened to him. Surely there should be. Nevertheless, he said:

I’ve got to forgive. I’ve lived in hell for 30 years.[10]

Hinton seems to realize that it would be all too easy for him to continue living in hell has a free man — to choose to sit in the prison of bitterness and resentment and anger. But he wants to begin a new life. And when you get right down to it, isn’t that what we all want both for ourselves and for those whom we love — to walk out of those harsh prisons of our own making and to be truly free, bearing forgiveness because we have first found forgiveness here in the embrace of the Crucified One?

Many of you have probably seen the movie version of Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile. It’s a powerful story about the triumph of sacrificial love. But the movie version leaves out an important scene from Stephen King’s bestseller. The character narrating this story presides over executions in a Depression-era prison. After one of these executions goes badly, he has trouble going to sleep and begins to think about the churches of his youth. And this is what he remembers:

. . . the concept of atonement came up as regularly as the toll of the bell which called the faithful to worship. Only God could forgive sins, could and did, washing them away in the agonal blood of His crucified Son, but that did not change the responsibility of His children to atone for those sins (and even their simple errors of judgement) whenever possible. Atonement was powerful; it was the lock on the door you closed against the past.[11]

I like that as a description of Good Friday — the lock on the door you close against the past — and I think it gives us a good way to understand our celebration of the resurrection this morning. If Good Friday locks the door to the past, then Easter Day unlocks the door to the future. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has written:

When the fear of death disappears the fear of life disappears too . . . Hope for the resurrection of the body is not merely a hope for the hour of death; it is a hope for all the hours of life from the first to the last.[12]

Easter isn’t merely about a new life that begins after death. It’s also about a new life that begins right now. And that’s good news not only for Anthony Ray Hinton but also for you . . . today.

ALLELUIA

 1 BACK TO POST Alan Blinder, “Alabama Man Freed After Decades on Death Row,” The New York Times, April 3, 2015.

BACK TO POST Abby Phillip, “Alabama inmate free after three decades on death row. How the case against him unraveled,” The Washington Post, April 3, 2015.

BACK TO POST Phillip.

BACK TO POST Blinder.

BACK TO POST Mark 16:6-7.

BACK TO POST Mark 16:8.

BACK TO POST Melanie Posey, “Anthony Ray Hinton released after nearly 30 years on death row,” WBRC, Birmingham, Alabama, April 3, 2015.

BACK TO POST Posey.

BACK TO POST Phillip.

10 BACK TO POST Blinder.

11 BACK TO POST Stephen King, The Green Mile (New York: Scribner, 2000) 243.

12 BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltman, The Way of Jesus Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 266-267.

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