Scripture: Acts 9:1-20
Given on April 14th, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
I’m not sure why it was that this particular time sticks in my head so much nor why it has had such a profound effect on the way in which I consider the issue of capital punishment but the execution of the gang leader Stanley “Tookie” Williams has stuck with me for 8 years now but I can still cast my mind’s eye back to that night that I stayed up well into the night watching the coverage of the event followed by the report that he was now gone. Williams had been convicted in 1979 in a series of events that led to the deaths of 4 innocent people and while he maintained his innocence throughout the whole of the trial and subsequent years after there was never overwhelming evidence that this was necessarily the truth. And why would anyone have worried about that anyways? Williams was a known gang leader in South Central Los Angeles, a founding member of the Crips, one of the largest gangs in the country, a person who had surely treated others living in the poor area of Los Angeles with hate and violence. The gang that he helped to form spread throughout the country and untold numbers of people have been killed in their wake and the awareness of that must have rested on his soul while he sat on death row awaiting his execution. In many ways his appearance, his life, his actions did not distinguish him from those who look like him, who act like him, whom we have, as a nation killed in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The United States, as a nation, believes that some crimes are so gruesome, some so hideous, that the only possible means for our society to gain some amount of justice for the crime is through depriving another person of their life in exchange for the lives that they have taken. And so, at least by that measure, the life and death of Tookie Williams didn’t appear all that different from other lives lost in the penal system. But as I sat up that night watching the news and seeing scenes from in front of he prison that housed Williams, the candles that burned from those who protest the very use of the death penalty, among them priests and nuns, college kids and African American leaders from the community, the news anchors struggling to maintain their composure in an event and a moment pregnant with emotion and strain, something struck me quite different. I didn’t know much about Tookie Williams, more than what the wikipedia article would have said about him, but the reports that were being filed by all the major news organizations were not stories of a cold-blooded killer that was awaiting his just desserts at the hands of the California Penal System but rather of a person who had, while in prison, turned his life around. While in prison, Williams had found religion, found God, found redemption. By his own account he had spent much of his life sleepwalking, never fully being aware of the brokenness that his life had caused until he spent a two-year stretch in solitary confinement with nothing but his own thoughts to keep him company. Following that time, Williams experienced a new call from God, a call to try and keep this next generation of Tookies off the streets, away from violence, and most importantly, out of gangs. Williams publicly renounced his membership in the gang that he had founded and began to write books, first about his life, then children’s books, with the aim of reaching out to those kids that looked like him at 6, at 8, at 12, imploring them, begging them to not become involved in gang life. Starting in 1997, Williams began publishing books, written at age levels that could be read by the youngest and most vulnerable in our society and he never stopped until the last beat of his heart had passed. And so, as I watched the reports come in, until they went silent for about 30 minutes, only to begin again with the news that Williams was dead, I began to question not the efficacy of the death penalty but rather the efficacy of this death penalty. Was the world really a better place with one less voice for peace, however late it had come, one less voice directed at the next generation of potential gang members, one less voice that cared about the future outcomes of our sons and our daughters and in turn the direction in which the larger society would traverse. But more than that, I considered what it meant for me as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, to claim that in Jesus can be found redemption for anyone at anytime as the spirit blows where She will in an effort to make all things beautiful and holy and new, could I hold that as a tenet of my faith and still advocate for the execution of anyone, but on that night, at that moment, could I claim that the world was a much better, much safer place without a redeemed Tookie Williams leading the charge to keep kids out of gangs?
Our scripture reading for the morning tells the story of the redemption of another murderer. In the story of our faith, we first encounter Saul presiding over the execution of Stephen at the hands of a ravenous mob of stone-throwers in Jerusalem. In one of the more poignant scenes in the Bible, we see Stephen, condemned to die at the hands of Saul, looking up into heaven and seeing the Son of God looking down at him and standing alongside of God beckoning Stephen to come home when he is finally killed by the mob and after it was done we are told that “Saul approved of their killing him.” And so it is with some trepidation that we encounter Saul in the next chapter of Acts on the road in between Jerusalem and Damascus with an order from the high priest to go to Damascus and ferret out any in the synagogues who might secretly (or boldly) be followers of “the way,” the earliest term for what would become Christianity. Saul was to be feared by all who encountered him but especially those who were the earliest followers of Jesus. He was to be feared because he had already accumulated the blood of several on his hands with plans and aspirations to gain much more. And it must have come as a great shock to Saul as he was traveling the way in between Jerusalem and Damascus that he would be overcome with a blinding light and hear the voice of the one whom he had spent so much time and effort to overcome. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.” Now all those around him couldn’t perceive the transformation that was happening in the life of Saul, they could hear the voice but could see no one but when the event was over, Saul was blinded, he could no longer see even to walk for himself and so he had to be led to Damascus where he entered a period of self-imposed solitary confinement. We are told that for three days he neither ate nor drank but rather spent time in contemplation, rethinking the path of this life and praying, a lot. And all the while the machinations of the Spirit were also at work. So we are told that the voice of Jesus now came to a man named Ananias, a faithful follower of the way, to come to Saul and continue the work of redemption begun on the road to Damascus. And here, our deepest suspicions about this questionable character Saul are confirmed because even the faithful Ananias wants nothing to do with him. “Christ, I’ve heard about this man, and all the terrible things that he has done to the faithful in Jerusalem. I have even heard that he is here now on orders to do the same thing in Damascus, please don’t send me to him.” But Jesus only responds, “Go anyways, even though you are scared, because it is this Saul that I have chosen to proclaim my name to the Gentiles, to Rulers, to the people of Israel.” And can you imagine what it must have been like for Ananias at that moment. Faced with the decision to go before a person who had murdered countless folks just like him. Faced with the decision to step out in faith hoping that redemption can come to a person as dastardly as this Saul character, hoping that in that redemption that he will not meet the same fate as was visited upon Stephen. But for Ananias, faith in Jesus, faith in the love of God, faith in the movement of the Spirit propelled him to believe in the work of redemption in the person of Saul. To believe that every person, no matter what they have done, can find redemption and can become a vessel of the Holy Spirit with a message of peace and hope and love for all the world. Ananias came into that house and found Paul, blinded, weak from a lack of food and drink, but pregnant with the love of God, just a single touch away. And so it was that Ananias laid his hands on Saul, and the scales fell from his eyes, and for the first time in his life he could see, he could see how the love of God moved in the world, how the one who was God’s special child really could bring about the redemption of the world, he could see. And so he was Baptized, and fed, and nursed back to health, and departed unable to do anything but proclaim the greatness of God and the specialness of God’s child. Redemption had come to Saul, and the world would never be the same.
I don’t know how to avoid making comparisons between the Saul who murdered people and the person who was executed by the state of California in the name of the American people. It is easy, I suppose, to allow cynicism to rule the day, to say that the one was the great Apostle of the Christian faith, the other a gang member who was only claiming redemption to avoid death at the end of a needle. It is easy because in the case of Saul, later Paul, we can see the impact of his work some two thousand years later. We are still reading his letters to the faithful throughout that part of the world, his words have been translated into every language on the face of the earth, his name has been spoken in every country in the world by the faithful and in the case of Stanley “Tookie” Williams he’s just a guy who killed some folks and ended up where a great number of people who kill people end up but what does that turn our faith tradition into? What does that say about our faith in the ability of the spirit to reach out to people in the most horrific of circumstances and bring them into the awareness of the love of God for all the world, not just the people who deserve it? Do we worship and follow the most powerful force in the universe capable of using any person and any situation to bring about redemption or do we only believe that redemption can come to some folks? The story of Stanley Williams is a tragedy by any measure. A man trapped in a system of brokenness from which he couldn’t see a way out, until he could, until the scales fell from his eyes and he saw his life as the broken mess that it was and set about to try and find redemption through writing books and reaching out to the most vulnerable in our society. His redeemed life cut short because we as a people don’t have room for true redemption in our worldview. But it is more than that. We each carry the weight of the mistakes that we have made in this life. We each carry the baggage of secret sins that we don’t ever want to see the light of day. We each walk around feeling like we are beyond the love and redemption of God. Our words proclaim freedom in Christ but our actions betray the lack of acceptance of that freedom. We can’t believe it is possible to love ones as broken as ourselves and so when we see justice meted out by courts or through military incursion or through the results of lives lived in brokenness we either presume that that person was, like ourselves, outside the realm of forgiveness and redemption or we cynically assume that whatever claim of redemption one makes is always tempered by the desire for salvation from the mess that we have made. But when we see those who proclaim redemption and who experience the freedom that comes from having the scales removed from your eyes, or the weight lifted from your soul, or the brokenness of the world bathed in forgiveness, we know deep down that we want to experience that as well. We want to know that we too have been redeemed and can live as those who are free to live in Christ.
In this Easter season we celebrate the life, death, and new life of the one we seek to follow but more than that, we celebrate the freedom that comes in that life. We celebrate the release from all that that came before because all that matters, the only place where we can make a difference, the only moment is now. And now. And now. So brothers and sisters, friends, let me tell you the best news you have ever heard. You. Are. Free. There is nothing to fear. There is nothing about which to feel ashamed. You have been redeemed and in that redemption all that is required is that you live your life free of the things that weigh you down that you might live, and believe, and tell others that they too have been made free, and that we all are, and forever will be, children of God. Freed. Redeemed. Alive. Now go out and tell that to everyone you see. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.