Sunday Message, Pentecost 3:
Before service this morning they were playing a story on CNN about a well-known reporter for the Washington Post who came out and admitted publically that he was undocumented. He explained that he was revealing his “criminal status” because he wanted the truth about this nation’s broken immigration system to come out. I believe him. He seems to be a sincere person. But I also believe that he needed to stand up publically to the hypocrisy of criminalization under which he had lived for years to free himself. That is our theme today: Decriminalization – and we will find that it is perhaps the central theme of the Gospels.
We began our service today with some of the last words which Jesus said to his disciples. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
As we shall see, that is a very controversial statement – and was cause for the crucifixion of Jesus. Under what circumstances are we forgiven of our sins? Under what circumstances do we have the authority to forgive – or not forgive – the sins of others? What is the significance, the effect, of forgiving sins?
Jesus, when he appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, told them to be joined together with the Holy Spirit, and reorganize his movement of resistance, what today we call the church. And the disciples did this on the day of Pentecost. They told the world that the Romans and the Jewish Authorities had murdered an innocent man, the Son of God, and that God has raised him from the dead, validating his faith and his innocence.
They told the crowd that they had been a party to this murder but offered them forgiveness if they would repent and admit that Jesus was innocent, that he was not a criminal, that he was faithful to God and that the men who killed him were themselves criminals in God’s eyes. Three thousand came forward to repent and be baptized in the Holy Spirit and the movement began again.
Now, we recall that Jesus had healed a paralytic. His friends had brought him to see Jesus and, unable to get in to the small house, had climbed up and lowered him down through a hole in the roof. Jesus was moved by their faith and he healed the paralytic. When he healed him he said, “Your sins are forgiven, Get up and walk – and he got up and walked.
Because he healed the man, it showed that Jesus had the power of God. But the people asked “Who was he to forgive sins?” The authorities said that was blasphemy, but Jesus said he had healed the man to show that the “Son of Man” had the power to forgive sins on earth.
Now comes Peter and the disciples, trying to rebuild the movement after Jesus was crucified. Men had brought another paralytic to the outside of the temple everyday so he could sit down and beg for money. When he saw Peter, he asked for money. Peter said, I do not have Silver or Gold but in the name of Jesus Christ, who the authorities crucified, I tell you to get up and walk. Peter offered him his hand and the man stood up and walked into the temple.
Remember that in those days, he would have been called a criminal, a sinner, because he was crippled, along with all the poor people, and would not have been allowed in the temple. So in healing him, Peter “forgave” his sins and he walked joyously into the temple, probably for the first time in his life.
As Jesus healed and forgave sins, so now Peter and the disciples together healed and forgave sins. This is very important for the Bible says that when we are gathered together in faith, that we also have this power.
Today, in this nation, in this church, we have many of the same circumstances where those in power determine that many of us are “sinners”, that we are “criminals.” This is the problem of criminalization and we need to discuss it today because it is one of the main problems facing our community.
First of course we have the situation with immigration. People came here to work, form families, raise children. There labor was needed. They needed the work. But the government law calls them criminals and they are denied the rights of citizens, of those human beings who are not called criminals.
We know the consequences of this criminalization. We know what it is like to live in the shadows, to face deportation and separation from your family.
Today, we are commemorating with our brother the death of his mother. He could not see her before she died. He could not be with his family in Mexico. Criminalization of this brother, who committed no crime, came with a high cost. His sister died crossing the border.
We know what it is like to not be able to assert your rights, the same rights that others have. But today, I want you to look deep inside yourself and see what it does to you, to your life and your relationships. When you are put outside the law – by hypocrisy – then what law do you live by? What values do you live by?
Then we have the criminalization of the streets. You slip into the street life to survive. You are in a gang or around a gang. Your name goes on a list. You are identified by the way you dress. For the police you are a criminal. Then you get a record – that follows you so that you can’t find work. You are outside the law.
But when you are put outside the law, then what law do you live by? What values do you live by?
Criminalization goes deep into our community. If you are undocumented, then even the smallest charge against you gives you a record that puts you outside the law forever. A boy comes here when he is two years old, without papers. When he is fifteen, he gets charged with a minor charge. Now he has a record. He can never be legal according to the current laws of this nation. Others of his friends have the same charge, but they are legal. It is unjust – but he is outside the law.
In his nation, this empire we live in, criminalizing people is the way the rich stay in control and keep the rights and privileges to themselves. It is the way they become rich. It is not only inside the country. Look at the Middle East: they want Libya’s oil and so they call Kaddafi a criminal – and that justifies sending bombs and missiles to murder thousands of innocent people and innocent children. That is criminalization at work.
But what I am talking about today is what criminalization does to us. It puts us outside the law, and then we have no law to live by. The law is supposed to help us to be just with each other, to help us live in respect. The law is supposed to be the way that ensures we don’t hurt each other but that we elevate each other. What happens when we are outside the law?
Now comes Jesus and he gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins, to de-criminalize. He tells his disciples, baptize them in the Holy Spirit and teach them to obey all my commandments. He teaches them to decriminalize the people by telling the truth: it is those who are in power who are the real criminals. But he says when you forgive their sins; tell them to obey the commandments, to obey God’s law.
When you are outside the law, you can lose your values, your respect for each other, your motivation to build a life together. You can forget about loyalty and love. But that is not what the forgiveness of Jesus and the disciples was about. It took people out from under the hypocritical law of man, which criminalized them, and put them under the law of God – which is true and pure and without hypocrisy.
The decriminalization practiced by Jesus and his disciples liberated the people from the way they were discriminated against but it also restored them to righteous living where respect and love and loyalty were the standards they lived by.
But where does this authority come from to decriminalize, to forgive sins, to heal and to restore people to the law of God?
This authority cannot come unless you have the courage to defy the hypocrisy that criminalized you, that unjustly called you a criminal. And that cannot be done alone or you will suffer from self-righteousness. When Peter healed the man he told the people, “Why are you looking at me as if I did this.” He said, “This was done through the name of Jesus Christ, through the community of Spirit that he called into being, through our obedience to God.”
We need that community of faith, that community of the Holy Spirit, that lifts each other up, that serves justice and love, if we are to have the power to heal. When we live outside the law, we can sometimes bring each other down in the dirt.
The life on the street is a low life that degrades especially women and doesn’t respect life. The life in the shadows justifies infidelity and drunkenness. We need the law of God and the kind of community of faith where we constantly try to elevate each other, constantly try to lift each other up to lives of integrity and purpose. We need that community of the Spirit to heal us from the damage that criminalization has done to us.
When Jesus, when Peter, when the community of the Spirit joined together, when they stand up to power and hypocrisy, they heal the scars of criminalization – but if God is truly present in that community, then miracles can happen. We have seen it. Cancer can be cured. Not just the paralysis of relationships and social injustice, but the paralysis of legs can be healed. Because through God all things are possible. The healing of the paralytic by the disciples was not symbolic, it was real. He got up and danced into the temple! He was decriminalized and he was healed – he could dance! Don’t you want to see that? Don’t you want to live that?
We are in the Book of Acts and what this scripture teaches us is that it takes work and commitment and sacrifice to build the community of faith that can have the kind of power we are talking about today, the power to heal. Don’t think you can do this alone. It is the faith that moves God to put his hands on you. And the disciples had to join together as one, had to go out and organize the people by the thousands, each day, every day. And each day they had to keep the law of God in front of them, each day they had to elevate themselves and each other/
We are doing the things we need to do at this church to have the community of faith that can heal. Next week we will mobilize again – on Tuesday and again on Thursday –we will confront the hypocritical law – because we are not criminals. But fixing the broken law will not heal the people. In fact, healing the people, through the things we are doing, will fix the broken law.
We are in a battle with the hypocrite that is in the White House. Forcing him to stop at least some of the deportations is a political objective that I believe we have a chance to obtain. But we are going for much more than that. We are going for the Kingdom of God and we are building the community of faith that can receive the power and love he offers.
There are times when I feel the Community of the Spirit here. There are some extraordinary people in this church, some deeply spiritual people. And there is some sharing amazing sharing of the spirit between some people here. We are on the edge, but we have to cross over with each other. I want to say what Jesus said when he found the disciples hiding in the upper room. Don’t be afraid of sharing the Spirit with each other, pray together, join together to heal each other and to heal others – the power of God will flow through you when you are together – and your witness will move mountains!
There is a solution: We can have God’s law, and we can have the authority to forgive, to heal and uplift – but we have to be together to do that. We can heal the soul – and we can heal the body – and we can heal the nation. Amen