If There is One Thing I am Sure of, it’s that God Can Always Surprise Us

by Joanne Leslie, Deacon, Holy Faith Church, Inglewood, CA.
October 24. 2004

Sirach 35:12-17
Psalm 84
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18: 9-14

If there is one thing I am sure of, it’s that God can always surprise us.

God surprises us in this morning’s parable by preferring the tax collector over the Pharisee. It doesn’t seem quite right. There is so much to admire about the Pharisee. He fasts twice a week, he gives away a tenth of his income. Unlike thieves, rogues and adulterers, we can be sure that he is a law abiding citizen.

In contrast, while we may not like tax collectors, they were deeply disliked in Greco-Roman times. These folks weren’t just government employees collecting official taxes. They charged extra taxes wherever they could get away with it, just to increase their profits. They were also money lenders, and charged exorbitant interest rates. In Jesus time, tax collectors caused the economic ruin of many a poor, struggling family. And among Jews, tax collectors were viewed with special contempt because they collaborated with the Roman occupiers. It’s not hard to understand why the Pharisee would say, as part of his prayers, “God I thank you that I am not like this tax collector.”

But this is the problem, the Pharisee assumes that he and God look at the tax collector the same way. The Pharisee trusted in himself that he was righteous and regarded others with contempt. Jesus explains that when God looked at the two men he looked into their hearts. The tax collector recognized his own shortcomings and pleaded for God’s mercy, while the Pharisee congratulated himself on his virtues. So, it was the tax collector who went home justified, not the Pharisee. Jesus warns: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Focusing on our own righteousness and regarding others with contempt can get us in a lot of trouble with God.

Let me now tell you about two other men.

One is James Tramel, who was a seminarian at CDSP the same time I was. CDSP is the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley. In my student directory for the year 2000-2001, we find James’ name near the back. There is no photograph, but that’s not too surprising. Several other students’ photographs were also missing. The address listed is a little odd, though. It’s just a post office box and a building number in Vacaville, California.

I’ll explain in a minute, but let me tell you how I first learned about James. The year before I enrolled as a full time seminary student, I was eager to get started. So I persuaded a couple of CDSP professors to let me do some course work by correspondence. The liturgy professor (a wonderful man named Louis Weil, who has so much charisma it is a shame not to be in the same room with him) somewhat reluctantly agreed to let me take his “Introduction to Worship” course by correspondence. Louis agreed for two reasons. First, I promised to take his second year Liturgy course once I was in residence, which I did, and it was a great course. Second, he was already having the Introduction to Worship lectures taped and sent to James Tramel, so it wasn’t much more trouble to make duplicate copies and send them to me. The reason that James had to do his courses by correspondence was that he was a prisoner in Vacaville State prison doing 15 years to life for murder.

Briefly, this is James’ story. In the summer of 1985, he was a 17 year old student at a private military school in Santa Barbara. On this particular fateful evening, he led a group of fellow students, including his roommate, David, on a mission of revenge. They went to look for the gang who had beaten up some of their friends. Their goal was to beat up the gang members in return. They didn’t find the gang. But sometime after midnight James and David got separated from the rest of the group. They came across a man named Michael Stephenson, who was homeless and sleeping in the park. They got into a fight and David stabbed Michael, who died of his wounds. Although James did not wield the weapon and later returned with some classmates to see if the injured man could be helped, the murder of Michael Stephenson was rightly considered to be a horrible crime, Both James and David were held responsible. Both got sentences of 15 years to life

In 1993, James was still in prison, working at a hospice in a medical facility for prisoners under the supervision of the Rev. Jack Isbell, an Episcopal priest. One night a dying prisoner asked James some hard questions about his beliefs. That night James was graced with an experience of God. He felt Christ’s love and recognized the possibility of forgiveness. James describes this as the night that “God came and found the misfit.

The hospice experience led James on a journey of Christian discovery. He immersed himself in religious study and work, both in prison and by establishing links outside prison. He joined what became his home parish, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley. He was accepted as a seminary student at CDSP, the first ever to enroll from prison. I have not yet met James myself, but people we both know are impressed with the sincerity of his faith, the quality of his academic work, and most of all, his gift for pastoral ministry. James has earned two master’s degrees from CDSP. And on July 4th this year, in an extremely unusual jailhouse ceremony, James was ordained a transitional deacon by Bishop Swing of the Diocese of California.

By now, James has served almost twenty years in prison. So far he has had four parole hearings, and, despite eloquent letters from seminary professors, priests, and members of the prison community, parole was denied each time. James’ next parole hearing is in less than a week, on October 27th. Things look more hopeful this time. Not only does California have a new governor who is more open to granting parole, but of more importance for James’s case, the Santa Barbara DA has already announced that he no longer opposes parole for James.

Although James imminent release from prison is uncertain, his ordination as a priest is not. Some might find it difficult to conceive of a convicted murderer being ordained as a priest. But as Bishop Swing says, “There is something at the core of the Gospel of Christ that is about resurrection and James has an opportunity in the future to witness to what the Gospel is all about.”

The other story I want to tell you is about another man in prison for murder. His name is Jay Siripongs. Jay, a native of Thailand, was convicted in 1983 of two murders that were committed during a robbery. Garden Grove market owner, Pakawan Watta-naporn and store clerk, Quach Nguyen, were both killed. Jay admitted to involvement in the robbery, but he denied having committed the murders. However, because he refused to give the name of his accomplice, he was convicted of the two murders and sentenced to death.

As a youth, Jay had temporarily taken Buddhist monastic ordination, a common Thai cultural practice. Once he was in prison, he used the meditation training he had received and developed into a deeply spiritual person. Guards and fellow prisoners alike testified to his peaceful behavior while he was in prison, and on the remarkably calming influence he had on other inmates. Jay also became an accomplished artist. He often used butterflies in his paintings as a symbol of the process of growing and changing. There were many appeals to commute Jay’s death sentence to life imprisonment, appeals that were supported by a number of prison guards and even the warden of San Quentin.

So far, Jay’s and James’ stories seem to have had a lot in common. They have one big difference, though. The next chapter in James’ story is still being written. There are no next chapters for Jay. On February 9, 1999, Jay Siripongs was executed by the State of California by lethal injection. We don’t know, and probably will never know, whether Jay actually committed the murders for which he was put to death.

During his last days, Jay had a spiritual advisor, a Buddhist monk names Ajahn Passano. Passano reports that Jay was very kind and thoughtful of the prison staff during his last days. At one point the monk asked Jay, “Is there anyone you have not forgiven yet?” Passano says he had in mind the system, his parents, maybe others. However, Jay thought about it for awhile and then said quietly, “I haven’t forgiven myself completely.”

The night of Jay’s execution, my sister Kathleen was outside the prison as part of an anti death penalty group keeping vigil. It was a stormy, cold night. Kathleen told me that the most amazing part of the experience was the chanting of the Buddhist monks. She said that they seemed oblivious to the rain and the noise and people around them, and that their chanting created an incredibly unexpected and peaceful feeling in the crowd. Apparently Jay was also calm and composed in death.

The stories of James Tramel and Jay Siripongs have made a big impression on me. Maybe it’s because of that little bit of personal connection I have in both cases. I don’t know quite why. What I do know is that these stories give me a sense of urgency about abolishing the death penalty in California.

Not every murderer, or accused murderer, has the potential to become an Episcopal priest or a Buddhist monk. But everyone has the capability of becoming a better person than they were before. Maybe those who have fallen the farthest can experience the most grace. This seems to me part of what Bishop Swing means when he talks about James witnessing to the resurrection.

This weekend is the National Weekend of Faith in Action on the Death Penalty. Every year since 1992, for one weekend in October, faith communities all over the US reflect, discuss and take action on the death penalty.

  • Some congregations will discuss the fact that the death penalty in the United States is given disproportionately to the poor and people of color. In California just 6% of the population is black, but 35% of the inmates on death row are black.
  • Some congregations will discuss the fact that the death penalty in the United States is given disproportionately to the poor and people of color. In California just 6% of the population is black, but 35% of the inmates on death row are black.
  • Many congregations will discuss the growing evidence of so many innocent people on death row. Just three weeks ago, Earnest Ray Willis, a 59 year old Texan, became the 117th death row inmate to be exonerated and set free. If 117 people scheduled for execution have been proven innocent and set free, it is absolutely certain that we have executed innocent people as well.

Racial imbalance, lack of a proven deterrent effect, and innocent people on death row are all serious concerns, and there are other problems with the death penalty. I invite you to talk with any member of Holy Faith’s Justice and Mercy Commission if you would like more specific facts and figures on the death penalty, or if you would like to Faith Communities in the movement for abolition or for a moratorium.

It’s not facts and figures that I want to conclude with this morning, however, but a question. As a faith community, this seems to me to be the most important question to ask ourselves. Is the death penalty what God wants?

It seems to me that when we condemn someone to death, we are essentially saying that this person is not redeemable, that there is nothing more that God can do with this person’s life. We trust in our own righteousness and put our judgement in place of God’s judgement. But the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee tells us that God sees things differently than we do.

Let us pray.
God of mercy, open our hearts and minds to your guidance.
Keep us from the sin of self righteousness.
Give us the gift of compassion.
And help us in all thing to desire your will and not our own.