Last week we heard Jane’s sermon based on an inspiring story from the movie, Moana. We’re going to go in an altogether different direction today. This sermon owes credit to Chicago journalist Sam Charles, author and UCC Pastor, Barbara Essex, and an acquaintance of mine named Gerardo. I’d like to tell you a part of the story of Rudy Rangel, Jr., who on the streets of Chicago was known by the name “Kato.” By most accounts, Kato was not a nice guy. After being charged in 1993 with attempted murder, aggravated battery, aggravated battery with a firearm, and armed violence, Kato spent seven years in prison. When he was released, Kato became a top leader in the Latin Kings street gang. You don’t rise to those levels of power unless you are connected, and Kato’s connections ran all the way to “El Chapo” Guzman himself. Before he was arrested in 2014, El Chapo was the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel and was often featured in Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful people on earth. But on the streets, the power that comes with being a gang boss like Kato is both an asset and a vulnerability. Along with the status, the authority and the money, power makes you a target. Someone is always looking to take your power, and Kato knew that he was no exception. In a scene reminiscent of The Godfather, with his bodyguards just outside the door, Kato was killed by a member of the Four Corner Hustlers as he sat in a barber’s chair. Along with an outline of Kato’s body, the detective’s sketch of the crime scene inside the barbershop showed a balloon, a broom, an ear stud and four shell casings on the floor.
In that instant, dozens of lives were changed forever. Those of Kato’s wife and children, his immediate and extended family, and a network of friends and co-conspirators. This story is only about one part of Kato’s shortened life, the part of his life that many will remember: Kato the bad guy. The Latin King. The gangbanger. Many people rationalize that karma got Kato, and that he received back what he put into the world. Perhaps . . .
In each of our biblical texts from Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, and from Romans 4:13-25, Abraham is a key figure. In verses 5 and 6 from Genesis we learn the meaning of Abraham’s name and the blessings God will bestow on him: “Your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham because I am making you the ancestor of many nations. I will give you many descendants, many will become kings and they will become nations.” While God focuses on this one family, here we can see that Abraham’s name itself connects all the people of the world. In verses 16 and 24 of the letter the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, that connection is carried further: God’s promise is based on faith and so God’s promises that we will inherit the world becomes a guaranteed gift to all of Abraham’s descendants. The promises are for us who are accepted by God, and who believe in God, who raised Jesus from death. Abraham is getting a lot of good press. He is appointed by the almighty God as ancestor of nations. God promises him innumerable descendants. His descendants, who will rule nations, God’s gifts to the entire world, run through him. He receives the power of procreation even though he was too old and his wife, Sarah, was barren. How did Abraham get so lucky? He must have lived a righteous and virtuous life. He must have had the right kind of karma. Surely God would not have blessed him this profoundly unless he had impeccable credentials. After all, you get what you give, right?
But, in addition to the good press, this is also Abraham: He was a liar about who his wife actually was. He jeopardized the honor of his wife. He neither confesses nor apologizes for his lies. He is a deadbeat dad who twice abandons his son and wife. He does nothing when his wife Sarah berates Hagar. He refuses to believe his behavior affects others. And Abraham has good company; he isn’t the only “bad man” in the Bible. Cain is angry with God but takes it out on his brother Abel and then whines when God punishes him. Adam sat silent during Eve’s conversation with the snake, got defensive when God interrogated him, and took no responsibility for his own inactions. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, offers his own two daughters to a group of men in order to save two strangers. And let’s not forget the writer of the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul, an oppressor of those who were following Jesus. Cain, Samson, Jacob and others . . . Each was strong and faithful and also morally weak and challenged.
In fact, God, and Jesus both prefer broken and hurting people. The last, the least, and the lost, whom Marguerite often reminds us of. God’s deliberate choice of deeply flawed human beings characterizes God’s relationship with humanity. They are—we are—deeply flawed and deeply loved by God. All of us. Yes, even Kato. But this by itself doesn’t explain Abraham’s good fortune of being chosen and blessed by God. What makes Abraham special is that he trusted God and God’s promises. He trusted God. God’s promise, God’s divine gift, is based on Abraham’s faith and, as the ancestor of nations, the promise of God’s blessing extends to everyone. Without exception.
God speaks to our fears and to our doubts with a promise. This is an opportunity to remember that all of us are more than our worst actions, past or present. Religion, especially, is quick to forget this and if we’re not careful church can keep us shackled to our sins. As people of faith, if we are disciples of Christ, then we must work towards achieving liberation and justice for everyone. Looking though a liberation theology lens creates a belief that deep individual and collective relationships with the poor and forgotten, the convicted and the weak, enable us to connect more deeply with God.
I never met Kato but I’ve known dozens of men and women who were Latin Kings, Latin Saints, Gangster Disciples, Simon City Royals, Mickey Cobras. Kato lived near Leclaire Courts, a Chicago public housing development that is not far from Rockwell Gardens, where I spent countless hours. Rockwell Gardens is another housing development where only the poorest of the poor lived. All public housing in Chicago was demolished to make way for market rate housing. Rockwell, LeClaire Courts, Cabrini Green, Stateway Gardens, were all deeply troubled neighborhoods. When we would go to Rockwell to meet with residents to organize them to try to save their homes, guys like Kato were at every entrance and they knew we “outsiders” didn’t live there. Their work and ours required mutual trust. The only way we were able to enter those buildings was for these guys to let us in and to protect us while we were there. Even though there were a few hair-raising incidents, we were never harmed.
As a person who has lived 80-90% of my life below the poverty line, had I been born in Five Points in Denver, in LeClaire Courts in Chicago, or in any of several neighborhoods in Minneapolis, my life could well have turned out very differently. Kato’s mom used to beg him to stop what he was doing on the streets but her love for him is not made any less valid because of the life he chose to lead. The scars left by Kato’s death are just as deep and painful for those who loved him as for any other parent that has lost a child. Even though her son was deeply flawed, his mother and others, deeply loved Kato. This is how God’s love is expressed. When we demonstrate our love for each other and for those around us.
We all know God’s highest law, to love God and to love each other as we love ourselves. But it’s my belief that we are unable to love those we don’t know. And that is why our work outside this beautiful space, connecting with those in the community who are deeply flawed, is so important. Neither Abraham nor Kato was perfect, either in character or in faithfulness, and living with faith for our entire lifetimes does not mean we will never have doubts. But like the turned hearts in each of the biblical bad guys we talked about earlier, God can create from nothing, and God can bring life where there has only been bitterness and death. There are plenty of bad women in the bible too.
This Lent, try to remember when you’re looking into your own heartspace or into the heartspace of another, that we know how the story goes— that by raising Jesus from the dead, God makes it possible for all sorts of new life to occur. New life . . . in relationship to ourselves . . .with each other and with God. And receiving this pure gift only requires one thing of us: to reject all that separates us from each other and from God and to trust the faithful, merciful, just and Divine Giver of that gift.