Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Least Among Us

Neal Lemery
October 11, 2009
Nehalem, Oregon, United Methodist Church





Thank you, Scott, for that very kind and generous introduction. It is an honor to be here today.

I first want to thank Scott and this generous congregation for Scott’s work as a mediator for Justice Court. The program helps people enmeshed in emotionally and factually complex lawsuits to work on finding consensus and exploring remedies and outcomes that the law and a trial cannot provide. And, Scott’s wide range of talents bears much fruit in his work as a mediator. You do a great job, Scott.

Today, I want to explore with you the relationships between spirituality and the law.

As a lawyer, and as a judge, and also as a man who has a continuing and deeply evolving relationship with God, I am continually in the trenches wrestling with the role of the rule of law and the everpresent complexity of the Spirit.

One may imagine that the role of a judge is primarily a task of learning the law and applying the law to the facts of a particular case. My work on the bench is sometimes that, and some of the questions I face and must decide can be quickly resolved with a reading of the statute books, or finding a particular case law precedent from an appellate court.

Yet, there is the letter of the law and there is the spirit of the law, and there is the everpresent demand to seek justice and to apply justice.

And, there are the lives and realities of the people standing before you in the courtroom. These are often different rows to hoe in the gardens and weed patches of our legal system.

Theologically, one may think of the role of a judge in the context of Solomon, deciding who will have custody of a baby, and who chose between two women both claiming to be the child’s mother. Solomon suggested cutting the child in two with his sword, until the true mother cried out that the other woman should have the child, rather than have her own baby put to death.

Yet, the point of that story is not to define justice in terms of killing a child, but the deep love of a mother for her child. She loved her child so much that she would give up her child to another, so that her child could live.
Perhaps it is a good example of judicial wisdom, but this story is more a story of altruism, and self-sacrifice.

In Luke 9:46-48, Christ tells us this story:

An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he is the least among you all – he is the greatest.”

And, the child standing besides Christ is the metaphor for the sadness, the misery, the poverty, the addictions, the violence, the greed, and the chaos of our society. When these agonies are too much for us to bear as individuals, or, often, as a community, these agonies find their ways to the jail and to the courts.

In my work, and in my own spiritual journey, I keep coming back to this passage. For me, Christ is speaking very directly, very plainly. The greatest one among us is not the greatest one, Instead, the greatest one is the least among us all.

I’m a student of the Constitution, and of history. And, when I study what the Founding Fathers were trying to do, I know that they did their work mindful of these simple words of Christ. They lived in an imperfect, often unjust society. They were all white men, owners of land taken from Native Americans, and, often, slave owners. And, yet, the words they crafted, the principles they expressed, carry the spirit of those words of Christ.

In looking to find justice, and in looking to find the right thing to do, the right way to make the right thing happen, He tells us to look at the greatness within the least fortunate, the least loved, the least popular, the least able. And, in that person, there is the greatest goodness.

He calls upon us to put our perspective of things upside down, to look at our world from the opposite point of view.

When I take those principles, those teachings, those words, and hold them in my heart, only then do I find the embers of the fires of justice begin to rise. Then I begin to sense, I begin to know, what is the right result.

I see a lot of lost people. People who are adrift, wandering in the wilderness of our society. Not having a purpose, and not knowing where they are going. And, even worse, feeling that no one cares about them. And when people are in spiritual crisis, when they are starving for a spiritual meaning, they self-medicate their pain, their emptiness with violence, with alcohol, and with drugs.

And, when that first dose of self-medication doesn’t work very well, they self-medicate again, and the cycle deepens and spirals downward. The hunger, the longing doesn’t go away.

One young man, I’ll call him John, came into my courtroom last winter. It was one of those especially nasty days, sleet and snow falling, the day raw and bleak. We dealt with his drug case and his long list of unpaid traffic tickets, and his suspended driver’s license.

We got to talking and I learned he had spent the night on a couch in a drug house, his car had been repossessed. John hadn’t had a real meal in four days.

I took him out to breakfast and, as he gulped down his meal, he told me the story of his life. His father left when he was six. His mother had been in and out of jail, and he’s spent a few weeks there recently himself. He dropped out of high school, and could only find an odd job here or there.

Yet, John was a talented mechanic, and dreamed of becoming a diesel mechanic. He was good at that work.

I put him in touch with the Job Corps, and a local trucking company I had heard was looking for a good apprentice, and dropped him off at the Salvation Army, so he could find a real place to stay and get some food.

To look at John, you would think he had been living on the streets for weeks, which was true. Yet, inside of him was a young man with a big heart, and a driving ambition to make something out of his life. What he lacked was having people around him who believed in him.

Two days later, he stopped by. He’d gotten that job at the trucking company, and had called the Job Corps. He was going to enlist in that program. He knew he wanted to be a success and he was excited.

We kept in touch, and I’d send him a note of encouragement once in a while. He’d send me his grades from each semester, and a great note from one of his teachers. He was in the top of his class.

And, a year later, John stopped by to show me his diploma. The Job Corps was good to him. Even his mom was proud of him now. But, he was finally proud of himself.

Another young man I’ve met, Bill, was usually on the jail list for court. He was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I’ve been dealing with his family for several decades, and he was certainly no stranger to domestic violence and family members in and out of jail, and in and out of treatment programs.

To look at Bill’s record, and how he lived, you might think he had no future. In not too many years, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that he’d been to prison, or died of alcoholism, or from an overdose.

Yet, Bill has a spark of decency and ambition in him. I could see it when you got to talking to him about his kids. He really loved his kids, and he wanted them to have a life much different than his own. Yet, you could see the pattern of his childhood start to repeat in their young lives.

One day, Bill and I finally had a heart to heart talk. He couldn’t figure out why I was so concerned about him and how he lived.

I told him about the spark in him that I saw, every time he talked about his kids.

“You’re one of my kids, Bill,” I told him. “I care about you as much as you care about your own kids. And, I know you can live a better life, Bill. But, you need to decide you are worthy of your own love, and the love of God.”

I’ve grown up knowing that I was loved --- loved by family, by friends, by the community, and by God. Love was always in my life, and, I often just assumed that so much love is just a given in life. Everyone is loved, right?

But, for Bill, this was a new idea. He’d somehow never knew that other people might love him, and that he was worthy of love.

And, that is Christ’s message to us in this Scripture.

“For he is the least among you – he is the greatest.”

It turns our popular, 21st Century, view of our society upside down. After all, we Americans are supposed to aim to be the richest, the most powerful, the most influential. All of that is supposed to be great. It is the American Way.

And, as we deal with this economic recession, the inherent fallacy of that thinking becomes so very obvious. That is not what we are about. And, we are now beginning again to explore, in our hearts, where we need to be going as a country. The issues confronting us are literally standing at the side of Christ. He is standing in the midst of these issues, and calls upon us to deal with them, with compassion, with love, and with the love of God.

That work, my friends, is real spiritual work. And Christ is calling us to come to grips with what he is saying. “ For he is the least among you – he is the greatest.”

It is a great privilege to be here among you this morning. I thank you for your time. May God bless each and every one of you.

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