Yikes! Here I am trying to work on my sermon, and I see that a judge has used going to church as a punishment! Talk about a blow to the ol’ esteem.
In Muskogee Oklahoma a judge sentenced a teenager to 10 years of church attendance for a DUI. The judge was trying to be humane by deferring a harsher sentence and requiring that the teen finish school, attend welding classes and go to church.
Not surprisingly many have seen the verdict as a violation of separation of church and state:
“I’m a minister,” Prescott said. “I want people to go to church, but it’s not helpful for a judge to sentence someone to church. What will the judge do if the young man changes his affiliation in the next few years? Will he be allowed to switch to a mosque or become an atheist? Religion is not a tool of the state, and it’s certainly not for the state to use as a tool of rehabilitation.” -The Rev. Bruce Prescott, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State
But the judge said he is receiving calls from both sides of the issue:
“One gentleman from Missouri left a message on my phone. He said judges can’t order people to go to church. People are calling from all around the country. I live in the Bible Belt, though. The Bible is still alive down here; churches are still open. I’m sure those people are right, but they’re going to have to do what they want to do.”
Constitutional issues aside, it does not speak well of my profession that we are now on the list of possible plea bargains.
I was also working on a sermon when I saw the report of the judge sentencing the youth to church. I was in a public place and two other gentlemen heard the same report. One man who was not American by birth (he was from India) did not see a conflict with the sentencing. In his mind, the judge used the authority that has been granted to him to make a decision that he felt was in the best interest of the boy, the families, and the community at large. He knew that if the boy went to prison, he would very likely emerge from the prison a true criminal. However, by being sentenced to finish high school, attend welding school, and attend church for ten years, the boy has the chance to become a man who can contribute to society. The newer American saw the compassion in this and thought that it was a good sentence.
On the other hand, the born and bred American (BBA), thought that the sentence was not right. He saw it as a violation of church and state. He also saw it as making church a punishment. To which the Indian-American man said, “Well it depends on how you look at it. It can be a punishment or an opportunity. What will the boy become in jail?” I’m not certain whether or not the American even heard the other man’s perspective because he continued to make jokes about how it is funny that church has gotten to the point where people have to be sentenced to attend it.
Up to that point, I was a neutral observer. Neither man tried to engage me in the conversation and I did not try to interject. I was just thanking the Holy Spirit for bringing me to that moment so that I could be a witness to this discussion. The BBA continued to talk at the Indian American who realizing that this conversation was going nowhere started to withdraw. At which point, the BBA turned his attention toward me. He asked me what I thought and asked if I could imagine what a pastor might think to know that someone was sentenced to their church.
I told him that, ironically I am a minister in training and will be preaching tomorrow. I’m sure you can imagine how awkward that must have been for the man. The Indian-American smirked as he walked around us and left. I could just imagine him thinking, “I don’t want any part of this conversation.”
Once it sunk in what I had just told the man, he instantly became more visibly subdued. I imagine he thought I might go in defense or perhaps his preformed ideas of what type of person a minister is kicked in and he thought, “I better watch it before I get struck by lightning.” Who knows what he thought. All I know was that it instantly became a very different environment within which to have the conversation.
Rather than preach to the man, I simply said that the judge made an interesting decision and revisited the other man’s question of what the boy might become in jail. I stated my opinion that the boy and his friend were being irresponsible kids who got in an accident. He might go to prison a kid who made a mistake and killed someone and may come out a person who kills on purpose. At that, the man simply let it go and began a new conversation on campaign spending offering up an opinion that I could easily agree with.
After leaving the BBA, I thought about what Jesus might have had to say about this sentencing, and I thought of Luke 7:36-50 which tells the story of a woman who rushed into a meal Jesus was having with Simon, the Pharisee, and washed Jesus’ feet and anointed them with oil. When Jesus perceived that Simon was disturbed by this sinful woman and doubted whether Jesus was a prophet for not rebuking her, Jesus told Simon a parable about two men who were forgiven debts by their creditor. One man was forgiven 50 denarii and the other was forgive 500 denarii. Jesus asked Simon, “Who will love the creditor more?” To which Simon replied, “I suppose the one who was forgiven more.” And Jesus told him that he had judged rightly.
In my opinion, that judge busted a Jesus move. And not only that, he stood by it not by the authority of a political constitution, but because of a spiritual constitution. Even Thomas Jefferson said “that the government is our servant, not our master.” I see this judge as living true to his faith and not being simply an affect of laws that are more meant to protect than serve.
I’m not assuming that this boy will go to church and become filled with the Holy Spirit and testify to God’s grace in his life. However, I do believe that if he accepts this sentence and is welcomed as a full participant in the church, he can be transformed by those relationships and consequently keep a door open to the greater possibilities of becoming aware of who he is in Christ.
I make the choice to watch your sermons in Texas and I live in MA. And I am not even a believer in God. I do agree with the sermon on the mount.
What an honor David, thank you.