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Justice and Hope

A sermon delivered at the Red Mass in Natchitoches, Louisiana, at Trinity Episcopal Church.
It is an honor to gather together with you today to seek God’s guidance and wisdom for our jurists. Our social fabric and our political stability rely upon the faithful work of our judges, our lawyers, and the Justices of our Supreme Court.
There is more at stake in their work than the right verdict or the fitting sentence in individual cases.  In our cynical age, pundits are quick to reduce even the most noble human pursuit to a hidden will to power.
This dim view imperils the very ideal of justice.  And the loss of the ideal of justice would be devastating, not just to our social order but to our spiritual health.  
We humans cannot thrive without hope.  Hope inspires us to strive for a better future and to persevere through adversity.  At the very center of hope is the dream that one day all things will be set right.  Without the ideal of perfect justice, the motivating energy of hope gradually drains away.
Wassily Kandinsy’s “Angel of the Last Judgment”

The jurists for whom we pray today begin with the same basic facts as the cynics.
Life is not fair. 

Sometimes the good among us meet with calamity and the evil prosper.  Stinkers get off the hook and good guys have been known to finish last.

No one chooses the family or the social class or the town or the historical period into which they are born.  And the circumstances of our birth can make all the difference to the shape and direction our life takes.
Some social and economic conditions give a decided advantage to the lucky stiffs born into them, while some socioeconomic settings present obstacles so great that even the most industrious and clever will never completely overcome them.
The inherent unfairness of this life leads some to cynicism, bitter resentment, and even despair.  The reason for their spiritual disintegration is clear.  They have correctly observed that life is unfair and yet have erroneously concluded that this is all that there is.  The dream of justice is just that for them, a dream.  A pipe dream.  And so for them it would be better to have no dream at all than to have one that leaves us feeling cheated and shortchanged.
By contrast, that same dream–the dream of perfect justice–inspires some among us to devote our entire lives to raising up what has been cast down, to rectifying wrongs committed by self-serving hearts, to protecting the weak, to guarding the dignity of every human being, and to promoting the common good even for those who have precious little regard for it.
G. F. Watts’ “Hope”

Today we gather not only to recognize those who devote themselves to justice in our nation and around the world, but also to join you in seeking both encouragement and wisdom in the pursuit God’s perfect justice.
As a first step, let’s admit that we flinched or maybe rolled our eyes just a bit when I uttered the phrase “God’s perfect justice.”  Even the most devoted judge and tireless lawyer is unlikely to confuse their work with God’s exercise of perfect justice.  To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, our legal system is the worst in the world, except for all the others.  
Setting aside the highly publicized mistakes, our justice system is a messy pursuit filled with compromise and difficult judgment calls.  But that is just the point.  At its best, our system is a pursuit, the pursuit of an ideal that on our best days we are able to glimpse through the fog of human interactions.
Here is the high and humbling calling of Justices and judges and lawyers and clerks and the rest of the great army of people devoted to justice in the United States.  You are called to hold in your hands–and your minds and your hearts and your souls–the perfect justice of God.  
And you are called to do that with the frank acknowledgement that your hands are frail, your minds are finite, and your hearts are imperfect.  You will neither perfectly understand nor perfectly dispense God’s justice.  And yet you do not have the luxury of standing comfortably on the sideline with so many others in the cynical section of the stands.
You are working toward an ideal that will remain just that.  An ideal.  On your best day you will fall infinitely short of the mark.  And yet, there is a path to take that pleases God.
God calls you to do the best that you can with the finite gifts that you have been given.  Remembering your finitude is a good start.  In today’s Old Testament reading, we heard that Solomon sought wisdom above every other gift.  Solomon himself wrote in Proverbs that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  To put that another way, the wise know this.  God is God, and I am not.
Here is all that God is asking of any of us in dispensing his perfect justice.  Remember that in the end, justice is God’s and God’s alone to dispense.  But we are not at the end yet, and in the meantime we live in a very unfair world.  Christians in fact say that we live in a fallen world, a world in which it is all too easy to dismiss God’s promise to make all things right in the end.
So, in the meantime, some will be called to dispense an imperfect justice as a reminder, a reminder that God has not forgotten his promise to make all things right.  It is not the perfection of our judgments or our arguments that will please God.  It is the quality of our devotion to him and to the justice he promises that will please him.
God is not asking you to bring about perfect justice in his creation.  He sent his son Jesus to do that.  The work began in the manger, continued on the cross, entered a new era at the empty tomb, and will come to completion when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead.
In the meantime, jurists can be God’s instrument of hope for the rest of us.  Your persistent devotion to justice reminds us that the world is only unfair for now.  You will not stamp out original sin, but you will show us that wrongs can be righted, good does in time triumph over evil, and the strong can protect the weak.
You remind us that the imperfect justice we know today contains within it the promise of a day when justice will triumph once and for all.

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