Judges Service Thursday 1 October: Sermon

1 October 2009 at 11:00 am

Reverend Dr Jane Hedges, Canon of Westminster

Readings: 1 Kings 3:16-18, John 8:2-11

A farmer named Joe was seriously injured in an accident and decided the take the haulage company involved, to court.
In court, the company's barrister questioned Joe, "Didn't you say, at the scene of the accident, 'I'm fine'?"

Joe responded, "Well, I'll tell you what happened. I had just loaded my favorite mule Bessie into the......."

"I didn't ask for any details," the barrister interrupted, "just answer the question. Did you not say, at the scene of the accident, 'I'm fine!’?”

Joe said, "Well, I had just got Bessie into the trailer and I was driving down the road..."

The barrister interrupted again and said, "Judge, I am trying to establish the fact that, at the scene of the accident, this farmer told the patrol man he was just fine. Now several weeks after the accident he is trying to SUE my client. I believe he is a fraud.

Please tell him to simply answer the question."

By this time the Judge was fairly interested in Joe's answer and said to the barrister, "I'd like to hear what he has to say about his favorite mule, Bessie."

Joe thanked the Judge and proceeded, "Well, as I was saying, I’d just loaded Bessie into the trailer and was driving her down the road when this huge lorry came out of a side turning and rammed into the side of us.

I was thrown into the ditch on one side of the road and Bessie was thrown into the ditch opposite. I was in lots of pain and didn't want to move. However, I could hear poor Bessie moaning and groaning. 

Shortly after the accident a patrolman came on the scene. He could hear Bessie moaning in pain so he went over to her. After he looked at her he took out his gun and shot her between the eyes. Then he came across the road with his gun in his hand and looked at me.

He said, "I’m so sorry, your mule was in such pain I had to shoot her – but how are you feeling?" And I said “I’m just fine!”

As we gather here in this Abbey for the opening of the legal year, we do so as a body of people concerned with the virtues of justice, mercy and truth; but we also do so knowing how hard it can be to achieve these virtues in the midst of our complex and often pressured world.

When we look at stories such as those we heard in our two biblical readings today we might be tempted to think that if we all had the wisdom of Solomon and the compassion of Jesus, life’s problems would be solved fairly easily.

However, I’ve often wondered what Solomon would have done if both of the women, having heard his judgement that the infant be cut in two, had insisted that the other be given the baby. Or what Jesus would have had to say to the husband of the woman caught in the act of adultery.

Both of these stories appear simple, and this is what makes them powerful, yet if we use our imaginations, behind them is a complex web of human weakness, selfishness, anguish, deceitfulness, pain,
self-righteousness and regret.

So although the situations they describe appear to be happily resolved: the true mother being re-united with her baby and the penitent woman going off to make a new start; I’m sure that you as people in the legal profession are all too well aware that human life is often messy and in many situations with which we have to deal, there is no happy or neat ending.

So how do we each live with that? How do you as a profession dedicated to making correct judgments cope with it?

It won’t surprise you I’m sure, to hear me say that I believe that as we look at the life of Christ we find there a model which can be an inspiration to us whether we are committed Christians or not. His life and example help us, both in our dealings with other people, but also in looking at our own conduct.

Because Jesus was compassionate in dealing with people and also had a reputation for spending time with people regarded by others as sinners and outcasts, one might be tempted to think that he was a bit of a soft touch ~ what the tabloid newspapers today would describe as a “Do Gooder”.

Yet Jesus of course had very high moral standards and was demanding of his followers, encouraging them to strive for perfection and quoting the golden rule ~ treat others as you yourself wish to be treated. So it is quite appropriate for us in our professional dealings with people to expect high standards of behaviour.

However Jesus was also one who looked to the heart and not just to outward appearances and he was extremely perceptive of people’s needs ~ so he knew when to be critical and firm with people as well as when to show mercy; and this brings us back to our need for the gift of wisdom.

Perhaps one of the most powerful challenges Jesus puts to us though, is, before we pass judgement on the behaviour of others, we need to take a close look at ourselves.

Some of the cleverest and most powerful people in our society are here in this Abbey today, but behind the grandeur none of us is perfect.

We are all human beings with our faults, fears and weaknesses; we are no different from the people in the crowd who slunk away one by one as Jesus said: “Let him who is without fault cast the first stone.”

It is having this self knowledge which encourages us as we strive for justice to do so with mercy and compassion. But when we do so, we will inevitably come under fire from others; making such judgments with honorable motives we make ourselves vulnerable. So showing compassion and mercy is not a sign of weakness it takes immense courage.

And once again, in Jesus we see the supreme example of this being the case. His perfect judgment made him the target of other people’s hate and ultimately led to his death. We should be left in no doubt that standing for the principles of truth, justice and mercy may come at great personal cost.

So today, let us all pray for each other that we may be given the courage and integrity to live up to this great calling.

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