the cheap seats

Through the magic of Zoom, I got to be part of some courtroom joy this week. Friends were going through a process of legal adoption, and they got to invite their community to participate in the final court session. I signed on and dozens of tiny faces in tiny boxes popped up from around the world. The proceedings proceeded and the judge issued a formal decree of adoption. It was beautiful and bizarre, and a deep joy to get to participate.

I haven’t spent a ton of time in courtrooms, but ministry has taken me there more than once. Years ago, a family asked me to attend a hearing for their loved one, who’d been charged with assault. The entire situation was complicated and confusing, and it was abundantly clear that the precious person who’d been charged with a crime needed care and not incarceration. I showed up at the courthouse where I met four family members and their lawyer, and we filed silently into the pew. Bench. Pew?

In that particular court, the folks appearing to have their cases heard were not present in person. They are across the street in the city jail, and appeared over CCTV. Several cases were heard before the one I’d come to support, and when the judge called their name, the lawyer motioned all of us to stand. In the tiny courtroom, our move made a pretty sizable commotion, and the judge looked up from his desk and stared, questioningly, at our crowd. “Your honor,” the lawyer explained, “these are the defendant’s parents, spouse, and pastor. They’re here to support the defendant’s immediate release into their care.”

That morning, at least, no other defendant had anyone show up for them other than their lawyer. Our bench (pew?) full of community was an anomaly, and it convinced the judge that the person whose fate he was deciding had a place to go and people to hold and care for them. It worked, that time.

Courtrooms look a lot like traditional church sanctuaries, don’t they? A room filled with benches (pews), all facing the front where a big wooden podium holds the most important person in the space. Seats for a few others up front, called upon when their input is required. But the person behind the pulpit (podium) presides. In liturgical traditions, the verb is even the same: a judge presides over courtroom proceedings; a pastor presides over the eucharist.

The pulpit at Christ Church, a colonial-era Anglican church in Lancaster County, Virginia. Built by the grandfather of Robert Carter III, who left the Anglican Church to join the Baptists because of his “radical” anti-slavery beliefs.

If you read the biblical narratives of Jesus’ own trial, you learn that he himself ended up in a couple of courtrooms. First, the religious leaders summoned him, denounced him and pronounced their judgement, then they sent him to the Roman governor, who added his stamp of approval to the death sentence. When we read this text in our bible study this week, I was struck by the courtroom image. Jesus in the courtroom.

In a lot of Christian theology, God is the judge – the good judge, the just judge, the one with integrity, to be sure, but definitely The Judge. God is the Presider. God sits up front, behind the big wooden podium, er, pulpit. God is the Most Important Person in the Room. God issues death sentences.

But in the gospels, God isn’t the judge. Jesus – the second person of the Trinity, not just God’s son but the clearest image of God we get, God’s own self – is the defendant. Jesus isn’t in the judge’s chambers. Jesus isn’t in the judge’s robes. Jesus doesn’t sit on the death panel or inhabit the Roman governor’s place of power. Jesus is dragged into court by a lynch mob, and the religious leaders sit in judgement upon God’s own life.

I know some lawyers, and I even knew the judge that day I spent on the courtroom pew. The ones I know are good, decent, fair-minded and strive to do their work with integrity. But despite the way we arrange our spaces, despite the way a sanctuary looks or a courtroom is designed, the people up at the front are not the most important people in the room. When God showed up in a courtroom, he was in the defendant’s chair.

My congregation re-arranged our sanctuary when we returned to the building during Covid. Our chairs are in a circle, the altar table is in the center, and I don’t preach from the pulpit anymore. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to preach from a pulpit again, even though I GET the thrill of it, the ego boost of it, the importance that comes from climbing up higher than everyone else, proclaiming and presiding over people’s lives. I get it. I like it. It’s just…that’s not where God is, you know?

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