Dedication of Court and Courtroom
On the occasion of the dedication of McClennan County Courthouse Room #2 with Judge Brad Cates presiding.
May it please the court, my name is Josh Vaughan, Senior Pastor of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church of Waco, Tx, and it is my privilege to serve as Judge Cates’ pastor and on occasion a hunting buddy. Although I will admit that I do a better job of scaring the birds than I do in bringing them down! It is a high honor to be invited to these proceedings today and to participate in the dedication of this court and courtroom to the ideal of justice for all who will enter here. Upon such an occasion, I invite you to consider justice to be a fruit produced by a tree well-tended. Like this orange here, it is sweet to the taste especially when it has been long desired. In order to produce such sweet and satisfying fruit, several components must be in place.
First, there must be the root of the character of Almighty God, not society’s majority opinion. Both the Jewish and Christian traditions agree that the Divine One does not merely do justice but rather He is just. They also agree that God is not subject to justice but rather, He defines it. Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “For I will proclaim the Lord’s name. Declare the greatness of our God! The Rock—His work is perfect; all His ways are just. A faithful God, without bias, He is righteous and true.” The fruit of justice comes from the root of a Divine Being who is just. This provides a stable basis for defining right and wrong, wise and unwise. This court will begin operation in a period of tremendous societal change and turmoil. Its ability to provide the fruit of justice will only sustain if its root is not in the shifting fashions of the majority opinion but rather in the stable character of the Divine One. But that root alone does not produce the fruit. It also needs a trunk.
Second, there must be the trunk of the image of God stamped on every human not merely on those who have the means and ability to navigate the judicial system the best. In pastor and theologian, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he laments that “the great part of [the human race] are most unworthy if they be judged by their own merit.” Nevertheless, he says, “But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider what men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love” (Institutes IV.1.7). It is this twin understanding of the human condition that forms the trunk out of which the fruit of justice emerges. Humanity is frequently unworthy of even basic justice on their own merits, and yet because every human is stamped with the image of God each person is due honor and just treatment. Just as this courtroom is marked with the seal of McClennan County transforming ordinary wood and sheetrock into a place of rendering justice, so also each human being is stamped with the image of God and thus carries intrinsic worth no matter their station or accusation. Without this trunk, there is no fruit of justice. But the trunk must issue forth a particular branch. The general ideal of justice is not sufficient without a particular embodiment.
Third, the Branch necessary is a humble, impartial judge. Two texts from the Bible stand out to define the role not just of the judge but of a judge of a particular character in producing the fruit of justice. First, Leviticus 19:15 says: “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” It is the responsibility of the judge sitting on this bench to ensure impartiality to the best of his or her ability. We all know that human judgment is imperfect, so we are right to expect perfect justice only from the Divine Judge. However, we expect proximate justice from human judges. That is why a second text is appropriate as we consider the branch. This one comes from Micah 6:8. “He has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Humility is required because finitude is inescapable. For over 20 years, Judge Cates has faithfully served as this kind of judge in McLennan County. Alongside Linda, he has brought humility and impartiality not just into the courtroom but into concert halls with his trumpet and into board rooms with his non-profit leadership. He has developed a legacy of humble impartiality that will serve as a guiding light for all future justices who follow him. But the fruit of justice is not produced by the branch alone. It is nourished by the most fragile part of the whole tree. The twig or stem.
Fourth, the final necessary structure to produce the fruit of justice is a Twig, the active love, and obedience of all citizens. It is the most fragile and overlooked part of producing the fruit of justice. It is barely visible on this orange, yet it too is indispensable. The twig begins with the second most basic command given by Jesus, “to love your neighbor as yourself”(Mark 12:31). A citizenry that is growing in loving their neighbor as themselves will produce the fruit of justice in neighborhoods, schools, and businesses. Loving one’s neighbor will mean not seeking vengeance or revenge for wrongdoing; that is reserved to God (Romans 12:19). Loving one’s neighbor means never abusing the court for personal gain but instead working toward forgiveness and restoration whenever possible. It means avoiding the need for this course whenever possible.
When it is not possible to avoid the need for this court, then each citizen should give the court the obedience due its role as representative of God’s justice. Romans 13:1 and 5 says, “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God…Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience.” A citizenry guided by conscience will submit to the court when necessary and thus do its part in producing the fruit of justice.
We all love to enjoy the sweet, refreshing taste of the fruit of justice. It satisfies a deep longing in our being. As we dedicate this court and courtroom, let us commit ourselves to tend to the whole tree — root, trunk, branch, and twig — so that we and all others who will stand in this space may also enjoy that fruit. Let us pray for wisdom to guide Judge Cates and every judge who will follow him in doing their part to tend to the fruit of justice. Allow me to close my remarks with this reading from Proverbs 2 that can serve as a guide to our prayer.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
He stores up success for the upright;
He is a shield for those who live with integrity
so that he may guard the paths of justice
and protect the way of his faithful followers.
Then you will understand righteousness, justice,
and integrity—every good path.
For wisdom will enter your heart,
and knowledge will delight you.
Discretion will watch over you,
and understanding will guard you.
Prayer of Dedication
Eternal God, we ask that You, Just and Wise One, would grant wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to all who will preside over this court. Beginning with Judge Cates, we pray that You will shield him so that he may guard the path of justice for all who enter here. Grant him understanding that will guard him against deception, bribery, and perversion of justice. Today, would You establish a legacy of the fruit of justice that will emanate out from this courtroom so that all who long to taste of the fruit would long to come here to experience it? Would You grant each of us wisdom to tend to the fragile twig of loving our neighbor as ourselves such that we too may do our part in producing the fruit of justice across Waco and McLennan County? We pray all of this in the Holy and Just name of Jesus, Amen.