Zero Tolerance Means Zilch.

 August 22nd 2010

(The Gospel of Luke 13)

(This was a sermon originally delivered on August 22nd, and based off of a spam email, that attempted to illicit the subscription of this pastor to a pay resource for sermon starters. Although most get tossed into my email, this story seemed so far fetched, that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, until I turned to Google myself. Credit is due (and acknowledged) to that unknown minister, for several of the lines of thought in this sermon)

I recieved an email of Sermon Starters this past Wednesday that told the story of Patrick Timoney and this modern day concept of “Zero Tolerance”. Patrick fell into a whole world of hurt, from one of the most innocent of items. Patrick discovered what havoc one Lego can cause. At first hearing, I thought that the story was embellished or exaggerated, and as a result I researched it myself.

Every house with kids below the age of 18 has a tub of Legos somewhere. In my house we have two huge tubs. We have all shapes and sizes inherited from nieces and nephews who have moved out of childhood, and as such given up their Legos.

Although my wife and I long fully look forward to those times when the girls spread out Legos in the basement and go about creating a brave, new miniature world, they are not without some inherent trouble. Occasionally a fight breaks out when one isn’t sharing with the other, or one girl’s l Lego story line diverges from the other, but all in all, when the Legos come out, the Masters’ household is blessed with several hours of down, quiet time.

Other than the occasion sibling ruckus that might develop from two girls playing with them,…or the searing pain that results from stepping on a discarded one while in bare feet, there is nothing inherently dangerous or troublesome with Legos. That is, unless you are from Staten Island NY. This is exactly what Patrick Timoney discovered.

With school starting, every parent worth their salt knows to expect the re-testing of all school schedules and school night rules. In our house come September, many of the rules around school are subtly tested. We have a no television rule in the house during school, and for the first week or so of the school year, they will continually test us to see if either the rule or our memory has changed. It goes well beyond TV.

The girls try pushing out bed times, perhaps by keeping their lights on too long. Maybe it’s the bed making or room cleaning rules that get bent. Whatever course they chose, over the course of a week or so, they realize that the rules are there for good. They inevitably fall back into the rules and rhythm.

For there on in, the rules and the schedule, becomes the foundation of all of our family harmony and accord. The moment either gets pushed too far, is usually when we have melt downs, or when trouble rolls in. The reality is, that once they buy into the regular and scheduled approach to life (which was so wonderfully and completely shed over the three months of summer) there are always times when they start believing that they can bend the rules ever so slightly and mom and dad would be none the wiser.

Maybe it’s the subtle mid-year departures from the school’s dress code, or sneaking some TV time with Grandma, but we expect it; and we are always on the watch. We miss very little.

One of the things that can make a parent’s head shake immediately, is standing back and watching how their kid justifies the toy shoved into the bottom of the backpack. I will continually marvel at the adamant persuasion that comes streaming forth. I watch as they work through the argument that states that the rules don’t apply to this particular toy, clothing choice, or day of the week. I smile as they employ extensive leaps of logic that would make a great lawyer or politician jealous. Again, in the end, we miss little. Despite this, I am sure a Pokémon card or two, maybe a small stuffed animal, or even a Lego or two has made its way to school tucked in lunch boxes or book bags.

Now little Patrick from Staten Island NY, was no different. One morning, Patrick managed to sneak one of his favorite Lego’s into his book bag. It was a two and a half inch Lego policeman. It was one of his favorite, especially because the uniform that the Lego wore was the same one that his father, a retired NYPD officer wore on special occasions.

On that Monday morning, Patrick jumped out of bed and eyed the Lego sitting on his desk. He decided, in an act of fourth grade impulse, that his friends needed to see his favorite Lego too. He stashed it away and headed to school.

At lunch, he pulled on the Lego in the cafeteria at the exact moment a teacher walked by. Seeing it, little Patrick was scooped up and brought to the principal. After a short meeting with the principal, Patrick was kicked out of school.

Apparently that particular policeman Lego comes equipped with a Lego gun. That little gun broke the school’s zero tolerance policy and now Patrick was in trouble. According to the school, zero tolerance means zero tolerance. The newspaper heard of the suspension, and it made headlines for some time, especially in New York. The school never apologized.

In my research, I found countless stories of similar situations. There is the story of 15 year old Amber Nash, from Gobles Michigan. She was a respected athlete, top scholar, and active in the church and community. She was also trained in CPR and had hoped to be a life guard over the upcoming summer vacation.

On this particular day, She made brownies for her classmates to celebrate her best friend’s birthday. As she was preparing their little makeshift birthday party, a student on the other side of the cafeteria passed out, and fell to the floor. Without thinking Amber, jumped to her feet and ran over to the fallen student to offer first aid.

It was a few moments later, when a teacher who decided not to attend to the fallen student, saw the knife in her book bag. Actually, it was a plastic butter knife of the type that usually comes with a Wendy’s or McDonald’s salad.

She was suspended for 33 days or 5 ½ weeks! After meeting with the school board within two or three days of the incident, and having a whole community of teachers, parents, and fellow students come out in support of her, the school board voted behind closed doors for leniency. They gave her ten days, or 2 weeks instead.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am keenly aware of the danger in schools. When I was in high school, a student was shot and killed in the hallway of our school, after bringing a shotgun into the halls and threatening other students. He attempted to get into my older sister’s classroom only to be met with a locked door, only a few moments before he was killed by police. Worse, it was only one of four separate incidents that I can recall, albeit the worse, when crazed weapon bearing individuals entered our school (one of which was an inmate at the state forensic hospital across the street).

Schools sadly have become a dangerous place. Sometimes I cringe at the ease of which I can navigate the hallways of my daughter’s school. Every parent, every educator, and every community member or leader must take their children’s safety seriously,…but a fourth grader with a Lego?

To use a phrase from the email, zero tolerance to Legos and plastic butter knives means Zilch. It will do nothing in the way of preventing another suicidal boy like the one from my high school, or those events we have seen periodically in newspapers who’s impacts are life shattering. It certainly will do nothing to keep gang members with pistols out of schools. Instead, these types of Zero tolerance enforcements have become an excuse for “a general, and almost obscene, lack of common sense” (sic, email).

Sadly, these stories crop up all the time. Last week in California, a formerly homeless man was released from prison, after spending 13 years behind bars after trying to break into a church’s food pantry for something to eat. He was sentenced to 25 years to life, under the state’s three strikes and you are out rule. It was his third arrest over a ten year span.

The first time he was arrested for stealing $10.00 from a convenience store customer, and the second time for trying, but failing, to steal $3 from a passerby while he was begging on a street corner, who thought twice about dropping cash into his hat. Obviously I don’t intend to downplay his crimes, but 25 years to life…for $10 and soon to be free food…? It’s absurd.

In this morning’s lectionary reading, there are two stories to be heard. The first is that of the woman healed, and the second, the leader’s response. I suggest the more profound message is seen in the response of those around Jesus. This is a story of Jesus doing the unthinkable. Jesus healed on the Sabbath. In doing so, he adds one more piece of straw, on his inevitable way towards breaking the proverbial camel’s back.

Reading this passage from 21st century eyes, it seems simple and the message is clear. The religious people of the day had lost their way. They were lost in the rules and the regulations, and lost in the tradition and procedure. The truth behind their faith was that their true guide and compass was lost. For centuries before the arrival of Jesus on the scene, they took focus on the rules at the cost of countless, bent over women. The right and the wrong ways of doing things became their God, if not their passion.

There is an antique commentary which details a debate between two of history’s greatest religious leaders, that perfectly summarizes the absurdity of their situation. The debate centered on whether it was right and holy to eat an egg that was laid on the Sabbath; for it was work, at least for the chicken. As Christians, we believe that the children of God, had evolved to a place where the were missing the point so dramatically that God needed to intervene.

Throughout scripture, it was Jesus in a series of apparently unscripted moments, who laid the groundwork to show the world exactly the absurdity of the current situation. Where God’s people had lost the way, Jesus came to lead us back. He came to show a different way, and more importantly, the way it should be.

It’s oddly appropriate, that the next thing we hear from Jesus is the comparison of the Kingdom of God, with that of yeast and bread. For the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time, yeast was a symbol of all that is impure, unclean, or broken; much like that hobbled woman. Yet Jesus, in a radically life changing way, says that they have it wrong.

The Kingdom, for Jesus, is one where the yeast is fully part of. That which was seen as worthless, unclean, and impure, according to Jesus, was as much a part of the kingdom as any other. In fact, he seems to suggest that there is no kingdom without it.

A few weeks ago, I gave a sermon about the importance of not getting caught up in the “ways we have always done things”. Just because mom, dad, grandpa, and great grandma always did it this way, is not reason enough for us to keep doing it that way. In fact, that alone is probably reason enough for us to change. Jokingly, we talked about the need for us to be a church willing to move the beans at our church dinner.

Since that time, several parishioners have come up to me with virtually the same statement; “Pastor Scott! I had a move the beans moment!’ Although I am not sure that, at least for the uninitiated, calling it a moving the beans moment paints the most accurate picture, I think that each of us can find plenty of instances when we are trapped in the same old same old.

To build off that message, and this scripture, I would like to offer both permission and a challenge. Today, I challenge you to break the rules. I challenge you to take the same old, same old and get rid of it. Break the rules, be reckless, and throw caution to the wind.

Its about time, that each of us stops frantically evading and abandoning those responsibilities we have because of our faith, in exchange for the rigidness of rules, regulations, and our man made traditions. We have become lazy and rest everything on building, and promoting those rules, and having zero tolerance when anything comes close to breaking them.

We need to break the rules and shake things up. Maybe what needs breaking is as innocuous as saying its okay to wear a hat in church or move the beans, but maybe it’s as big as saying its time we open up our doors and the full ministry and life of the church to everyone regardless of how different their lives are, or how they might shake up our conceptions of the world.

Maybe the rules we need to break are found in the ways we live our life. Maybe God does want you to say goodbye to that office job, and chase your dream. Maybe God does want you to change the way you see your spouse, or change the way you approach your day. Maybe God wants you to stop and look at your world; see the rules, regulations and traditions that keep you from being who you can be,… or that keep others from being all they can. Maybe God wants to see your rules and say the time for zero tolerance is over. The time for new thinking is now.

It’s a shame that as people of faith, we have the hardest time believing and following the simplest of Jesus’ commands. At the very start of his ministry, Jesus has a simple and concise message; “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand”. As a people, we have lost precisely what that means.

We see repentance as feeling bad, and turning away from sin. It’s more than that. We felt bad and broken because of the mistakes and bad decisions we’ve made in our lives, long before we allowed God in. This is not repentance.

Repentance is from the greek word “metanoya” is most accurately translated as “a change in thinking”. Jesus from the very start of his ministry, loudly declares a simple message: When we hear Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand…. He is saying to you… The Kingdom of God is at hand…. Change your thinking.

That is what he said to the leaders in his healings of the bent over woman. This is what I believe he wanted us to hear. After two thousand and ten years,…When are we going to start listening?

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