The Work of Justice and Compassion

On August 29, 2016 by saintlukesgresham

Deacon Laurel Hart

A plumb line is fairly easy to make or to visualize. I could take a weight – something like a small tear drop shaped weight used for fishing would do nicely – attach it to a length of line or a piece of string – let it fall. Voila – now I have a tool to gage how straight any stationary object might be. In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told that the plumb line is being used to measure the life which the people of Israel are living. At the time of the prophet Amos, the Israelites have been enjoying a period of peace and prosperity but when held against the plumb line the lives they are living are shown to be considerably off center – maybe one could even say they are way off course. Their worship has been become an empty form – social justice has fallen by the wayside. The prosperous few aren’t sharing the fruits of this wealth with the poor and God is fed up. Amos has been pulled away from his work as a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees and given the task of speaking against this situation. Amos tells them that God is present in their lives then just as God is present in our lives today.

Social justice is still a very relevant topic of discussion as we approach the fall elections – and I’m very interested in what the various candidates have to say – their thoughts and suggestions for improving the lives, health and wellbeing of all people. In our communities we are seeing the devastating effects of rising cost of housing and the stagnant level of wages – forcing some people into homelessness. I recently spoke to a woman I’ll call Jill. Jill, is 65 years old, she was living with her daughter and two young adult grandchildren. They received a no cause evection from the home they’d lived in for 10 years. Unable to find new affordable housing in which to move, they used what little saving they had living in a motel for a couple of months. When these funds were depleted, they found themselves in a shelter – I guess one could almost say they were lucky to find shelter space – her granddaughter is due to give birth very soon. So for the very first time in her lifetime Jill and her family were without a home and she was feeling hopeless. The question lodges in my heart “where else do I need to work for justice and compassion?”

Last month, I was very fortunate to attend the Triennial Assembly of Episcopal Deacons, held this year at a conference center just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition to the joy of hearing the preaching of our energetic Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the other session which greatly engaged me was a breakout session on transgender issues. This was led by Linda Mae Watkins, a transgender Deacon from Ohio. Linda Mae shared some of her personal life story with us – eight deacons from all over our country participating in this dialogue. We spent a couple of hours talking and learning from each other – how we, as ordained deacons, could be advocates for Trans persons in the face of discrimination – working to broaden understanding and compassion in our communities. We concluded, as a nation transgender issues have been hijacked and reduced to bathroom issues because of public fear. All of this makes light of the fact that there is real hurt, misunderstanding and hate experienced by the Trans community with increased risk of suicide for Trans youth. The tragedy in Orlando is a reminder of the violence perpetrated against Tran’s people, especially Trans women of color – most of which is not reported in the news. A good deal of public ignorance contributes to spiritual, emotional and physical violence – with some churches telling Trans persons that their person/ external expression of their gender is sinful – some even saying that is possible that God made a mistake. Our group concluded that God calls us to see new horizons – from our own narrow perception – to the broadening work of God. Additional we affirmed the church has a responsibility to help tear down the walls between us and “them” – especially when the “them” is a marginalized group. When the assembly reconvened, we presented our report with several proposals, i.e.: suggestions for the Episcopal Church and our home diocese. First of all, theologies which included “sin” when related to the Trans community is outmoded and dangerous – this labels Trans persons and prevents conversation which leads to understanding and compassion. We believe the church must encourage prayer, study and dialogue to develop new theologies of gender around evolving language. We suggested that liturgies be designed and written to honor these persons as they make major transitions in their lives. Stories which center around life and death because when a person begins transitioning, the old person “dies” and a new person lives. These could be liturgies of new birth and naming when a person choses a new name and identity to be shared with their community. Finally, on a practical level, we need to encourage “unisex” restroom in our home churches where ever possible. So, I continue to ask myself “where else do I need to work for justice and compassion?”

Then today we hear the lesson of the Good Samaritan. Isn’t this the ultimate lesson in justice and compassion? A Samaritan – an outcast of Jewish society is the one person who stops to assist the wounded man. Not only does he stop to help but he arranges for long term assistance at his own expense. If I take out that plumb line – where would I measure up in this story? Would I be like the lawyer – wanting an exact and perfect definition to be sure I was helping the “right” neighbor? Would I be like the priest or Levite – too busy with my own busy work to stop and assist? But our dear Jesus has compassion on these sinners – he doesn’t scold or belittle them for their short coming. He just instructs the lawyer and us using the example of the mercy of the Samaritan to “go and do likewise”. My friends – that is the good news – we all have new opportunities each and every day to do over – to try again to be a good neighbors.

Last week, I was riding the Max and across the aisle from me was a man and woman – strangers to each other and me – who were having discussion which became rather heated. A middle aged woman was expressing her opinion to those around her about transgender people using the restroom of their identified gender – she was very much opposed to this happening and wanted to see laws enacted to protect her and others. I could see that the man was getting very agitated and he finally spoke up – he told the woman that he disagreed with her – this topic was in his opinion a non- issue and he couldn’t sit silently by and listen to hateful talk against transgender persons. I did finally speak to him – affirming his stand. After the woman left the train – I’m sad to say in a very angry state of mind – he shared with me that as a gay man he owed much to the many brave unnamed Trans women who, over 4 decades ago, were among the first to bring the LGBTQ issues to national attention as a civil rights issue. He stated that he believed he should do everything he could to support transgender people. And in hind sight this man’s actions seem like a Good Samaritan moment to me – one person speaking up to defend and care for the victims of misunderstanding, hate and violence.

It is never too late to ask the question “where else do we need to work for justice and compassion?”
I would like to close with a prayer –

God of bandit places,

Love that demands our all:
Reveal to us our wounds
And give us grace to know our sisters and brothers
Tending us with foreign hands;
Through Jesus Christ, our challenging neighbor.


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