The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
My sermons at Matins this month are following the theme of 'Signs of the Kingdom of God'. Last week I spoke about 'Love', and today I shall be speaking about 'Compassion'.
Over recent months, parts of the NHS have come under particular fire, with politicians calling for health professionals to show more compassion. Yesterday the Chief Inspector of Adult Social Care revealed that regulators are receiving more than 150 allegations of abuse of the frail and elderly every day. Not that long ago at an Old People's Home called Winterbourne View vulnerable people were mocked and even tortured by the very staff who should have been supporting them. Eleven workers were convicted, and six went to prison. Indeed, just the other day, the Prime Minister said that "nurses should be hired and promoted on the basis of having compassion as a vocation and not just academic qualification".
The great Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen, takes this further in his book The Wounded Healer, when he writes: "How many leave hospital healed of their physical illness but hurt in their feelings by the impersonal treatment they received; how many return from their consultations with psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers or counsellors, increasingly irritated by the non-committal attitude and professional distance they encounter?"
We probably all agree, we need health professionals who are technically competent, but who can also demonstrate the virtues of compassion and empathy. The vast, vast, majority of us instinctively, and quite naturally, value compassion in church and society; in the world of medicine and beyond it. It's both a characteristic of the Kingdom of God and a mark of human caring,
Compassion takes many forms, and can be expressed in many ways and it really does have the ability to change the world. Why is it that the lives of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu are so inspiring?
Have you ever been moved to tears by seeing someone's loving and compassionate behaviour? Such motivation often inspires us to help others for we know that compassion is contagious and helping is contagious. Acts of generosity and kindness so often illicit more generosity through a chain reaction of goodness.
From the Gospels we see that the compassionate heart of God was a motivating factor for each aspect of Jesus' ministry: preaching the Word, healing the sick, caring for people in need. We see here that the compassion of God is foundational to the kingdom of God. Compassion isn't just thinking, "I must help that person", compassion is a deep feeling that is aroused when we see someone crying, hungry, sick, or wounded, - and it stirs us to act on that person's behalf. The distinction is critical.
God isn't looking for the thinking of the world; he wants our hearts to reflect his heart. If we think for a moment about the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see how his heart was moved with compassion, how he crossed over racial, ethnic, and religious barriers, how he gave the wounded man the care he needed. The compassion of the Samaritan completely upsets his plans. Heartfelt compassion so often upsets our plans too, and leads us in unexpected directions: if we dare to see the poor, the wounded, the strangers in our midst, then who knows what will be the consequences for us?
Three days ago we celebrated the feast of the miraculous transfiguration of Jesus, and were reminded again as to how much a shock and a surprise it was to those first disciples. In much the same way, we too, should be challenged by the Transfiguration.
St Ignatius encouraged the early Jesuits to look for Christ on their ordinary daily lives. He told them to take time every day for spiritual conversation with one another, to discuss the presence of God in their daily lives. He wanted them to look deeply at their daily lives from a contemplative perspective and discover Christ in their midst. If we are attentive, he taught, we will see God in creation, but most of all in other human beings.
In a similar way the Gospel teaches that Christ is especially present in the poor and in our enemies. Matthew's Gospel records Jesus' solemn assertion that he is physically present in the homeless, hungry, naked, stranger, sick and imprisoned.
What we do to them, he said, we do to him. So we begin to understand that God is present in the suffering, the ostracised, the marginalised, and the oppressed. In a world of widespread poverty, Jesus is everywhere. Jesus doesn't spend the rest of his life as a radiant, transfigured, enlightened being of light. Instead he becomes the suffering servant of Isaiah, covered in blood, racked in pain, dying as a criminal, helpless on the cross. Instead of 'dazzling white light, Jesus adopted what Mother Teresa called the 'distressing disguise of the poor'.
Though we may not see transfigured beings of light around us, we surely see suffering, dying people everywhere especially from the huge numbers of people fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East and trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean sea.
When we see signs of light shining in such situations, we will feel the love, forgiveness and compassion of the transfigured Christ enlightening us. Although compassion is central to the Gospel of Christ and Kingdom of God – it's also important to see it at the heart of almost every religion.
In his book 'Ethics for the New Millennium', the Dalai Lama writes powerfully how
"Compassion is one of the principal things that make our lives meaningful. It is the source of all lasting happiness and joy. And it is the foundation of a good heart, the heart of one who acts out of a desire to help others". He also goes on to stress the importance of practicing compassion in our daily lives.
As a sign of the Kingdom of God, compassion like love, underpins all other virtues. It demands us to be conscious of the suffering of others, to be moved by their distress, and to desire to alleviate their suffering.
Becoming a person of compassion is a lifelong process that calls us to imitate the example of Jesus; turn our own suffering into opportunities for becoming more sensitive to the pain of others and actively seeking out opportunities to respond to the suffering of others.