Saturday 8 February 2014

Sermon for Sunday 9th February 2014 - Getting Over Ourselves - Living a Compassionate Life

'You are the salt of the earth.......You are the light of the world' (Matthew 5:13ff)
Immediately prior to these verses we have heard the Beatitudes, and in those teachings Jesus talks in almost abstract terms about how blessed are those who are poor, bereaved, meek, hungry etc. However in the final verse he turns it around and says 'Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you......'
This is no longer abstract and fluffy teaching - this is a teaching meant for his audience to act on and by extension it is meant for us to act on.

Today's Gospel is in direct continuity as it reminds the audience, you and me, that we are 'the salt of the earth' and 'the light of the world' and that with that comes a responsibility to be doers as well as hearers. We have been given gifts that are to be used not hidden and neglected. The teaching is clear enough but responding to it and putting it into practice is another matter.

The key to that implementation is to be found a couple of chapters further on in Matthew's Gospel: Chapter 7 v 12 in a teaching that has come to be known as the Golden Rule and is incidentally found in similar form in all the mainstream religious traditions in the world.
Matthew 7:12 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.'

That principle is often summed up in the word 'Compassion' but we need to understand what compassion is - It is not pity for another person but rather it means 'suffering with' the other and arising out of that shared suffering a desire to alleviate it. Without compassion there is no connection or relationship with the other and no possibility of being the salt and light that we are called to be.
If we are looking for a model of pure compassion then we need look no further than the Cross, where God in Christ entered into our humanity and into the depths of our suffering.

Karen Armstrong a contemporary theologian and historian of world religions and the founder of the 'Charter for Compassion' (a worldwide interfaith movement which seeks to bring reconciliation and healing at every level of society through compassion) has identified some of the key components to living a compassionate life in the world today. (Karen Armstrong: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life). At least some of these are perhaps helpful to us as we seek to fulfil our Gospel calling to be salt and light in the world:

Our families, in all their diversity, are a place where we potentially learn how to be compassionate people. Part of being in a family is putting the needs of others before ourselves, subordinating our selfish needs to the good of the whole family. Families are founded on and dependant on compassion. They are a vital training ground for living a life of generosity and service in a world which increasingly demands selfishness and efficiency. It is in our families that we learn we do not live for ourselves alone.

We do however, without being selfish, need to know ourselves and to love ourselves if we are to love others. We need to be aware of the basic instincts that can sometimes overwhelm our compassionate intentions. Chief among these is fear of the other, and out of that fear we often act hatefully towards those we do not understand or appreciate. Ironically the things we despise in the other are very often the qualities we most dislike in ourselves. We need to learn to forgive ourselves and love ourselves even in our brokenness.  Fear is human - it is natural and it actually unites us with those we fear for they too are fearful people.  If we recognise that it may help us to open our hearts to those we fear and hate and that is the beginning of compassion. It surely has particular application in the current debate in our country on human sexuality and same sex marriage. Whatever our opinion on the issue we must not overlook the real people whose lives are impacted by our desire to be right, sometimes at the expense of being loving.
Compassion expands our horizons and sets us free from the chains of fear and hatred which ultimately will only consume us. If we are to 'suffer with' others then we also need to be aware of our own suffering - not to deny it or belittle it but to use it as a route to understanding the suffering of another human being. If we feel our pain then we can empathise with the pain of another. Better self knowledge then helps us 'get over ourselves' and focus on those around us. This echoes powerfully with our baptismal calling to die to our old selves and to be born again of the Holy Spirit.

Humility, not something that comes naturally to us is also a vital component in living a compassionate life. We need to make a place and a space for other people and their demands on us. To do that means letting go of our tendency to act as if only we know the right way to be and the right thing to do in the world. We need to acknowledge how little we know! This does not sit comfortably with the religious disposition but to quote Karen Armstrong directly:
'Religion is at its best when it helps to ask questions and holds us in a state of wonder - and arguably at its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically'
She goes on to speak of Love which arises from Compassion and quotes Iris Murdoch (who in turn is quoting Simone Weil):
'Love, the sudden realisation that somebody else absolutely exists'
To live a life of compassion, to be salt and light we must take seriously the other in our lives. That other does not need to earn our attention by doing good to us but rather we need to recognise that by virtue of our shared humanity we have an interest in the welfare of others, even those that hate us. Again Jesus in his words from the Cross is a model of that compassion: 'Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing' (Luke 23:34)

Compassion is the only way to break the cycle of fear, hatred and violence that dictates the agenda of the world. It is to be salt and light and to use the gifts that we have been entrusted with to be a blessing to the whole of Creation. May we walking in the footsteps of Jesus hear again those words:
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.'


Anonymous said...

Even without the references to religion, this sermon would serve as a template for how we should treat others - as we would like to be treated - kindly and with compassion.

Stephen Neill said...

Agreed - And Karen Armstrong who inspired this would say the same as a person of faith herself - Compassion is not the preserve of the religious

Grannymar said...

I only wish this sermon were heard from pulpits of all denominations across the land tomorrow.

I grew up with a daily helping of 'Do to others as you would have them do to you!' it was a regular mantra from my mother.

Stephen Neill said...

Grannymar - A wise woman your mother