Sermons from St Faith's     

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 19th July, 2015

‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, because they were ki8ke sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’

Advice given to new priests and deacons at the point of ordination is often threefold: ‘Don’t drop the baby! Don’t fall in the grave!. And if you’re going to err, err on the side of compassion!’ It’s good advice, easy to re-imagine for other contexts.  At the supermarket checkout desk: ‘Don’t drop the eggs! Don’t fall off the chair! And if you’re goi9ng to err, err on the side of profit.’ Or the football  pitch: ‘Don’t handle the ball! Don’t kick an opponent! And if you’re going to err, err on the blind side of the referee!’

Returning to the ordination scene it is, of course, the third part in that trinity of advice which comes closest to the truth of what ministry really is. An remember, dog-collared or not, we are all called to minister, to serve, in one way or another.

‘If you’re going to err, err on the side of compassion!’ Compassion isn’t so much something you talk about as something you feel. But that isn’t all it is. A whisper of a prayer.  A cry. A hand held out to help. A listening ear.  Compassion must, if it’s to mean  anything, lead to action.

It is almost two years since a police helicopter quite literally fell from the sky over the city of Glasgow.  People watched, not quite believing, as it dropped on to the Clutha Bar, a pub in the city’s centre. Ten people lost their lives that night; there were many others for whom life would never be the same again. Jim Murphy, an M.P. at the time, was having a drink with a colleague in an establishment nearby. When he heard the terrible sounds of the collision, he rushed to his feet and ran in their direction, right into the burning wreck that now was the Clutha Bar.

Murphy is reported to have said afterwards: ‘I saw smoke coming out of the door and it was obvious something bloody awful had happened. People were clambering out.’ Later, in an interview about what he had seen and felt, a BBC reporter broke off the conversation to point out to the M.P. that he seemed to have blood on his shirt. Murphy, looking the length of himself, spoke the three words that told, with terrible eloquence, the tale of what had happened. ‘It isn’t mine,’ he said. ‘It isn’t mine.’ He would say, after the dust had settled, that it was instinct which had sent him running towards the Clutha Bar night. But we could be forgiven for wondering about that.

Is it really instinct that makes a man run into a burning building when other folk are clambering to get out of it? Perhaps the thing he called ‘instinct’ others would call ‘compassion. It is the desire to try to do something – anything – to help, when someone, in this case several someones, is sore and suffering. Some of us seem to stand rigidly on the sidelines of another’s sorrow. Others of us rush to help. Which, I wonder, are we? Maybe, if we are honest, we can admit that we are neither one nor the other. We are both.

Few of us will, thank God, ever be n such a situation. But opportunities for us to exercise compassion toward others in the everyday of our lives are in no short supply. For, as one aphorism neatly puts it: ‘Be kind. Always. Everyone you know is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Such as in this true story, which is in many ways an everyday tale and yet is the story of moment when a little bit of the world – a supermarket checkout to be precise – became suddenly a ‘thin’ place and earth seemed kissed by heaven.
It began with a boy who has Down’s Syndrome – this fact is important only in that it plays a key part in this particular story. The boy was at the self-scanner checkout, trying to pay for his shopping. But he was getting flustered over money and was all too aware of the collective impatience of the queue forming behind him.

The checkout assistant, sensing what was happening, went to the boy. She tried to slow him down, offered to help him sort coins one from the other. And soon enough all was well. At the end of it all the boy, relieved that it was over and glad to have found a friend in that particular moment said, ‘Thank you for helping me. Not everyone does. When they look at this’ – the assistant watched as the boy circled his own face with an accusatory finger – ‘they just think I’m stupid.’

The assistant looked at the boy. Chose her words carefully and mean them. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘when I look at our face I see a boy just like any other. And besides, it’s what’ on the inside that really counts
We don’t need to run into burning buildings to save people from their sorrows. The supermarket, the bus stop, the pew in fro0nt of us: there are hurting people everywhere. And how we respond can make a very big difference. Sometimes we stand on the sidelines of another’s sorrow. Other times we cannot keep from helping.  What is it? What is it that nudges us towards action?

For Jesus that day on the shore it was a crowd: an exposed and vulnerable people needing shelter, someone to carry them when they were weary from wandering, someone to revive their flagging spirits and nourish their hungry souls. Never mind that it was difficult sometimes for them to find a quiet place to eat, never mind rest. Jesus saw them. Really saw them. Jesus felt compassion for them. And he began to teach them. What did he teach them? That there is a home for their restlessness, a love that reaches out to claim them.
Jesus had compassion for the crowd, and it was not a one-off. There would be other times to feel this way too. Like on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Jesus knows he is already on a collision course with the powers that be. He stands with his friends, watching all the people going about their business, tears rolling down his face. But Jesus isn’t crying for himself. ’If only he had known,’ his friends will hear him say. ‘If only they had known what makes for peace.’

And days later, on the cross, a question from a dying soul, a promise from this dying Saviour: ‘I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise.’  Compassion. Compassion. Compassion.

Sometimes we stand on the sidelines. Other times we cannot hold back our help. Which are we today and which will we be tomorrow? What is our instinct?

Let others see it. And let them call it compassion.

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