Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 1 Sunday 18 June 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie, Assistant Priest
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
You probably know Auden’s poem, Funeral Blues: it has become standard fare at memorial services.
As we think of those affected by last Wednesday morning’s fire in Grenfell Tower it is hard to respond appropriately to the feelings of grief and confusion of those who are still uncertain about what happened to someone they love. We don’t want even to contemplate the experience of those who obediently stayed put and did not survive.
For me, Auden’s words nail the sense I had driving home to my mother’s house the night my father died. His was the first death to touch my life deeply. In the ensuing days many expressions of sorrow were offered, some more suitable than others. Most of the condolences offered were welcome. Sadly, though, the most overtly religious were sometimes not. Because my Father had moved away from his Evangelical roots there were several confused communications in the wake of the funeral advertisement – which invited people to a Requiem Eucharist at Christ Church St Laurence. One friend from my parents’ youth sent a catalogue of biblical texts in outrage at the words Requiem and Eucharist. My mother decided not answer that one, but I have kept it as a warning against po-faced piety. I don’t mean that to be just a criticism of narrow evangelicalism – though of course it is – but Catholic responses to death, in the ‘it’s God’s will’ genre, can be just as inept (the problem is in free will, not God’s will). The worst of it, for us, was the extreme lack of fit between some alleged condolences and their preachy self-righteousness. When all we were thinking was ‘stop all the clocks’.
The most helpful messages, and they were the vast majority, were along the lines of, ‘I can only imagine how you must feel the loss of a life’s companion, or parent.’ The, often less religious, people who responded like this weren’t trying to find an answer to grief; they were trying imaginatively to place themselves with us in that moment and understand what it might be like to be us. We’ve seen some admirably similar behaviour after this recent event, with local churches at the forefront, getting it right, I’m glad to say.
That is compassion, which is treated in all three readings this morning and named in the Gospel.
Isaiah: ‘how I bore you on eagles’ wings… you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples…’
Romans: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’
Matthew: ‘he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’
The Lord claims the Israelites as his treasured possession out of compassion. St Paul reminds us that God sent his Son to save us from our own destructiveness because he had compassion on us. And Jesus, seeing the crowds, had compassion for their diseases, suffering and lack of leadership, and he did something about it.
We are called to look at others, especially the crowds of people who are not here this morning but would benefit from knowing the love of God better or at all, in that same way, with compassion.
You will know that the word compassion is a Latin compound, meaning to suffer, or experience with. There is an important nuance there. Passion has two meanings now in English. I remember once telling a Jewish woman, in conversation about church, that the following Sunday was Passion Sunday. This caused her to roar with laughter and remark, ‘well I didn’t know you Christians had a Sunday for that’! We use it as a churchy word, meaning suffering, the Cross; to the world it is about sex.
But the original word, passio is broader and more neutral: it simply means having something done to me, being acted upon, having something happen to me; experiencing something rather than doing it. So the compound, compassion, may mean ‘experience with’. It is about empathy: the normal currency of human relationship. When it is about what we call ‘suffering’ it means seeking to understand or imagine what it is like to be bereaved, or injured or frightened or ill, or, even further from most of our experiences, unemployed, homeless, substance-addicted, abused.
We won’t be able to answer or solve other people’s bad experiences; we may even be, for some reason, the wrong people to respond. In cases like the Grenfell Tower fire there are practical responses to make; but bereavement, loss, poverty or sheer bad luck are less straightforward, and they will be the long-term outcomes of that night, when the immediate physical and financial needs are past. Then what we can do is certainly secondary to how we feel with them. And as we look outside our lives we often need to remember to be properly compassionate to those closest to us. We routinely expect so much of partners, children, friends and parents that we seem more easily to exercise compassion outside our own emotional circle. But the Good News, of course, is that all are brothers and sisters, all are within that circle.
By virtue of our baptism, and the fact that we are here this morning, we are supposed to know about exercising compassion: our baptism and Mass attendance create generous relationships with porous boundaries, and compassion is the currency of relationship.
Jesus doesn’t suggest that we can solve all the world’s problems, but rather that we are called to have this attitude, this developed empathy, with our brothers and sisters, treating them as we would hope to be treated. All of us have been commissioned to confront evil and offer God’s goodness in its place; all of us have been commissioned, like the apostles, to offer healing and peace.
Following Jesus in this way, ‘following through’ with our faith, is not easy. Nearly every one of the Twelve, named in the Gospel this morning, died a martyr for the faith. That provides a humbling context for our own self-examination. Real compassion has to be open to real cost; but not exercising it puts us in greater peril, of losing our self, our soul, as Jesus puts it, to gain whatever approval or advantage constitutes ‘the world’ for us. Whenever we jump to condemn or gossip, it is good to pray for this gift of compassion, to ask ‘what must life be like for you, right now?’
That is the Divine perspective, shown to us by the Incarnation, cross and resurrection: our hope of glory, when all loss and regret, even time itself, will be redeemed.