A Compassion Sermon

September 4, 2017 SERMON
by Laura Dely


Today’s topic came to me quite naturally. Not because I am such a compassionate person, but because since the middle of June, I have been enrolled in a year-long course in compassion, presented online by the Center for Non-Violent Communication. This experience opened a treasure trove of background materials on this deep and rich subject – one that is central to every major religion in the world.

What is compassion? The English language word has a Greek/Latin root, “patain,” which means to endure something with another person. This calls us to imagine what it is like to be in another’s shoes. For instance, Hurricane Harvey’s floods in Texas this past week offer us many opportunities to use our compassion muscles.

It is not the exclusive domain of religion. If you look it up in the dictionary, you see that it is a reaction to misfortune that at least provokes sympathy, which may result to a solution. Wikipedia defines compassion as a level of pity, that is a precursor to empathy. Neither even mention the “Golden Rule,” which is central to the religious definition, which states that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

The Charter for Compassion Inspired by Karen Armstrong with her $100,000 TED prize money, the charter was created in 2009 by a group representing as many of the world’s religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, as possible.
It calls us to live by the “Golden Rule,” which can also be described as that we treat others as we would want to be treated. On the Charter’s home page, you will find 3 simple statements that define its compassion mission:

• We believe that a compassionate world is a peaceful world.

• We believe that a compassionate world is possible when every man, woman and child treats others as they wish to be treated–with dignity, equity and respect.

• We believe that all human beings are born with the capacity for compassion, and that it must be cultivated for human beings to survive and thrive.

Karen Armstrong was the 2011 Ware Lecturer at the UU General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was there for that funny, but pointed talk, which happened soon after her book “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life” was published. There are copies of the Louisville, Kentucky St. Anthony’s Church in study guide to that book on a table just outside the sanctuary doors. That congregation has embarked on a 10-year plan to become a compassionate congregation.

So there are many sources to explore on this topic, many more than I have mentioned here. But when embarking on a study of this subject one must choose where you are going to work first: will you work on developing your own compassion muscles or work at a broader level? The Compassion Course works on a very personal level, asking each week for participants to enter observations of feelings, memories evoked, or reactions to people and situations, while the Charter calls us to renew our religious mission.

For instance, in Week 3, the Center for Non-Violent Communication founder, and professional “Empathizer” Thom Bond, told a story of a challenging family situation, where he encounters his father at a gathering just after the Center was starting. He first notices that his father’s questions about his business plan for the Center irritate him. He says that feeling tells him to “slow down” and try to assess what are his father’s needs in his questioning. Thom reviews the list of needs he has memorized, and has made an important resource for the course participants. Take a look at the insert in today’s program – you’ll the list is long. He also restrains himself from passing judgement on his father, as he always has done before he began his path toward compassion. Thom emphasizes that it takes hard work to walk that road, but with determination and dedication, it is possible to arrive at compassion. In this case, he was able to respond to his Father this way:

“It seems you want to share your vast business experience with me, which I welcome. Can we sit down sometime soon to get started on this?”

His father smiles and unfolds his crossed arms, expressing relief and joy, while Thom feels he has found that his practice works.

So that is example of the kind of work we can do to lead a compassionate life. But what does Karen Armstrong say we can do in just 12 Steps toward that goal? Hold on to that thought for a minute and think what other programs are 12-step? Alcoholics Anonymous is probably the first to come to mind, but is it known to be easy, even if it’s cure is offered in 12 steps?

Armstrong says that the title was deliberately chosen because we are addicted to our prejudices and our hates. She said in her Ware Lecture that when we sound off about someone or something – we get a little buzz. And that leads us straight to Step 7 (the Step she began her GA talk with): How Little We Know. Since January 20th, it has become frightening to see how far fake news and the people who pick it up as truth and act upon ill-found belief will go. But Socrates would no doubt venture that we all know nothing, so we all need to get off our high horses and recognize that, as a start toward common ground.

But even before we get to the point that we know nothing, we can start by first recognizing the divinity in those who are so certain and would dismiss us as idiots – this is the very core of Christianity and all major religions. Today’s Biblical reading calls us to adhere to the Golden Rule, and especially extend it to our enemies. That is the hard, but essential work, Jesus says.

Much more common in our lives than enemies perhaps are difficult people. Everyone has at least one family member, a co-worker, a boss, maybe even a friend who can be described as problematic or difficult. The Bible provides much advice on this very subject in the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs 12:16 promotes patience in our relationships: “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.” Proverbs 20:3 commends peace-making: “It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel.” Proverbs 10:12 encourages love: “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” Proverbs 17:14 values foresight and deference: “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.” If possible, it might be best to avoid the situation altogether by choosing carefully whom we associate with: “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered” (Proverbs 22:24

In her GA talk, Karen Armstrong tells of an important Sufi Sheikh’s take that deserves to be repeated: Ibn Arabi was his name, and he said: “Every single human being that has been born into the world, whatever his religion or belief, is a unique and unrepeatable revelation of God. Every single human being is an incarnation of one of God’s hidden names.” He lived in the 12th Century.

Even before the Sheikh lived, and at least a 500 years before Jesus walked the earth, the Greeks perfected the art of tragic theater. One day of the year was devoted to the Festival of Dionysus, the God of Transformation. All Athenians were required to attend live theater performances – it was a civic duty. Prisoners were even released just to attend a play. The Greeks put suffering on stage, knowing that it is something that unites human beings. Audiences would be enticed to weep in every performance when the chorus would say “Now, unveil your sorrow, weep now for Oedipus, a man in real life you would vilify. A man who unknowingly kills his father, and marries his Mother. Or Heracles, who murders his family under the spell of a goddess.” Audiences wept buckets of tears, in public, together.

Like any great work of art, these tragic plays took you beyond yourself, to a place where you could give sympathy you would not have thought possible before you entered the arena.

Aeschylus wrote “The Persians” about seven years after the Persians tore through Athens and ripped it apart. The Greeks ultimately won, but Aeschylus asked Athenians to weep for the Persians in his play, and weep they did.

In the 8th Century, Homer wrote the Iliad, which includes a tale of a bereaved Trojan King and the Greek warrior Achilles, who is deep in grief and rage over the death of his dear friend, killed by the Trojan warrior, Hector. Hector is then killed by Achilles, who refuses to return the body to King Priam, Hector’s father – which causes deep anxiety and more grief. It’s a bad act in a time when it is widely believed that bodies have to be sent to the gods via cremation and days of ceremony or else the soul of the dead will be unhappy, and just stumble around without a ticket to the next plane.

As he sends his friend off in grand style, Achilles mutilates Hector’s body and talks about feeding the dogs with Hector’s remains.

Then in Troy old King Priam gets a visit from Mercury, who is sent by the Council of Gods, to relay their sympathy and to give him a plan to get Hector’s body and live to bring it back for burial. He tells Priam to gather a great ransom together, and get an old cart driver who the Greek’s won’t be alarmed by. Mercury will accompany them, and provide help as needed. The idea was they would be able to drive right into Achilles tent on the Greek battleground, unload their loot, and beg for Hector’s body.

Well, they do just this, getting past Greek guards (who Mercury “pours sleep over”) and lifts the Greek encampment gates, the two old geezers and a god. They drive right up to Achilles tent, which Mercury knows from the hundreds that surround them, and Priam jumps down, and enters.

Achilles sits to hear Priam’s plea. They exchange their stories, and both men begin to weep, both at the tragedy of the other’s loss and their own. They weep together, then stop.

They look into the other’s face, and they see the other. This is the profound moment of this meeting, for when they see the other, they each are able to know how deep the other’s loss is. Priam calls for the ransom to be brought in, begins to show Achilles some of the riches he has brought. Achilles appreciates that, but says hold on a moment, and retreats.

When he returns, he tells Priam that his son’s body is now loaded onto his cart. King Priam falls to Achilles knees, praising and thanking him. Achilles says thank you for the beautiful ransom, and pulls him up. He invites Priam to feast with him, and asks how long he will need for Hector’s funeral. He promises not to attack Troy for however much time Priam needs.

They agree to a 12-day truce. Priam returns safely to Troy, and Hector’s body, which the gods restored to perfection, and is given a proper 11-day funeral. The Iliad concludes here, but what a story of loving your enemies and compassion!

These are examples of compassion, some writ small, the others writ so large they still resonate 1000’s of years after they were written. We must find inspiration to stay the compassion course, if we commit to live our lives abiding the Golden Rule. Certainly the Iliad provides one great example to guide us. Another way is to keep a “Compassion Journal” where you jot down failings and triumphs in treating everyone, including your enemies, as you would want to be treated.

The great religious texts from around the world also provide great guidance. The Early Buddhist Poem we heard in the readings was written about 30 years BCE. It tells us “May nobody wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred!!” – a Golden Rule in different expression. It is notable that that it specifies not just humans, but all creatures. Once the compassion ball starts rolling within us, it can be hard to squash a spider or other bug in our house. We may start to see animal advocates as doing good, when before we may have thought them extreme.

A contemporary broad stroke in this field is in the growing number of former terrorists who walked away from lethal extremism. NPR recently interviewed one who now runs a reform school for terrorist drop-outs. He said he just realized one day that he didn’t want to kill anyone, and left. He moved back to the U.S. and began a program to help other young men move onto what is a path of compassion, as endorsed by the Quran:

Remember the Prophet. The Prophet was subject to horrible insults and hate crimes in his lifetime. He remained steadfast, patient and tolerant in the face of this Islamophobia. We must model this same behavior. Good and Evil deeds are not alike. Requite evil with good, and he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend. But none will attain this save those who endure with fortitude and are greatly favored by God. (Quran 41: 34-35).

So we can begin small inspired by large if we want to begin to follow the Golden Rule.

Perhaps we could acknowledge homeless people whenever we have that opportunity. Remember that Jesus was a humble carpenter, and he regularly ministered to the poorest, sickest, and most ignored people. We can follow his mission by stopping when we see a homeless person, and saying hello, making eye contact, asking how they are. Get down to see eye to eye – let them know that they are your focus of attention – even if it’s just for a minute. Advocates say this simple action may be the only conversation a homeless person has all day. Imagine that – no one to have any human interaction with all day.

May it be so.