Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Sunday Sermon: Compassion

Proper 5/Year C
1 Kings 17:8-16
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

Some of you may remember my speaking of my dear friends Steve and Andrew. Steve and I originally met when we both started attending seminary at what is now called Bloy House, an Episcopal program for commuters, associated with the School of Theology at Claremont and part of the Claremont Colleges in the LA area. Steve and I had a lot in common: we were both lawyers, a fact which made us suspect to many of our fellow seminarians, had similar senses of humor, enjoyed doing the same sort of things, and just liked hanging out.

Every so often I’d go visit Steve and Andrew in Pasadena where they lived and as a result, got to know Andrew really well too. He was funny, kind, worked in finance, and sang opera with local companies. Definitely a Renaissance guy.

Steve and I both left Bloy House to finish our seminary studies—me to New York to attend General Seminary, and Steve to New Haven, CT to attend the Yale Divinity School, with Andrew accompanying him.

After that, Steve went on to further graduate studies in New York at General, and work as a priest at a church in Manhattan. Andrew got a job at NYU as a manager in their finance department and continued to sing opera. All in all, they had a great New York life.

But then it took a turn. Not a bad turn but certainly not one they ever expected. Andrew’s sister died unexpectedly and left behind two children, Kyle and Kristy, both hovering around middle school age. Their biological father had not really been a part of their lives, so Steve and Andrew, believing they could provide a good life for the kids, ended up adopting them. So all of sudden, these two men became instant fathers to two kids who had just lost their mother, their home, and were entering one of the most challenging ages known to humankind.

Andrew became the consummate dad going to PTA meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and being as involved as he could be, given his own work, in Kyle and Kristy’s schools. He loved being a dad.

Steve was also absolutely committed to their well-being, helping with homework, staying home when one of them would get sick, and planning for their futures in terms of college funds, art lessons and the like. Things people just do for their kids if they can.

It was a far cry from their previous lifestyle but all four of them made it work with a lot of grace and love.

There are times in all our lives when we are confronted with choices which have the potential to tap into our well, so to speak, of compassion, compassion being “deep awareness of the suffering of others coupled with the wish to relieve it.” (1)  And at their truest, deepest level, these choices are not made by thinking, “I am going to be compassionate today,” rather compassion is the place within us from which we respond.

It is here, at this place we see Jesus responding time and time again. In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus and his disciples see a funeral procession and learn the man who has died was his mother’s only son. Presumably without a husband, and now not a son, this woman’s future was bleak. Unless a woman was attached to a man, or otherwise had resources of her own, she was considered a nonentity. The best the woman could hope for was enough charity to feed her and maybe provide some minimal kind of shelter.

And out of compassion, Jesus responded. The woman didn’t ask for his help, it was solely his decision. A decision that came to him as naturally as breathing.

We are all called to make decisions with the same generosity of compassion, and indeed can make them if we learn to get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit do her work. One of the best ways I have ever heard this put came from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He was asked by a priest to describe Buddhism and Thay asked him what the Holy Spirit was and the priest responded by saying the Holy Spirit was the energy sent by God. Thay liked that and later wrote the following about this encounter:
The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, penetrated Him deeply, and He revealed the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus healed whatever He touched. With the Holy Spirit in Him, His power as a healer transformed many people. All schools of Christianity agree on this. I told the priest that I felt that all of us also have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us, the capacity of healing,  transforming, and loving. When we touch that seed, we are  able to touch God the Father and God the Son.(2) 
The “seed” of the Holy Spirit does indeed reside in us, allowing us to know God in ways that would otherwise be impossible. But we cannot let it passively live there and wait for it to emerge from time to time. Rather we must allow it to thrive so we can make decisions out of compassion instead of duty.

And we do this through practice—what Buddhists might call a practice of mindfulness, through prayer, action, study, and when we aren’t clear, consciously tapping into our well of compassion, to help us in our choices. And with time and through our practice, the choices and decisions before us will become clearer and easier. Which is not to say they will be easy. In fact these choices and decisions will often require things of us that are difficult. But this is what it means to follow Jesus.

And there’s another caveat. Just because we respond from that compassionate place within us, the seed of the Holy Spirit, it does not mean we will be able to control the outcome. Things can happen for any number of reasons, almost all of them out of our control. But at the same time, it is here where we see unimagined moments of grace, wonder, and love.

Almost from the beginning, Steve and Andrew decision to adopt Kyle and Kristy was more about “how,” rather than “if.” In their compassion, the action before them was pretty clear, even if the road in many ways was not. It’s still not. Andrew died of cancer last year—an unimaginable loss. Certainly when Steve made his decision about the adoption, it never occurred to him he might become a single parent.

But last summer when I went Andrew’s funeral and watched Steve fuss over Kyle’s tattoos and heard about Kristy exercising the Constitutional right of all teenage girls to give their fathers fits, it was clear they were now family in the very best sense of the word.

Obviously they are bound together in their shared grief.

But beyond that, the bond between them runs deep and is grounded in love. They have, and will continue to carry each other through their sorrows, confusions, adventures, and joys. Their story is one of grace in the midst of the unexpected, born out of the compassion given to all of us.

There is so much ugliness and sorrow in the world. All of us have experienced it. And I suspect all of us have also been touched at times by unasked for moments of compassion which help us transcend the ugliness and sorrow.

To the extent we cultivate our wells of compassion, individually as well as community, we honor this beautiful and bountiful gift from God and can then become the instruments of healing, transforming, and love, we are created to be.

The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas

9 June 2013

(1)  “Compassion,” The Free Dictionary by Farlex (accessed 7 June 2013 at
(2) Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ 10th Anniversary Edition (New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2007), Kindle Edition

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