Radical Compassion

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, October 8, 2006

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

I want to speak about radical compassion, the kind that encompasses everything and everyone. Not only do we see an example of it in the Gospel today, of Jesus toward the widow who had lost her only son, but there is an example even closer to our experience, that of the Amish community in Lancaster County, PA. Allow me to read a little from a couple of news stories. See how many of Christ's teaching in Holy Scripture come to mind.

“In just about any other community, a deadly school shooting would have brought demands from civic leaders for tighter gun laws and better security, and the victims' loved ones would have lashed out at the gunman's family or threatened to sue. As they struggle with the slayings of five of their children in a one-room schoolhouse, the Amish in this Lancaster County village are turning the other cheek, urging forgiveness of the killer and quietly accepting what comes their way as God's will.

"They know their children are going to heaven. They know their children are innocent ... and they know that they will join them in death," said Gertrude Huntington, a Michigan researcher and expert on children in Amish society.

"The hurt is very great," Huntington said. "But they don't balance the hurt with hate."

The Amish have also been reaching out to the family of the gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, who committed suicide during the attack. Dwight Lefever, a Roberts family spokesman, said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them.

"I hope they stay around here and they'll have a lot of friends and a lot of support," Daniel Esh, a 57-year-old Amish artist and woodworker whose three grandnephews were inside the school during the attack, said of the Robertses.

Huntington, the authority on the Amish, predicted they will be very supportive of the killer and his wife, "because judgment is in God's hands: “Judge not, that ye be not judged."

King quoted an Amish bishop as saying, "We are not asking for funds. In fact, it's wrong for us to ask. But we will accept them with humility." During a meeting Wednesday, one bishop leaned over and said, "You know it would be un-Christ-like for us not to receive this because we know that the whole nation is grieving with us. We know that," King recalled.

And to inspire us even further, yesterday the news reported that one half of those who attended the funeral of the man who killed the five children were Amish. Today, following the Dismissal I will have a memorial for the five children and for the man who shot them whose name was Charles. There will be a prayer for the innocent children who need no forgiveness and a separate prayer for Charles who does. This tragic story has taught me a valuable lesson. The Gospel can be lived if we are courageous enough to live it.

When I considered doing a memorial including the killer there was a reaction in me. Something in me rebelled against the idea, but I know that the resistance in me to loving as Christ loves is something I must work to overcome. Although I have killed no one, I have been angry with many and as Jesus says, “Do not kill, but I also say to you, anyone who becomes angry with another has already committed murder.” So, in the eyes of the Lord, the difference between my sin of anger and Charles' of murder is really only a matter of degree not of essence. The seeds of murder are in all of us if there is in us any propensity for anger. So, I must be honest and pray and repent remembering the words of Christ from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” when I consider judging anyone of anything.

The result of practicing radical compassion, of going to those places within us that we are afraid to go, of pushing beyond the limits we have set for ourselves, is that the heart expands and we become more and more like God. This is the path of deification, it is the way of the Cross.

I want to end with a quote from St. Isaac of Syria that I believe pulls everything together. It is a quote with which you might be familiar, but, of course, it bears repeating. St. Isaac teaches the same radical compassion that Jesus taught. Sometimes he is so radical that it meets resistance in us. That is good, because it shows us how much work we have to do. St. Isaac's teachings, like those of Christ, Isaac's Lord cut to the quick and have the power to heal.

“An elder was once asked, 'What is a compassionate heat?' He replied, “It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person's eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips the heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to look on any injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation. This is why he constantly offers up prayer full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy. He even prays for the reptiles as a result of the great compassion which is poured out beyond measure – after the likeness of God – in his heart.”

And here, one final quote from St. Isaac, the sign for him of having reached perfection, “This shall be a sign for you, a luminous sign of the serenity of your soul: on examining yourself, you will find yourself full of compassion for all humanity, and your heart is afflicted with pity for them, burning as though with fire, without making distinction between one person and another. When the image of the Father becomes visible in you by means of the continual presence of these things, then you can recognize the measure of your way of life – not from your various labors, but from the transformation which your understanding receives. The body is then likely to be bathed in tears, as the intellect gazes on spiritual things.”

Finally, for those of us who believe we are the great defenders of the Faith, St. Isaac says that those who have really connected with the truth “are never contentious” for it, because they know they do not need to be.