Erring on the side of compassion

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Mark 6:30-34 & 53-56

At the supermarket checkout staff are advised: Don’t drop the eggs! Don’t fall off the chair! And if you’re going to err, err on the side of profit! On the football pitch it’s: Don’t drop the ball! Don’t fall on an opponent! And if you’re going to err, err on the (blind) side of the referee! When Ministers are ordained the advice is: 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 the third part of that advice which comes closest to the truth of what ministry really is: if you’re going to err, err on the side of compassion! Compassion. Compassion is not so much something you talk about as something you feel. But that is not all it is. A whisper of a prayer. A cry. A hand held out to help. Compassion must, if it is to mean anything, lead to action.

You might remember two years ago, a police helicopter quite literally fell from the sky over the city of Glasgow. People watched, not quite believing, as it dropped onto 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, a Member of Parliament 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.

Jim 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 MP that he seemed to have blood on his shirt. Which is when Murphy, looking the length of himself, said the three words that told with terrible eloquence the tale of what had happened. It isn’t mine.

Jim Murphy would say, after the dust had settled, that it was instinct which had set him on his feet and sent him running toward the Clutha Bar that night. But we could be forgiven for wondering about that. Is it really instinct that makes a man run into a burning building while other folk are clambering to get out of it? Perhaps the thing he called instinct others might well call compassion. It is the desire to try to do something – anything – to help when someone else – 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 are we? Maybe if we are honest, we can admit we are neither one nor the other: we are both.

Few of us will, thank God, ever be in 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 adage neatly puts it, Be kind. Always. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

There’s a story about this, 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. 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 – when they look at this they just think I’m stupid. The assistant looked at the boy. Chose his words carefully and meant them. Well, he said, when I look at your face I see a boy just like any other. And besides, it’s what’s on the inside that really counts.

We do not need to run into burning buildings to save people from their sorrows. The supermarket, the bus stop, the pew in front of us. There are hurting folk everywhere. And how we respond can make a very great 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 toward 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 he and the disciples were being pressed by crowds wherever they went. Never mind that it was difficult sometimes for them to find a quiet place to eat, never mind to 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 already he is 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 is not crying for himself. If only they 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 the garden. Compassion. Compassion. Compassion.

Sometimes we stand on the sidelines. Others times we cannot hold back our help. Which are we today? What is our instinct? Let others see it. And let them call it compassion.

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