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Compassion and the Possibilities of New Life – Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

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Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

Sunday  May 2019 – Matins

1 Kings 17:11-23   Luke 7:11-23

Our granddaughter isn’t quite a year old yet, and although she’s clearly hugely interested in and curious about the world, she’s not yet speaking. That’s not to say she doesn’t make a noise, though! Not only does any object capable of being inserted into her mouth generally find its way in, all sorts of wonderful sounds come out, too. It’s only fairly recently that she’s begun to imitate sounds and she obviously delights in what she’s able to reproduce. Exploring sound is the beginning of language for her and opens up a whole world of communication.

As far as words are concerned, young children aren’t troubled by not yet understanding what they actually mean before they start using them. Very often it’s the sheer sound which is the reason for trying them out and, on the whole, the more colourful, odd and slightly rude the sound the better.

As a boy I used to listen to a radio comedy series called Round the Horne, the writer of which, Kenneth Horne, was once described in the Times newspaper as ‘the master of the scandalous double-meaning delivered with shining innocence.’ Some of this was communicated by the sheer sounds of words. Among the memorable characters in the show was one who rejoiced in the glorious name of J. Peasmold Gruntfuttock. Now you probably don’t actually need me to explain that Gruntfuttock was something of a dirty old man! It’s as if the very sound of the word conveys that without our needing to know it. What you probably don’t know, though, is that gruntfuttock is now a recognised word in the English language. Again, if I were to illustrate its use by saying that you might exclaim to someone, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, stop gruntfuttocking around!’, you probably don’t need much further explanation. So, you might like to consider when you could introduce gruntfuttock into a conversation!

There’s a word in today’s second lesson from Luke’s Gospel which, I can’t in all honesty claim is quite up there with gruntfuttock, but it comes close. It’s not apparent in the English but it is in the original Greek. The word is splanchnizomai and it means to have compassion. When Jesus saw the widow accompanying the bier carrying the lifeless body of her only son, he had compassion: splanchnizomai. There’s something rather earthy, raw, guttural and visceral about the very sound of the word. In the Greek, to have compassion has the sense of feeling it in your guts and the sound of the word splanchnizomai almost conveys a sense of your guts spilling out. It’s an extraordinarily vivid image. Imagine being so moved with compassion that you feel as if your guts are being spilled out.

Compassion is absolutely central to Luke’s Gospel. Two of the best-known and most-loved of Jesus’ stories – The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son – illustrate compassion and both are to be found in Luke alone. In the first, the Samaritan was ‘moved with compassion’ to attend to the practical needs of someone beaten up by robbers and left for dead. In the second, it’s the grieving father who was ‘filled with compassion’ when he saw his wayward son coming home after a long absence. In this case, it was compassion that moved the father to run towards his son with open arms and welcome him home.

Now you might think that to preach about compassion on the basis of today’s reading from Luke amounts to nothing more than a rather cowardly way of avoiding saying something about the widow’s son being brought back to life. In this Easter season, shouldn’t I be preaching resurrection? Well, yes, but the point Luke seems to be making is that compassion is all about making new life possible. Let’s face it, at one level this story’s about the resuscitation of a corpse. As is the case after the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel, both the son here and Lazarus there weren’t spared death indefinitely. Both presumably died again at a later stage. So resurrection life isn’t about being immune to death. Luke’s purpose is rather to illustrate what real life is about and, in the person of Jesus, it’s supremely compassion which is an agent of resurrection life. And for Luke, the transformation that compassion brings about is a radical inclusion in God’s love and purpose.

More than in any of the other gospels, Luke’s concerned about those who’re excluded. In the case of the Good Samaritan, it was the foreigner hated by the Jews who was shown to do the right thing on the basis of compassion by attending to the needs of the wounded man – presumably a Jew. In the Prodigal Son, the Father – a symbol of God – embraces and rehabilitates the one who’s wronged him by showing that not even sin excludes us from God’s love and compassion. In the story of the widow of Nain, Jesus reaches out to one, who by virtue of being a widow, had no economic or legal rights or privileges – she was dependent on her only son to meet her material needs – and now he was dead and she was destitute. So here we see Jesus spilling his guts out to show that compassion is who God is and what God does to enable everyone to thrive and flourish, to enable all to be included in the fullness of divine and human life and love.

You might well ask, though: where’s the evidence of this holistic and life-giving compassion in our own experience? Well, if you’ve recently been gripped by the BBC drama series, Line of Duty, you might have been prompted by that to watch a two-part documentary series in the last couple of weeks, presented by one of the stars of Line of Duty, Vicky McClure, called Our Dementia Story. Moved with compassion by the experience of seeing her Nona – her grandmother – live with Dementia, she was determined to explore whether music might have a life-giving and life-changing impact on those living with Dementia. A group of 20 or so people were recruited to form a choir, which would prepare to give a public concert in Nottingham to some 2,500 people. On top of this, neuroscientists were involved in monitoring the changes taking place in the brain as they sang. The results were extraordinary. Many who’d just about lost the capacity to speak found that they could actually sing well, that music facilitated the recovery of memory, and that the emotional impact for the participants and their families of experiencing lost bits of themselves being restored to life was transformational. This documentary was a contemporary presentation of all that Luke’s trying to say in today’s second lesson. Vicky McClure was moved by compassion to do something for those who’re marginalised, ignored and excluded in our society because they live with Dementia. In so doing she enabled such people to experience new possibilities in life where hope had in some cases been evaporated.

There are different types of Dementia and there was at least one person in the programme with Frontotemporal Dementia, which affects behaviour sometimes as well as language. Chris had a great sense of humour and was often rather uninhibited in his behaviour. I’m not sure how he’d have reacted to Splanchnizomai but I’ve not the slightest doubt he’d have enjoyed gruntfuttock – and no explanations would have been needed either!

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