Sunday, February 3, 2008


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday February 3rd, 2008

"Sometimes we think that to develop an open heart, to be truly loving and compassionate, means that we need to be passive, to allow others to abuse us, to smile and let anyone do what they want with us. Yet this is not what is meant by compassion. Quite the contrary. Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception." --Sharon Salzberg


I feel like I’d be shirking my duties just a little bit if I didn’t say just a word or two about this afternoon’s sporting event. “Super Sunday” is in many ways a uniquely American spectacle, to which the game itself is almost incidental. It represents a “high holy day” in America’s Civil Religion: an unapologetic celebration of the values of excellence, competition, over-the-top consumer spending and free market capitalism, with a good measure of (dare I say it?) fanatical Patriotism thrown in...all ritualized in a form of mock warfare which dwarfs the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome in its scope and scale.

Actual tickets for the game itself run into the thousands of dollars apiece (that is, if you can find them at all, since these days most are distributed through corporate sponsors, sophisticated high-end scalpers, or by a lottery for a few lucky season ticket holders of the two representative teams). The vast majority of “ordinary” people -- some 90 million of us -- will be watching the game on TV, often at some sort of “Super Bowl party” hosted in someone’s home or at a local “public house.” Sales of big screen, high-definition television sets are always especially brisk the week or two before the big game, and the owner of my favorite little sports dining establishment told me this past week that he is preparing 900 pounds of Buffalo-style chicken wings in order to meet just his catering orders for this afternoon’s game.

And then there are the commercials, which are an event unto themselves. The average price of a 30 second advertising spot this year is $2.7 million. Yet this is nothing compared to the nearly TEN BILLION dollars that experts estimate will be wagered on this game, $100 million of which will actually be bet legally in Las Vegas, where the bookmakers now have the Patriots as 12 point favorites.

But my favorite Super Sunday human interest story this year is about Buddy, a three year old Black Labrador Retriever who discovered the Express Courier envelope containing his owner’s two $900 apiece Super Bowl tickets, and chewed it to pieces. That’s right, the dog ate his tickets. Fortunately, the taste of two $900 apiece Super Bowl tickets apparently didn’t really agree with Buddy, who left them merely covered with teeth marks and dog slobber rather than swallowing them, which means that his owner is going to be able to attend the game after all, rather than drowning his sorrows in Budweiser, and gorging himself with BBQ dog while watching the game at home on TV.

And then, with only a day between to sleep it off, comes Super Tuesday, when a quarter of the nation will be voting to help determine the two major party nominees for next November’s Presidential election. Most of the media attention now is on the Democratic side, where the party faithful are attempting to decide whether to nominate history’s first “significant” woman candidate, or the first African American one. And there’s even some talk now of a so-called “dream-ticket” which would contain them both, if only they could agree about who gets to be on top.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are also flirting with history by exploring the possibility of nominating America’s first major party Mormon Presidential candidate. And even that old warhorse John McCain may have a surprise or two up his sleeve, if he manages to win the nomination, and decides to reach out across the aisle (as John Kerry did to him in 2004) to now-independent Senator and former Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Joe Leiberman to round out his ticket.

But that’s all still months away. With the Patriots only one win away from a perfect season (and their fourth Super Bowl Championship in eight years); and the Celtics now boasting the best record in the NBA, it’s easy to forget that just last October the Red Sox were winning their second World Series in this century, having gone the better part of a century since having won their last one. So it’s a good time to be a sports fan in New England. And politics can wait for another day.

You may not have actually noticed, since I really didn’t make an especially big deal about it, but last week I stared a rather loosely-structured series of sermons on the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. We started with the theme of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and today I want to continue by talking about “Compassion,” or more specifically Justice, Equity and Compassion in human relations. As principles go, this is certainly a very fine one but achieving it in actual practice is hardly a walk in the park.

In the real world, Justice is never entirely blind or completely impartial (even with instant replay) -- it’s really more of an abstract goal and an aspiration than something we can count on to work perfectly all the time in each and every situation. Widespread injustice is a fact of life; and there are lots and lots of people who have a vested interest in keeping it that way, just as there are lots and lots of other people who go out every day and devote their lives to making injustice a little LESS widespread than it was the day before.

And if Justice itself is just an abstraction, then Equity is even more so. It’s an article of faith in this country, articulated by Thomas Jefferson right in the Declaration of Independence way back in 1776, and confirmed by Abraham Lincoln four score and seven years later, that “all men are created equal.” But if you just look around you’ll notices rather quickly that this proposition is hardly confirmed by the evidence of our own eyes.

Human beings basically have only three things in common: each of us is unique, none of us is perfect, and all of us are going to die. These three qualities may well make us equal in the eyes of Nature and Nature’s God, but that’s pretty much where it ends as well. Inequality is such a fundamental fact of life that we settle instead for the principle of “equity” -- all people may not be the same, but at least we’re going to try to treat them that way.

Yet even this basic principle of even-handed fairness is a difficult and challenging standard to achieve. We lift up the ideals of Justice and Equity as goals to guide our own behavior and interactions with one another, knowing in our heart of hearts that life isn’t fair and probably never will be, no matter how hard we may try.

But Compassion, it seems to me, is fundamentally different from these other two ideals. The ability to be compassionate comes from within us, and is thus always close at hand, always within our own power to express. Compassion is more than mere sympathy or empathy, although both of these qualities are clearly components of its character. Compassion goes beyond our natural human emotional tendency to feel pity for souls less fortunate than ourselves, or to act mercifully toward those within our power to help; it is more than mere charity as well, either in the narrow sense of personal philanthropy, or in the more profound sense of caritas or “benevolent love.”

In its essence, compassion means “to suffer with” -- it means opening our hearts to other people in a radically vulnerable way, in empathy and solidarity, in generosity and benevolence, realizing not only do we hope to change their lives by our involvement with them, but with a willingness to risk allowing that relationship to change OUR lives in the bargain. Compassion is the attempt to understand the lived experience of another human being in all its dignity and complexity, and then making that understanding an intimate and authentic part of our own lived experience as well.

In the Buddhist tradition, Compassion or karuna is one of the four immeasurable “sublime attitudes,” along with metta or “loving kindness; mudita or “sympathetic joy;” and upeksha, which is generally translated as “Equanimity.” Loving-Kindness is a wish for the happiness of others, while Compassion is a wish for others to be free from suffering. Sympathetic Joy is the ability to be happy because of the happiness of others, while Equanimity is “a detached, clear-minded state of tranquility which unconditionally accepts all sentient beings as equal.”

These four immeasurables can’t really be understood independently apart from one another, and are linked together through a meditative practice which attempts to cultivate a state of mindfulness which recognizes on some deep level that the happiness of any one of us is dependent upon the happiness of us all, and likewise injured by the suffering of any. Through meditation on these sublime attitudes, practitioners attempt to diminish (and ultimately eliminate) emotions of ill-will, cruelty, jealousy and personal desire, while at the same time expanding their awareness of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all self-aware creatures...breaking down the separations brought about by our self-consciousness, and binding us together in relationships of mutual support and concern.

Or to put it perhaps in more familiar terms, meditation on the four immeasurables help to reinforce the insight that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Yet even when we know this in our heads, we still need to figure out how to take it to heart, and then to try to change things in our own lives, and in the larger community where we live.

The legendary compassion of the Buddha, grounded in the unselfish wish to remove suffering and give joy, and the ability to take joy in the joy of others, while accepting everyone just as they are without preference or distinction, is perhaps the essence of “enlightenment” itself. It begins with the insight that no matter how different we each may seem, we all have a lot more in common than we think, and that by building on these commonalities while seeking to understand one another in all the complexity of our differences, we create a deeper sense of mutual connection and commitment that allows us to experience both the joys and the sorrows of other individuals as if they were our own. And by doing so, we enrich our own life experience in ways that are impossible to measure.

There’s a classic Buddhist story about a young mother named Kisa Gotami, who became desperate with grief after the death of her only child. Carrying the body of her dead son with her, she asked everyone she met for a medicine that might restore him to life, and was eventually directed to the Buddha, who told her that he would more than happy to do as she asked. All he required, he told the distraught mother, was that she bring him a few mustard seeds from a house that had never known death.

“Overjoyed at the prospect of having her son restored to life,” the story continues, “Kisa Gotami ran from house to house, begging for some mustard seeds. Everyone was willing to help but she could not find a single home where death had not occurred. The people were only too willing to part with their mustard seeds, but they could not claim to have not lost a dear one in death. As the day dragged on, she realized hers was not the only family that had faced death and that there were more people dead than living. As soon as she realized this, her attitude towards her dead son changed; she was no longer attached to the dead body of her son and she realized how simply the Buddha had taught her a most important lesson: that everything that is born must eventually die.”

And so Kisa Gotomi buried her dead son, and returned to the Buddha to tell him what she had learned. Eventually she became one of his most devoted and accomplished followers. The Buddha eased Kisa Gotami’s suffering, not by restoring life to the dead, but by connecting her grief to the grief and suffering of so many others. And by this simple act of Compassion, the burden of her grief became less unbearable, and she was able to let go of her attachment to something precious that ultimately was not hers to keep.

Some of you may remember when I preached here in July for the first time after arriving as your called and settled Parish minister, I described “an ethic of compassion,” along with the “value of community” and the “wisdom of common sense” as one of the three fundamental criteria by which I measure the validity of any religious belief. And in my own mind, these three criteria all come together in a very simple and straightforward way around yet another “C” word: the word “Companionship.” A companion is literally someone with whom we share bread. Companionship embodies the ideals of hospitality and generosity, equity and equality, mutual concern, joint interests, and common purpose. It implies shared hardships and shared joys, all grounded in the basic human necessity of eating life-sustaining food, and eating it together.

We may not be able to establish Justice and Equity in human relations in our lifetimes. We may not always be able to practice Compassion as faithfully as we would like. But we can become companions to one another, and work to expand that circle of companionship wider and wider, as we share our lives with the lives of others, and allow ourselves to be changed by that experience in ways we can never fully anticipate, but must instead learn simply to trust. Each of us is unique. None of us is perfect. And all of us are someday going to die. But in the meantime, is it too much to expect that we learn to treat each other fairly, that we understand our differences as something that we all have in common, and that, on occasion at least, we break bread together while gathered round to watch the big game on TV?...


By Langston Hughes

I've known rivers:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

by Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps on the back
Of the wind and floats downstream
Till the current ends and dips his wing
In the orange suns rays
And dares to claim the sky.

But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through
The sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright
Lawn and he names the sky his own.

But a caged BIRD stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with
A fearful trill of things unknown
But longed for still and his
Tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.