The Challenge of Compassion — February 26, 2012, Sermon

Now that I think of it, I guess I showed compassion by stepping in for an ailing minister with just a few days’ notice in February 2012, to write and deliver this sermon on compassion.

*****

Rick Ruzzamenti, of Riverside, California, is an electrical contractor with a surly streak and an impulsive side. But he tries to make the world a better place, and he finishes what he starts. He gave up his Catholicism for Buddhism in what has been described as a revelatory flash, and he practices Tonglen, a meditation technique to grow compassion. His volunteer work as a gardener at a Buddhist monastery led to his arranged marriage to a woman who emigrated from Vietnam just eight months before they got married.

About a year ago, in a Target store, Rick bumped into the desk clerk from his yoga studio, and she told him she had just donated a kidney to a friend. Rick, 43 at the time, had never even donated blood, but that seemed like a good idea to him, so two days later he called Riverside Community Hospital and offered his kidney. The hospital was uncomfortable about accepting a kidney from a live donor who had no particular recipient in mind, so they subjected Rick to rounds of psychological screening as well as medical tests.

“People think it’s so odd that I’m donating a kidney,” Rick told the hospital’s transplant coordinator. “I think it’s so odd that they think it’s so odd.” He was accepted as a donor, and last August 15 his kidney was flown across the continent to Newark, where it was stitched in to the abdomen of a 66-year-old man. That man’s niece had wanted to donate a kidney to him, but her blood type was incompatible so her kidney was removed and shipped to Madison, Wisconsin, for a young mother there.

Garet Hil National Kidney Registry
Garet Hil

I’ll return in a minute to what Rick started, but first I want to introduce you to Garet Hill, of Long Island. He’s a former Marine reconnaissance ranger with an MBA from the Wharton School who managed a number of data and logistics companies and made all the money he needs by the time he was in his mid-40s. That was when, in February 2007, he and his wife, Jan, took their 10-year-old daughter to an emergency room with flu-like symptoms and learned that she had a genetic kidney-wasting disease.

Garet, Jan and six other family members were all ruled out as possible kidney donors, so they put their daughter on an exchange registry. Garet was prepared to donate his kidney in exchange for a donor compatible with his daughter. But that wait could be excruciatingly long – even endless – and fortunately one of Garet’s nephews was able to donate before the end of 2007 and take the girl off the waiting list.

But Garet, with expertise in both data and finance, couldn’t get over his frustration with the process, so he and Jan put up $300,000 to found the National Kidney Registry, which Garet runs without a salary. His goal is to match everyone who has a willing but incompatible donor with a compatible recipient and willing donor within six months. Since he has no medical credentials, Garet had to work hard to win acceptance and market his registry. Still today, only 58 of the country’s 236 kidney transplant centers feed his database with information about pairs of transplant candidates and their incompatible donors, but among those 58 are some of the nation’s largest centers.

Starting at 5 every morning, Garet works to create chains of donors and recipients. Last year, he arranged 175 transplants, including the one initiated by Rick Ruzzamenti. What Rick started, and Garet facilitated, became the longest-ever chain of kidney transplants. You’ll remember that Rick’s kidney went to a 66-year-old man in Newark, whose niece provided her kidney for a young mother in Madison. That young mother’s ex-boyfriend and she had broken up acrimoniously, but he didn’t want his 2-year-old daughter to grow up without a mother, so he donated his kidney, which went to Pittsburgh, and so on. By the time the chain ended, it involved 60 operations, 30 donors, 30 kidneys and 30 recipients over four months in 17 hospitals in 11 states, with a couple of breaks in the chain that needed Garet’s doggedness to repair as it went along.

Finally, on December 20, a man in Joliet, Illinois, with no willing donors but a desperate need for a kidney, was the final link. He received a gift that 90,000 other kidney patients are waiting for, in part because his hospital had provided a Good Samaritan donor in the past, and Garet wanted to return the favor by letting that hospital select the final recipient of this chain.

Never doubt what a couple of people with compassion can do.

There’s lots of compassion in this story, aside from Rick’s and Garet’s. Many of the donors showed compassion for their relatives, of course. What sets Rick and Garet apart, though, is the compassion they feel and follow through on for people who are complete strangers. Let’s give that a name. Let’s call it third-degree compassion.

The first level of compassion is for yourself. Many have said, and I agree, that you’re not capable of genuine compassion for others unless you can feel it for yourself. The second level is compassion for your loved ones, your friends and neighbors, people you know. In the kidney-transplant chain I just described, one donor had given up his job to provide dialysis at home for his mother. “In all actuality,” he said, “giving a kidney is a small price to pay for getting my life back.” He was showing compassion on both Levels 1 and 2.

Then the third level is more challenging. That’s compassion for the unknown and unseen. The wife of one recipient in the chain waited 68 days before it was her turn to donate, and she was under no legal obligation follow through. She did toy with the idea of backing out, but, she said, “I believe in karma, and that would have been some really bad karma. There was somebody out there who needed my kidney.”

Fourth-degree compassion is the most challenging. That’s the compassion that Ruby Bridges showed at the age of 6. She prayed for the people who could be described as her enemies. She prayed for the people yelling insults at her – who showed her a black doll in a coffin. I also credit Ruby’s mother with fourth-degree compassion. She talked her husband into volunteering Ruby to integrate the schools because it would help so many other black children. It certainly did, and I can tell you that it helped us white kids as well. I was 14 at the time, and I was inspired by that little girl in the Norman Rockwell painting.

Karen Armstrong compassion
Karen Armstron

“Compassion” is a word that’s used a lot in Buddhism but not one you hear much in everyday speech. If you look it up in a dictionary, you get words like “pity” and “sympathy” that don’t, to my mind, really do justice to it. If you look at the word’s roots, you get a sense of joining passionately with another’s suffering.

In Buddhism, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is called Guanyin, or Avalokitasvara, depicted in some cultures as female, in some cultures as male, and in some cultures as androgynous. One legend gives Guanyin 11 heads to hear the cries of all who suffer and then 1,000 arms to reach out to them.

I’d include all of that in my definition of compassion – actively absorbing others’ pain, hearing them, and reaching out.

This last Tuesday night, when the Worship Committee met, we knew we needed a sermon for this week, when Phyllis was scheduled to be in the pulpit. I volunteered to look over the websites of some of the UU preachers I know to see if there was a sermon there that I’d be moved to read, with permission, or that might start me on the road to writing a fresh sermon. I looked at sermons by John Morehouse, a former consulting minister here at UUCL who is now at the Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, and Charles Blustein Ortman, senior minister of the UU Congregation at Montclair, New Jersey.

I found that both of them had recently delivered sermons on compassion, inspired by the work of Karen Armstrong, the British author of highly regarded books on comparative religion. Her Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life was published in 2010, and last year she delivered the Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly.

General Assembly, or GA, if you’re not familiar with it, is the annual meeting of all of the congregations in the UUA, and it is open to all, not just official delegates. Held in June, it is the largest gathering of the year of UUs from all over, so it becomes a sort of annual convention of UUs. The Ware lecture is one of the high points, and past lecturers have included Martin Luther King, Jr., Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Oliver, Holly Near, Marion Wright Edelman, Julian Bond, Morris Dees, and Robert Coles. Karen Armstrong’s lecture this year was titled The Challenge of Compassion.

So that gave me two sermons, a Ware lecture and Karen Armstrong’s book that I could draw on for inspiration for this sermon, and I downloaded them all. But then I remembered the article I had read just a week ago in The New York Times about the kidney transplant chain, which said so much about compassion. So in addition to thanking Karen Armstrong, Charlie Ortman and John Morehouse, I want to acknowledge and thank Kevin Sack for an incredible reporting job on the kidney transplant chain. Send me an email if you’d like a link to the article.

At his church, John Morehouse launched “a yearlong study and action project on learning how to show compassion to ourselves, each other and those in need,” using Armstrong’s book as the basis.

In the preface to her book, Armstrong says:

One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all the people can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality…. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule….

Yet sadly we hear little about compassion these days…. There has been much flagrant abuse of religion in recent years. Terrorists have used their faith to justify atrocities that violate its most sacred values. In the Roman Catholic Church, popes and bishops have ignored the suffering of countless women and children by turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by their priests. Some religious leaders seem to behave like secular politicians, singing the praises of their own denomination and decrying their rivals with scant regard for charity….

Yet it is hard to think of a time when the compassionate voice of religion has been so sorely needed….

Armstrong likes to tell the story about Hillel, one of the great Jewish rabbis, who lived around the time of Christ’s birth. A gentile went to another famous rabbi of that era, more of a strict constructionist, and told that rabbi he’d convert to Judaism if the rabbi would recite the whole Torah while standing on one leg. The rabbi swatted him away, and then the gentile made the same offer to Hillel, who agreed. He stood on one leg and said: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go study.”

One of my favorite stories about the Buddha is known as the Parable of the Arrow:

The Buddha was sitting in the park when his disciple Malunkyaputta approached him. Malunkyaputta had recently retired from the world and he was concerned that so many things remained unexplained by the Buddha. Was the world eternal or not eternal? Was the soul different from the body? Did the enlightened exist after death or not? He thought, “If the Buddha does not explain these things to me, I will give up this training and return to worldly life.”

He put these questions to the Buddha, who replied, “Now did I ever say to you that if you led a religious life you would understand these things? It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends, companions, relatives were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, ‘I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know who wounded me, of what caste he is, what his name is, whether he is tall, short or of medium height, what color his skin is, where he comes from, what kind of bow I was wounded with, what it was made of, whether the arrow was feathered with a vulture’s wing or a heron’s or a hawk’s…..’ Surely the man would die before he knew all this.

“Whether the view is held that the world is eternal or not, Malunkyaputta, there is still re-birth, old age, death, grief, suffering, sorrow and despair – and these can be destroyed in this life! I have not explained these other things because they are not useful.”

Whether it’s described as compassion, the elimination of suffering, or the Golden Rule, the idea is the same.

Armstrong titled her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life with a purposeful nod to 12-step programs because, she says, “we’re addicted to our dislikes and prejudices and pet hates.” She goes on: When we utter “uncompassionate, dismissive, or unkind… remarks about one another, we often get a kind of buzz, rather like the first drink of the evening—a sort of glow. We feel we’re great, and it’s slightly addictive, but of course, it’s poisoning us, and it’s poisoning the atmosphere. But because this is an addiction, we can’t just give it up here and there.”

That’s why she created a 12-step program and the Charter for Compassion, a document intended to transcend religious, ideological and national differences. The charter has a website, of course, and it’s charterforcompassion.org.

I wish I could say that we Unitarian Universalists are less prone to demonizing “the other” than practitioners of more conventional religions, and that we have compassion for our opponents. But I believe that we, too, are addicted to our pet hates. As we work this year to move forward with a social justice project, we need to remember the inward work as well.

I’ll close with the words of theologian Matthew Fox:

…[I]n fact there is no such thing as privatized or individualized salvation. The prophets of yesterday and today find it necessary to constantly remind God’s people of this fact. Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., all had to fight this battle with religious people who had mistakenly understood salvation as personalized righteousness.

May we all live in a world with compassion and grace.

*****

You’ve probably seen this video before, but if you’re like me you can never get too much of it.

Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Marquessa says:

    Fantastic post! I’ll be coming back to read this again to jot down all the great different references you provided.

    Like

    1. melhpine says:

      Thank you, Marquessa.

      Liked by 1 person

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