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  • Compassion:

  • what does it look like?

  • Come with me to 915 South Bloodworth Street

  • in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I grew up.

  • If you come in you will see us: evening time,

  • at table -- set for ten but not always all seats filled --

  • at the point when dinner is ready to be served.

  • Since mom had eight kids,

  • sometimes she said she couldn't tell who was who and where they were.

  • Before we could eat, she would ask,

  • "Are all the children in?"

  • And if someone happened to be missing,

  • we would have to, we say, "Fix a plate" for that person, put it in the oven,

  • then we could say grace, and we could eat.

  • Also, while we were at the table,

  • there was a ritual in our family:

  • when something significant had happened for any one of us --

  • whether mom had just been elected as the president of the PTA,

  • or whether dad had gotten an assignment at the college of our denomination,

  • or whether someone had won the jabberwocky contest for talent --

  • the ritual at the family was, once the announcement is made,

  • we must take five, ten minutes to do what we call "make over" that person --

  • that is, to make a fuss over the one who had been honored in some way.

  • For when one is honored, all are honored.

  • Also, we had to make a report on our extended "visited" members,

  • that is, extended members of the family,

  • sick and elderly, shut in.

  • My task was, at least once a week, to visit Mother Lassiter

  • who lived on East Street,

  • Mother Williamson who lived on Bledsoe Avenue,

  • and Mother Lathers who lived on Oberlin Road.

  • Why? Because they were old and infirm,

  • and we needed to go by to see if they needed anything.

  • For mom said, "To be family, is to care and share and to look out for one another.

  • They are our family."

  • And, of course, sometimes there was a bonus for going.

  • They would offer sweets or money.

  • Mom says, "If they ask you what it costs to either go shopping for them,

  • you must always say, 'Nothing.'

  • And if they insist, say, 'Whatever you mind to give me.'"

  • This was the nature of being at that table.

  • In fact, she indicated that if we would do that,

  • not only would we have the joy of receiving the gratitude

  • from the members of the extended family,

  • but she said, "Even God will smile, and when God smiles,

  • there is peace, and justice, and joy."

  • So, at the table at 915, I learned something about compassion.

  • Of course, it was a minister's family,

  • so we had to add God into it.

  • And so, I came to think that mama eternal, mama eternal,

  • is always wondering: Are all the children in?

  • And if we had been faithful in caring and sharing,

  • we had the sense that justice and peace would have a chance in the world.

  • Now, it was not always wonderful at that table.

  • Let me explain a point at which we did not rise to the occasion.

  • It was Christmas, and at our family, oh, what a morning.

  • Christmas morning, where we open up our gifts,

  • where we have special prayers, and where we get to the old upright piano

  • and we would sing carols. It was a very intimate moment.

  • In fact, you could come down to the tree to get your gifts and get ready to sing,

  • and then get ready for breakfast without even taking a bath or getting dressed,

  • except that daddy messed it up.

  • There was a member of his staff who did not have any place

  • on that particular Christmas to celebrate.

  • And daddy brought Elder Revels to the Christmas family celebration.

  • We thought he must be out of his mind.

  • This is our time. This is intimate time.

  • This is when we can just be who we are,

  • and now we have this stuffy brother

  • with his shirt and tie on, while we are still in our PJs.

  • Why would daddy bring Elder Revels?

  • Any other time, but not to the Christmas celebration.

  • And mom overheard us and said,

  • "Well, you know what? If you really understand the nature of this celebration,

  • it is that this is a time where you extend the circle of love.

  • That's what the celebration is all about.

  • It's time to make space, to share the enjoyment of life in a beloved community."

  • So, we sucked up.

  • (Laughter)

  • But growing up at 915, compassion was not a word to be debated;

  • it was a sensibility to how we are together.

  • We are sisters and brothers united together.

  • And, like Chief Seattle said, "We did not spin the web of life.

  • We're all strands in it.

  • And whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves."

  • Now that's compassion.

  • So, let me tell you, I kind of look at the world this way.

  • I see pictures, and something says, "Now, that's compassion."

  • A harvested field of grain, with some grain in the corners,

  • reminding me of the Hebrew tradition

  • that you may indeed harvest,

  • but you must always leave some on the edges,

  • just in case there's someone who has not

  • had the share necessary for good nurture.

  • Talk about a picture of compassion.

  • I see -- always, it stirs my heart --

  • a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • walking arm in arm with Andy Young and Rabbi Heschel

  • and maybe Thich Nhat Hanh and some of the other saints assembled,

  • walking across the bridge and going into Selma.

  • Just a photograph.

  • Arm in arm for struggle.

  • Suffering together in a common hope that we can be brothers and sisters

  • without the accidents of our birth or our ethnicity

  • robbing us of a sense of unity of being.

  • So, there's another picture. Here, this one. I really do like this picture.

  • When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated,

  • that day, everybody in my community was upset.

  • You heard about riots all across the land.

  • Bobby Kennedy was scheduled to bring an inner city message in Indianapolis.

  • This is the picture. They said,

  • "It's going to be too volatile for you to go."

  • He insisted, "I must go."

  • So, sitting on a flatbed truck,

  • the elders of the community are there,

  • and Bobby stands up and says to the people,

  • "I have bad news for you.

  • Some of you may not have heard that Dr. King has been assassinated.

  • I know that you are angry,

  • and I know that you would almost wish to have the opportunity

  • to enter now into activities of revenge. But,"

  • he said, "what I really want you to know is that I know how you feel.

  • Because I had someone dear to me snatched away.

  • I know how you feel."

  • And he said, "I hope that you will have the strength to do what I did.

  • I allowed my anger, my bitterness, my grief to simmer a while,

  • and then I made up my mind that I was going to make a different world,

  • and we can do that together."

  • That's a picture. Compassion? I think I see it.

  • I saw it when the Dalai Lama came to the Riverside Church while I was a pastor,

  • and he invited representatives of faith traditions from all around the world.

  • He asked them to give a message,

  • and they each read in their own language a central affirmation,

  • and that was some version of the golden rule:

  • "As you would that others would do unto you,

  • do also unto them."

  • Twelve in their ecclesiastical or cultural or tribal attire

  • affirming one message.

  • We are so connected that we must treat each other

  • as if an action toward you is an action toward myself.

  • One more picture while I'm stinking and thinking about the Riverside Church:

  • 9/11. Last night at Chagrin Fall,

  • a newspaperman and a television guy said,

  • "That evening, when a service was held at the Riverside Church,

  • we carried it on our station in this city.

  • It was," he said, "one of the most powerful moments of life together.

  • We were all suffering.

  • But you invited representatives of all of the traditions to come,

  • and you invited them.

  • 'Find out what it is in your tradition

  • that tells us what to do when we have been humiliated,

  • when we have been despised and rejected.'

  • And they all spoke out of their own traditions,

  • a word about the healing power of solidarity, one with the other."

  • I developed a sense of compassion sort of as second nature,

  • but I became a preacher.

  • Now, as a preacher, I got a job. I got to preach the stuff,

  • but I got to do it too.

  • Or, as Father Divine in Harlem used to say to folks,

  • "Some people preach the Gospel.

  • I have to tangibilitate the Gospel."

  • So, the real issue is: How do you tangibilitate compassion?

  • How do you make it real?

  • My faith has constantly lifted up the ideal,

  • and challenged me when I fell beneath it.

  • In my tradition, there is a gift that we have made to other traditions --

  • to everybody around the world who knows the story of the "Good Samaritan."

  • Many people think of it primarily in terms of charity,

  • random acts of kindness.

  • But for those who really study that text a little more thoroughly,

  • you will discover that a question has been raised

  • that leads to this parable.

  • The question was: "What is the greatest commandment?"

  • And, according to Jesus, the word comes forth,

  • "You must love yourself,

  • you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul,

  • and your neighbor as yourself."

  • And then the person asked, "Well, what do you mean, 'neighbor?'"

  • And he answered it by telling the story of the man who fell among thieves,

  • and how religious authorities went the other way,

  • and how their supporters in the congregation went the other way;

  • but an unsuspecting, despised person came along,

  • saw the man in need,

  • provided oil and wine for his wounds,

  • put him on his own transportation,

  • and took him to the inn

  • and asked the innkeeper, "Take care of him."

  • And he said, "Here, this is the initial investment,

  • but if needs continue, make sure that you provide them.

  • And whatever else is needed, I will provide it and pay for it when I return."

  • This always seemed to me to be a deepening

  • of the sense of what it means to be a Good Samaritan.

  • A Good Samaritan is not simply one whose heart is touched

  • in an immediate act of care and charity,

  • but one who provides a system of sustained care -- I like that,

  • 'a system of sustained care ' -- in the inn, take care.

  • I think maybe it's one time when the Bible talks about a healthcare system

  • and a commitment to do whatever is necessary --

  • that all God's children would have their needs cared for,

  • so that we could answer when mommy eternal asks, "In regards to health,

  • are all the children in?" And we could say yes.

  • Oh, what a joy it has been to be a person seeking to tangibilitate compassion.

  • I recall that my work as a pastor

  • has always involved caring for their spiritual needs;

  • being concerned for housing, for healthcare,

  • for the prisoners, for the infirm, for children --

  • even the foster care children for whom no one can even keep a record

  • where they started off, where they are going.

  • To be a pastor is to care for these individual needs.

  • But now, to be a Good Samaritan -- and I always say,

  • and to be a good American -- for me,

  • is not simply to congratulate myself for the individual acts of care.

  • Compassion takes on a corporate dynamic.

  • I believe that whatever we did around that table at Bloodworth Street

  • must be done around tables and rituals of faith

  • until we become that family, that family together

  • that understands the nature of our unity.

  • We are one people together.

  • So, let me explain to you what I mean when I think about compassion,

  • and why I think it is so important that right at this point in history.

  • We would decide to establish this charter of compassion.

  • The reason it's important is because this is a very special time in history.

  • It is the time that, biblically, we would speak of as

  • the day, or the year, of God's favor.

  • This is a season of grace.

  • Unusual things are beginning to happen.

  • Please pardon me, as a black man, for celebrating

  • that the election of Obama was an unusual sign

  • of the fact that it is a year of favor.

  • And yet, there is so much more that needs to be done.

  • We need to bring health and food and education

  • and respect for all God's citizens, all God's children,

  • remembering mama eternal.

  • Now, let me close my comments by telling you

  • that whenever I feel something very deeply,

  • it usually takes the form of verse.

  • And so I want to close with a little song.

  • I close with this song -- it's a children's song --

  • because we are all children at the table of mama eternal.

  • And if mama eternal has taught us correctly,

  • this song will make sense, not only to those of us who are a part of this gathering,

  • but to all who sign the charter for compassion.

  • And this is why we do it.

  • The song says, ♫ "I made heaven so happy today, ♫

  • Receiving God's love and giving it away

  • When I looked up, heaven smiled at me

  • Now, I'm so happy