A Sermon preached by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury, on Sunday, 23 October 2016
2 Timothy 4 v6-8, 16-18; Luke 18 v9-14
One of the more gruesome stories of our news headlines this week concerned the two people found guilty of murdering a mother and daughter whilst they slept in their home in Spalding in Lincolnshire last April. It would have gained the attention of the press for the sheer senselessness and randomness of the attacks. But it was particularly noteworthy because the killers, just 14 year olds so children, were the youngest ever couple to be convicted of murder in this country.
There were two elements of this murder of Elizabeth and Katie Edwards that I want to consider with you this morning as the case disappears from our headlines though I suspect they’ll never be forgotten by the community of Spalding.
The first element is the complete lack of compassion shown by their young killers.
We’re told that after they had stabbed and smothered this mother and daughter the two of them had a bath, had sex, watched ‘Twilight’ videos and so behaved in an astonishingly unremorseful manner. ‘Cold, calculated and callous’ was how most of the newspapers described them.
Cold, calculated and callous.
This is the third sermon I’ve preached here this autumn on the subject of the Cathedral’s published values – the characteristics we aim to show in this place through our attitudes and behaviours. If you’ve been here for the other two you’ll possibly remember that I first spoke about our desire to be generous, to live in a manner which keeps an open heart and open hand of welcome and hospitality.
We also want to be known for our integrity. That our ways of operating should be honest and fair and trustworthy. People may not always like the decisions we make or the priorities we set but they will know we listen and implement them in a manner any reasonable person can respect.
And the third of our values is here before us today: we aspire to be a compassionate community; a community where you might find sympathetic pity and a concern for the sufferings of others.
If we were to describe compassion to one another I suspect we might use the terms kindness and empathy.
I’m very fond of the word ‘kindness’. It feels to me like the everyday manifestation of that profound virtue of mercy. It’s a divine virtue. We know God to be merciful, to be kind. He is not wrathful or punishing of us. It was the prayer of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable – ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner.’
Mercy is also a human virtue though it can be lacking even amongst those who think of themselves as civilised and educated. In our first reading the Apostle Paul complains that he was treated unkindly by his fellow Christians who abandoned him when he was being prosecuted for his faith. Actions can be unkind. Words can definitely be unkind.
I think all of us are puzzling over what is happening in the Presidential campaign in the United States. The Republican candidate presents himself as the alternative to the established political system, as the outsider who voices popular opinions and tells it how it is. He’s right that political systems need honest challenge. They can, like the Pharisee in our gospel reading, become complacent, trusting in themselves. They can believe themselves to be righteous and regard others with contempt. Honest challenge is good for our democratic political establishment. But part of the challenge that is needed is to discover how to behave kindly in the face of profound political disagreement or the pursuit of power. How can our political culture be both robust but kind? How do we love our enemies, political or otherwise? It begins if we find a way of dealing with each other that is unfailingly kind in tone and in outcome.
Living in the mercy and pity of God demands of us that we practise kindness. It also involves empathy. This is more than an ability to sympathise with someone else. It asks of us that we enter into the experience of the people with whom we relate. What do things look like from their perspective? Have we heard what they’re trying to tell us? Do we feel as they feel even if it’s alien to our own way of seeing?
The young killers in Spalding have been called ‘cold, calculated and callous’. Compassion is a warm hearted response. We are stirred to respond not from our distant reasoning but from our instincts, our pity which rises from somewhere in our guts, within the bowels of us. Callousness is surely the opposite of compassion.
Elizabeth and Katie Edwards were treated to no compassion by their killers. The other element which I’d like you to notice comes in the evidence of the forensic psychiatrist at this trial. This is what he said:
“A group dynamic can lead you to a course of action you would never have contemplated on your own. Bonnie and Clyde . . . that sort of intense attraction, emotional closeness – them against the world. It’s that sort of thing that led on to this. If they hadn’t got together and had the intense toxic relationship they [the killings] would never have happened.”
He’s saying that a group dynamic can breed a callousness and so as individuals we lose all sense of how our personal moral compass directs us. But if the forensic psychiatrist is right and that horrifying thought is true then it must also be true that we can together build a compassionate group dynamic.
The Pharisees had learnt by group behaviour to regard others with contempt. The caricature of the praying Pharisee who defined himself before God over and against those he counted to be less worthy was widely recognised by Jesus’ listeners.
So we ask ourselves the question here. What would be widely recognised as the features of our community? Do we unfailingly practise pity, mercy and kindness? Will people see the great compassion of God illustrated by our group dynamics and by the habits we adopt as individuals?
When people ask you what it’s like at Salisbury Cathedral could you give evidence that it’s a place of generosity, behaves with integrity and practises compassion?
May we work with one another and pray for the blessing of God’s Spirit to make it so.