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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

On Showing Mercy: a hospice sermon

‘Blessed are the merciful’ says Jesus in today’s second reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Mercy is one of the great words in the Bible and one of the most beautiful.  It’s perhaps a word we use less than we used to, though we implore cruel men and women to have mercy, we look for our judicial system to be merciful as well as just, and above all, we attribute this lovely quality to God himself as a key aspect of who he is. We heard it in one of our Psalms this afternoon: ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful: long-suffering and of great goodness. The Lord is loving to everyone, and his mercy is over all his works.’

Jesus is saying: if you want to know happiness, imitate God himself. ‘Happy are the merciful’ because that is how God is. He is not only holy, exalted, glorious and just. He is also generous and kind to all people and all things. Indeed his glory is revealed in his compassion. There's a striking Prayer Book collect that begins 'O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity'. What we understand by kindness and compassion is drawn from his essential character. In the Quran, the Prophet speaks ‘in the name of Allah the compassionate, the merciful’. Islam honours the same qualities that Jews and Christians love God for, because he is the same God we all worship as children of Abraham. If he were not compassionate and merciful, he would not be God. It's as simple as that.

We have come here today to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Butterwick Hospice. Hospices are a familiar part of the landscape of care, but it was not always so. We have Cicely Saunders to thank for her far-sighted vision of palliative care and for the beginnings of the hospice movement nearly half a century ago. You may not know that it was reading one of the Psalms that led her to launch this great initiative. People like Mary Butterwick were inspired to put their enterprise and perseverance into establishing hospices across the country in the face of a not always sympathetic medical establishment. How much we owe to them! It’s still the case that hospices are largely funded from voluntary donations, so we want to honour our benefactors today. And I know from my own experience how devoted and selfless is the service of hospice staffs, trustees and so many volunteers, so this is an occasion to recognise and thank them too. 

This all adds up, I think, to the wonderful way in which hospices express mercy: human kindness and care, of course, but through human beings, God’s mercy. And by mercy we mean precisely all the qualities that go into enriching human lives so that men, women and children flourish. I don’t need to remind anyone here that hospices are not places you go to die in, but to live in. Hospice, such a lovely word for welcome, hospitality, needs met, provision offered for a long journey. End of life care is hugely important. But the point is to be as fully alive as possible before it is time to die. This is what Butterwick stands for. It is compassion, it is mercy because it matters to God that we make sure that human life, dignity and wellbeing are always honoured however severe the ordeals, however hard the circumstances, however hopeless things feel. It especially matters to show kindness at these times both to all who are suffering and to those who love them. It matters to him that he is present as friend and comforter to all who need him. And he is, in everyone who has a part to play in hospice care. 

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung had a motto inscribed above the door of his clinic in Zurich. ‘Recognised or not, God is always present.’  Our service today makes explicit what is always true at Butterwick, that through the people who serve it and by being such a caring, humane, hospitable place, God is at work to bring healing, comfort and mercy. Thank you to Mary Butterwick for her founding vision; thank you to all who serve the hospice today. May God the compassionate and merciful give you all his rich blessing. 

Durham Cathedral 19 October 2014. 
For the 30th anniversary of Butterwick Hospice Care
Psalm 145, Matthew 5.1-16

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