Sermon - Sunday, 6 August 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 6 August.

Scripture: Genesis 32: 22-31 / Matthew 14: 13-21

Text: When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd: and he had compassion for them and       cured their sick                                                                                     (Matthew 14: 14)


Compassion: a feeling of sorrow or pity for the suffering of another and a desire to do something to alleviate it.

And whatever else people thought or felt about Chris Gard and Connie Yates in the heart-breaking legal battle that surrounded their baby son Charlie, the predominant feeling must surely have been one of compassion.

Born on 4 August last year, a healthy full term baby, after about a month his parents noticed Charlie was less able to lift his head and support himself than other babies of a similar age.

Medical investigations revealed Charlie had inherited a rare mitochondrial condition which affected the cells responsible for energy production and respiration, a condition which results in progressive muscle weakness and brain damage.

By October Charlie’s condition had started to deteriorate, he was lethargic, his breathing was shallow, and he was admitted to Great Ormond Street Hospital.

When Charlie’s parents wanted to take him to see specialists in the United States who had offered an experimental therapy called nucleoside, a crowd-funding page was established to help finance the trip and the treatment.

However doctors at Great Ormond Street concluded that the experimental treatment was unjustified, it was not curative, and would not improve the baby’s quality of life.

And so began the legal process which moved from the High Court to the Supreme Court to the European Court of Human Rights, each court judgment supporting the view of the hospital against the wishes of the parents.

While lawyers representing the parents argued that judges should not interfere with parents’ exercise of parental rights, that there was no risk the proposed therapy in the United States would cause Charlie significant harm, and that not enough weight had been given to Charlie’s human right to life, lawyers representing Great Ormond Street Hospital argued that further treatment was experimental and would leave the baby in a condition of existence, something in itself which was a significant harm and of no benefit.

Meanwhile, supported by a ventilator and fed through a tube, Charlie’s condition deteriorated to the extent he could not see, hear, move or make a noise.

Returning to the High Court after the ruling in the European Court of Human Rights, the parents were given 48 hours to prove an experimental treatment would work, and when they withdrew their request, arrangements were made for the baby to be transferred to a hospice where he died.

Heart-breaking for the parents, extremely difficult for the medical staff and the legal teams, the case attracted national and international attention and one fears for the parents and how they will ever pick up the pieces of life again after all the trauma of the last year.

Although I know no more about the case than was reported in the media, until its closure in 2007, I was the duty chaplain at the maternity unit at the Eastern General Hospital.

As I am sure you can imagine, there were a number of sad and difficult occasions when either a baby was stillborn or it was quickly evident the child was not going to survive.

The maternity staff would call upon me to offer whatever support was appropriate to the mother and family, sometimes to hold a blessing service for the baby, sometimes to arrange and conduct a burial at the Rose Garden at Mortonhall Cemetery.

On one occasion I was asked to see a mother who had held her stillborn baby for over 36 hours.

Sitting with her, I listened to her story, all the hopes and dreams she had held for her baby, and when finally exhausted and ready to sleep, I held out my arms and asked if she was ready for the baby to sleep too.

Mercifully, as she closed her eyes, the Mum handed me her baby.

Difficult, demanding, upsetting, drawing on those experiences I am quite sure everyone who had a care for Charlie Gard only wanted to do the best for him.

Until and unless you have been in that situation, it is impossible to know how you will react but I am quite certain Chris Gard and Connie Yates only wanted the best for their child and I can understand their clutching at even the faintest hope someone somewhere might be able to help.

I am equally sure the medical teams at Great Ormond Street Hospital only wanted the best for Charlie and all the other babies in their care and worked tirelessly to achieve it.

However, for all the remarkable achievements of medical science, there comes a point when the only appropriate treatment is palliative, to keep the patient as comfortable as possible, and let nature take its course.

What is true for the medical teams is surely true for the legal teams faced with a judgment of Solomon, the one pity perhaps being there was not a form of arbitration or mediation available to the parties involved.

However, beyond the pastoral role of supporting people through some of the most sad and difficult experiences of life, let me say the faith we proclaim, the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, offers profound insights of comfort and hope not only to Charlie’s parents but to all of us who in life must face the experience of dying and death.

It is evident from the gospel accounts of his ministry Jesus was a compassionate man.         

Think of his response to the woman who grabbed his cloak, or the centurion who asked for his help, or the blind beggar who cried out from the roadside.

There can be no doubting our Lord’s feeling of sorrow or pity for the suffering of those people and others and his desire to do something to alleviate it.

As we hear about him this morning, following the cruel execution of his cousin John, beheaded by King Herod at the whim of his wife Herodias, Jesus has withdrawn into the desert.

Instead of a time of quiet contemplation, as news of Jesus’ whereabouts spread and the crowds came bringing with them those who were sick ­– and Jesus had compassion for them and healed their sick.

The day passes and as evening approaches, the disciples start to fuss over what people are going to do and where and how they are going to find something to eat in such a remote place.

Their fussing gives Jesus the opportunity to demonstrate his compassion in a different way and taking the loaves and fish presented to him by a small boy, he gave thanks, broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples who gave them to the people.

And all ate and were satisfied……………………..

Over the years the Biblical scholars have wondered if the loaves and fish really were multiplied – or was the miracle one of sharing as, seeing what the child had done offering his food to Jesus, people started to share what they had brought.

Matthew does not say.

Rather he is content to report everyone ate and was satisfied.

And for me that points to the deeper truth of this remarkable event, the miracle that in Christ’s presence we find healing, we are given strength, our needs are met and our deep hunger for comfort, hope, reassurance and love is satisfied – for this life and beyond.

St Paul put it well when writing to the church at Corinth he said that if our hope in Christ was for this life alone then we of all people were to be the most pitied.[i]

As the empty tomb of Easter dawn promises, our hope in Christ is not for this life alone, for at the heart of Easter lies the reassurance that just as Calvary’s cross was not the end of the story of Jesus, our earthly death will not be the end of our story either.

Love is at the heart at this, the most profound of all Christian convictions, the love of God expressed in the life of Jesus, and the faith that as much as each of us is embraced in God’s love through life, we are also embraced in that same love through death.

Again it is to St Paul we turn and his profound insight that there is nothing in life or death, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[ii]

Here is the hope and promise of the Christian faith.

Here is the deep comfort to nurture and sustain, the reassurance that irrespective of age or circumstance in Christ all life finds its fulfilment.

Here is the mystery and miracle of what we believe, that in the words of this commentator, God will not allow what we have been to God’s love to be lost.[iii]

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[i] 1 Corinthians 15: 19

[ii] Romans 8: 38,39

[iii] DWD Shaw, The undiscover’d country. An exploration – the Life Everlasting Scottish Journal of Theology, Volume 47, p168