Over the years, I have met and come to know so many wonderful parishioners at Grace Church.
When my wife, my son and I first came to Grace Episcopal Church in 1988, we were met and welcomed by two of most loving people I have ever known: Howard and Marge Decker. Those of you who knew these dear ones can vouch for this fact.
Howard Decker was a living, breathing hug machine. Regardless, of who you were, even if you were a stranger, Howard would welcome you with a hug.
Now, the motto of the Episcopal Church, written on our church sign says: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” For Howard and Marge Decker, however, this was more than just our Church motto, it was a way of life, it was their way of life.
If you recall, Marge was the religious editor for the Ponca City News for many years, and she made sure that Grace Episcopal Church was well represented in the Ponca City News.
She was also a mentor to me as I moved through the Deacon Formation process and was a witness and signer at my Ordination. I returned the favor in mentoring Marge and several other students in our 4-year Education for Ministry course.
Marge was an avid reader and I recall one day she approached me with a book to read. She said, “Steve, this is a heavy book, too exhausting for me to read, but I think you will like it.” I did read it, it was heavy (drop book) and I did like it.
It is entitled “Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths,” and it was written by the bestselling author Karen Armstrong who also wrote NYT bestseller: “The History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” I also read this book and liked it, and it was also exhausting; I mean, how does one squeeze 4,000 years of religious history into one book?
Although I can heartily recommend both books, I am not going to provide you with a book report on these books, however, I would like to tell you a bit about their author- Karen Armstrong.
Karen Armstrong was born in 1944 at Widmoor, Worcestershire, England, into a family of Irish ancestry. Describing her family, she says this, “We weren’t religious at all, we were Catholics.”
All of that changed however when Karen turned 18 and entered Sisters of the Holy Child Convent, a teaching congregation where she majored in English.
She became a Roman Catholic Nun however, after seven years of frustration she left the Convent. In her own words, Karen said: “She just wasn’t any good at prayer.”
From there she entered the world of academia. She enrolled at Oxford and received her Bachelors’ and Masters’ degrees in English, and then she began her studies for a Doctorate in Philosophy.
The examiners for her Doctoral Dissertation however were divided in their approval and stalemated, therefore she did not pass her exam. This she saw as the second major failure of her life.
Next up, “In 1976, Karen took a job teaching English at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich while working on a memoir of her experiences in the Convent. This was published in 1982 to excellent reviews.” Because of ill health, however she had to leave her teaching post after 6 years. Yet another failure.
“Karen then embarked on a new career as an independent writer and in television broadcasting. In 1984, the British Channel Four commissioned her to write and present a television documentary on the life of St. Paul, a project that involved traveling to the Holy Land to retrace the steps of the saint.
She described this visit as a "breakthrough experience" and provided the inspiration for virtually all her subsequent work,” especially The History of God in 1993 and Jerusalem: Once City, Three Faiths in 1996.”
After these several perceived failures, at the age of 50, Karen finally found her calling in life, that is, to become a bestselling author of religious history. As a religious historian, she excelled, and in so doing became a noted global lecturer and inspirational speaker.
Possibly her greatest accomplishment, however, was co-founding and launching the Charter for Compassion, a global movement that urges the peoples and religions of the world to embrace the core value of compassion.
The charter currently is available in more than 30 languages and has been endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and more than two million individuals around the globe.
It seems that Karen Armstrong’s travels around the world, meeting with one world leader after another, one spiritual leader after another, she had an epiphany. Seeing firsthand the suffering of so many people, she suddenly became aware of the over-encompassing need for compassion, for the heartfelt efforts to not only identify with and to understand, but also to engage with and reach out to those who are suffering.
She was, shall we say, “moved with compassion.”
At the very core of all the world’s great religions and certainly the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we find the common theme of compassion.
In our appointed psalm for today, the psalmist says this:
“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”
At the very core of Jesus’ ministry on earth, we find our Lord over and again, being “moved with compassion” for those who came to him with their suffering.
In St. Matthew’s gospel it says this:
“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
In another passage Matthew says:
“When he (Jesus) went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
My friends, in a world beset by wars and conflicts, by disasters and catastrophes, and most recently by a pandemic that has killed almost a million persons worldwide and almost 200,000 of our fellow Americans, I can think of nothing more relevant, nothing more needed than compassion.
We live in a world starving for compassion, starving for someone to care about their suffering.
In the last chapter of St. John’s gospel, after the resurrection and just before his ascension, we find Jesus fixing breakfast for his disciples beside the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus turns to Peter, the disciple he will charge with building his church on earth. And yet, this is the same Peter that just a few days earlier had three times denied even knowing Jesus. So, Jesus provides Peter with a chance to redeem himself.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."
A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep."
He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."
Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.
My friends, Jesus entrusts those who are suffering to us, to feed, to tend, to care for.