Good Samaritans

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” – Luke 10:36-37

My sermon at the Funeral Liturgy for the Rev. John Christopher Ramsey, delivered at Trinity (Hagerstown), on January 11, 2019. Pastor Ramsey died from injuries after having been hit by an automobile last week. This preaching trajectory was inspired by Pastor Kristi King, whose sermon for Dorothy Snouffer, ten years ago, is still much in my head and heart. +bg

In the Name of the Father, Son + and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dear Bishop Gohl, Cindy McGuire and Brenda Clark wrote me this last week: Our community here in Washington County was so saddened to hear of the passing of Pastor Chris. He was the embodiment of living life to the fullest, not being defined by difficult circumstances or defined by one’s disabilities. He came out of well-earned retirement, and despite being legally blind and a little lost without his beloved late wife Pat, he faithfully and capably ministered with the Beaver Creek-Keedysville Parish. With his friend, Pastor Darrell Layman, he was instrumental in helping us form the South Washington Cooperative Parish, a coalition of St. Matthew, Beaver Creek; St. Peter, Keedysville; and Mt. Zion, Rohrersville churches, enabling us to continue and flourish. He was an incredible example of Christian love and an inspiring preacher. I know that all of us have things tucked in our hearts about this amazing servant of God, he was a delight to all of us. He will definitely be missed, but he leaves so much positive influence on all of us. Pastor Chris was put in our lives to facilitate God’s will for us, point us to Jesus and, though becoming increasingly more blind himself, he helped us to see the clear movement and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

This is the Chris Ramsey I knew. With a quiet strength, he was there at all of the right moments; when a colleague was struggling, he would encourage you to hang in there. Whether we were at low ebbs or high celebrations, he would inject his dry, wicked sense of humor and make us laugh, despite our circumstances and in spite of ourselves. Quietly, behind the scenes, with an eye for detail that belied his disability, he reminded us of what faithfulness looks like in this day and age, proving again and again that he was, in the very best sense that Jesus describes, neighbor, family, our friend.

With a quiet efficiency and a quick mind, Chris transcended his limitations. He enjoyed good health, hard-fought independence, and a mind like a steel trap. Quick to recall stories of having visited all 50 states, and traveling home and abroad with his beloved Pat, he seemed to have boundless energy. He was always willing to lend a hand and especially loved Bible study, singing in the choir and preaching. Not particularly rich by worldly standards, he was perhaps one of our church’s wealthiest pastors, not simply loved, but beloved by family, friends and neighbors alike.

Now, don’t let me ramble and re-remember him, either. He was a person of strong opinions, too. He was known to gently, but firmly set more than one of us straight, more than once! And when he got a little too firm, his cat, Katie, gently reminded him that she was large and in charge.

Chris was a Good Samaritan. He rarely passed by without a quip and an encouraging word. He never abdicated his responsibility to share of himself. He never said an unkind word about another in my presence, and he exuded genuine respect for others that is rare in this cynical, partisan, dog-eat-dog world we live in. He went out of his way to do for others, be them family, friend, neighbor or stranger; and deeply appreciated all that we did for him. When he would happen upon a situation where he would discover someone in need, he didn’t pass by on the other side, he stopped. He did what he could with strong gentleness in his spirit, his tender heart; and gentle strength in his determination, his fierce independence and genuine concern for others.

On Wednesday, like many of you, I received that terrible phone call that he had been struck by a car while crossing the street. The newspaper later reported that “he had darted in front of a car,” which, I will admit, made me pause for a moment and remember the many, many times I saw our very, very nearsighted friend move forward with confidence, nearly hitting a wall, if someone didn’t quickly steer him in another direction. Still, many of us can’t fathom or understand – why did this happen? Where was God?

And even as a colleague broke me the news of what had happened, I can honestly tell you, I didn’t know. Why? How? O, God, no! Not Chris! I had just seen him, it must be a mistake. And try as I have to comprehend or understand the magnitude of this tragic moment in our life together, I don’t have the answers. I don’t know why. I can only turn to the scriptures for some word of comfort, some light in this dark moment.

You see, as Chris came down the road and fell into the hands of tragedy, some nameless rabbis and Levites passed by and pretended like nothing had happened – self-absorbed and self-involved in such a way as they thought their own lives and schedules were more important to keep, than the terrible accident before them.

And still others: the driver of the car, Washington County’s finest – including Chris’ cousin’s son Dustin, even concerned passersby lent their extraordinary best efforts to support Chris’ badly broken body and to make him comfortable in those critical moments, rushing him to medical help. He received excellent care at Meritus, and when the finality of how extensive his head injuries were came to his family, Chris was transferred to Doey’s House, where before the evening gave way to night, he died – surrounded by his beloved family – the taste of new years pork and sauerkraut still in your mouths, lovingly supported by Pastor David, Pastor Greg, and Pastor Stan, you gave Chris what even death could not rob from him – independence and dignity. As I watched you summon the strength to do that, my heart ached with you, but I was also grateful our friend wasn’t left to languish in some mechanical prison; which for him, would have been the final indignity.

But, ultimately, I can only believe, that the Good Samaritan was with him, too. I believe that when the Lord saw this terrible, tragic accident, God was moved with the same mercy and pity of today’s Gospel. Pastor Chris, a Good Samaritan throughout his life and for us, met his Good Samaritan, our Good Samaritan, the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ, who, on a hard day for all of us who loved Chris, kept a promise he made to our brother when he was baptized long, long ago. “John Christopher, you are mine. Forever.”

Last Tuesday, our Lord gathered Chris in his arms, healed his wounds, released him from his broken body and with a love stronger than death took him to a place where there are many mansions, introduced him to the innkeeper, the Sovereign Creator of all things, and paid his admission, his care, his future, his eternity by his own precious blood.

The only comfort that fills my aching heart with any hope is just this. Chris lives. The scripture says it this way: because Jesus lives, we will live also. Chris lives in the fullness of faith become sight – and he lives on, in us, too.

Tragedy can end in two ways. We can either use it as an excuse to give up on faith, to not care about each other, to pass by the hard moments of life – or we can find strength in knowing Chris wasn’t alone, that with a deep and abiding faith, he knew that God was with him; and be thankful for those, who like him, cared enough to stop and help. Today’s gospel invites us to believe and to be thankful, to, like Chris did throughout his life, go and do likewise, to be neighbor one to another for the sake of this world God so loves.

The scriptures sum it up this way: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. Were it not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And I will come and take you to myself that where I am, you also will be.”

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” – Luke 10:25-37

Reflection, gratitude, and transformation

For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. – Psalm 90:4

This is the homily Bishop Gohl preached for Faith (North Avenue) for Watch Night Service on New Year’s Eve 2018.

On this seventh day of Christmas, as we gather for the turning of the year, the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” resonate deeply: “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” And, this year, we have many hopes and more than a few fears. Many of us wrestle with feelings of despair as we observe the ongoing national political gridlock and the sharp lines of partisanship and posturing in a time of national and planetary crises. We have a deep sense of hopelessness fueled by government policies that reward wealth and punish vulnerability, and wonder when the church, all of us – the very body of Christ alive in the world – will rise to our all-pervasive and unmistakable biblical call to care for the least of these and the stranger in our midst.

And so we gather on this “Watch Night,” not unlike our ancestors did so long ago anticipating the Emancipation Proclamation. Expectancy tempered by reality; longing for a new day still to come, but knowing that tomorrow, not much is likely to have changed. This is the essence of New Year’s – new behaviors and a new vision that mirrors the changing of one year to the next. New Year’s resolutions, even when they last only a few days, hold out the hope of personal transformation; that we can be reinvented and see our lives in a new way. The past and even this present moment need not imprison us; we have freedom in Christ to shape a new future. Behold, God is doing a new thing and so can we! We can love more fully in the year ahead; we can open our hearts to speak words of hope more boldly and frequently.

Following the counsel of a seminary professor many years ago, I would challenge us to think of standing on this New Year’s threshold as a “God moment,” that while celebration is the order of the day, the turning of the year is also an opportunity for reflection, gratitude, and transformation.

Reflecting, we stand on the cusp of a new year listening for a quiet voice of possibility amid the collateral burden of experience; a still small voice, whispering in sighs too deep for words, calling us to new ventures and faith-filled transformation. Where have we been? What have we learned? How are we not the same? What can we build on? What might we leave behind? Big, open-ended questions that have no “right” answer, but shape our commitments for the new year. How do we walk the walk of the talk we talk? The changing of the year gives us new resolve to confess our complicity with injustice, xenophobia, privilege, climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia and consumerism, and so many other macro and microaggressions as contrary to the gospel. Our lives are in Christ, how will we more deeply reflect his justice, mercy, and love?

Gratitude grounds us in faith. It is a confession that God’s life moves through all things. New Year’s is the renewed commitment to choose life, moment by moment, in the tension of a world where death holds too much power in our own and communal lives together. Returning gratitude to God reminds us again that God’s perfect love given us in Jesus Christ casts out all fear, gratitude helps us embrace Christ’s promise of life, abundant life, for us and for the whole creation. Gratitude and appreciation of others open our hearts to a renewed and life-transforming love. Tonight we take stock of what’s been, and with an attitude of gratitude, we approach what it still to come. As Lutheran theologian Dag Hammarksjold counseled: “For all that has been – thanks. For all that shall be – yes!”

And, friends, we are transformed when, as the year changes, we are open to the Spirit, open to growing in wisdom and hope, to becoming large in spirit and renewed in faith, rather than taking sides and giving into the “us and them” dichotomy that drowns our world in this moment in time. That same seminary professor who suggested the turning of the year is also an opportunity for reflection, gratitude, and transformation, was the same teacher who reminded our community that in the turning year, we know that in the midst of change – good, bad and indifferent – we are sustained by the faithfulness of God, a faithfulness captured in the words of a hymn that sustains many of us in trying times: “All I have needed Thy hand has provided, Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!”

And so we gather, on this “Watch Night,” longing for a new day still to come, but knowing that tomorrow not much is likely to have had changed; believing that in Christ, we will be changed to change the world, blessed to bless others, sustained by faith and knowing that in Christ and one another, we are not alone.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands! – Psalm 90, NRSV

2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration

This year as we remember, commemorate, and observe the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the African Descent Lutheran Association Delaware-Maryland Synod Chapter is encouraging members of ELCA congregations to participate in the official day of service. In the past, ADLA has sponsored commemorative programs that focus on worship, learning, and dialogue. These experiences have been uplifting, but most of them involved us gathering in one place, behind closed doors, ministering to ourselves. This year we are following the goals of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, which focuses on us going out into the community to show and live the values within Dr. King’s philosophy of love and non-violent protest.

Here are some resources to help you, your congregation, your ministry or your program consider how to serve on January 21. We encourage all congregations to acknowledge Dr. King’s work and legacy during your regular worship services as well.

Joy

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. –Philippians 4:8

Last Sunday, as we lit the “pink” candle on the Advent wreath, with its call to joy, these encouraging words of St. Paul in writing to the Philippians reverberated in my heart and have served as a “watchword” for this week when the consumer culture of our times seems to speed up even time itself. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

While it’s easy to allow things to spin out of control, there’s a holy pleasure in taking time to do as Paul admonishes: think about these things.

And so, I think about this last year and all the ways your partnership and generosity have made this ministry we share possible:

+ I am renewed by the work of our new mission congregations and those congregations who are discovering a new life in redevelopment, for a God who continues to say “yes” to possibilities and futures filled with hope! From Lauraville to Crisfield, in French, Tamil, Korean, Fars, and Burmese, we are learning to sing a new song!

+ I think about my visits with our Campus Ministries across the territory at College Park, Delaware, Morgan, Towson, and UMBC, where our campus ministers make personal sacrifices that are often unseen for the exercise of our strongest synodical young adult ministry. Lives are being transformed in worship, fellowship, learning and service at a critical young adult milestone.

+ I am reminded of being at Mar-Lu-Ridge, where a life-changing experience is offered to “kids” of all ages. This is truly a “loaves and fishes” ministry, where many small gifts become something great for God and kingdom. On a personal note, it’s my son Andrew’s (age 15) “favorite place on earth” – words that make my heart sing!

+ I think of the congregations of so many sizes where I’ve preached, worshipped and had a glimpse into community this last year. From the 1000+ folks on Easter Sunday at Evangelical (Frederick) to the five people that gathered at Bethel (North East) one early service when I was on route to Delaware, worship was rich, the Gospel was shared and the Sacrament celebrated! Small and large, urban, rural and suburban, there are incredible signs of God working through our congregations to bless the communities we serve, this church that we love and the world which God so loves.

+ I smile as I remember our youth events – large and small – where, frankly, our synod shines brightly with a ministry that is of, for and by our students! RoadTrip, Transformers, FreeRide, High School Leadership Event, and the Advent Family Events – all signs of a gracious and loving God who provides leadership and life for a church that is, and was, and is still to be.

+ I am humbled by the work of the Racial Justice Ministry Team, the Creation Care Ministry, the Hunger Ministry Team, as well the Synodical Women’s Organization and the African Descent Lutheran Association; every last one of whom added light and leaven, challenge and truth, partnership and hope to our common life this last year.

+ I am touched by the work of our Continuing Care Communities in Rockville, Hagerstown, Westminster, Ellicott City and West Baltimore; impressed by the work of Hilltop Lutheran Services and Lutheran Community Services Delaware; cautiously optimistic for the work of our seminary campuses at Gettysburg and Philadelphia; and hopeful for the work of our schools in Fullerton, Laurel, Wilmington, Towson, Charles Village, Middleborough, Westminster, Newark and Annapolis. God’s faithfulness knows no age or experience, there is love for all.

+ I am grateful for the collegiality of my staff colleagues, our deans, Synod Council, and Mission Teams, empowered and blessed to bless this church.

Our synod is supported entirely by the gifts of congregations, ministries, and individuals who believe in these ministries I’ve shared and so many more. As a sign of our partnership and faith, we share 50% of what we receive from our congregations with our churchwide organization making the work of seminaries, missionaries, new starts and congregational vitality possible across this church and world. This Christmas, I invite you to be generous again and to join us in finishing the year (which for us ends on January 31, 2019) with strength and irrepressible hope for what God is doing in this corner of the church and world. Write to me at 575 S Charles Street, Suite 202, Baltimore, MD 21201 – or for impact that will be put to work today, you can donate online right now.

Thank you, dear partner in ministry and fellow follower of Jesus. Your gifts, your time and your talents make a difference, in this time and for eternity. Thanks be to God for the indescribable gift of love in Jesus Christ!

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. –Philippians 4:4-9

Mission Development in Baltimore launches as “Dreams and Visions”

As many of our congregations are celebrating their 100th or 200th anniversary, there are also congregations that are just getting their start in our synod! A Mission Development is a brand new Lutheran community that is just starting to form, with the support of our synod and the ELCA. In time, they may become a full-fledged congregation, and with God’s grace, keep the Church going strong for the next 100 years!

One of our synod’s Mission Developments recently launched. Stewarded by Pastor Emily Scott, this new community in the Lauraville neighborhood of Baltimore grows from the faith and witness of LGBTQ+ folks, and is dedicated to creating a place of wide welcome where congregants might encounter the fullness of God’s love for them. Pastor Scott spent her first six months meeting and talking with neighbors about their spiritual needs, using the hashtag #ImagineAChurch online to spark curiosity.

The first gathering of this community was held in August, with another in September to decide on a name. The newly-formed group gravitated to the name “Dreams and Visions,” based on the Prophet Joel’s promise that God’s spirit will be poured out, not just on a few, but on all people.

While the first two gatherings were held in a cafe and bookstore called The Red Canoe, the group quickly outgrew the venue, so they have migrated to a hall where there’s room for creative worship and for kids to play and run.

Each worship service includes a testimony from a neighbor in Baltimore. So far, a story of trans re-naming has been shared, as well as a testimony from a leader of Baltimore Ceasefire. There is soulful music, deep prayer, an opportunity to creatively respond to the Word, and anointing or communion. Pastor Scott’s deepest desire is to create a place where everyone is reminded that they were made in God’s image, no matter what the world, or the Church, may have told them.

How can you support Dreams and Visions?

  • Pray: include the community in your prayers, or add them to the prayer list at your church
  • Give: give to the Forward in Faith Campaign, which supports new life and health in our synod!
  • Costume: Dreams and Visions is planning a Queer Christmas service – a sacred space for those who have been excluded from the Church to celebrate Christmas. If your church is within a half hour of Baltimore and has pageant costumes that you are not using or are finished with for the season, please contact Pastor Emily. They are looking for costumes in all sizes and in good condition!