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That Our Ministry May Be Remembered: Lord of Life, Edgewood

On Sunday, January 20, 2019, Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Edgewood celebrated Word and Sacrament for the last time as a community of faith. I preached for the occasion and Art Steumpfle, a long-time member of the congregation, composed this history from which the I referenced in my sermon. +bg

Earthly life is synonymous with change. All of life events have a beginning and an end and that now includes Lord of Life Lutheran Church. For more than 45 years our congregation of believers has been a witness of Christ’s love in our community as we worshipped God, grew in faith and reached out to others with the love of Jesus Christ. Memories are created when one participates in an activity or event and experiences the occasion. It is too late to wish you had done something rather than to have actually participated at the time. To be alive in a church is to be involved in the life of the congregation. The life of a congregation is a multi-faceted series of events involving all age groups at one time or another. There are many memories that come to mind because we were a vibrant congregation for many years thanks to the leadership and guidance of our pastors, lay personnel, parishioners and community. I hope you are able to remember some of these functions and were active in some or all of them. There are likely others not mentioned here but these readily come to mind.

Worship God: November 21, 1971- First worship services conducted by the Rev. Henry E. Schaefer Jr. in the old American Legion Post #17 hall with Jan Hasselbusch playing sticky piano keys while pinball machine game sounds sometimes echoed from the backroom; February 11, 1973- Charter and organization of Lord of Life congregation formally signed; 1978-transitioned to Lion’s Club building with the restroom in the center of our worship area and using Army Field portable organ for music; November, 1980-marching to our new church building on Sequoia Drive for first worship services; 8:00 am and 10:30 am traditional worship services; Contemporary worship service and music; Weddings, Baptisms, First Communions, confirmations and funerals; Christmas Eve early and candlelight services with choirs and instrumental orchestra accompaniment; Lenten soup suppers and worship services; Sunrise Easter worship services at Flying Point Park and celebration that God’s Son (Jesus) has been raised; Outdoor tent revival worship services; Interdenominational worship services participation; Inspirational sermons by ministers and lay personnel.

Grow in Faith: Sunday Church School for all ages; Word and Witness Program; Caring Evangelism special instructional series; The Bible’s Big Picture instructional series; Season of Lent witness play performances; Individual temple talks of Faith; Vacation Bible School programs; Daytime Bible studies; Passover Seder meals and worship; Small group gatherings and discussions; Bring a Friend Month; Home visits; Confirmation classes; Pre-wedding classes; Attending Youth Group Conventions; Mar-Lu-Ridge retreats; Church music background studies (e.g., Hallelujah Chorus); Inspirational Part Two Dance group presentations; Preparation of Boy Scouts Prayer Garden; Prayer and Faith literature and brochures.

Reach Out to Others: Spring Fest; Fall Fest; Sharing Table; Food Pantry; Cookie Patrol; Vegetable garden; Habitat for Humanity participation; Quilting Group for Lutheran World Wide Relief; Lutheran Mission Support; Prison visitations; Financial support for St. Dysmas prison ministry; Harford County Hope for Homeless Alliance Emergency Winter Shelter; Providing school supplies for Edgewood elementary and middle schools; Youth Group Fundraising and child sponsorship; Road Sign displays; Facility use and meeting place for AA, NA and Girl Scouts and special occasions; Christmas families sponsorship; After-school programs and tutoring; Visitation and communion to shut-ins; Disaster Relief funding support; Community choir organization and support; Visitor information packets; Neighborhood invitations and new resident mailings.

Congregational Support and Church Family Social Engagements: Adult Group; Youth Group; Pot luck dinners; pancake breakfasts; church picnics; softball games; pool parties; crab feasts; Family News periodic updates; Publishing LifeLine Newsletter; spaghetti dinners; camping; boating excursions; Shrimp & Game night; Skittleball competitions; Road Kill café ice cream outings; White-water rafting; Mortgage Reduction campaigns; Pony Express Funding Campaign; Top Hat barbershop chorus; Church Mouse Craft Show; Youth group script writing and puppet shows; Setting out luminaries before Christmas Eve services; Christmas parties; Church Anniversary celebrations; Dress-up Halloween parties; Travel Slideshows and talks; Bowling outings and pizza parties; Progressive dinners; Cookouts; Edgewood-Joppa 4th of July Parade floats and participation; Youth Group ‘sleepovers’ and all night rocking chair activity; Youth Group Olympics games; retirement or transferring ceremonies for pastors.

So many memories, so many friendships that were formed in faith. The life of our church centered on its people and the willingness to serve our Lord!  We pray that everyone finds peace and continues to receive the many blessings from Christ as we go forth to a new era in God’s world.

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


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

What then shall we do?

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” -Luke 3:7

The crowd was largely the poor, the powerless and those living in the margins. Surely there were some who were rich, powerful or influential – but they were likely far and few between, and of course there were some of the religious authorities on the edges, paying close attention to this itinerant preacher, this Levite gone rogue, gathering their testimony against him.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

In such a time, when the empire was in a place of unchallenged power, what bound this crowd together was unfettered fear. And into this scene comes John with his accusation of being vipers, demanding to know who warned them to flee the wrath that was still to come.

It’s a germane question in this day, too. Those most in the margins of our society – the poor and the powerless – are scrambling over rapidly diminishing resources. There is less and less certainty about the future and the ability to keep up with the many strata of society that are in constant flux. Washington is in legislative gridlock. Every intersection, in some communities, has become a place of hustle and solicitation. Last night it was 19 degrees in Baltimore and the steps of the church I belong to had at least three people who slept there, sheltered by a small porch.

And so, like Luke’s telling, there were in John’s “congregation,” the poor, powerless and marginalized, but not all of them; some were also rich, powerful and influential – a crowd not unlike those of us who gather in Any Church, USA, too.

“What then shall we do?”

This Sunday, in many of our homes and congregations, we will light the third candle on the Advent wreath. It is a visible way of marking time on our Advent journey; it’s a tangible sign of God’s light breaking into the gloom and doom of our unjust and cruel world through the birth of Jesus Christ – and in the hopeful promise of the Christ, who will come again. When I was growing up, that third candle was pink – or in the liturgical color code, “rose.” It was the Sunday that marked a turn from the endtimes to the incarnation, it was the Sunday of “joy.”

That tradition, which is a vestige of an older lectionary – the appointed scripture readings that many Lutherans follow ecumenically with other Catholic and reformed churches – works especially well this year with our second reading from Philippians:

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. –Philippians 4:4-7 (NRSV)

So many of us are embroiled in the work of “making joy” for our loved ones and others in this season of preparation. We are leaning into this admonition to “rejoice” – trying to talk ourselves down from worrying about those things done and left undone, as our personal worlds seem to be spiraling out of control towards December 25.

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor. Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945 having been convicted for “activities against the state.” He narrowly escaped execution. After his imprisonment, he expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis. He turned away from his earlier nationalistic beliefs and was one of the initiators of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. He is best known for his widely-quoted sermon, said to have been said like this:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Of course, he spoke these words 20 years after his silence in the face of atrocity.

And so, with John’s courage and renewed starch in our own backbones, we speak up and we speak out – with and for the vulnerable and marginalized. The time for silence is long past, the mechanizations of oppression are continuing to crush the nameless and faceless neighbor in need.

That is not to say there isn’t danger; let’s not hide the reality of wrath still to come. There was certainly such danger and wrath for the crowds who came out to hear John; there was for Niemöller and the average citizen of Germany in the midst of the rise of the Nazi party, and there surely is danger – social, political, relational danger for us, too.

As people of faith, we beat the drum of justice, we sacrifice of ourselves for mercy. At least that’s what John presses. His familiar figure cuts into our Advent experience pointing to the humility of a child laying in an animal’s feeding trough, the child of parents who embody, even two thousand years later, what it means to be poor and powerless, living in the margins; he will spend his own all-too-short life making a way in the hearts of many for a betrayed, condemned and crucified “criminal” who called and calls us to our best selves, sharing of our abundance and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

In such a time as this, when empire is in a place of unchallenged power, when the poor, powerless and marginalized, as well as the rich, powerful and influential gather around John’s reminder to do as Jesus does, Paul attaches the beautiful promise of our second reading to encourage and bless us as we travel together this challenging Advent journey: The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. -Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)

Hope in a new season

“From the fig tree learn its lesson…” – Mark 13:28

The world becomes more and more urgent to bring about a cultural advent sooner and sooner each year, replete with store displays after back-to-school, and round-the-clock music on the radio before Thanksgiving, all trying to convince us that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas; this is one of those liturgical “leap years” where we are in deep opposition to the world. With the Feast of Christ the King falling the Sunday after Thanksgiving, as the world races toward Christmas, the Church is jamming on the parking brake and waiting for December to begin our community’s journey toward the manger. One pastor friend was telling me that she came into church last Sunday to see the whole place decked out in blue, greens in place, Advent wreath at the ready to light – and when questioning the kind altar guild member as to why, the dear member said, “My grandkids always help me set up the Advent wreath the Saturday after Thanksgiving, don’t they?!”

Still, even with our schizo-Advent-phrenia, these Christ the King “leap years,” there is one thing that doesn’t change – and that is World AIDS Day falling on December 1. I don’t know the history or significance of it being on this day, but since 1988, this is when communities around the world stop and take stock of the state of HIV/AIDS, remember our blessed dead and resolve anew to fight alongside the living.

World AIDS Day is quintessentially Advent, with those Advent themes of preparation and expectation, we are reminded that we are a world and we are a church who is forever changed by the AIDS pandemic. Respectfully, and irrepressibly hopeful for a cure, World AIDS Day has deepened my own commitment to the necessity of the Advent season and has shaped how I preach, teach and cultivate a sense of waiting, expectation, preparation, and hopefulness.

The Gospel reading speaks to a both/and experience of Advent and World AIDS Day, of Christ and community, of longing for Christ’s return and the expectation of a cure: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”

George Evans, once pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in McLean, Virginia, was to have said at the funeral for one of his parishioner’s spouses, who had died from HIV/AIDS complications: “I am, at my heart, a fundamentalist; and fundamentally the church needs to do a better job of loving.” In essence, he was gently and firmly chastising the Church and, perhaps his own congregation, to do a better job of accompanying, loving and caring after those who experience HIV/AIDS in life, not just at their death; to be a part of redeeming the social death that HIV/AIDS was exacting on great swaths of the community, not contributing to it with our own fears and actions, even in public worship; to name and claim countless men and women who experience HIV/AIDS as our own, even as they are beloved children of God. It was a message that I’ve taken to my own heart since I heard him share it over 25 years ago. Cork, Ireland-born Mary “Mother” Jones coined a phrase that says it well: “Remember the dead, fight like hell with [for] the living.” From the fig tree learn its lesson…

On Friday, I paid a small tribute to George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, as the nation gives tribute for his life and service and mourns his passing. I said a word of personal gratitude for his example of civility and bipartisan leadership in a time when such things are but quaint memories. Often named “the last moderate Republican president,” it’s easy to long for the brand of politics he championed throughout his career; still, like all of us who are saint and sinner, the elder President Bush did not rise to leadership at the onset of the AIDS crisis. As Vice President, he did not wade into the fray when AIDS burst on the scene and some were content to allow “Gay Cancer” to affect its due course of “natural selection.” Moreover, as President, he never gave significant national leadership to claiming a world leadership position for the United States in the fight for a cure. Some attribute that to him being a “man of his times,” or having been limited by his own experiences and understandings. Nevertheless, his lack of leadership is one of the reasons we gathered at St. Mark’s in Baltimore on World AIDS Day, one of the reasons why the timeline for finding a cure has been so protracted and the social death exacted on those who have and are living with HIV/AIDS has been so cruel and devastating. For as much as I am grateful for his example, we cannot hyper-mythologize the man and forget the failures of his life and times, too.

And lest, Church, we look down our noses at President Bush, we are not without blood on our hands. We gathered at St. Mark’s Church, which for many years we were content to call “the Gay Church,” and rarely before recent times had we accompanied this congregation on its journey to care for and accompany people living with HIV/AIDS over a generation. In fact, we concluded our service at the Memorial Shrine in the Narthex, reminding us week by week that this congregation was decimated by the AIDS crisis and calling to mind the countless friends who hallowed this place by their worship even as they were fully received into the death and resurrection of Christ in baptism, and prematurely in death. Even as we have become more “enlightened” with our processes of becoming Reconciling in Christ, the community gathered at St. Mark’s was walking the walk and talking the talk long before any other congregation had the moral courage or fortitude to begin the conversation; in an ironic twist, the proliferation of RIC congregations in the metro area has, to a certain extent, added to the decimation of this St. Mark’s community; a former bishop of our Delaware-Maryland Synod observing, “it’s no longer niche enough to be a congregation that welcomes gay people.” Yikes! Saint and sinner, both/and – from the fig tree learn its lesson…

Many around us will tell us what season we are in. Some say it is the end times, some have been saying that for 2000 years. Some will say that it is time to celebrate Christmas. Others say it is time to observe a holy season of preparation in our hearts and world for the reign of Christ. On World AIDS Day, the message of Christ’s redemptive power and presence in the world can instruct us how to be people of Advent, people who are about to receive once more the powerful promise of Emmanuel, God with us.

In this season of expectation, we await Jesus’ powerful ability to unite the children of God from all four corners of the world. And in that vision, may we stand with those who hope for one more season of life and a new season where HIV/AIDS will be no more.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” – Mark 13:24-31

The inaugural ELCA Young Adult Discernment Retreat

My name is Adam Fairchild, and I am a student at the University of Maryland. I recently had the opportunity to travel to Tallapoosa, Georgia for the first-ever ELCA Young Adult Discernment Retreat. This retreat was attended by 50 young adults and representatives of ELCA Seminaries and other service programs like Young Adults in Global Mission, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and Urban Servant Corp.

This event was organized by Savanna Sullivan, Program Director for ELCA Young Adult Ministries and Matthew O’Rear, from Wartburg Theological Seminary. While in Tallapoosa, we gathered under the theme of, “Why Me, Why This, Why Now,” and discussed discernment of our senses of vocational call. Among the attendees, there were individuals discerning calls to ministry in the church and those discerning calls to other fields of work.

At the retreat, we spent time in large group sessions, including a Q&A with Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. We also spent time in small group discussions, led by current students of ELCA seminaries. In our small groups, we talked about the intersections of our identities, gifts, and values to create personal mission statements and identify our “next most-faithful step” in ongoing personal discernment. There was also plenty of time available for us to talk individually with others about the questions, decisions, and stresses we were bringing into the weekend. I went into this retreat knowing that I feel a call to ordained ministry, but I had questions about different graduate schools, service year programs, and other aspects of professional life. Throughout the weekend, I determined my next most-faithful steps in personal discernment to be planning visits to seminaries and divinity schools and reflecting on my sense of call through conversation with family, friends, and mentors.

I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to attend the ELCA Young Adult Discernment Retreat earlier this month. It was incredible to meet and talk to other college students who are also discerning their vocational callings and to learn from other young adults about their stories and post-college experiences. It is not every day that I can talk for hours with other young adults about vocational call and discernment. While 50 of us gathered in Tallapoosa at the ELCA Young Adult Discernment Retreat, there are hundreds of other young adults in the ELCA who are eager to have similar opportunities to come together as a community to reflect on where they feel God calling them and how they can respond to those feelings of call. I look forward to continuing discernment of my next most-faithful steps and to future gatherings of young adults across the ELCA.

Opportunity for thanks-giving

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. – Luke 17:15

When I was serving as a pastor at Epiphany in Baltimore, Thanksgiving morning was always one of my favorite liturgies of the year. The church was beautiful with flowers and gifts of the harvest, the hymnody was rich with its images of praise and thanks-giving, and it was a well-attended liturgy not out of a sense of obligation, but out of joyful and thankful hearts.

No one “had” to be there Thanksgiving morning (well, except the choir, ushers and altar guild!). I’m sure a lot of people have other things to do — trips to make, turkeys to stuff, tables to set. Somewhere, there’s a football game waiting to be watched and a Macy’s parade to experience. In the middle of all that, going to worship isn’t required; there’s no “obligation” like Christmas or Easter, or Sundays for that matter! Rather, it was an opportunity.

An opportunity to think back on what we have been given and to give something in return: thanks, and even more so gratitude; to honor, with grateful hearts, what God has done for us. And in thankfulness, we discover, a measure of faith. A measure of our dependence on God, and of our own humility.

The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.”

Pray those words, and make them matter. Most of us know someone who is having a difficult time this Thanksgiving. The one who is spending their first holiday without their beloved. The parent who lost a job and is worried about where Christmas gifts will come for the children. Friends and neighbors who are sick, sorrowing or alone.

So taking a cue from Meister Eckhart, let’s make this something more than a holiday, more than an excuse to have a second slice of pie, take a long nap in front of the TV or prepare to shop until we drop. Make Thanksgiving Day a kind of prayer. Don’t simply pray grace over a turkey, recognize that in your abundance and in your want, you are gift God has given to be shared with others. God has given us life; extravagant, wonderful, painful, tumultuous, challenging lives meant to be spent and shared with others. Be reminded of God’s blessings, wherever you find them, however they come; and give thanks in worship, in fellowship and service.

Thanksgiving is a day of opportunity, not obligation; worshipping God with thanksgiving and gratitude, serving Christ and our neighbor.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” – Luke 17:11-19

2018 Youth Leadership Summit

At the beginning of November, the ELCA hosted the annual Youth Leadership Summit at Carol Joy Holling Camp in Ashland, Nebraska. Each synod is able to send two youth and one adult advisor, funded by a special grant that covers the costs of the program. The Delaware-Maryland Synod was represented well by Matthew Fairchild, the Lutheran Youth Organization Overall Leader Among Leaders; Deborah Tadesse, member of the LYO Small Groups Team; and Colleen Carpenter-Gonia, one of the LYO Worship Team mentors. Today, I yield my blog post to Deborah and Matthew to share about their experiences at the Summit.

From Deborah:

No words can begin to express my attitude towards this event. Nonetheless, I’ll try. I felt a great altitude of comfort. Comfort in knowing that every soul there came, as a call sent by God. It was by his grace that I met the most wonderful people I could’ve ever known to imagine. I was surrounded by mounds of love, passion, and excitement. As I sat and looked around, I knew that there was a person there who was going to become an activist, someone who was going to be an astronaut, a teacher, a preacher, a president, a musician! I was surrounded by all of the people who were going to change the world. Who are changing the world. I feel this strong urge to become nicer, stand taller and be excited. I really hope that I never get off of this high.

As for attending with both Colleen and Matthew, it was genuinely an amazing time. They both have remarkable leadership skills. We started the travel to the summit with a bit of awkwardness, but by the end of the trip, we were laughing together. Those two are true superheroes and I’m so lucky to have experienced all of this with them.

From Matthew:

My name is Matthew Fairchild and I am an active member of Grace Lutheran Church in Westminster, Maryland. This year, I have the honor of serving as the Overall Leader Among Leaders in the Lutheran Youth Organization of our synod. Earlier this month, I traveled with Deborah Tadesse and Colleen Carpenter-Gonia to represent the Delaware-Maryland Synod at the ELCA Youth Leadership Summit at Camp Carol Joy Holling just outside of Omaha, Nebraska. The Summit’s theme was, “Through Christ, we can,” and programming was centered upon practicing effective advocacy and learning how to best accompany others. I specifically learned about advocating for racial justice in a workshop led by Nicolette Faison and about the ELCA’s AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation, and Opportunities) task force in a separate workshop led by Alaide Vilchis Ibarra.

Aside from the programming, I enjoyed connecting with other leaders of the church and learning about what youth ministry looks like in other synods. One of my biggest takeaways from the event was just how blessed high schoolers in the Delaware-Maryland Synod are to have such an expansive, developed youth program. After talking with high school students from synods around the country, I have a much fuller appreciation for how unique the opportunities for youth leadership are in Delaware and Maryland. Every person who learned about what our synod is doing with youth through retreats and the LYO was blown away, and several expressed interest in developing similar youth leadership programs in their home synods. The Summit helped me to learn about what resources are available in terms of advocacy and leadership development through the broader ELCA. I really appreciate having had the opportunity to attend this event and look forward to sharing with others what I have learned.

Election Day Redux

“The state and the religious conscience are not good bedfellows. The bed is too narrow and the blanket too short!” –Martin Luther, as quoted by Dr. Eric Gritsch

“Worldly authority cannot force us to believe, it can only outwardly prevent people from being led astray by false teachings – else how could we oppose the heretics? Answer: That is the task of the bishops, to whom this task has been delegated, and is not within the sphere of the princes. Heresy cannot, after all, be opposed with violence: it must be differently handled, for this battle and striving may not be met with the sword.” –Martin Luther, On Worldly Authority

“Love your neighbor, as yourself.” –Jesus, Mark 12:31

Today is Election Day in a very polarized country and after another bruising election cycle. These words of Jesus and Luther echo in my head as I approach my civic duty to cast my own ballot. Since I turned 18, I’ve not ever missed the opportunity to exercise this right and duty, reminded often by my late grandfather, “I fought in World War II to protect that right!”

I would dare say that there has been much prayer surrounding the outcome of today’s elections, from the top of the ticket down the ballot to the most humble of public service. A pastor friend from CPE, Beth Jonas, exercised right judgment, in my mind, when she called her congregation to be in prayerful vigil for this day and the days to come. They have gathered each week since the conventions for prayer, and have prayer partners who are blanketing each hour of the day with prayer for all the candidates and the unity of our common life as Americans.

Prayer is a right posture to approach the weightiness of this day; prayer that honors our relationship with God. Our prayer is not about manipulating or coercing God to make the world as we believe it should be, it’s “an exercise in bending our will to the shape of God’s coming kingdom,” admonished my colleague, Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, ELCA. “Thy will be done,” we pray, “on earth as it is in heaven” kind of prayer.

Two years ago as we were in the throes of the presidential election cycle, our own Virgil Cain, pastor of Trinity, Smithsburg, put out a wide call to prayer on Facebook (you can also see that post on my Facebook page, I shared it). Pastor Cain concluded, “[Prayers are] not partisan. They are an attempt to help us recognize that we can only move forward with God’s help, and with the grace and wisdom that only the Holy Spirit can bring. May God watch over our nation, guide us in this election, and help us to begin healing the wounds the election has inflicted.”

Perhaps the most weighty counsel I have carried into this day came from Pastor Chuck Erzkus, then at Christ, LaVale. In his post-Presidential election newsletter article, he reminded his congregation that our unity as the church is in Christ, and that doesn’t change today, tomorrow or ever.

So, sisters and brothers all, vote your conscience today. Be neighbor to one another  – after this last year, we can see that there is a lot of work to do, and a lot of healing needed to address what being neighbor means. And tomorrow, let us begin the churchly work of rebuilding community, nation, and world – for Jesus’ sake.

Lord God, you call your people to honor those in authority. Help us elect trustworthy leaders, participate in wise decisions for our common life, and serve our neighbors in community. Bless the leaders of our land, that we may be at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. –Prayer for the Nation, ELW p. 77.

This is a revision of my Blog post of November 8, 2016