by Bishop Bill Gohl
In the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord… – Leviticus 25:4
A sabbatical (from Hebrew: shabbat (שבת) i.e., Sabbath), is a rest or break from work.
The concept of the sabbatical is based on the Biblical practice of shmita, which is related to farming. In Leviticus 25, Jewish persons in the Land of Israel must take a year-long break from working the fields every seven years.
A “sabbatical” has come to mean an extended absence in the career of an individual to fulfill some goal (such as writing a book), learning (or research), rest and renewal. Some colleges, universities and other institutional employers of academics, clergy, and scientists offer the opportunity to qualify for a paid sabbatical as an employee benefit. In the academy, it’s often a semester off from teaching every 3-5 years. Our Delaware-Maryland Synod policy grants the bishop to have a sabbatical of three months after the third year of each term of service.
A less-than-encouraging member of one of our congregations, upon hearing that I would be on sabbatical leave this summer suggested that I was “about as useful as a member of Congress taking such long vacations.” I admit, after having gone fairly hammer and tong for the last three years of this call, I felt a little hurt by such a characterization. I like to think of this time as a “reset” button, allowing me to re-steady myself and the pace I keep for the second half of the term you called me to as bishop of our synod.
The three components of the sabbatical, which runs from today (Arwyn’s and my 13th wedding anniversary) until I return full-time to the office on September 10, are Learning, Rest and Renewal.
In June, I am taking a Spanish language class in hopes of being a more accessible pastor and bishop to our growing and emerging Latinx communities. Mindful that over half of the world’s population is multilingual, I am trying to press out of my “English-only” bias and comfort zone to be a better citizen and, specifically, a more dependable partner in our Building Puentes partnership with the Metro DC and Caribbean Synods. In the last few days of July, I will be a guest of the ELCA Association of Teaching Theologians for their biennial Convocation at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. We will gather under the theme: Unearned Privilege as Cheap Grace. In the first few days of August, I will attend the African Descent Lutheran Association Biennial Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; our theme: Lift EVERY Voice. This time away from my regular duties will be rich times of learning, for which I am grateful.
In most of July, I will be vacationing with my family. Arwyn and me, first. The kids a bit later. No phone, no email, no Facebook – just us. Camping, overnighting, swimming, hiking and just being. About three weeks in all, this will be the longest period of rest that I have had since I became bishop – although as a parish pastor, and as a mentor to new pastors and deacons, I’ve always encouraged folks to take a three-week block of time off every year as part of their vacation plans – it’s hard to disengage and really rest when you dole out vacation days one here, a few there. This time of rest is something my body and my family are asking for, and I am grateful for this gift you offer us all.
It’s no secret that I often describe my episcopal ministry as that of being “a temporarily misassigned parish pastor.” For the sabbatical period of renewal, I have arranged to be the acting pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Newark, Delaware while Pastor Linda Gunderson is in Italy teaching art. For a few days a week, for four weeks (August 11-September 5), I will live in Delaware, preach to the same congregation four times in a row, provide pastoral care, and accompany the staff while their leader is away. I am looking forward to returning to the parish, even briefly, and tending the children and seniors, the leaders and guests of St. Paul’s. I will also use the sabbatical time to be “renewed” as a homeowner – planting a balcony garden, painting our living room, dining room and kitchen, tending to some loose siding that drives me a little crazy, and cleaning out the basement a bit. A time to be renewed as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, as well as in my primary vocation of husband and father, is an amazing gift of grace, and I am grateful for such renewal time, as well.
During this time, I will poke into “work” a bit, too. I will represent our synod as part of our Churchwide Assembly delegation for a week in August; I will return for a day to ordain a new pastor and baptize a pastor’s child; I will keep one preaching engagement for a friend’s anniversary that I committed to long before the sabbatical was scheduled. I will welcome the National Association of Lutheran Interim Pastors on your behalf, speak to the ELCA Mission Developers when they gather on our territory in August, attend a Region 8 bishops gathering, serve as chaplain to the Metro DC Synod Assembly where my friend Bishop Graham’s successor will be called and elected, and preach from a prominent NYC pulpit to honor a friend’s ordination anniversary!
Still, Bishop Claire Burkat, our acting bishop, will keep a busy, if part-time schedule, preaching and offering pastoral oversight and leadership around our synod so that you might experience a different voice in the bishop’s office; the Rev. Dr. Amsalu Geleta, our executive assistant to the bishop, will care for the day-to-day operations of leading our synod, coordinating our colleagues to cover their own work as well as some of my own; and the indefatigable John Auger, Synod Council Vice President, is accompanying this whole enterprise with his partnership, prayers, and leadership. The Delaware-Maryland Synod is in good hands – God’s! And God is capably assisted by these good leaders as well as our staff, deans and Synod Council, too.
My sabbatical goals are not overly ambitious, there is no book or degree forthcoming. These goals are fairly straightforward:
I am hoping to read the entire Pauline corpus of scripture in chronological order so that I can better understand the development of Paul’s thinking about grace, suffering, leadership and diversity. I will renew my commitment to journaling alongside the scriptures – and not just on Facebook!
My spouse’s primary work in this season is as an elementary music teacher, which gives her a good part of the summer off. Our three younger children are on summer break, too. My hope is that we can enjoy this time away from our regular routines together and find ourselves more regularly at the table together, playing together, dreaming together and worshipping together.
I am committed to spending these next months improving my physical health. I began today with a one-mile walk to begin building up strength and stamina, shedding some weight – and readying to wow my doctor at my annual physical in September. These three months of learning, rest and renewal will be less sedentary than crisscrossing our synod in the bishopmobile!
So, pray for me in this journey and know that I will continue to pray for you, and us, and our life together in the Delaware-Maryland Synod! Love, support and pray for Bishop Burkat, Pastor Amsalu, John, Pastor Robin, Pastor Eric, Pastor Bettye, Deacon Julie, Justina, Karen, Cindy, Pat, Sheron, our Deans, and Synod Council, too. May God bring good fruit from this time, in us, for us and through us – for Jesus’ sake.
My love and prayers – and real gratitude too. +Bill Gohl
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. – Leviticus 25:1-5
“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:28a-31
These last few weeks, like many from across our Church, I reached out to the President and our Senators to beg for an intervention staying the order of deportation for Betty Rendón and her husband, Carlos Hincapie. I have been pressed to say something publicly by some in our Delaware-Maryland Synod, but I’ve stayed at the edges and instead, amplified the voices of her own bishop and our presiding bishop to call this Church to pray and act. Some of you know the story, and for others this is new.
In 2004, Betty Rendón and her family fled Colombia’s civil war. Guerrilla soldiers had threatened to kill Rendón at a school where she served as principal. Betty and her family fled to the United States with tourist visas and applied for asylum. Their applications were denied in 2009.
A seminary graduate, and a student beginning her doctoral studies at our seminary in Chicago, Betty and her husband, Carlos, were deported back to Colombia this morning.
No argument, this is our country’s immigration policy at its worst: denying asylum for those who are vulnerable and in danger; and, not ancillary to the conversation, separating families, since Betty and Carlos’ daughter, Paula, is a DACA recipient which means she can no longer leave the country if she wishes to remain in this country.
I have joined our presiding bishop and bishop colleagues in calling for government intervention, policy changes and a stronger commitment to protecting the most vulnerable among us who seek asylum and shelter.
And, of course, I pray – and invite you to pray – for Betty, Carlos, Paula, and all who flee violence and persecution for a better life among this immigrant Church that is our heritage and hope; in this melting pot we call America.
What leaves me most uneasy as Betty and Carlos find themselves en route to Columbia this afternoon, is that while our efforts in these last days have been herculean, loud and sustained; Betty and Carlos were denied asylum in 2009, nearly 10 years ago. In that time, we have benefited from her ministry, we have been richer for their family being a part of our family, and we collectively failed to act sooner. We had 10 years to accompany this family through a process to appeal the denial of asylum and appeal the order of deportation, and we’re licking our wounds that we lost that fight when we took it up – and out to the church – in earnest, in these last few weeks.
Our ELCA social message on immigration says: “Our advocacy needs to take into account the complexity of issues, the diversity of interests, and the partial or relative justice of laws at the same time that it counters appeals rooted in hostility, racism, prejudice, indifference, and simplistic solutions. We draw on the best of our nation’s traditions as a refuge and haven for the persecuted and destitute when we affirm that we support a generous policy of welcome for refugees and immigrants, and that we will advocate for just immigration policies, including fairness in visa regulations and in admitting and protecting refugees. We will work for policies that cause neither undue repercussions within immigrant communities nor bias against them.” Ultimately reminding us that Jesus is present in the immigrant sibling, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Admittedly, I don’t know Betty Rendón, and I wasn’t aware of her circumstances until these last days; still, I do know plenty of other Bettys and Carloses whose citizenship status is best described as fragile. I recognize in today’s deportations not as much a failure of our government, but my own complicity in not acting sooner and advising urgency for the Bettys and Carloses in our Delaware-Maryland Synod community and in my aegis and care. Indeed, Luther suggests, “How do we know that the love of God dwells in us? If we take upon ourselves the need of the neighbor.”
Immigration is complex. It is charged with emotion. It has become increasingly partisan. It can be extremely divisive. Still, it cannot be ignored. And so, licking our wounds, we gather ourselves again. We recommit to the work of advocacy. We support the work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. We speak out in the public square and at the ballot box. We give clear witness to the heart of God in Jesus Christ for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the least of these, our sisters and brothers.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. – Mark 12:28-34
by Bishop Bill Gohl
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” –John 11:25-26
Bishop Gohl preached for the funeral of the Rev. Robert William Moore, a beloved interim pastor who served a number of Delaware-Maryland Synod, ELCA congregations; and who made his congregational home with the people of First (Ellicott City), where his children and grandchildren are active in the life of that community.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Dear Bishop Gohl,” a former council president wrote me this last week, “Our congregation was so saddened to hear of the passing of Pastor Moore. He was the embodiment of not being defined by difficult circumstances or defined by one’s disease or diagnosis, he didn’t die from cancer – he lived with it, and he lived well. He was a quirky character, a friend to all who knew him and an inspiring preacher. He will definitely be missed, but he leaves so much of his own faith for all of us. In Pastor Moore though his candor about his own failings and foibles, we learned a bit about grace which was as real for him as he wanted it to be for each of us.”
This is the Robert Moore I knew. With a quiet strength, he was there at all of the right moments; when a congregation was experiencing the difficult reckoning with transition and loss. 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, 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, Robert discovered a “second life” that was defined by his passion for interim ministry; his irrepressible hope that he would – and did – beat the odds around pancreatic cancer; his love of music – really good music; his pride in his children and the delight he knew as a grandfather. Even in the last few months, he would reflect on the unexpected joy of sitting with his family in the pews, worshipping together here at First.
Now, don’t let me ramble and re-remember Robert, either! He was a memorable character, too. As an interim, he was known to gently, but firmly, set more than one of us straight, more than once! And if we dared to “talk back,” one of his attack mini-dachshunds would bark us out of the pastor’s study, gently reminding him and us that they were large and in charge over Robert’s life – and, sometimes ours, too. In fact, the first time I met Robert was when he was serving as interim pastor of Zion in the Middletown Valley. I was serving on the staff of our then-bishop, Jerry Knoche, and was dispatched – at the ripe age of 28 – to counsel with this experienced and gifted pastor to talk through some of the impasses he was experiencing in this vibrant, but challenging congregation that was still reeling over the retirement of their beloved and dynamic long-time pastor. He received me with no blink as to my age and experience, offered me collegiality and friendship – which endured even until these last days; he plotted and planned with me, and tried not to be too horrified when his then-rescue dachshund, misnamed Sweet Pea, bit me when I deigned to try to pet her in his office!
Robert was a good pastor, a devotee of fine music (particularly organ music), and fascinated by classic cars – especially Studebakers. 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, though he had pretty snarky eye-rolls; and he exuded a 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 was done to support him in the long health journey he lived among us. In his life and, especially his ministry, 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.
Last week, our Lord gathered Robert into his arms, healed his soul, released him from a body that betrayed him, and with a love stronger than death welcomed him into the fullness of life with God, and paid his admission, his care, his future, his eternity by his own precious blood. Jesus kept a promise he made to our brother when he was baptized long, long ago. Robert William, you are mine. Forever.
I stand before you as one who shares your grief. Though he outlived every prognosis of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I realized when I visited with Robert on Easter afternoon that he was celebrating his last Easter among us, and in fact, he would soon know Easter forever. The only comfort that fills my heart with any hope, as it aches over the death of our friend, is just this. Robert lives. Robert lives in the fullness of faith become sight – and he lives on, in us, too.
The scriptures sum it up this way: I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Indeed, because Jesus lives, Robert lives – and so shall we, too. Amen.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” –John 11:21-27
by Bishop Bill Gohl
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. –I Corinthians 15:55-58
The Rev. Dr. John S. Damm (1926-2019), Pastor Emeritus of St. Peter’s (NYC) and one-time Dean and Professor at Concordia (St. Louis), then Seminex, died over the weekend. As a teenager, I would occasionally go to St. Peter’s; his preaching was always thoughtful, liberally spiked with Luther quotations, and rich with sacramental theology.
When I was in seminary and studied modern Lutheran Church history, I came to know him anew in his pivotal role in Seminex, which provided so much leaven for the formation of the ELCA. He was a churchperson of the highest water; his spiritual heirs have big shoes to fill and a well-lived path of discipleship to follow.
May the good Father John, a renewer of the church, rest in peace and rise in glory. Thanks be to God, indeed.
From his own preaching:
“St. Paul said to the Corinthians, ‘This perishable body must put on imperishability, and the mortal body must put on immortality.’ Let me assure you I’m prepared for that blessed exchange. And that preparation has been going on since the day I made my first Holy Communion in 1939. And it has continued regularly since. For I believe that in every celebration of the Mass, Christ gives me his precious body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. And as Luther continuously assures me, ‘Where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is eternal life.’
“That’s why for most ancient times, the church called the blessed sacrament, ‘the medicine of immortality.’
“So, until death completes my mortal journey, I assure you I shall wait with peace and hope for the full and complete unfolding of that gift of eternal life that was given to me in my baptism. And when that day occurs, I assure you that I shall join St. Paul and shout with whatever voice I have left, ‘thanks be to God, who gives me the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Amen. Amen. Amen.”
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. –I Corinthians 15:50-58
by Bishop Bill Gohl
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. – Isaiah 43:2-3
I spent this last week in the Caribbean Synod as part of the ongoing work of our Building Puentes Initiative, in partnership with that synod, the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod and our Delaware-Maryland Synod. I had the opportunity to dive deeply into the ongoing recovery efforts of the islands, churches, and residents; to see the impact that your financial partnership and sweat-equity is making in the life of the Caribbean Synod, across Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
But, friends, there’s still a long way to go…
The church where I preached on Sunday, Principe de Paz, still has a tarp covering part of its roof and just in the last two weeks was able to repair a significant hole in the roof over the baptismal font.
By El Yunque National Forest, there are homes that were completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria, still sitting like broken erector sets in heaps, between restored homes.
Some of our ELCA pastor colleagues in the Caribbean Synod do not have habitable homes, and among those who do, there are still some without working kitchen appliances – for two years.
There are high water marks from the storm on some buildings even while others are restored.
There are traffic signals that have not worked in two years.
Even in downtown Old San Juan, the tourist center of Puerto Rico, there are still intermittent power outages because the infrastructure has not been restored (it happed to me on an elevator).
Congregations across the synod are experiencing the devastating loss of families who evacuated to the mainland – and didn’t return; buildings that are still in disrepair and pastors working for well-below-poverty-level pay.
Congress is back in session seeking to reach an agreement on new disaster relief funds for Puerto Rico and other jurisdictions hit by recent natural disasters. Since the new year, the Senate has failed to agree on the House-passed disaster relief bill in mid-January. The implications of this impasse are huge, tangible and easily seen when you visit. On a much larger scale, it reminds me of the garbage piles that collect on the National Mall when there is a government shut-down; only for these siblings in Christ, it’s been two years of burdens collecting with very little sense of hopeful resolution in sight.
The next stages of Building Puentes will be to continue our support and accompaniment of the rostered ministers of the Caribbean Synod and to learn from their ministry and experiences; to continue our work trip partnerships (which are completely oversubscribed for this summer); and next, to match congregations in the Caribbean Synod with counterparts in Metropolitan Washington, D.C. and Delaware-Maryland to forge partnerships, leverage cultural differences for deeper relationships with Christ and the Church, and build real bridges of understanding among us.
It was a privilege to represent our Delaware-Maryland Synod in the Caribbean Synod last week. I am committed to seeing us grow into the fullness of these partnerships and advocating for our siblings whose suffering is hidden, and largely forgotten. I saw the risen Christ, sometimes even in his wounds, among a resilient and hopeful people. I was strengthened in my faith, even when overwhelming doubts threatened to overtake me.
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” – Isaiah 43:1-7
To the dear ones who are experiencing their first, or fifth or twenty-fifth Easter missing beloved parents, spouses, children, friends and family, to those who are experiencing the loss of work or security, who know the grief of which the scripture speaks today, it is no idle tale, the stone is rolled away, Jesus is risen and you will rise, too.
To the dear ones whose spouses have not kept their promises, even as you have kept yours; whose children or grandchildren are far off, whose relationships have been less than what you hoped for, prayed for or expected, it is no idle tale, the stone is rolled away, Jesus is risen and you will rise, too.
To the dear ones who are burdened by stress at work, stress at home, debt, addiction, bad decisions, whose bodies betray them – or who watch sadly as a loved one’s body runs down and out, it is no idle tale, the stone is rolled away, Jesus is risen and you will rise, too.
To the dear ones who have experienced casual prejudice, overt racism, the trauma of sexual assault and abuse, whose love has been run down with loose words and cheap criticism; to those who have been hurt by the church, it is no idle tale, the stone is rolled away, Jesus is risen and you will rise, too.
Easter is the healing promise, the hope that God gives. Let Easter be about resurrection from the burdens that we bear and the struggles that threaten to overcome us. Whatever it is that is challenging your faith in our eternal, living and life-changing God – hear this good news, it is no idle tale, the stone is rolled away, Jesus is risen and you will rise, too.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened. –Luke 24:1-12