The Rev. Robert Moore, remembered

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

In memory of Pastor John Damm

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

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you

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

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

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

We weep, we work, we rise

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. -Galatians 6:10

This photo and the title of this blog post come from The Church of the Nativity and Holy Comforter in Baltimore, Maryland.

Like many of you, I was horrified by the experience of watching the fire that consumed the roof and spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in France. So fast and swift was the news carried across social media, I became overwhelmed by the same devastating images again and again.

The armchair quarter-backing was just as fast, some suggesting that this catastrophe was a metaphor for the collapse of Christianity in Western culture. As one who visited Notre Dame on more than one occasion, I found that an unhelpful conclusion to have drawn, as that parish community is vital, diverse and engaged. Daniel Collins, one of our seminarians at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, said it well: “Notre Dame Cathedral parish was one of the most diverse that I have ever attended, hearing confessions in several world languages, their priests from diverse and multiethnic backgrounds, with active advocacy and ministry for immigrants and the poor. As a symbol for the French in general, who are now by and large a multiethnic people, Notre Dame had long ceased to be a symbol of White French Catholic supremacy (as it was during the Reformation) into a model for multicultural, ecumenical, and interfaith engagement.”

The day after, we know that Notre Dame will be rebuilt and that, already, $350M has been committed to the reconstruction. With the irrepressible song of the French faithful still ringing out in Paris, Good Friday gives way to Easter, again.

Still, while the world’s eye is turned toward Paris, I join those who remind us that, while not iconic as Notre Dame, three historically black churches have burned in less than two weeks in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, where officials have charged the son of a sheriff with hate crimes in the intentional settings of these fires (if you would like to help support these churches as they rebuild, you can do so through this GoFundMe campaign). In each of these cases, while not nearly as expansive of a global ministry, each of these congregations are a vital part of the fabric of the communities they serve, and each one a devastation for its parishioners, neighbors, and friends. The FBI reports that racially-based crimes are up for the third year in a row, and my sense is that while these kinds of crimes against communities of color was newsworthy a few years ago, we are becoming increasingly numb to these realities, and are accepting such overtly racist activity as part of the normative fabric of our American experience.

And, even while Notre Dame was burning, Al-Aqsa Mosque, a faith community closely linked to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict in Jerusalem, was on fire, too. While there was no evidence of any link between the two fires, Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam and its desecration is a devastating blow to the world Muslim community.

I don’t wish to rob us of our collective mourning around the fire at Notre Dame, but to be reminded that every time a church, synagogue or mosque burns – accidentally, or, compounding the trauma, intentionally – it is just as devastating to the community it serves and it is a loss to the whole of this world that God so loves.

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. –Galatians 6:9-10

I thirst for justice, I hunger for hope

Oops! The E-Letter sent on April 16, 2019 linked to this blog post instead of the correct one. To read Bishop Gohl’s blog for April 16, click here.

by Bishop Bill Gohl

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! – Lamentations 1:1a

NB: There are occasions when I speak on behalf of the Church to emerging events in the life of particular places across our territory. Last year, I spoke at a ministerial association prayer service in Emmitsburg when the Ku Klux Klan was advancing a white supremacy agenda in that community; I represented our synod in Charlottesville, and twice on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. While I strive to live outside of a perceived Baltimore-captivity in our Delaware-Maryland Synod, today’s blog comes as my response to something that is happening in that city, the city where my spouse, children and I make our home.

Violence in schools and on the streets, communities whose poverty is devastation, places across the metropolis where a lack of political power has left a populous with a real sense of having been forsaken by the very leadership who were elected to serve us. We are those for whom the words of Lamentations gives voice.

In recent years, Baltimore has had such tremendous turnover in our mayor’s office: O’Malley, Dixon, Rawlings-Blake, and now Pugh; and we’ve had more than twice that many police commissioners in that same time period. Amidst that revolving door, suffering is palpable, lament and pain are daily companions. Violent crime is out of control, eclipsed by apocalyptic murder rates. Our schools are struggling under the weight of old buildings and decreasing populations. The very city itself is physically collapsing on top of its aging infrastructure.

And while many of us are not able to much to alleviate the ongoing pain and increasingly frequent violence suffered by those of this great city, we are called to accompaniment. In our listening – and truly hearing the pain of our siblings, by entering into deep empathy with our neighbors – we join our prayers to theirs, we hitch our collective wagons to our neighbors’ needs. We implore God together, offering lamentations for those who are numb, who cannot hear their own voices over the din of their own anguish.

As a citizen of Charm City, and as a leader of faith communities ready to partner with neighbors in accomplishing life-changing transformation of the hard and desolate places tucked throughout our beloved Baltimore, I long for something more than the cacophony calling for Mayor Pugh’s resignation; I thirst for justice, I hunger for hope.

For I know that the God to whom we cry out is already here. May we be opened to alleviate the brokenness and suffering of the city, out of love for Christ and neighbor, in this world our God so loves.

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. – Lamentations 1:1-3