Pastor Russell Fink, Remembered

by Bishop Bill Gohl

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. –Romans 8:37-39

I preached this sermon for the funeral of Pastor Russell Edward Fink
on Saturday, March 16, 2019 at Our Shepherd Lutheran Church (Severna Park)

Won’t you pray with me?

♫ Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so!
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong!
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!

I welcome you to this place of grace, here at Our Shepherd, where Russ and Barbara have found and made a home in this season which Pastor Fink referred to as the “third season” of his ministry; the first being his baptismal ministry which began over 90 years ago; the second was his 42 years of active ordained ministry; and the third was these last 24 years of retirement and rediscovering God’s call as pastor, spouse, parent, and grandparent apart from a regular call to a congregation.

I’ve only known Pastor Fink in this “third season” – and for all of it. When Pastor Fink retired from his last regular call to St. John (Hagerstown), the associate and then-interim Pastor Ellie Doub, hired me as the Director for Christian Education and Youth. I literally moved into his office. When my time at St. John was completed, the women of the church sent me back to seminary with a copy of Barbara’s book, Daily Readings with Martin Luther. After St. John, I knew Pastor Fink through his work as the developer of the South Anne Arundel Mission, Redeemer in Deale; as a popular and well-appreciated guest preacher in many congregations within a two and a half hour radius of his then-Gemini Road address; and as a friendly, yet fierce tennis player – competitive with his friend Pastor Gilroy, whom he once referred to in my ear-shot as having been “still a youth!” At St. Martin’s and here at Our Shepherd, he has been a faithful Bible Study leader and a strong and supportive colleague for both Pastor Janssen and Pastor Oravec. Before I go any further, I want to publicly thank Pastor Earl for his ministry to Russ, Barbara and the family these last hard weeks. He has been so faithful to our friend and colleague.

Apart from the time that Pastor Fink gave an impromptu sermon to the Synod Assembly on his 65th Ordination Anniversary, I’ve only heard him preach one time! It was Reformation Sunday, about fifteen years ago, and we were having an Anne Arundel Conference Service where he connected Jesus Loves Me, this I Know to the three great Sola slogans of the Reformation.

That sermon has stuck with me for lo these many years. Reformation Sunday doesn’t come or go without me remembering, borrowing or thinking about Pastor Fink’s thoughtful insights. To honor his commitment that today wouldn’t be a string of eulogies extolling his long and outstanding ministry, and that Law and Gospel should be preached, let me share with you a bit of classic Russ Fink, as I remember it:

Jesus Loves Me embodies Luther’s words, Sola Gratia, Grace. Grace alone. Russell knew grace in life and faced it, with faith, in death. His own life and witness is the story of a humble servant of God who was continually overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace which saw him through many struggles. His pastor’s reports over the course of 60+ years spoke of his own sense of grief and loss tempered by hope. He reflected deeply on his struggles as a spouse and father and could point to his own sense of being a workaholic as culpability in the strain of those precious relationships. I don’t know the conversations he might have had with district presidents and bishops past, but his reports are really clear: this situation is not helpful for my family, perhaps I need to step away and find something less taxing on my time and energy. Later reports spoke of the grace of reconciliation, and how he was working harder at being intentional about being a better father and grandfather. But, even in these last days, he counseled me and others to do what we needed to do, now, to make sure we didn’t have some of those regrets. He loved his family, this whole family; and your love and support were not lost on Russell, he knew grace in you and through you, too.

Jesus loves me, This I Know Sola Fide, Faith Alone! Despite the struggles of life and relationship, of discernment and dreams that didn’t come to pass, Russell knew Jesus loves you, and Jesus loves him, too. Russell knew it in life and faced it, with faith, even in death. Cancer, he told me, would not ever have the last word. And, as recently as last Friday, he told me it hadn’t. While ready to fight like hell to be open to new treatments and courses of therapy; he knew that his life and strength was in the hands of God. His own life and witness is the story of a humble servant of God who was continually overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace which saw him through many struggles.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so! – Sola Scriptura, Word alone! Even in this “third season” of ministry and call in retirement, Russell shared that Our Shepherd was a home and family for him and Barbara, too. He was no Sunday Christian – or pew sitter; he gave himself, time, talent and treasure to the work of the church, throughout the years, in any way that he was able. Even at Ginger Cove, he jumped right in – Bible Study, worship and thoughtful witness at the table, the mailbox and in the lobby. Today, as we gather in beauty and dignity of this place and service, we do so surrounded by the scriptures and hymns that Russell himself selected for this day. We find bold and blessed assurance in Russell’s strong sense of faith, hope and love. Though we come in the presence of these earthly remains, we take courage in his sure knowledge that he would visit us today from this urn, but with his Lord, alive again in God’s kingdom; with us again and again as we gather at Christ’s table of grace.

Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus Loves me; Yes, Jesus Loves me! Sola Christe, Christ Alone! But I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth, if I also didn’t confess that while I know that Pastor Fink delighted in his family, and so many of us whom he and they count as family, have gathered, Pastor did have a soft spot for being the center of a celebration – and that is rightly what we are here to do today, to celebrate a life well lived and God’s promise well kept. Russell Fink was God-loving, grace-filled, a fed and forgiven servant of Christ.

So many of you knew Russell better than I ever did. You knew his more “vital and active” years, which I can’t even imagine, where my own memory is confined to this “third season.” But I am here to celebrate with you, nevertheless, because no matter how we knew Pastor Fink, God knew him best. I am here to remind you, that because Jesus lives, Russell lives – because Jesus lives, we live, also.

For you see, Russell Edward Fink was not simply a colleague these last 25 years, he was a friend; a trusted, wise elder; a man whose strength, even in trial and struggle, continued to be a source of strength and hope for us, too. It was a privilege to know and to love him, it was an honor to be one of his pastors. Emerson, whom I’ve quoted over other such giants’ funerals, said it well: You taught us well, dear friend, you showed the way and we shall not forget you.

Will you pray with me?

♫ Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so!
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong!
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so!

Friends, do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  For indeed, I am convinced as Russell was too, that neither death nor life, not things present nor things to come, not anything, not anything, can separate us from a love so great that was, is and will be ours in Christ Jesus our Lord, forever. Amen.

So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us. Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. –Romans 8:31-35, 37-39

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

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Downloads to share or edit for local use:  PDF Document

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which of the three metaphors for your church leadership team do you need to expand in your context?
  2. What is one practical idea you can implement for your church leadership team?

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Discussion Questions:

  1. What are you particularly thankful for at this time in your life?
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